The High Atlas, North Africa’s greatest mountain range, contains some of the most intriguing and beautiful regions of Morocco. A historical and physical barrier between the northern plains and the pre-Sahara, its Berber-populated valleys feel – and indeed are – very remote from the country’s mainstream or urban life. The area is North Africa’s premier trekking destination; casual day-hikers and serious mountaineers alike will find appealing routes in the region, offering both staggering peaks (jebels) and well-trodden passes (tizis or, in French, cols). Just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh is Toubkal National Park, home to the impressive Jebel Toubkal (4167m) and numerous villages that appear locked in time. In addition to the highest peak, other worthy crests and hamlets can be reached with a trusted guide.
Mud-thatched Berber villages and remote pinnacles aren’t the only draw here. The landscape varies from season to season: winter drops metres of snow that leads to gushing river valleys in spring; summer brings an unforgiving sun, while the autumnal sunlight brings the browns and reds of the peaks to life.
One of the benefits of trekking the region is being able to walk unencumbered: muleteers and their mules are available for hire, and mountain guides are an invaluable resource, particularly recommended if you are heading off the main routes. Other options include rock climbing and ski mountaineering, and mountain biking is increasingly popular on the dirt tracks (pistes) and mule paths.
To the East from Ijoukak winds the Agoundis Valley, which offers an alternative access to Toubkal; it takes two days of serious trekking from Ijoukak to reach the Toubkal Refuge. On foot, from Ijoukak head out on the Marrakesh road, cross the Oued Agoundis river bottom and turn right onto the up-valley road, passing several gîtes. The scenery opens up to distant peaks and there are a surprising number of villages. After an hour’s walking you reach the wreck of an old mineral processing plant, a gondola still high in the air on a cable stretched across the valley to mines that closed decades ago. Continue walking to the village of Taghbart where there is a fork; take the right branch to cross the river, which makes an impressive ascent to the 2202-metre Tizi-n-Ou-Ichddane on the Atlas watershed. The Agoundis piste soon passes El Makhzen and a prominent house in wedding-cake style before becoming progressively narrower, exposed and rough, passing perched villages and ending at the village of Aït Youl.
From Aït Youl, strong walkers can reach the Toubkal Refuge in a day, crossing the Tizi n’Ougane (risk of snow on the final slopes from November through May) passing through wild gorges and screes on the way.
The small, dusty town of AMIZMIZ, 58km from Marrakesh, is the site of a long-established Tuesday souk – one of the largest Berber markets of the Atlas, and not a key destination for tourists. The town comprises several quite distinct quarters, including a zaouia, kasbah and former Mellah, separated by a small, usually dry, river. Amizmiz makes a good base for mountain biking in the High Atlas.
From Amizmiz, the nearby village of Ait Zitoun is a lesser-known, yet much better place to start treks than Amizmiz, as you can arrange both mules and supplies here, along with a local guide. Ait Zitoun is a tricky place to find; it’s located on a short piste veering left off the main road connecting Amizmiz to Ouirgane (look for a small sign stating Gîte Ait Zitoun). It’s possible to arrange a walk to Ouirgane from here, which takes three to four days and is best done in the cooler months – a highly recommended guide is Omar Jellah (firstname.lastname@example.org; contact at least two to three days in advance), who specializes in this region. The walk is at a relatively low altitude for the mountains, and the surrounding hills are green in the spring months and roasted brown in the summer and fall. For the most part, it’s a steady, easy foray into villages, valleys and foothills, but there are some slightly steep inclines approaching the ridges.
An alternative to both of these villages for an overnight stop is Lalla Takerkoust, 22km northeast of Amizmiz. Views from the lake of the surrounding mountains make for wonderful photo opportunities in the winter with the surrounding snowcapped peaks in clear view. A few villages dot the landscape and walking to some of the low-lying hills for views of the region makes a worthwhile day’s venture.
