Guide to the Valleys of the High Atlas Mountains
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The three valleys in the Atlas mountains are an easy day trip from Marrakech. What are they and why should you visit them?
The Atlas Mountains separate the Sahara Desert from the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; the name “Atlantic” is derived from the mountain range. It stretches around 2,500 km (1,600 mi) through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The range’s highest peak is Toubkal, which is in central Morocco, with an elevation of 4,167 metres (13,671 ft). The Atlas mountains are primarily inhabited by Berber populations. It is known by local Berbers as ‘Idraren Draren’ (Mountains of Mountains).
Ourika valley is known for its stunning gorges and terraced fields along the river, is a popular destination for day trips due to its beautiful scenery, refreshing air, and proximity to Marrakech. The popularity of the area can be seen in the numerous restaurants and souvenir stalls along the route, as well as plans for a property development funded by Dubai.
The valley begins at the village of Souk Tnine de l’Ourika (Akhlij), which hosts a market on Mondays and attracts tourists like the nearby Asni Village market on Saturdays.
During the warmer months, it is possible to hike to the peak of Jebel Oukaïmeden (3,263 meters/10,705 feet) from the village. The moderate 650-meter (2,133-foot) ascent offers beautiful views, particularly at sunset. This area is a good choice for a peaceful and refreshing break, as it is about 10 degrees cooler here in the summer than in Marrakech. Birdwatchers may want to look for the elusive crimson-winged finch that lives in this area.
At the end of the tarred road in the Ourika Valley is the village of Setti Fatma, which was rebuilt after devastating floods in 1995 and now has a mix of modern concrete housing blocks and traditional homes. Despite the development, the village’s setting among grassy terraces, walnut groves, and mountain peaks is still beautiful and makes it a good starting point for treks to Jebel Toubkal and the surrounding area. A 30-minute scramble up the rocky foothills above Setti Fatma leads to a series of waterfalls (called cascades by the locals) with cafes nearby. The lower falls are easy to access, but the higher ones may be more challenging. Guides are available to take visitors to the higher falls.
Oukaimden valley, and taking a secluded mountain road route standing at 1800 meters above sea level, you will pass through traditional Berber villages built from adobe and stones, and discover the authentic life of Berber people. It is a ski base during the winter and a beautiful starting point for trekking during the warmer months. If a proposed property development is approved, the village will be transformed into a golf course and ski resort with a water park, exclusive shops, and artificial beachfront. The chairlift on Jebel Oukaïmeden, previously the highest in the world at an elevation of 3,273 meters (10,739 feet), may also be renovated.
Asni valley is famous by its fruit trees (Apples, walnut, almonds, peaches…), this is where you can enjoy the sight of the snowy summits of the High Atlas Mountains. Tourists visiting Imlil may encounter aggressive touts, but the weekly Saturday market, or souk, is worth checking out. The market offers a variety of local produce and livestock, as well as services such as dentistry and barbering. Visitors may also see a large group of mules with brightly colored saddles. This is a good opportunity to purchase supplies for trekking, although it is advisable to arrive early to avoid the crowds of day-tripping tourists. Above the village are the lower, forested slopes of the Kik Plateau, which is a beautiful place to go for a walk, especially in spring when it is covered in alpine flowers.
Azzaden Valley, just south of Imlil, is often touted as the quieter alternative to Imlil. It is possible to walk from Imlil to Azzaden Valley (about six hours). You can also start the hike to the summit of Jbel Toubkal from here.
Ouirgane Valley in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains Marigha. The Ouirgane valley is at its most beautiful in spring. At this time, flowers line the valley floor and the crops are a bright green. It is in the middle of the Toubkal National Park. It contains the villages of Ouirgane, Marigha, Torord and Tinmel. Salt is mined from huge wells of brine in the valley. The brine is left for the water to evaporate on salt pans before it is gathered and carried on donkeys to the neighbouring villages to be sold.
The valley has the Tinmal Mosque or Great Mosque of Tinmal, a 12th-century mosque located in the village of Tinmel. Although no longer operating as a mosque today, its remains are preserved as a historic site.