Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco’s Hidden Gems
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - See Majestic Mountains and Rural Villages in the High Atlas
Just an hour's drive from the bustling souks and snake charmers of Marrakesh lies the soaring, snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains. This majestic mountain range is Morocco's greatest natural treasure, with rugged peaks rising to over 13,000 feet. The High Atlas present endless opportunities for hiking, climbing, and exploring Berber villages seemingly lost in time.
A day trip to the High Atlas mountains offers a refreshing change of pace from the chaos of the city. As you wind along mountain roads, the air becomes crisper and villages appear clinging to steep hillsides. Stop to take in the panoramic views of valleys and soaring cliffs, eagles circling over abandoned kasbahs, and women dressed in brightly colored caftans carrying bundles of firewood.
One of the best places to experience High Atlas village life is in the UNESCO-listed Aït Bouguemez Valley. Referred to as Morocco's "Happy Valley", it's home to charming Berber villages of red clay houses and terraced fields. Spend a night in traditional gîte guesthouses, sipping mint tea by the fireplace as your hosts share local folklore.
From the valley, adventurous hikers can trek to dwarfed forests of twisted cedar trees and remote mountain lakes. Or take a scenic drive over the Tizi n'Test pass, stopping frequently to photograph the stunning vistas. At the pass you'll also find Berber women selling handmade woolen crafts.
Further west lies the Toubkal National Park, home to North Africa's highest peak, Jebel Toubkal. Hike through juniper and pine forests to reach the summit for phenomenal High Atlas views. The two-day trek is challenging but doesn't require technical climbing skills. Reward yourself after with a rejuvenating dip in the natural hot springs near the trailhead.
What else is in this post?
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - See Majestic Mountains and Rural Villages in the High Atlas
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Marvel at Ait Benhaddou, Dramatic Fortress of Clay
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Discover the Oasis Towns of Skoura and the Valley of Roses
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Admire Winding Roads and Mountain Views Driving the Telouet Kasbah Trail
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Take a Day Trip to Essaouira, Cosmopolitan Beach Town
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Visit the Anthropomorphic Stone Graves of Ait Isfoul Valley
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Explore the Cascades d'Ouzoud, Morocco's Highest Waterfalls
- Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Trek Through Forests and Meet Monkeys in Azaghar National Park
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Marvel at Ait Benhaddou, Dramatic Fortress of Clay
Journey through the arid landscapes between the Sahara Desert and the soaring High Atlas to discover Aït Benhaddou - one of Morocco's most iconic ksars. Rising from a rocky outcrop, this dramatic fortress settlement is the country's best preserved and most cinematic ksar. The entire settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you approach across the parched plains, the sight of Aït Benhaddou’s imposing earthen walls and angular towers is spellbinding. It feels like stepping into an ancient world, or onto a movie set. In fact, the ksar's evocative beauty has made it a filming location for productions like Gladiator, Game of Thrones, and Prince of Persia.
Wander through the winding passageways to admire the intricate architectural details. Many facades are still adorned with decorative carvings. Check out the agadirs, large communal grain silos that are an iconic part of Saharan villages. From the top of the ksar you can enjoy panoramic views over the surrounding palm groves.
Stay awhile to witness the timeless rhythm of life here. Watch as heavily laden donkeys arrive laden with goods, while village women in brightly colored caftans fetch water from the river below. Sign up for breadmaking workshops with the local women's cooperative to learn traditional techniques.
As the hot afternoon sun dips low behind the ksar's ramparts, the honey-colored walls glow against the craggy brown cliffs behind. This is the perfect time to admire the ksar's sunset hues as you contemplate its long history. Some parts of Aït Benhaddou date back to the 11th century, when it was an important stop on Saharan caravan routes.