Morocco offers some of the best adventure riding in the world with routes suitable for all abilities. The High Atlas has jeep and mule tracks that cover the countryside and several adventure companies offer mountain biking as a pursuit. Travelling independently, it’s important to be aware of local sensibilities; ride slowly through villages, giving way to people where necessary, especially those on mules and children tending livestock. If renting a bike, negotiate essential extras like a pump, puncture repair kit and/or spare inner tube. A helmet is recommended, and carry plenty of water.
Of the three routes detailed below, the first two can be done by a novice with a rented bike, while the third is best left to the proficient, preferably on their own bike. All routes begin and end at Restaurant Le Source Bleu located in Irghagn, above Amizmiz. As few roads are signposted, the Amizmiz 1:100,000 topographical map is highly recommended, and best obtained from specialist map shops before you leave home.
From Le Source Bleu, descend to the piste road running from Amizmiz to Azegour and then head on uphill past the Maison Forestière. About 1.5km beyond, a narrow piste branches off left, taking you down the west side of the valley to pass through the village of Aït Ouskri, from where there are tremendous views up the valley, to Jebel Gourza and Jebel Imlit. The piste continues, passing the villages of Tizgui, Toug al Kheyr and, after 10km, Imi-n-Isli and Imi-n-Tala (“big spring”), before crossing the Anougal River below Addouz to the eastern side of the valley. Care should be taken in spring, when the river can become swollen from melted snow. Following the piste through Imzayn, and sticking to the lower track, leads to Igourdan and, after about 12km, uphill, to Aït Hmad.
Leaving Aït Hmad behind, the road widens to become a full-width piste jeep track allowing a fast but safe downhill back into Amizmiz.
Follow the Route 1 description to Imi-n-Tala then take a piste westwards through the forest to reach the Oued Erdouz road from Azegour, with Jebel Timerghit towering above. Turn left and circuit the hill to Toulkine and on through the granite landscape towards Azegour. Five hundred metres before Azegour you come to a junction – turn left here, crossing a bridge over the Oued Wadakar, and continue past the remains of a mining site. The route then runs through forest and, after a gentle crest run, descends in numerous bends to Amizmiz, passing the Maison Forestière.
Begin the route in the same way as those above, but don’t break off left as in Route 1. Keep on ahead for the long toil through the forest to gain the gentler crest before descending into the Erdouz-Wadakar valley where there are extensive ruins from the mining that once took place here. Cross the bridge and turn right to circuit round to Toulkine. A piste heads northwest from the village but instead follow the mule track that heads due north over the crest to circuit the valley heads with Adghous perched in the middle. This then wends through the Jebel Aborji forest before a rather brutal descent to the plains at Tiqlit. Note that it’s advisable to check the route at Toulkine.
Until recent decades, the High Atlas region – and its Berber inhabitants – was almost completely isolated. When the French began their “pacification” of Morocco in the 1920s, the way of life here was essentially feudal, based upon the control of the three main passes (tizis) by a trio of “clan” families, “the Lords of the Atlas”. Even after the French negotiated the cooperation of these warrior chiefs, it was not until the spring of 1933 – just over two decades after the establishment of the Protectorate – that they were able to subdue them and control their tribal land. This occurred only with the cooperation of the main feudal chief, T’hami el Glaoui, who continued to control the region as pasha of Marrakesh.
These days, the region is under official government control through a system of local caids, but in many villages the role of the state remains largely irrelevant, and if you go trekking you soon become aware of the mountains’ highly distinctive culture and traditions. The longest established inhabitants of Morocco, the Atlas Berbers never adopted a totally orthodox version of Islam and the Arabic language has, even today, made little impression on their indigenous Tachelhaït dialects. Their music and ahouache dances (in which women and men both take part) are unique, as is the village architecture, with stone or clay houses tiered on the rocky slopes, craggy fortified agadirs (collective granaries), and kasbahs, which continued to serve as feudal castles for the community’s defence right into the twentieth century.
Berber women in the Atlas go about unveiled and have a much higher profile than their rural counterparts in the plains and the north. They perform much of the heavy labour – working in the fields, herding and grazing cattle and goats and carrying vast loads of brushwood and provisions. Whether they have any greater status or power within the family and village, however, is questionable. The men retain the “important” tasks of buying and selling goods and the evening/night-time irrigation of the crops, ploughing and doing all the building and craftwork.
