Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are a remarkable area of stunning scenery, rural Berber villages, ruined Kasbahs and great hiking. Here is our complete guide to visiting the Atlas Mountains.
In the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains, life still follows a traditional way of life. Women tend to the fields while shepherds escort their nomadic flocks into some of the most scenic landscapes anywhere in the world.
High mountains covered with caps of snowd to rivers that cut an oasis of life through dramatic red rock canyons. It’s a diverse landscape and a beautiful part of Morocco to visit. Far from the craziness of Fez or Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains are a totally different, rural side to this fascinating country.
Take a wonderful day hike through a dramatic valley or challenge yourself with a multi-day trek in towering mountains. Explore unusual red rock canyons, try your best bartering in local markets and visit ruined Kasbahs immortalised on film.
To help get your bearing in this under-visited corner of Morocco, here are the best places to visit in the Atlas Mountains and how to get there.
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WHERE ARE THE HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS?
The Atlas Mountains begin near the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco before crossing Algeria and ending at Tunisia’s Mediterranean Coast. In total they stretch for around 2,500 kilometres.
The High Atlas Mountains, reaching a height of 4,167 metres, is exclusively in central Morocco. It is here that the scenery is most dramatic and diverse. The gentler slopes of the northern and western edges have more rainfall creating lush green valleys which help support the Berber’s traditional way of life.
The southern edge is much drier and rockier. Here, red rock canyons have been weathered over the years, smoothed into unusual shapes concealing tiny slivers of green. As you drive over the high passes of the Atlas Mountains the sudden change from grass to rock, and green to red is quite remarkable.
PLACES TO VISIT IN THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
1 – OURIKA VALLEY
Best for a short trip from Marrakech
The Ourika Valley lies in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Its expanse of terraced fields and cascading waterfalls are a dramatic change from the dusty Moroccan plains.
Most head to Setti Fattma, the last small town on the paved road that heads up the Ourika Valley. It is the departure point for day hikes into the Atlas Mountains, the most popular of which visits 7 waterfalls. You can go for a stroll, take a (very chilly) dip and sit at restaurants perched over the river.
In March and April the cherry and almond orchards are stunning, as are the wildflowers that cover the picturesque riverside.
At just over a one-hour drive from Marrakech, it is an escape hatch for the city. Locals and tourists alike leave the scorching heat of the medina for the cooler and more pleasant climate. As a result, it can get very busy. But, if you are short on time it’s a great day trip.
BOOKING // DAY TOUR TO OURIKA VALLEY
2 – IMLIL AND MOUNT TOUBKAL
Best for challenging hikes in the highest peaks of the Atlas Mountains
Imlil is a small village that has become the centre for high mountain trekking. It may lack the charm and tradition of other Berber villages in the Atlas, but it makes up for it in adventure and scenery. From here you are surrounded by often snow-capped peaks, the highest of which is Mount Toubkal at 4167 metres.
Almost everyone who makes the journey to Imlil is here for one thing: to walk. There are several short day hikes around the valley and multi-day treks to the highest peaks. The most popular is the hike eastwards to the summit of Mount Toubkal. It can be done in as little as two days or over five days via a more relaxing route.
Another great option is to hike west to the Azzadene Valley and Ouirgane, home to some of the most traditional Berber villages in the area.
3 – OUIRGANE VALLEY
Best for visiting traditional Berber villages
While the dedicated multi-day trekkers head to Imlil, and the Marrakech day-trippers descend on the Ourika Valley, those looking to get off the beaten track and have a more traditional experience head to Ouirgane.
At a lower altitude and much warmer than Imlil, this rusty red valley is home to rural Berber Villages. The valley floor near the riverbanks is enriched with plums, blackberries, olives, figs, and almond trees. Whereas up in the hills, onions, potato, alfalfa, wheat and barley sustain a very rural way of life.
There’s nowhere better in Morocco to stay in quality authentic accommodation and be so close to a traditional Berber living. Take a guided walking tour up to local villages, share a meal with your Berber host and swap stories, before ending the day lazing by the pool.
Further options include hiking into the Azzadene Valley or driving a 4×4 across gravel tracks to Assif Zagawari where you’ll find yourself staring at magnificent snow-capped mountains and the highest peaks in Morocco.