Over generations, residents packed mud and clay to construct the ksar's high defensive walls and towers. Many families still inhabit areas inside the historic ksar. But even the uninhabited sections, slowly crumbling back into the earth, have a haunting beauty.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Discover the Oasis Towns of Skoura and the Valley of Roses
Nestled at the edge of the High Atlas Mountains' rain shadow, the oasis towns of Skoura and the Valley of Roses offer a vivid contrast to arid desert landscapes. Verdant palm groves and orchards of fruit trees belie their location on the northern fringe of the Sahara. These oases have quenched desert travelers' thirst for centuries.
Wandering beneath the dappled shade of date palms in Skoura feels worlds away from bustling Marrakech. Listen to the mellifluous sound of babbling brooks irrigating the oases. Inhale the sweet, delicate fragrance of Damask roses, farmed around Skoura for their valuable rose water and oil.
Admire the well-preserved southern Moroccan architecture of earthen kasbahs and ksours rising amid the greenery. Nearby, glimpse the ruins of a medieval Almoravid fortress. This was once an important caravanserai on routes crossing the Sahara laden with salt and gold.
Overnighting in a converted kasbah hotel lets you fully immerse in oasis life. Dine al fresco on tagines of slow-cooked meats infused with sweet fruits and warming spices. As you sip mint tea on the rooftop terrace, watch the sun dip below the distant Atlas peaks.
Then rise early to wander sleepy Skoura before the day's heat sets in. Greet villagers beginning their days tending to the Palmeraie palm groves. See local Berber women at the communal well, bearing large clay jugs to fetch water.
West of Skoura, the Valley of Roses captivates with its Rose Festival each May. During the harvest, the valley transforms into a sea of pink blossoms, with ladies hand-picking delicate rosebuds.
In the festival's key event, select blossoms become the year's precious rose water. Watch as plucked petals are distilled in copper alembics over wood fires. The condensation captures the roses' pure essence and fragrant oils.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Admire Winding Roads and Mountain Views Driving the Telouet Kasbah Trail
Wind your way along the exhilarating Telouet Kasbah Trail to discover crumbling old fortresses and soaring mountain vistas. This scenic route snakes southward from Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains towards distant Sahara sands.
Driving the Telouet Kasbah Trail takes roadtrippers through a range of Moroccan landscapes. From arid plains dotted with lone argan trees you'll ascend into the rugged High Atlas. Snowcapped summits frame the road as you twist through fragrant cedar forests. Occasional waterfalls plummet from rocky cliffs, nurturing valleys where Berber villages and terraced farms cling to steep hillsides.
This area’s fascinating history unfolds at the ancient kasbahs dominating strategic mountain passes. As the road switchbacks up towards the Tizi n’Tichka pass, the hulking walls of Telouet Kasbah appear. Once the stronghold of the powerful El Glaui clan, they lorded over the surrounding valleys during the 19th century. The nearby Oum Rabia Kasbah has largely crumbled into ruins since its 17th century heyday guarding caravan routes.
While the crumbling adobe structures lack architectural refinements, their sheer imposing size impresses. Park and wander through dimly lit corridors, empty chambers and long abandoned dungeons. Marvel at the skill required to construct these monumental mudbrick fortresses in such remote mountain locales. Imagine caravans laden with salt from the Sahara trudging through the valleys below, paying tribute to local overlords.
When passing through Oum Rabia village, notice the distinctive conical straw roofs topping adobe houses. These unique roofs offer better insulation and ventilation than flat earthen ones. See if any villagers demonstrate weaving straw into sturdy panels used to construct new roofs.
Above the village, amazing vistas reward those who hike up to Oum Rabia’s ruined fortress. Enjoy spectacular panoramas over the valley’s patchwork fields and scenic views towards Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s loftiest peak. The arid mountainsides coated instubborn scrub evoke Morocco’s harsh beauty.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Take a Day Trip to Essaouira, Cosmopolitan Beach Town
Just a 2.5-hour drive west of Marrakesh unfolds Morocco's breezy Atlantic coast. Here lies the captivating port town of Essaouira, where sea breezes mingle with scents of spices and thuya wood. Essaouira presents an alluring blend of European and Moroccan influences. Wander the blue and white-washed medina, admire coastal views from centuries-old ramparts, and feast on freshly grilled seafood.