As an outsider, you’ll be constantly surprised by the friendliness and openness of the Berbers, and by their amazing capacity for languages – there’s scarcely a village where you won’t find someone who speaks French or English, or both. The only areas where you may feel exploited – and pestered by kids – are the main trekking circuits around Jebel Toubkal, where tourism has become an all-important source of income. Given the harshness of life up here, its presence is hardly surprising.
Ijoukak is an important shopping centre where the Agoundis Valley joins the Nfis. Walking from Ijoukak, you can easily explore Tin Mal and Talaat n’ Yakoub or try some more prolonged trekking in the Nfis and Agoundis valleys. The Agoundis can also be enjoyable just as a day’s wandering, or you can take the winding forestry road up the hill dominating the village for its commanding view.
The Tin Mal Mosque, quite apart from its historic and architectural importance, is a beautiful monument – isolated above a lush reach of river valley, with harsh mountains backing its buff-coloured walls. It has been partially restored and is a worthwhile stop.
The mosque is set a little way above the modern village of Tin Mal (or Ifouriren) and reached by wandering uphill from the road bridge. The site is kept locked but the gardien will soon spot you, open it up and let you look round undisturbed (tip is expected).
The Tin Mal Mosque was finished by Abd el Moumen around 1153–54, partly as a memorial to Ibn Toumert who started constructing it in 1125 as a Koranic school (tinmil means “school” in ancient Berber), and also as his own family’s mausoleum. Obviously fortified, it probably served also as a section of the town’s defences, since in the early period of Almohad rule, Tin Mal was entrusted with the state treasury. Today, it is the only part of the fortifications – indeed, of the entire Almohad city – that you can make out with any clarity. The Almohad city had been home to twenty thousand Berbers before it was was largely destroyed in the Merenid conquest of 1276.
That Tin Mal remained standing for that long, and that its mosque was maintained, says a lot about the power Ibn Toumert’s teaching must have continued to exercise over the local Berbers. Even two centuries later the historian Ibn Khaldun found Koranic readers employed at the tombs, and when the French began restoration in the 1930s they found the site littered with the shrines of marabouts.
Architecturally, Tin Mal presents a unique opportunity for non-Muslims to take a look at the interior of a traditional Almohad mosque. It is roofless, for the most part, and two of the corner pavilion towers have disappeared, but the mihrab (or prayer niche) and the complex pattern of internal arches are substantially intact. The arrangement is in a classic Almohad design – the T-shaped plan with a central aisle leading towards the mihrab – and is virtually identical to that of the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, more or less its contemporary. The one element of eccentricity is in the placing of the minaret over the mihrab: a weakness of engineering design that meant it could never have been much taller than it is today. In terms of decoration, the most striking feature is the variety and intricacy of the arches – above all those leading into the mihrab, which have been sculpted with a stalactite vaulting. In the corner domes and the mihrab vault this technique is extended with impressive effect. Elsewhere, and on the face of the mihrab, it is the slightly austere geometric patterns and familiar motifs (the palmette, rosette, scallop, etc) of Almohad decorative gates that are predominant.
Tin Mal’s site seems now so remote that it is difficult to imagine a town ever existing in this valley. In some form, though, it did. It was here that Ibn Toumert and his lieutenant, Abd el Moumen, preached to the Berber tribes and welded them into the Almohad (“unitarian”) movement; here that they set out on the campaigns which culminated in the conquest of all Morocco and southern Spain; and here, too, a century and a half later, that they made their last stand against the incoming Merenid dynasty.
Known to his followers as the Mahdi – “The Chosen One”, whose coming is prophesied in the Hadith (Sayings of The Prophet) – Toumert was born in the High Atlas, a member of the Berber-speaking Masmouda tribe, who held the desert-born Almoravids, the ruling dynasty, in contempt. He was an accomplished theologian and studied at the centres of eastern Islam, a period in which he formulated the strict Almohad doctrines. For Toumert, Almoravid Morocco contained much to disapprove of and, returning from the East with a small group of disciples, he began to preach against all manifestations of luxury and against women mixing in male society.
