Atlas Mountains Road Trip: Dadés Valley, Todra Gorge, Morocco

Ait Benhaddou, a fortified town with Morocco

Ait Benhaddou, a fortified town with Morocco’s Atlas mountains visible behind.

Driving in Morocco, try an Atlas Mountains Road Trip!

Cheap transport in Morocco comes mainly in the form of buses, with excellent and competing private and public services between all the major cities including Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, Tangier and Marrakesh.
Grands taxis also do inter-city runs. These are large cars or small trucks that tend to be packed, quite fast and unsafe and only depart when full; they are, however, low-cost, especially if you can negotiate in French or a few words of Arabic. In Egypt, where a similar system is in place, these taxis are known as ‘Flying Coffins’.

Lovely scene on the road to Erfoud from Fez via Er Rachidia, Morocco

On the road to Erfoud from Fez via Er Rachidia.

However, stopping off en route to savour the spectacular views and explore the environment was, for us, one of the best parts of a Moroccan holiday.
Since cycling is not a good option for most tourists due to the large distances and baggage involved, hire cars are a great option if you can afford one. 4WD is not necessary. For low cost rental and fuel consumption get a compact car (we took a tiny Renault) , but preferably with a boot (trunk) in which you can conceal your baggage from idle eyes and air-con if you’re traveling in the warm/hot/dusty season.
Note that you can drive along the edge of the Sahara easily enough in the smallest cars though don’t drive too close to another car on gravel tracks as flying chips can damage your paintwork and your deposit.

Four of the best Atlas Mountains road trips

A fake ksar fortified village near Zagora, Morocco

A fake film-set fortified village near Zagora.

The famous ksar fortified village of Ait Benhaddou is an Islamic fortress town with high walls. Confusingly it’s also called a kasbah, a defensive town, citadel, fortress or old town. Ait Ben haddou has an unfortunate tendency to melt during heavy rains so it’s now barely inhabited. More photos of Ait Ben Haddou

This location – between the Sahara and Marrakesh in the Draa valley – has been used for films such as Alexander, Gladiator, The Mummy, The Sheltering Sky, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Living Daylights and Lawrence of Arabia. Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

• Along the lovely Ziz Valley from Errachidia to Erfoud – then on to Merzouga and the Sahara desert.

• Along the Dràa Valley from Ouarzazate to Zagora and on into the desert. See Map.

• Between Errachidia and Ouarzazate the Kasbah Route at the base of the Atlas Mountains entertains with snow-capped peaks, lush valleys, palm oases and magnificent ksars (fortified mud villages/forts/castles).

• Cruising through the Atlas Mountains from Ouarzazate to Marrakesh was pretty scenic but not as spectacular as the Ziz and Draa drives.

Visiting Dadés Valley and Todra Gorge through the High Atlas Mountains

Dades valley, Morocco

The start of the Dades Valley winding through the High Atlas Mountains.

A typical Dades Valley kasbah, Kelaa M

A typical Dades Valley kasbah, Kelaa M’Gouna, in Vallée du Rose on the ‘road of a thousand kasbahs’.

A possibile excursion

Vallee du roses, Morocco

Valley of the Roses, Vallée du Rose, a part of the Dadés Valley.

Spend a night in the spectacularly scenic Dades Gorge/Valley. Go at least 22 km up the Gorge to Ait Oudinar. You will not need a 4×4 if you drive up into the Dades Gorge, back to N10, then up into the Todra Gorge and again back to N10.

Visiting Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge, with tourists, Morocco

Todra Gorge, Gorges de Todra.

Carving a path 40 kms (25 miles) long through the eastern part of the Atlas Mountains the Todra Gorge is a stunning canyon popular with tourists; a bit too popular if you value your solitude but if you start walking the masses soon drift away. Todra is 15kms (10 miles) from the town of Tinehir (aka Tinghir) where the best budget hotels are located.

The last 600 metres of the gorge is the most dramatic (from the point photographed above), with sheer walls 160m high and gorge width narrowing to just 10m in places, barely enough room for the stream of glacial water and the river of sweating hikers! The Gorge can be approached by car but not driven though.

Hikers love the pink, grey and brown rock, the crystal stream and the occasional flash of sunlight which is generally seen in the morning. Most walkers opt for a few kilometers walk there and back but a full hike from this end could take serious trekkers as far as the lovely Berber village of Tamtattouchte.

Todra is also popular with climbers due to its 160m limestone walls with over 20 sturdy crags and fine single or multi-pitch sports climbs.

Location: the gorge is about halfway between Ouarzazate and Errachidia and reached from Marrakesh by bus or Grande (collective) taxi to Tinehir in 5-8 hours.

The famous tree-climbing goats in the south of Morocco near Marrakesh

The famous tree-climbing goats in the south of Morocco near Marrakesh.

Our two week vacation in Morocco

A woman drying clothes on rocks, near kasbah, Morocco

Seen from the road near Ouarzazate.

Fly in to Casablanca (vast and dull).
Bus to Rabat, the capital of Morocco (small, culturally lively, with some fine architecture).
Bus to Fes (much more interesting though very chilly and damp in winter).
Compact hire car to Merzouga and the Sahara Desert through the Atlas Mountains (amazing drive, awesome destination).
Drive car to Ouarzazate and Zagora (another spectacular drive though more traffic around; Zagora is another great desert town).
Drive to Marrakesh through the Atlas (fair drive, Marrakech is stunning).
Side trip to Agadir (a massive and uninspiring beach resort offering almost no Moroccan culture but plenty of sand. No surprise there then).
Fly home from Marrakesh.