The High Atlas Mountains: Morocco’s Alps
The High Atlas is Morocco’s biggest mountain range, separating its northern plains from the Sahara. Seen from Marrakech, the peaks look forbidding but they are in fact densely populated and have some of the most beautiful scenery in Morocco.
The High Atlas is populated mostly by Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa. The Berbers live in small villages terraced beautifully into the sides of slopes and valleys and maintain a mountain life that has hardly been altered in centuries. The culture and tradition remain largely intact, and the way of life simple and genuinely impressive.
The High Atlas is above all a trekking country, from casual day hikes to serious mountaineering expeditions lasting weeks. What sets the trekking here apart from the Alps or the Pyrenees is the simple village life and the network of passes and peaks that remain largely underdeveloped and of everyday local use. You can walk unencumbered and hire muleteers and local mountain guides with vast knowledge of the local territory.
The focus of most trekking expeditions is the Djebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak at around 4167 meters. This can be easily reached from Marrakech, by driving, or through the Tifni valley and Lac d’Ifni for the more adventurous with time to spare. Rock climbing and mountain biking are also increasing popular on mule paths and dirt tracks.
Oukaimeden is a good trekking base from which to set out towards Toubkal, but it is better known as the best ski resort in Morocco. Ski? Yes, you can ski in Morocco and just for the anecdote; Oukaimeden could boast the highest ski lift in the world (3273m) up to the war. The season is from February to April and the resort itself is cheap and easily accessible. .
There is also the Ourika Valley, an attractive string of villages set in a green and fresh valley 20 miles south of Marrakech. The valley is popular with skiers in winter and trekkers in spring and summer. It is most compelling around the rocky foothills of Setti Fatma, famous for its seven waterfalls and streams.
You can also explore the High Atlas and its scenic appeal by driving through a switchback of hairpin curves that connect Marrakech to the pre-Sahara through the mountain range. The most spectacular drive is the Tizi n Test road, weaving its way up through the Atlas, over the Tizi n Test pass at 2092 meters, then down onto the Souss plains. A more modern and fast route, though less spectacular or remote, is the Tizi n Tichka which connects Marrakech to Ouarzazate. Along the way, you can explore the superb crumbling Kasbah of Telouet – the most spectacular sight in the High Atlas.