After being exiled from the Almoravid capital, Marrakesh, in 1124, Ibn Toumert and Abd el Moumen set out to mould the Atlas Berbers into a religious and military force. They also stressed the significance of the “second coming” and Ibn Toumert’s role as Mahdi. Hesitant tribes were branded “hypocrites” and massacred – most notoriously in the Forty-Day Purge of the mountains – and within eight years none remained outside Almohad control.
OUIRGANE is an up-and-coming destination due to its proximity to Marrakesh and its stunning greenery, red-earth hills and pine forests, all of which combine to make it worth an overnight stay (or longer). It’s a wonderful spot to rest up after a few days of trekking around Toubkal and makes a pleasant base in itself for day walks into the surrounding foothills, mountain-bike forays or horseback riding. The village hosts a small Thursday souk.
Both Ouirgane and the lush Marigha town and region heat up in the summer due to their indented position among the peaks, which means that while it’s cooler than Marrakesh, it’s still best to visit (or plan activities) here from March to May and mid-September to December.
Day treks in Ouirgane are best done with a guide. One recommended walk that you can request from a local expert is to start in Marigha, head south to the village of Marigha Izdern (1200m) and on to Imareghan Noufla (1220m), which has some of its stone olive oil presses still in use. From here, you’ll head onward to Tinzert; enjoy the view of the Takherkhourte Peak (2500m) in the distance. From Tinzert, continue to Tagadirt n’Ousni and the village of Tamgounssi and down to Asni for transport back to Ouirgane or to Marrakesh. The total walking time is four to five hours.
At the time of writing, the National Park Office had nearly completed a five- to six-hour trail connecting Ouirgane to the Toubkal refuges, which then gives access to the summit. The trail is rated as moderate, is easier than the current established route from Imlil, and is sure to become a main thoroughfare once it is open to the public. For up-to-date information, ask at local hotels.
Walking from Ouirgane to Imlil is an overnight treat full of stunning views and steady climbing. From Ouirgane (or easily followed on the road connecting Imarira and Tassa Ouirgane), head east towards Tassa Ouirgane, where the well-trodden path will take you along the edge of the beautiful Azzadene Valley. When you reach Azerfsane, head south along the major river valley, Assif n’Ouissadene, finally connecting to the town of Aït Aïssa (Id Aissa) after five to six hours, which has a couple of small gîtes offering basic accommodation (50dh) and meals (50dh).
From Aït Aïssa, continue south to Tizi Oussem where you’ll change direction, heading east over Tizi Mzik, through Azib Mzikene, and finally into the Mizane Valley and on to Imlil. This second day’s walk also takes about five to six hours.
Exploring the area around Ouirgane by bike is a great way to see more of this rich region via the backroads. One of the best circuits is the Marigha Ciruit, an 18km route that should take about three hours to complete.
Head southwest out of Ouirgane on the paved road to Taroudant. At a sign for Chez Momo II, take the left turn. Further, the paved entry becomes a gravel road as it heads uphill. Keep right and at the crest of the hill, you’ll have a superb view of the Ouirgane barrage.
The views of the Azaden Valley come into view as you continue uphill and the piste finally gives way to flat riding; continue along the same piste to the village of Agouni (which means hungry in the local dialect). The piste opens up at the edge of Agouni to an area once inhabited by a local Jewish population. The buildings are painted white (a rare feature, interpreted locally as holy ground), and the site comes to life every August for a private moussem celebration.
Behind the Jewish village, the piste splits – continue straight (slightly left) to stay on course. It’s possible here to detour up to the stunning village of Tikhfirst, 4km away, by turning right and following the piste steeply uphill – sublime views over the countryside await. Local families are known for their tea-making (tip 10dh per person), so this makes a nice point to refresh before heading back downhill.
Continue on the road past the Jewish settlement; within a few minutes you’ll reach the village of Anraz, where the piste becomes a smooth single-track trail. You’ll bike for a short distance through shady homesteads as the trail becomes a road again after half a kilometre at the village of Torrort. From here, take the piste downhill to cross the bridge over the Assif n’Ouissadene. Just after this point, there’s an intersection where you’ll see a sign for Takhrkhort National Park. Turn left here towards Tassa Ouirgane; a right turn will take you, a few minutes later, to some of the best views of the entire ride – from here, backtrack to take the parth to Tassa Ouirgane.
