The Atlas Mountain range lies over several Northern African countries. In Morocco these mountains reach their highest points, with Mount Toubkal, a part of the High Atlas, peaking the height of 4167 meters. There are rivers starting in the icy tops of the Atlas Mountains and turning the slopes of the mountains into gardens and rainforests. On the northern side, which stops the clouds coming from the Atlantic Ocean, the precipitation falls 3 to 6 times more than on the southern side of the mountain range. Not far away from the Atlas Mountains lays the Sahara Desert.
It is best to travel by car, even though travelling by public transport and organized trip buses is also possible. If you choose one of the latter options, get ready to see just around one third of the beauty of the Atlas Mountains.
Asif Ounila (the salty river) river valley on the southern side of the Atlas Mountains. People are settling down near the river valleys and other bodies of water.
If you traveled across the mountains before, the Atlas Mountains will probably not surprise and impress you that much. You might be more surprised by the rapidly changing climate zones though. You will reach the desert dunes of Mhadide from Marrakech in around 7 – 8 hours. Without making any stops, you may cross the High Atlas Mountains on the modern N9 route in about 3 – 4 hours, and in that short time you will be able to see the tangerine groves in Marrakech, half-deserts, Mediterranean olive trees forests, pine tree forests that reminds of Italian coast, you will ross the alpine meadows, reach the snow caps and come back to the half-deserts with palm trees and sandy deserts. It is not that easy to find these extreme contrasts anywhere else.
It is often cloudy on the northern side of the Atlas Mountains. This is the view you get on the N9 road.
You may cross the High Atlas Mountains by three main roads. If you start in Agadir and go towards Marrakech, you can choose the R203 road, but instead of 2 hours that you would spend driving on the A7 road, you will last at least 6 hours. Usually it takes even couple of days, since there are so many fun things to do and amazing views to see for the tourists.
If you start in Marrakech and go towards the Mhadid (Zagora) desert or Merzouga desert, choose the N9 road. We noticed that special jeeps that carry people as an organized trip turn to the P1506 road that goes through Ait Benhadou and the amazing river valley of Asif Ounila.
If you choose to stop by the Ouzoud waterfalls, it is advisable to cross the Atlas Mountains by the R307 road – there will certainly be some impressive views.
If you start in Fes and go towards the Merzouga desert, you should choose the N13 road which is a little over the High Atlas Mountains.
Route through the Atlas Mountains
Our route included visiting the Ouzoud waterfalls, crossing the mountains towards Uarzazato, spending the night in Ait Benhadou and coming back to Marrakech. This time, we sadly did not have ant extra time to visit the Sahara Desert.
Here is the map of Morocco with hotels, places worth visiting marked on it. Also, you might see the full 10 days itinerary for a trip by car through Morocco.
If you’ve seen, let’s say, waterfalls in Norway, Ouzoud waterfalls will probably not leave that big of impression on you. But, when you take the specifics into account, such as the fact that you are in Africa and you are just couple of hundreds of kilometers away from the Sahara Desert, it is quite impressive. This mixture of big volumes of water, heat and fertile soil is perfect for fauna. It is also a favored place for wild, socializing monkeys.
There are so many small restaurants around, from the top of the waterfall to the very bottom. SO, all in all, yes, it is worth visiting. Sadly, we did not have enough time to walk around for longer, and we would recommend spending a full day here in Ouzoud waterfalls.
After leaving the N8 road that goes through the plain, you reach the first serpentines. The foothills are quite densely populated and in November, you might buy fresh pomegranates.
Ouzoud waterfalls during the day. There is a small body of water at the bottom where you can enjoy a boat ride. There are lots of small restaurants and souvenir shops going down. There are also some camping spots where you are able to build a tent and spend the night there.
Monkeys live freely in the wild, but are actually really sociable and used to the attention of tourists. Local Berbers are selling some nuts that are later fed to the monkeys. With some guidance from the vendors, the monkeys might even climb onto your shoulder.
Berberian omelet with tomatoes to get some energy before hitting the road. We were happy that we did, since we didn’t see any restaurants by the road.
It is advisable to leave Ouzoud quite early in the morning. You will have to drive for about 7 – 8 hours in order to reach Ait Benhadou. You will cross the city of Demnate, with is your last chance to see currency exchange office until you will reach Uarzazate. It is advisable to use this chance, since you might need the money for some quick stops on the road, even though there aren’t many tourist attractions. This road will be quite narrow and winding, and, luckily, asphalted. The roads are quite steep and our rental car, Ford Fiesta with 1,2-liter engine was able to climb it just fine, even though, it was mostly on the second gear and not higher. It was mostly because of the steepness going up and the safety of the tires while going down.
We saw the snowy mountain tops right before reaching Demnate.
The slopes of the deep valleys are full of forests and woods. At the bottom, there are many agriculture fields, gardens with some kind of exact specie of trees. With the snowy mountain tops in the distance right before reaching Demnate, the forests of black pine trees and Italian coast-like views started emerging. Going up, you start seeing the alpine meadows as well. At the bottom there are the cultivated fields, olive and walnut groves and there are numerous cliffs everywhere around.
Winding road R307 through the alpine meadows of the Atlas Mountains.
The flora and fauna are significantly different on the more southern side of the mountains.
Here, what appears to be absolute unhabituated wilderness, you might see some wild goats.
Black pine forests by the side of road R307 in the Atlas Mountains.
We spend nearly a whole morning with the view of the snowy mountain tops and we started getting a little worried that we got a little lost, since there did not appear to be a decent way to pass these snowy mountains.
