Walking in the High Atlas, Morocco

Separating the Mediterranean and Atlantic side of Morocco from the vast Sahara Desert, the High Atlas Mountains stretch in a diagonal across the country for almost 1,000km. To the north lies the Middle Atlas, easily reached on day hikes from Fez and Meknes, while to the south is the Anti-Atlas, but the High Atlas forms Morocco’s magnificent spine – which is why the Berbers refer to them as Idraren Draren, Mountains of Mountains.
This is a wild, harsh landscape, with a dozen peaks over 4,000m and numerous rivers, flowing north towards Marrakech and creating a network of fertile valleys. Despite the remote and tough conditions here – the elevated slopes and passes of the High Atlas can see snow from November into late March – the region has long been inhabited by Berber people, whose flat-roofed, earthen homes blend into the mountainsides, fringed by terraced gardens and orchards of almond, walnut and apricot trees. In fact, it’s the presence of the warm and friendly Berber that makes walking in Morocco so special. Your walking guide will help translate, but sign language and simple French are often enough for a chat, while a night in a lodge or home is a wonderful way to experience Berber hospitality, food and traditional life.

The Western High Atlas

The western segment of the High Atlas range is the oldest, and home to mighty Jebel Toubkal which, at 4,167m, can be seen from Marrakech. It lies within Toubkal National Park, which soaks up many visitors to the High Atlas. The Ourika Valley is popular with day visitors from Marrakech. The neighbouring Imlil Valley is much used by trekkers heading for the summit of Toubkal, while the Azzaden is a quieter but equally beautiful counterpart. There are so many trails in this region, from the strenuous trek up to Toubkal to easy, short walks in the foothills, that you can easily match walks to your fitness and experience.
Head just a little way west of Mount Toubkal and you’re into the western fringes of the High Atlas Mountains, an area that’s well worth exploring. Further off the tourist trail than the Toubkal region, this section is quieter and typically warmer, too. The landscape is beautifully green and fertile, with valleys full of date, almond, walnut and olive trees and wildflowers everywhere in spring. Trekking here is more gentle than in the Toubkal area, but no less magical. In the Tichka plateau, for instance, you’ll find highland meadows ringed with peaks where Berber shepherds graze their flocks in summer. The highest summits are Imaradene (3,351m) in the west and Amendach (3,382m) in the east, both excellent viewpoints over the plateau.
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Central High Atlas

The Central High Atlas is more remote than the Toubkal region and features dramatic rock formations, ridges and deep gorges of red and orange stone, carved out by erosion. There are secluded valleys here, including Aït Bougomez, Aït Bououli and Aït Blel and remote Berber villages, some with architecture in a style found only here, in Yemen and Afghanistan.
Here, the M’Goun Massif towers over the landscape, the second highest peak in North Africa after Toubkal. It sits between the Sahara and the central plains and, while most people aim to summit Toubkal, getting to the top of M’Goun Massif is arguably more demanding, with longer trekking distances and variable Sahara weather patterns. Trekking here takes you deep into untouched regions of the Atlas Mountains, for a real glimpse of mountain community culture. You’ll walk well beyond the reach of vehicles, so you’ll need a guide and the help of mules and muleteers, too.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andres Fongen] [Introduction: gailhampshire] [Paragraph 2: Anders Fongen] [Imlil: Por los caminos de Málaga] [Tichka plateau: Mike Prince] [Central High Atlas: wonker] [M'Goun: ::ErWin ]