From the intersection, head north along the well-maintained road, which connects to the Taroudant and Marrakesh road after about five kilometres. Here, turn left to return back to Ouirgane.
The village and ski centre of Oukaïmeden is a calmer and much easier trekking base when compared to Setti Fatma, especially in the summer and for those setting out towards Toubkal, and a good target in its own right. In summer, there are some attractive day hikes, and the chance to see prehistoric rock carvings, while in winter, of course, there is the chance to ski – and it’s hard to resist adding Africa to a list of places you have skied.
The slopes of Adrar-n-Oukaïmeden offer the best skiing in Morocco and boasts the highest ski lift in North Africa (3273m). It gives access to good piste and off-piste skiing, while on the lower slopes a few basic drag lifts serve nursery and intermediate runs. For cross-country skiers, several crests and cols are accessible, and ski mountaineers often head south to Tacheddirt.
Snowfall and snow cover can be erratic but the season is regarded as February to April; the lifts close at the end of April (even if there are perfect skiing conditions). Equipment can be rented from several shops around the resort, at fairly modest rates but quality fluctuates so ask around. Ski passes are cheap (around US$8), and there are modest charges if you want to hire a ski guide or instructor – ask at any of the shops (or talk with the managers at Chez Juju).
The High Atlas has unique flora and fauna, which are accessible even to the most reluctant rambler if you base yourself at Oukaïmeden, Imlil or Ouirgane.
The spring bloom on the lower slopes comprises aromatic thyme and thorny caper, mingling with golden spreads of broom. Higher slopes are covered by more resilient species, such as the blue tussocks of hedgehog broom. The passes ring to the chorus of the painted frog and the North African race of the green toad during their spring breeding seasons, while some species of reptile, such as the Moorish gecko, have adapted to the stony walls of the area’s towns and villages. Butterflies that brave these heights include the Moroccan copper and desert orange tip, and painted ladies heading from West Africa to western England. Other inhabitants include the almost invisible praying mantis, the scampering ground squirrel and the rare elephant shrew.
Birds to be found among the sparse vegetation include Moussier’s redstart and the crimson-winged finch, which prefers the grassy slopes where it feeds in flocks; both birds are unique to North African ranges. The rocky outcrops provide shelter for both chough and alpine chough and the rivers are frequented by dippers who swim underwater in their search for food. Overhead, darting Lanner falcon or flocks of brilliantly coloured bee-eaters add to the feeling of abundance that permeates the slopes of the High Atlas. In the cultivated valleys, look out for the magpie, which, uniquely, has a sky-blue eye mark; there are also storks galore. Other High Atlas birds, as the snow melts, include shore larks, rock bunting, alpine accentor, redstarts and many species of wheatear.
Local flora is impressive, too. The wet meadows produce a fantastic spread of hooped-petticoat daffodils, romulea and other bulbs, and Oukaïmeden in May/June has acres of orchids in bloom.
Some of the Atlas’s fascinating prehistoric rock carvings, depicting animals, weapons, battle scenes, an apparent game area, and various unknown symbols, can be found just before Oukaïmeden‘s ski area site – follow the sign pointing to “Gravures Rupestres.” It’s worth contacting local expert Hassan Hachouch (email@example.com) for a trip to the carvings. He speaks French well with limited English, but is a valuable resoure nonetheless to point out some of the lesser-known carvings; a modest tip of 50–100dh is sufficient.
A new eco-museum near the carvings displays photos of the flora and fauna of the national park and surroundings, as well as information about the carvings themselves.
A puzzling related feature of prehistoric rock sites in the Atlas and elsewhere are cupmarks – groups of small circular hollows (Peter Ustinov suggested they were egg-cups) with no apparent pattern carved into exposed rock surfaces at ground level. Unlike the usual rock art, they appear in granite (in the western Atlas) and conglomerate (at Tinerhir) as well as sandstone (in the Middle Atlas).