Essaouira's relaxed, arty vibe provides refreshing contrast to Marrakesh's intensity. Mellow cafes line the ramparts, offering prime spots to sip mint tea while gazing over crashing Atlantic waves. The port bustles as fishermen unload the overnight catch. Follow your nose through the fish market to see glistening sardines and sea bream piled high.
For prime people watching, grab a cafe table overlooking Essaouira's main square, Place Moulay Hassan. Here Gnaoua musicians chant hypnotic beats, incense wafts from spice stalls, and local artists sell bright abstract paintings. As the afternoon winds down, join residents strolling along the ramparts overlooking the fishing port.
Wandering through Essaouira's maze-like medina reveals the town's rich history. In the 15th century the Portuguese constructed fortifications, now improved by French architects in the 19th century. Portuguese influence also shaped the town's iconic whitewashed houses trimmed in blue. Peek inside local artisans' workshops to find thuya wood workshops and see craftsmen hand-carving everything from chessboards to figurines.
Beyond Essaouira's sheltered medina, windswept beaches stretch southward. Wide open sands unmarred by development provide the perfect playground. Try your hand at windsurfing and kitesurfing, or just beachcomb and watch surfers tackle the mighty Atlantic swells. Horseback and camel rides along the sand are great ways for beginners to experience the power of the winds here.
As the sun sets, Essaouira comes alive again. Follow your nose to the outdoor grills where fresh sardines sizzle over crackling fires. Dig into plates mounded with the daily catch while taking in street performers, buskers and Gnaoua Trance musicians. After dinner, live music spills from intimate bars where locals and travelers mingle over drinks.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Visit the Anthropomorphic Stone Graves of Ait Isfoul Valley
Just 90 minutes south of Marrakesh lies the Ait Isfoul Valley, home to over 800 remarkably well-preserved megalithic tombs dating back over 6,000 years. These anthropomorphic menhir statues, carved to resemble human forms, provide a haunting glimpse into Morocco’s ancient past. As you explore the valley, it’s easy to imagine ghostly Berber tribesmen who laid their dead to rest here millennia ago.
Today this seldom-visited valley remains home to seminomadic Ait Isfoul Berber tribes tending goats and sheep. But when they’re not grazing, the herders are happy to guide visitors to their ancestors’ ancient grave sites tucked away around the valley. Experiencing the stones with a local guide lets you better understand the tombs’ historical and cultural significance. Plus, the guides will lead you along trails bypassing prickly scrub bushes to easily reach sites where the menhirs cluster.
Up close, the simpler tombstones feature barely recognizable human shapes with simple geometric etchings. But many are carved intricately with faces, clothing, jewelry, weapons and tools depicting the deceased’s life achievements. Marvel at the artistry and symbolism crafted into the stones with just simple hand tools. Excavations here have unearthed ritually arranged beads, arrowheads and seashells buried alongside several statues.
As you contemplate the evocative tomb figures, it’s humbling to reflect on those laid to rest here long ago. Some megaliths memorialize warriors bearing spears and shields, perhaps felled defending their clans. Others depict women adorned with jewelry, now namelessly returned to the dust. While their stones remain above ground, countless generations have lived and died in Ait Isfoul since.
One especially compelling site is Saidene, where eroded menhirs cluster under rocky overhangs. The natural rock shelters resemble houses or temples for these worn figures. Nearby lies Aït El-Khern, boasting dozens of statues spread over the hillside. But they’re tricky to spot at first, weathering into the same red and brown tones as the landscape.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Explore the Cascades d'Ouzoud, Morocco's Highest Waterfalls
Tumbling some 490 feet into the river canyon below, the Cascades d’Ouzoud present one of Morocco’s most spectacular natural sights. Located just 120 miles from Marrakesh, these impressive waterfalls are the country’s tallest, their total height greater even than Niagara Falls. Yet surprisingly few international visitors make the journey to witness their beauty. Venture off the typical tourist trail to experience a side of Morocco the vast crowds miss.
