The Best Day Trip from Marrakech: Driving in the Atlas Mountains

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The Atlas Mountains are a stunning region in southwestern Morocco with traditional Berber villages and a variety of recreation options, including mountain biking, hiking, and skiing. In fact, I would say most people don’t realize that Morocco with its sweeping ocean coasts and famous desert dunes also has a major mountain range. As a native mountain girl, I couldn’t wait to see the Atlas mountains when I first moved to Morocco so I made my first trip here in October and came back again a couple more times in the winter hoping for skiing. Because how many times can you say you’ve skied in Africa?

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Ourika Valley

Marrakech is the best starting point for the Atlas Mountains. As you leave Marrakech, you start to climb up to 4,500 feet and see the first part of Ourika Valley. The Ourika Valley is about 30 miles or a 45 minute drive from Marrakech. The winding Ourika River flows in the riverbed of the lush valley along local Berber villages.

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The road is slow and winding but overall in pretty good shape as you climb higher. You can stop at a number of pull outs for scenic overlooks and these overlooks are often accompanied by men and camels, selling camel rides, photo opportunities or stones and jewelry.

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Shops along the road sell traditional Moroccan goods, mainly rugs and pottery, and cafes offer a place to eat tajines and tea. Since I’ve developed a new rug addiction, I’ve found a favorite rug store along the road. The Ensemble Artisanal Ammacine Ourika is a huge warehouse 39 kilometers from Marrakech with stacks of beautifully made rugs that line the inside of the big space. Literally thousands and thousands of rugs from all different regions of Morocco are for sale here, making it a dangerous stop for someone like me who would like to buy the entire store. The shop also has beautiful views over the valley and rugs are hung outside to “weather.”

As you continue up the road, there are two main forks. The road to the left leads to one of the most popular destinations in Ourika Valley, the seven waterfalls at Setti Fatma. I haven’t made it the waterfall yet as I’ve heard it’s crowded on weekends and not as big as the Ouzoud Waterfalls. There are also opportunities to stop at the local Berber villages and walk around, although I’ve found most Berbers are fairly shy of cameras and I hesitate to intrude on their daily lives.

The road to the right leads to the Oukaimeden ski station. One my first visit to the valley, I stayed at the Salama Ayurveda Inn, a beautiful small hostel and wellness resort about an hour away from Marrakech and just a few minutes after you turn right at the fork. Nestled in the hills and surrounding villages, this eight-room hostel offers a great way to relax and get away from the busyness of Marrakech. There are terraces for eating meals (which they make there), napping and hanging out and they also offer yoga, meditation and massages.

Summer-Atlas-Mountains-Marrakech-Morocco16 Summer-Atlas-Mountains-Marrakech-Morocco17 Summer-Atlas-Mountains-Marrakech-Morocco18I decided to skip these services and just enjoy quiet moments in the hammocks by the bubbling creek. At 55 euros a night for a single room, it’s much more expensive than most riads and rooms in Marrakech. Meals, including breakfast and dinner, are extra. I also found the rooms were very basic and the beds were not that comfortable so I really recommend this hostel solely for the location. If I’m feeling a need for calm and tranquility – there’s no wifi or cellphone signal here, so it’s a digital detox kind of place – I might just come back here. And I still think about their amazing fresh made carrot and ginger juice.

Oukaimeden Ski Station

As you go past Salama Ayurveda, you start to see the earth-colored Berber villages that literally hang from the sides of the hills. These stacked homes are intermixed with green terraced fields and with the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, it’s truly stunning.

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The houses are made from bricks from the native red soil available here so they blend into the hills. There’s a mix of new and old, as you catch glimpses of women carrying sticks and woods up steep paths to the homes, and bright clothes hung out on clotheslines of the homes, most with a satellite dish on top. Along the road, Berbers sell nuts and herbs and children gather to wave or say hello. It’s an important reminder to have a little something to give. Since these villages are so isolated, I’ve found that certain things we take for granted, like pens and paper, are in short demand here. I brought notebooks, pencils and pencil sharpeners up on my last trip and it was huge hit among the children.

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On my second trip in late February, we made it to the Oukaimeden Ski Station, one of two ski resorts in Morocco (the other is in Ifrane). Since it was a dry winter, we were lucky that the weather cooled down and finally brought some snow to the area. I would recommend anyone visiting the ski station on the weekend, or even during the week during high season, to come early. The parking gets crowded fast and it’s best to get your gear rented and your car parked in a good spot before it’s packed. It was easy to rent gear; we stopped at one of the first shops on the way in and found decent skis and boots for a daily rate of $12 and a snowboard for $15. There are many Moroccans renting gear outside of the shops for probably lower prices but I find it’s more reliable to find newer gear at the shops. Don’t expect brand new gear – this is Morocco after all, so it’s definitely a mix of gear from 80s or 90s.

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There are two parts to the ski station, the first section catering to beginners and intermediate and the second section (which is hidden and hard to see when you first approach the ski station) which has much steeper runs. You basically just stay on the main road and park at either the first section or keep driving to the second. When we arrived the first time, the lifts were shut down (another occurrence you get used to here) and we were told it was because of worker’s strike. So we spent the day hiking up the first section. It was actually nice to get some good exercise in and we hiked to a beautiful overlook with spectacular views.

All and all, you don’t come here for serious skiing unless you hit a very good ski day here. The lifts are older and slow and the runs are not groomed. I think the overall spirit here is to have fun in the snow and for many Moroccans, this is one of the few times they see or experience snow. In fact, I didn’t see many tourists here, mainly Moroccans who bring their families out for a weekend of play.

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Toubkal National Park

On my third trip, we drove back to Oukaimeden Ski Station in early March but the snow had already melted off most of the first section of the mountain. The chairlift on the second steeper section was open and there were a few skiers but since it was rocky with thin snow and shops here don’t rent ski helmets, I decided to pass on skiing. There was quite a crowd going up on this chair lift without skis just for the view up top. Since I haven’t paid yet for the ski lifts here, I’m only using what I saw on the signs, which looked like 100 dirhams (or $10) for adults. So by the time you rent gear and get a ski pass, you’re still paying less than $25 for a day of skiing. Whoa!

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I still wanted to get out in the mountains but away from the crowds so Adil and I put on our hiking shoes and hiked up the road, which is closed to cars after the second ski lift. We realized this is a section of the Toubkal National Park. There were only five or six people we saw the entire hike, including a solo goat herder and his goats. We hiked about 3 miles up switchbacks on the dirt road to a overlook (probably very similar to what the people on the ski lifts see) with a panoramic of the Atlas Mountains. The park is named after the highest peak here Toubkal at 13,671 ft. It’s the highest mountain peak in Morocco and the second highest in Africa behind Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s on my list to climb, hopefully soon!

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If the mountains can’t come to you, you come to the mountains.

Morocco still manages to surprise me with its diverse landscape. No matter what season, I think the Atlas Mountains are the best escape from Marrakech (especially during Marrakech’s brutal hot summers). Whether you want a true adventure or just a scenic drive, it’s all here in the Atlas Mountains with fresh mountain air, open spaces and beautiful landscapes.

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About the Author

Stefanie Kilts

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Stefanie Kilts is a marketing consultant and business storyteller, world traveler and adventurist, videographer, photographer and writer. She currently lives in Africa and writes about her experience as a digital nomad and millennial on her blog.