Most of the rock carvings are depicted in the indispensable guidebook, Gravures Rupestres du Haut Atlas (on sale in the Oukaïmeden Club Alpin Francais chalet and in some Marrakesh bookshops), though it is only available in French.
Tizi n’Test (2092m) is an awe-inspiring pass that crosses the Atlas and connects to Taroudant and Taliouine. Cutting right through the heart of the Atlas, the road was blasted out of the mountains by the French from 1926 to 1932 – the first modern route to link Marrakesh with the Souss plain and the desert, an extraordinary feat of pioneer-spirit engineering. Until then, passage had been considered impracticable without local protection and knowledge: an important pass for trade and for the control and subjugation of the south, but one that few sultans were able to make their own.
The Tizi n’Test (2092m) itself becomes truly momentous 18km before it connects to the N10 – a rather torturous stretch filled with hairpin bends. A lovely, yet challenging drive, it’s one of the more scenic jaunts in the whole country, giving way to unmatched panoramas that serve as a splendid gateway to the Souss region of the country.
Over the Tizi n’Test pass, the descent towards the Taroudant–Taliouine road is dramatic: a drop of some 1600m in little over 30km. Throughout, there are stark, fabulous vistas of the Tizi n’Test mountains jutting out around the Nfiss Valley with clusters of villages in view hundreds of feet below.
Exploring the Tichka Plateau and the western fringes of the Atlas, you move well away from established tour-group routes and pass through Berber villages that scarcely ever see a foreigner. You’ll need to carry provisions, and be prepared to camp or possibly stay in a Berber village home if you get the invitation – as you almost certainly will. Sanitation is often poor in the villages and it’s a good idea to bring water purification tablets. Eating and drinking in mountain village homes, though, is surprisingly safe, as the food (mainly tajines) is thoroughly cooked and the drink is invariably mint tea.
However you approach it, the Tichka Plateau is a delight. Grazing is controlled so the meadows, in spring, are a mass of early daffodils and flowers. Imaradene (3351m) and Amendach (3382m) are the highest summits, west and east, and are superlative viewpoints. The plateau is drained by the Oued Nfis, first through the Tiziatin oak forest, using or bypassing gorges, then undergoing a series of villages, one of which, another Imlil, has a shrine to Ibn Toumert, the founder of the Tin Mal/Almohad dynasty.
There are approaches to the mountains from both north and south: Imi n’Tanoute, Timesgadiouine and Argana, on the main Marrakesh–Agadir bus route (north and west), and Taroudant–Ouled Berhil (south) or the Tizi n’Test road (east). From the north and west approaches, taxis, or rides on trucks bound for mines or markets at trailheads, could be used; from the south, smaller pick-up trucks (camionettes) ply up daily to Imoulas, the Medlawa Valley and Tigouga. For eastern access by the Oued Nfis, take the piste down from the Tizi n’ Test and follow up the south bank of the river.
If you can afford it, hiring Land Rover transport to take you, and possibly a guide, to meet prearranged mules and a muleteer is the most efficient procedure. El Aouad Ali in Taroudant is the recognized expert on the region and could make all arrangements. Or you could arrange a small group trek through the UK-based trekking company Walks Worldwide, who organize all levels of treks with El Aouad Ali. The IGN 1:100,000 maps for the area are Tizi n’Test and Igli.
The Toubkal Massif, enclosing the High Atlas’s highest peaks, is the target destination of nearly everyone who goes trekking in Morocco. You can reach trailhead villages in just two hours from Marrakesh, and the main walking routes are easily followed. Walking just a short distance from the most common starting point – Imlil – you are transported to a very different world. Mountain villages offer a stark contrast to the previous roadside towns, with Berber houses, stacked one on top of another in apparently organic growth, appearing to sprout from the rocks. The local population is immediately distinct from their city compatriots; the women dress in brilliant attire even when working in the fields.