The falls’ power becomes apparent even before reaching the viewpoint. The steady roar of cascading water builds as you follow the path towards the canyon’s edge. Then suddenly the falls come into sight, a violently churning torrent gushing over the cliff’s brink. Gaze down upon the mesmerizing cascade sending up a fine mist as it crashes into the pool nearly 500 feet below.
Don’t stop at the first overlook, as even more phenomenal perspectives await further upstream. Shimmy down steep switchback trails, aided by helpful local boys offering hands for balance. Take care on slippery sections, using chains bolted into the rock. The adventurous half-hour hike leads down to the riverbank at the base of the falls.
Here the full force of the water becomes tangible, as the cascade pounds the rocks mere feet away. Watching the violently churning waters shows the falls’ ability to reshape the landscape, slowly carving deeper into the cliffside. The fine mist thrown up by the cascade blankets onlookers, cooling the air. Just beware getting soaked by errant gusts of wind directing the spray sideways.
While the falls themselves are undeniably impressive, the entire canyon atmosphere complements the spectacle. Verdant cascades of foliage drape the canyon walls, fed by the falls’ perpetual moisture. Below the cascade, shallow pools atop flat rocks create natural infinity pools to admire the scenery from. Locals scramble over slippery boulders with practiced ease, diving into deeper pools created by the churning cascade.
Visitors would be remiss not to take a refreshing dip in the bracing waters themselves. The pools around the falls maintain a brisk yet comfortable temperature, ranging from 50 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit depending on weather and seasonal snowmelt. Smooth, rounded rocks provide entry points to slip into the shallower sections safely. Just beware the current increases nearer the falls.
Escape the Souks: The Top 5 Day Trips from Marrakesh to Discover Morocco's Hidden Gems - Trek Through Forests and Meet Monkeys in Azaghar National Park
Tucked into Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains, Azaghar National Park shelters primordial forests and monkeys found nowhere else on earth. This offbeat destination offers travelers an intimate look at the Barbary macaque in its native habitat. As you trek through peaceful cedar groves, keep eyes peeled to spot these unique primates foraging overhead.
Azaghar encompasses just 24 square miles, but this small park packs in diverse landscapes. Hike through fragrant cedar and oak forests cloaking the mountainsides, where Barbary macaques forage for acorns. Descend into lush valleys blanketed in wildflowers come spring, when snowmelt cascades down from the peaks. Pause to spot exotic bird species wheeling overhead that migrate here from Europe and Africa.
While Azaghar’s scenery impresses, for many the Barbary macaques steal the show. These monkeys are limited only to Morocco and northern Algeria, isolated here after the Atlas Mountains rose. Watching them climb and leap acrobatically through the canopy, it’s easy to see why locals dub them “magicians.”
Approaching a troop, fascinated families can observe the macaques up close. But beware getting too near, as quick-moving monkeys may snatch bags and water bottles. Fortunately, patient visitors willing to keep a respectful distance are often rewarded. Curious youngsters peer down with twitching ears, while adults glance up calmly from foraging along the forest floor.
Be prepared on a quiet hike through dappled cedar forests when a branch shakes overhead, announcing the arrival of a boisterous Barbary troop. Macaques travel in large hierarchical groups up to several dozen members. Watch their lively social dynamics play out, as youngsters chase each other across branches and grooming reinforces bonds. Listen for their cackling “ah-ah” alarm calls warning of your presence.
While Azaghar offers self-guided hiking, inexperienced trekkers are better served hiring local guides in the village of Aït Mashan. Omar from Ecolodge Le Cèdre (starting at $50 per group) leads informative walks providing context on the local environment and macaque behaviors. Overnighting in villages like Aït Mashan provides the best chance for memorable encounters. Wake at dawn to watch fog rising from the cedars, then hear monkeys foraging outside your window.