High Atlas Mountains
Welcome to North Africa’s highest mountain range, known by local Berbers as ‘Idraren Draren’ (Mountains of Mountains), and a trekker’s paradise from spring through to autumn. The High Atlas runs diagonally across Morocco for almost 1000km, encircling Marrakesh to the south and east from the Atlantic Coast just north of Agadir to Khenifra in the northeast. Its saw-toothed Jurassic peaks act as a weather barrier between the mild, Mediterranean climate to the north and the encroaching Sahara to the south.
In its highest reaches, snow falls regularly from September to May, allowing for winter sports in Oukaimeden, while year-round rivers flow northwards towards Marrakesh creating a network of fertile valleys – the Zat, Ourika, Mizane and Ouirgane. Happiest of all are the secluded valleys of the central High Atlas, which include Zaouiat Ahansal, Ait Bougmez, Ait Bououli and Ait Blel.
In the High Atlas the main language is the Berber dialect of Tashelhit, with some pockets of Tamazight.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout High Atlas Mountains.
Nestled in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, Anima Garden is a space designed by multimedia artist André Heller. Surprising sculptures referencing local and international themes are hidden among the shady pathways and flowerbeds filled with wildflowers, cacti, water features, palm trees and tall grass. The on-site cafe serves light food, sweets and an array of hot beverages.
Four kilometres past Tnine, a discreet sign points up a dirt path into the Amazigh (Berber) village of Tafza, where the three-storey mud-brick ksar (fortified village) that once housed the local qaid (chief) is now a museum. Enthusiastic guided visits (in English, French or Spanish) cover every detail of household life, from symbols carved in door frames to silver dowry jewellery, and a 1½-hour loop of short documentaries show life in the High Atlas in the 1940s and ’50s.
The many-tiered Cascades d’Ouzoud are stunningly beautiful, with several distinct falls, the largest a massive 100m drop. The area is also one of the most popular day trips from Marrakesh, so be prepared to not have this natural idyll to yourself. On summer weekends the cafe-lined paths that lead down to the falls are filled with local families and tourists browsing souvenir stalls and taking pictures. To reach the falls, walk past the signs for Riad Cascades d’Ouzoud towards the precipice, where converging paths wind down towards the largest falls and beyond.
This Almohad-era mosque was built in 1156 in honour of the dynasty’s strict spiritual leader, Mohammed Ibn Tumart, and it remains an architectural wonder. The mosque is still used for Friday prayers, but on other days the guardian will usher you through its massive doors and rose-coloured archways into the serene prayer hall. The intricate geometry of the carved cedar ceilings has been preserved through painstaking restoration, and the soaring archways give a sense of solidity and grace.
The largest building in Zaouiat Ahansal dominates the surrounding village. Still home to the saint's descendants, the village's oldest building also serves as a hostel to pilgrims who visit the area.
Almost anything thrives in Ourika’s rich soil, including saffron, organically grown here from bulbs that are cultivated near Talouine. Saffron is a high-maintenance plant, with flowers harvested before dawn for maximum potency. Guided tours of the several-hectare fruit and saffron orchards are given by staff who reiterate key points on explanatory placards.
For a spectacular sunset, climb the steep but straightforward trail up to the zawiya (shrine) of Sidi Moussa, a local marabout (saint), on a conical hilltop at the centre of the valley. Look for the trailhead just opposite the Gîte Timit.
The organic botanical gardens of a Franco-Moroccan bath-product company combining Amazigh (Berber) herbal remedies with modern aromatherapy make for pleasant wandering, and they certainly smell great. With reservations it's also possible to order meals (Dh70 to Dh120), with many ingredients plucked fresh from the gardens.
The valley's weekly market takes place on Sunday and offers a great insight into valley life. Traders and shoppers start arriving in Tabant on Saturday evening, 'parking' their donkeys at the top of town. Expect an authentic experience of busy butchers stalls and veg vendors alongside traders selling everything from used clothes and imported shoes to teapots and tajines and even the kitchen sink (literally).