In summer, Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the highest peak in North Africa, is walkable right up to the summit; if you’re pushed for time, you could climb it and be back in Marrakesh in three days – though at some risk of altitude sickness. Alternatively, if you feel unable to tackle an ascent of Toubkal, it’s possible to have a genuine taste of the mountains by spending time exploring the lesser-visited valleys accessible from Imlil or Aroumd.
AROUMD (also called Armed or Aremd) is the largest village of the Mizane Valley, an extraordinary looking place, built on a huge moraine spur above the valley at 1840m. Steep-tiered fields of potatoes, onions, barley and various kinds of fruit line the valley sides, their terraces edged with purple iris. The village is used as a base or overnight stop by a number of trekking companies, and several houses have been converted to well-equipped gîtes.
Most trekkers leaving Imlil are en route for the ascent of Jebel Toubkal – a walk rather than a climb after the snows have cleared, but serious business nonetheless. The route to the ascent trailhead, however, is fairly straightforward, and is enjoyable in its own right, following the Mizane Valley to the village of Aroumd, 4km from Imlil. From here, it’s one and a half hours min to the pilgrimage site of Sidi Chamarouch followed by another four to five hours to the Toubkal refuges (3208m; 12km from Imlil; 5–7hr in all; 100dh), which lie at the foot of Toubkal’s final slopes.
Most trekkers head to the refuges early to mid-morning in order to stay the night. Then, you’ll have a fresh start at first light the next morning for the ascent of Toubkal, which will allow for the clearest panorama from the peak – afternoons can be cloudy. Arriving at the Toubkal refuge early in the day also gives you time to acclimatize to the altitude and rest: many people find the hardest part of the trek is the last hour before arriving at the refuges, so it’s important to take it easy.
At the Toubkal refuges you’re almost bound to meet people who have just come down from the mountain – and you should certainly take advantage of talking to them and the refuge gardiens for an up-to-the-minute description of the routes and the state of the South Cirque (Ikhibi Sud) trail to the summit. If you don’t feel too confident about going it alone, take a guide – they are usually available at the refuge – but don’t let them try to rush you up the mountain. It’s best to take your time allowing your body to acclimatize slowly to the altitude changes (see Atlas trekking practicalities).
The South Cirque (Ikhibi Sud) gives the most popular and straightforward ascent of Toubkal and, depending on your fitness, should take between two and a half and three and a half hours (2–2hr 30min coming down). There is a worn path, which is easy enough to follow. More of a problem is finding the right track down through the upper slopes of loose scree. Take your time coming down since it can be rough on the knees.
The trail begins above the Toubkal Refuge, dropping down to cross the stream and then climbing again to reach the first of Toubkal’s innumerable fields of boulders and scree. These are the most tiring (and memorable) features of the trek up, and gruelling for inexperienced walkers. The summit, a sloping plateau of stones marked by a tripod, is eventually reached after the serpentine path brings you to the spectacular southern cliffs. It should be stressed that in winter even this easiest of routes is a snow climb and best for experienced hikers or those climbing with a guide. Slips can and have had fatal consequences. If you are properly equipped, check out the start the night before, and set off early. Ice axes and crampons are essential in icy conditions and should be brought along with you. This is also a splendid ski route.
An alternate ascent – though longer (4hr 30min) and best for more experienced climbers – is the North Cirque (Ikhibi Nord). En route you will pass the remains of an aircraft that crashed while flying arms to Biafra, and the cairn of the small peak of Tibherine dominating the valley is actually one of its engines. The final ridge to the summit area calls for some scrambling. You should descend by the South Cirque back down to the refuges.
The Grand Toubkal Loop takes four to five days and makes a satisfying (and very scenic) addition to the ascent of Toubkal. From the Toubkal refuges, the loop heads south to scenic Lac d’Ifni, then north to Azib Likemt and Tacheddirt, before returning to Imlil. The walk isn’t particularly strenuous and can be done by most fit walkers. For the first part of the walk, be sure to carry plenty of water and enough food for up to two to three days since there are no reliable facilities until you get past Lac d’Ifni. The walk is best done from June to mid-October; in the winter the passes of Tizi n’Ouanoums (3600m) and Tizi Likemt (3500m) can be closed with deep snow. Those with hefty mountaineering experience, proper equipment of crampons, ropes, ice axes (and satellite phone) can attempt the trek without much issue.