OUR GUIDE TO THE OUIRGANE VALLEY // THE THREE MOHAMMEDS
4 – CASCADES D’OUZOUD
Best for the most dramatic waterfall in the Atlas Mountains
Another favourite day trip from Marrakech, the Ouzoud Falls are the most impressive in Morocco. Tumbling a total of 110 metres across three different drops, the falls are beautifully nestled in a jungle paradise that’s a cool relaxing relief from the harsh Moroccan sun.
There are a variety of interesting walks around the canyon and plenty of restaurants to stop and have a bite while taking in the scenery. A path zigzags down the valley wall as spray from the falls clings to dense green foliage and cools the air. The signs forbidding swimming in the beautiful pools at the base of the falls are ignored by tourists and locals alike. Boat rides are available for very affordable prices to get a unique vantage point from which to admire the falls.
You don’t need more than a day here, but for a quick trip from Morocco or on route to other destinations, it is well worth stopping by.
5 – AÏT BOUGUEMEZ
Best for seeing untouched Morocco
Set in the northern reaches of the High Atlas mountains, many say Aït Bouguemez is the most beautiful valley in Morocco. A patchwork of wheat and barley fields are fed by a maze of irrigation channels dropping from terraced hills. It’s a sea of green under the towering rocky summit of M’Goun massif – the third highest in Morocco.
Berber villages dot the landscapes, and their way of life is ever present in the valley. Men tend goats in the foothills, women scythe crops to pile high on their backs and kids scurry back and forth to school. It’s a traditional life in a beautiful place.
There are few riads and hotels providing accommodation and meals, but beyond that facilities are limited. Getting here is a little trickier than other places. The paved roads were only completed at the turn of the century and can be a little hairy in places, but it is all part of an off-the-beaten-track Moroccan adventure. The scenery along the bumpy roads from Demnat and Aït M’Hamed in particular, are astounding.
Aït Bouguemez is the place to come if you want to see a rural Morocco barely touched by tourism. In our four days here we met many Berbers and only two tourists.
HIKING IN AÏT BOUGUEMEZ VALLEY // GUIDE TO AÏT BOUGUEMEZ
6 – AÏT BEN HADDOU & OUNILA VALLEY
Best for exploring ruined ksars and kasbahs
The Ounila Valley carves its way from the high Atlas Mountains to the barren plains just north of the Sahara Desert. For centuries, it was the caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara and tradesmen came to exchange their wares as the powerful watched on to extract their taxes.
The remnants of that power can still be discovered in the magnificent decaying homes of Telouet Kasbah and Tamdaght Kasbah or the fortified towns of Anmiter and Ait Ben Haddou that line the valley floor. It’s a stunning landscape of grand ruins set on the edge of rocky red canyons.
Taking advantage of the epic landscapes, several films were shot here from Gladiator to Jesus of Nazareth, Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia.
The well-paved road that connects the ruins is a fantastic and easy drive and there are some great places to stay. While the southern end of the valley around Aït Ben Haddou can get busy with tourists, the northern end is just as impressive and has almost no one there.
A ROAD TRIP THROUGH THE OUNILA VALLEY
7 – DADÈS VALLEY
Best for green oasis and scenic red rock formations
While the northern and western sides of the Atlas Mountains are greener and richer in life, the southern side is a sea of boulder and rock. Yet in spring, the snowmelt from the High Atlas Mountains collects in rivers and rushes downhill which, over the years, has cut deep ravines and dramatic valleys. The Dadès Valley is one of the most impressive.
From the drive in from the south, this red rock valley gradually narrows until it is little wider than the road as it twists and turns, rising higher and higher. The drive to Café Timzzillite is the popular Instagram location in the valley, but there’s so much more to see.
The slot canyons and rivulets of Monkey Fingers are breathtaking to explore on foot. Pass beautiful villages, friendly people, nomadic camps and stunning scenery. We highly recommend a night at Auberge Chez Pierre for incredible Moroccan cooking in a stunning setting.
OUR 10-DAY MOROCCO ITINERARY
8 – TODRA GORGE
Best for dramatic scenery amongst red rock canyons
Just a couple of hours east of the Dadès Valley is the Todra Gorge. The most dramatic of the red rock canyons in Morocco, it’s almost 200 metres high and only 10 metres wide at its narrowest point. It opens out into the Tinghir Oasis, a massive swathe of green breaking the monotony of the desert. It is a remarkable contrast of red rock boulders and swaying green palms.
The town of Tinghir makes this a much busier place, but stick on hiking boots or drive along some of the back roads and you quickly find yourself all alone. There is an excellent half day hike that explores the best of the Todra Gorge. Alternatively, stay at Auberge le Festival and follow their network of signed footpaths or ask them to provide you with a guide.