Uarzazat is a modern city with wide streets and modern hotels. The main tourist attraction is visiting the movie sets where lots of worldwide know films were filmed. If you stay a night here, you may easily reach the Mhadide desert on the next day, or the Merzouga desert; if you leave in the morning, you will be there by lunch time. If you need more places to visit in the Merzouga desert, it is worth visiting the Dodra valley and Todrha gorge. Also, Merzouga desert has higher sand dunes to offer.
In the desert, the main tourist attraction is a camel trip to the Bedouin camping grounds, and spending the night under the stars. The variety of places to spend the night is huge and offers some absolute oppositions – starting with a simplest camping with one big bathroom anywhere you look around and goes to the fancy tents with all modern equipment.
On your way back be sure to stop and check the city of Ait Benhadou. It would be perfect to be able to spend the night in here as well, since it is so beautiful to see the buildings with the illumination of the rising sun. Ait Benhadou (in Berber – a tall house), is an old, yet modern town with impressive buildings and a huge movie set on one side, and the new part of the city which is turned into one big touristy center. The most luxurious and expensive hotels offer the view to the old part of the city. The best view that we saw was definitely from Hotel La Kasbah, however, the price was a little higher here. A cheaper choice, with almost equally as impressive view from the terrace is La Baraka, with the disadvantage of Hotel La Kasbah being in the view and hiding the view access to the river. An advantage would be that we got to enjoy our breakfast right there on the terrace, when we asked for it.
Hotel La Kasbah in Ait Benhadou with a great view.
Kefta, also known as the minced meat ball tagine. This is our dinner in the restaurant of Hotel La Kasbah. We did not have the reservation in advance and found a place after we got there. If you can see a restaurant, you might almost be sure that they have some rooms right next to it as well. Of course, it is better to book the hotels and rooms in advance, but we all know it is not always an option.
You have two different options in order to reach the town of Ait Benhadou itself. You can take the path through the river without using the bridge, which is a little more extreme but interesting and fun experience. Some local boys will probably help you or at least offer their help and ask for some money after (in our case they asked for 2 dirhams). You should pay them, because if not, you will get a terrible look and will probably wish to fall into the river yourself. If you don’t want this experience, you may use the bridge – a more civilized way to get into the city, which is also free. However, we recommend taking the more interesting path, since you will reach the city through some private yards and after paying a little (8 dirhams in our case) you will get a small story and look around through the households of the locals. It is information that is very useful to know and interesting too.
The old part of Ait Benhadou at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The river that you have to cross is called Asif Ounila. Some famous movies and series that were filmed here include the Game of thrones, Mummy, Legionnaire and other top movies and series.
There are some plants by the river of Asif Ounila. Berberian houses blends into the surroundings by their slope-climbing constructions.
It is advisable to come back through the Atlas Mountains by the road P1506. There you will see the beautiful valley of Asif Ounila (the salty) river and small villages right next to it. There are plenty spots to stop at and enjoy the views, explore the life going on in the valley, on the working fields and next to the river.
After enjoying the views on P1506 you should emerge to the N9 route and go towards Tizi N’Tichka crossing (2260 meters high). There you will see many fossils and minerals for sale and it will become massive. Just try not the buy very bright fossils and minerals, since they are probably colored, which is worth-reducing factor. There are also many places to eat on the way.
N9 road is wide and consists of two, sometimes even three lanes. The slope is lower than it was on road R307 as well.
Tiznit crossing and fossils and minerals for sale. Try not to get tricked into buying something fake or artificial.
Alpine meadows in the Atlas Mountains and some snow by the side of the road. It is refreshing and fun to play in it a little bit.
As in many other restaurants in Morocco, everything is quite easy. The things to consider are the environment, the location, food variety. Leave the furniture and interior for restaurants in Europe.
Lamb tagine that we had there was actually one of the best we had all over Morocco. Lots of tagines in front of the restaurant is also an indication of quality and of good food.
We stopped for lunch after going through the serpentines. We stopped at Berberian garden and had the best lamb tagine. You can see an older local actually working on the garden – planting new trees, and a terrace with amazing view. There are some locals eating here as well, which is another good advantage of a restaurant.
Roads in the Atlas Mountains.
When driving through the N9 road, some amazing valleys of the Atlas Mountains are right there to enjoy. If you are not in a rush to reach Marrakech, we advise you to stay in the mountains for longer. We stayed in the village of Toufliht in a hotel Aubergue Toufliht. The rooms are right on the cliff. We spend some time in the evening walking around the forest of mature Atlas cedar trees, pine trees and pine cedar trees. In the summertime, I can only imagine, how amazing the smell would be.
Toufliht forests remind a little of European forests. You might even find the same species of mushoroom! Some trees are, of course, different, but it is nothing but natural.
In the morning we went a little further down and took a walk along the local paths between the groves. We also stopped by a village, because it is really interesting to see the live of the locals from up close.
There is a highway at the top, only a several meters away, and still you have this amazing nature right here. The views are fantastic and the food is this restaurant was amazing.
It is so fun walking around the area. Olive tree groves a replaced by some cactus fences. When you see the cactus, do not pick the fruits. You may buy them right there with all the spikes taken out. You might even get in trouble if you try and pick the fruit by yourself straight from the plant.
From Toufliht to Marrakech the road is about 1,5 hour long. You will be able to still see and enjoy the beautiful Atlas Mountains even when you are already in Marrakech – you will be able to see them from the riads’ terraces and restaurants.
When crossing the Atlas Mountains through road R203, it is worth stopping at the town of Imlil, even though it will require a small turn away from the main route. Imlil is a real touristy resort and a place where you can reach the highest point of the Atlas Mountains – the Mount Toubkal. It is a route for several days though, with some night spending in small mountain houses.