Many visitors come to Marrakesh in the spring or fall to avoid the chill of winter and the heat of summer, but at any time of year, one of the most rewarding experiences you can have is taking a day trip to the quiet cool of the surrounding mountain valleys.
It's the perfect counterpoint to the thrillingly frantic energy of the medina and the busy buzz of Marrakesh's museums, palaces and gardens. After a Morrocan feast in the restaurants around Djemaa El Fna, work off the calories on a trek up Mt Toubkal, or enjoy the surprising experience of North African skiing at Oukaimeden.
The High Atlas Mountains rise due south of Marrakesh, making it easy to escape into stunning mountain scenery. These rugged valleys – bone-dry in summer, but often surprisingly green at other times – are dotted with pretty Amazigh villages, beautiful waterfalls and dramatic viewpoints. It's just 90km (55 miles) from Marrakesh to Imlil, the most popular hub for exploring Morocco's section of the Atlas range.
Here's our guide to the best day trips from Marrakesh.
Mountain walks around Mt Toubkal
South of Marrakesh, where the landscape rucks up into craggy mountains, Imlil is the name given to a collection of Amazigh villages that make an excellent base for walks in the surrounding mountain valleys. The setting is magnificent – Imlil is the main trailhead for the two-day hike up 4167m (13,671ft) Mt Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. The Bureau des Guides d'Imlil can arrange guides. Even if you're not planning a huge expedition, Imlil is a handy base for shorter day walks, and a good place to get a feel for the mountain way of life.
How to get from Marrakesh to Imlil: From Rue Uqba Bin Nafaa near Bab Er Rob in Marrakesh, "grands taxis" (shared taxis) head periodically to Imlil. On quieter days, it may be easier to take a shared taxi or local minibus to Asni for Dh25 (US$2.70), and then a second minibus the rest of the way for Dh10 (US$1). Be warned – both minibuses and taxis will cram as many people on as possible. The journey time is about two hours.
Relax by a waterfall or a cool mountain stream in the Ourika Valley
The Ourika Valley, edging into the mountains northeast of Marrakesh, is famed for its majestic waterfalls and caves, which can be easily explored from the village of Setti Fatma. The valley is a popular escape for locals, who come to walk and relax in riverside restaurants and sip mint tea beside the cool mountain stream that runs through the middle of the village.
Reaching the seven waterfalls in the vicinity involves a bit of scrambling and climbing, so make sure you hire an official accredited guide through the local Bureau des Guides. Unofficial guides pounce on new arrivals touting for business – you can enjoy a calmer riverside lunch if you keep walking up the main road to some of the smaller villages along the valley.
How to get to Setti Fatma: Grands taxis leave from Rue Ibn Rachid near Bab Er Rob, just south of Djemaa El Fna in Marrakesh. The fare is Dh30 (US$3.20) and the travel time is about an hour and a half.
Go stargazing in the Agafay Desert
If you're in Marrakesh for a short trip and don't have time to make it all the way to the serious desert landscapes of the Sahara, the Agafay Desert makes a great alternative. With Marrakesh just 3okm (miles) away by road, this is a popular glamping getaway, and it's worth taking an overnight trip to enjoy stargazing far from the sky-obscuring light pollution of the city.
Swish glamping camps such as Inara Camp offer daytime desert activities such as hiking and camel riding followed by an alfresco dinner as the sun sets over the desert, with the option of an overnight stay in a luxury tent. Expect to pay upwards of Dh2000 (US$215) for an overnight trip for two, including meals.
How to get to the Agafay Desert: Transfers from Marrakesh are bundled into the price of day trips and overnight stays at the tented camps in the area; the journey to Afagay takes about an hour.
Go desert skiing in Oukaimeden in winter
Head up to the mountain village of Oukaimeden from January to February for a chance to ski or snowboard down snow-covered peaks. It's not something that every tourist to Morocco gets to brag about, and there are seven ski runs covering all levels of experience, with seven ski lifts.
At other times of the year, the snow melts and Oukaimeden falls quiet, but don't let that put you off a visit – it’s still a cool getaway close to some very dramatic mountain scenery, and you can wander around the surrounding valleys in search of ancient petroglyphs and scenic viewpoints.
How to get to Oukaimeden: If you don't have your vehicle, then head to the Bab Er Rob taxi station in Marrakesh. If you go early in the morning, you may be able to share a taxi with locals going up for a day trip: the cab will take you up, and you’ll all decide a time to meet up again later to head back down. Alternatively, charter a whole taxi for around Dh600 (US$64) or arrange a transfer through the CAF Refuge in Oukaimeden. The drive takes about an hour and a half.
Browse mountain produce in the market at Asni
Due south from Marrakesh on the edge of the mountains, Asni is a small group of villages crammed into a green, well-watered valley, with a bustling Saturday market that attracts traders from all over the region, selling everything from livestock, vegetables and spices to jewelry and ceramics.
Get an early start from Marrakesh to catch the market at its busiest. Expect vigorous attempts to make a sale on the main thoroughfare; it's more peaceful to wander around residential areas of Asni. If you're in Marrakesh during the week, there's another interesting market at nearby Tahnaoute on Tuesday.
How to get to Asni: Grands taxis from Rue Uqba Bin Nafaa near Bab Er Rob shouldn’t cost more than Dh20 (US$2.15) per seat, and the drive takes about an hour.
Explore the lush Zat Valley
For a quieter experience of Morocco's mountain scenery, head to the town of Tighdouine, tucked into a river valley 60km (37 miles) southeast of Marrakesh. There's a lively souk on Wednesday, with cafes serving tasty roadside tajines – at other times, move on from town into the lush Zat Valley. Here, crystal streams contrast with rocky mountain outcrops, and the slopes are dotted with remote villages of precariously balanced houses and cliffside gardens.
One rewarding walk is the stroll to the 'healing' mineral spring below Tighdouine, but the scenery gets more impressive as you walk further from the beaten path. To really get a feel for the Zat Valley, hike for three to five days to reach the upper sections of the valley, where potatoes, olives, figs and tomatoes are grown. Tour agencies in Marrakesh can arrange trips.
How to get to Tighdouine
Grands taxis run to Tighdouine from Marrakesh for Dh25 (US$2.70), a journey of around an hour, but for exploring, it's easier to come with a rental car (easily arranged in Marrakesh). Just be careful on these rough mountain roads. Alternatively, come on a hiking tour from Marrakesh.
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