From here you can continue south and east to the Sahara or north across the Atlas Mountains where the paved road to Agoudal and Imilchil is a glorious journey into a much less visited side of Morocco.
TINGHIR OASIS & TODRA GORGE HIKE
HOW TO GET AROUND THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS, MOROCCO
There are three ways to get around the Atlas Mountains. Join a tour, drive yourself or take public transport.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
There are two bus companies catering to tourists, CTM and Supratours. Both run regular buses between Marrakech and Ouarzazate which take 4 hours and 30 minutes including a 25 minute break. However, they do not stop at any tourist destinations on route.
Supratours also runs infrequent services to Kalaat M’Gouna at the bottom of the Roses Valley and Tinghir at the bottom of the Todra Gorge Valley.
Grand Taxis are a better bet for getting to some of the smaller towns and villages. Grand Taxis are large cars that take 4 to 6 people. They run between fixed destinations at a fixed price, but only go when they are full. In the cities they tend to be quite modern but the more remote you are the more likely you’ll be in a clapped-out 1970s banger. It can be a social way to travel and a good way to connect the cities to the more remote destinations like Aït Bougmez, Ouirgane and Imlil. Patience is required, however.
DRIVING IN THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
Once you have arrived at the city or village, you often need to make your way to other sights or attractions. So a better option to explore the Atlas Mountains is to self-drive.
Driving in Moroccan cities can be a harrowing affair. But driving in the Atlas Mountains is easier than many think. The main roads are well paved and well signed, petrol stations are frequent, and traffic is usually fairly light. There are so few road choices that navigation is easy with Google Maps. A road trip in the Atlas Mountains is by far the best way to see the area.
DO YOU NEED A 4×4 IN THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS?
Recently, the road through the Ounila Valley was paved, so all the sights on this list can be accessed by any confident driver in a 2WD. The exception is Aït Bouguemez which has a paved road but was in very poor condition on our last trip. While locals happily bounced along in a 2WD, I suspect most tourists would be happier in a 4×4.
The added bonus of hiring a 4×4 means you can head off the main roads and explore. These more remote roads can be anything from disintegrating paved roads to gravel piste or boulder-strewn steep tracks. Clinging to narrow tracks on the edge of precipitous valleys as you headed to tiny villages is a lot of fun and enables you to see a very rural and remote side of Morocco.
If you have any questions about road quality or which areas or routes you might want a 4×4, then please ask us in the comments below.
TOURS TO MOROCCO’S ATLAS MOUNTAINS
If driving yourself or waiting for buses all sounds like too much hard work, then there are loads of tours zipping around the Atlas Mountains. The main hub for tours exploring the Atlas Mountains is Marrakech (with its international airport) in the north. Although bit by bit Ouarzazate, in the south, is also starting to offer a range of trips.
Tours usually last 1 to 4 days. Here is a sample of what’s on offer.
MAP – ATLAS MOUNTAINS
The Atlas Mountains is a wonderful part of Morocco for a road trip. To help you get your bearings, our map includes all the top places to visit we have listed in this guide as well as our assessment of the road quality for each of main passes you would need to take. This information is accurate as of our last visit in 2019.
WHEN TO VISIT THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS?
The Atlas Mountains are at their most beautiful in spring when flowers line the valley floor and the crops are a bright green. However in early spring snow can be slow to melt and high rainfall can wash away the rock that supports the roads, making them impassable. So an ideal time to visit is mid-April to late May.
In summer the temperatures rise, the wheat and barley turn brown and the snow leaves the tops of the mountains making the whole scene slightly less picturesque. The heat can also be stifling at lower altitudes making walking draining.
After the summer temperatures drop, September to October is also a great time to visit although the colours are not as vibrant as in spring.
Finally, avoid the winter months from December to March. Snow can cover the high mountain roads making them impassable.
MORE READING FOR MOROCCO
Although only a short flight from Europe, Morocco is a different world. Explore medieval medinas, bustling souks, and stunning scenery with more of our Morocco guides.
THE BEST WAYS TO EXPERIENCE JEMAA EL FNA
OUR SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOUR OF FEZ MEDINA
THE CAPTIVATING THINGS TO DO IN MARRAKECH
BEAUTIFUL & INTRIGUING PLACES IN MOROCCO
THINGS TO DO IN OUARZAZATE
WHAT TO DO IN THE VALLEY OF THE ROSES
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