IMLIL is currently the most frequented starting point for those going up to the top of Toubkal. Just past Asni, the road begins to climb; below it the valley of the Oued Rhirhaia unfolds, while above, small villages crowd onto the rocky slopes. Halfway up the valley, at a roadside café, there is a sudden good view of Toubkal. As you emerge at Imlil the air feels quite different – silent and rarefied at 1740m. Paths head off in all directions among the valleys, making this region a walker’s paradise.
Imlil is little more than a roadside settlement, with shops and plenty of small guesthouses and hotels along the main thoroughfare. It’s a good spot to get supplies, hire a guide, or spend the night to get your bearings in the region. It’s not worth spending much more than one day here, however, given the much more appealing villages that are scattered just beyond it.
If you want to make an early start for the Toubkal refuges and the ascent of Toubkal, Imlil village makes a better trailhead than Asni, as is Aroumd; it’s possible to make it to the basecamp from Imlil in one day.
The valleys of Asni, Imlil (along the Mizane Valley), Tacheddirt (Imenane Valley) and Tizi Oussem/Ouirgane (Azzadene Valley) offer fine walks, which you might consider doing to acclimatize yourself before tackling Toubkal or other high peaks. They are all much easier if you walk them downhill.
From late spring to late autumn, the region’s trails are accessible for any reasonably fit walker. Mule tracks that allow one to navigate around the mountain valleys are well contoured and are usually in excellent condition. Additionally, there’s a network of village gîtes, houses and CAF refuges (small huts) for accommodation, which generally makes camping unnecessary unless you’re traipsing far away from the villages.
The Ourika Valley is a popular escape from the summer heat of Marrakesh. The village of Setti Fatma is a weekend resort for young Marrakshis, who ride out on their mopeds or BMWs to lie around and picnic beside the streams and waterfalls. The village lies at the end of the road, but a piste (to Timichi) and then a mule track continues up the valley to passes to Tacheddirt and Oukaïmeden, which has the best skiing in Morocco and interesting prehistoric rock carvings. The path also continues through to Imlil and Toubkal, making it a useful starting/finishing point for trekkers.
SETTI FATMA is a straggly riverside village, substantially rebuilt, expanded and made safer after its 1995 devastation by floods. The setting, with grassy terraces and High Atlas peaks rising to over 3600m, feels like a dreamscape after venturing from the dry plains that surround Marrakesh. In the rocky foothills above the village are a series of six (at times, seven) waterfalls.
The Ourika Valley cuts right into the High Atlas, whose peaks begin to dominate as soon as you leave Marrakesh. At Setti Fatma these mountains provide a startling backdrop that, to the southwest, include the main trekking/climbing zone of Toubkal. The usual approach to this is from Asni but it is possible to set out from Setti Fatma, or from Oukaïmeden.
The Setti Fatma Moussem – one of the three most important festivals in the country – takes place for four days around the middle of August, centred on the Koubba of Setti Fatma, some way upstream from the Café des Cascades. Entry to the koubba is forbidden to non-Muslims, but the festival itself is as much a fair and market as it is a religious festival and well worth trying to attend if your trip coincides with it.
The High Atlas is subject to snow from November to April, and even the major Tizi n’Tichka (road to Ouarzazate) and Tizi n’Test (road to Taroudant) can be closed for periods of a day or more. These passes are seldom blocked for long and snow barriers on the roads leading up into the mountains will be down if the passes are not open to the public. If blocked, the southern regions can be reached from Marrakesh via the Tizi Maachou pass (the N8, along with the newly finished A7 toll highway towards Agadir ) followed by the N10 through Taroudant and Taliouine.
The thaw can present problems as well. When the snow melts in spring, swollen rivers are dangerous to cross. And the possibility of spring/summer flash floods must be taken seriously, as they can erupt suddenly and violently and are extremely dangerous. To keep safe, always camp on high ground while avoiding any spot where water might become a course for a torrent. This includes (even in summer) dried up and apparently terminally inactive riverbeds.