Valleys and Gorges of the Atlas

Getting There

The southern flank of the High Atlas Mountains is cut by several spectacular gorges - we had driven through Ziz Gorge a few days ago on our way to the desert, and now we would be visiting two more, Toudra Gorge and Dades Gorge, which lay further to the west. Hopefully, we would be able to explore these a bit on foot.

Fossils of Erfoud

Leaving our desert auberge at Merzouga, we retraced our route to Erfoud, where we stopped to visit a fossil workshop. The rocky ridges here are rich in Palaeozoic era fossils, such as tritons, ammonites, orthocera and other sea creatures from distant times. Fossil-containing rocks are cut and polished into table tops, wall hangings, ornaments and jewellery at workshops in the area. We enjoyed the visit and the fact that we didn't buy anything.

Stony plain between the High and Middle Atlas

Nomadic shepherd tending his flock

Then it was on eastwards, driving up a wide flat and arid valley bewteen the Anti Atlas and High Atlas Mountains to reach the town of Tinghir, where we stopped for lunch and our first walk.

The fertile river flats of Tinghir and Toudra Gorge (5 km - 60m ascent - 30m descent)

The town of Tinghir sits on the rim of a low gorge above the Toudra River. Its surrounds are bare and arid, but down in the gorge, the fertile river flats of the Toudra are a sea of green, dominated by date palms with small plots of fruit and vegetable crops. On either side of the gorge, a series of small villages with their ochre coloured or mud-rendered buildings cling to the gorge walls - a spectacular setting.

View over the Toudra River valley

Descent to the river gardens of Tinghir

Water well in the gardena

Ibrahim led us down a sidestreet of Tinghir to descend into the gorge via a series of irrigated terraces. On reaching the river flats below, we wandered along dusty paths that followed the irrigation channels past trees of pomegranate, quince, walnut and fig and alongside tiny plots of corn, lucerne, turnips and vegetables.

Walk amongst the date palms, fruit trees, maize and vegetables

The crumbling mud walls of an abandoned village

On reaching the next village of Toudra el Oulia, we climbed back out again, up through the village streets to meet up with our minibus and head on to Toudra Gorge.

In the Toudra Gorge

A road passes through the gorge, so it was very accessible. Nonetheless, the 300m sheer orange and brown rock walls could not fail but impress. The photos above tell more than any words.

Dades Gorge (7.5 km - 90m ascent - 70m descent)

Leaving Toudra Gorge, we retraced our steps to Tinghir for a visit to a carpet weaving co-operative. No one can visit Morocco without having to visit a carpet place and the last time we were here some 30 years ago, they made us drink mint tea until we bought one (which incidentally we still have and enjoy). Unfortunately, the same thing happened and we left the shop with a stitched package containing our new, somewhat smaller, but colourful handwoven Touareg rug - I'm sure it will look superb on the large blank white wall that we have in our house.

Then it was on to Dades town, where we stopped briefly to enjoy one of the best sunsets I have seen from a vantage point overlooking the Dades river, before heading on to our auberge at Ait Youl. It was almost 8pm and the dinner waiting for us was most welcome.

She doesn't know yet, but she is about to be sold a carpet

Dades sunset

Late afternoon light on the southern Atlas

Pink sunset glow over Dades town

The next morning, we met our local guide and set off from our auberge in Ait Youl to head down through the ochre walled houses of the village, past some dramatic ruins of mud-brick houses and towards the Lower Dades Gorge. The juxtaposition of rock formations and houses around was magnificent - with the buildings and arid, distorted hills and gorge walls sharing the same colour.

Abandoned mud brick houses in Ait Youl


Fields of maize and orchards along the Dades River

However, our path led us down to the rich brown sediments of the gorge floor, where irrigation channels fed the water from the Dades River across small plots supporting fruit trees, vegetables, corn and lucerne. It was a shady and humid spot in the dry surrounds and for the next couple of hours we meandered slowly around the plots and beneath the figs and walnuts. It was all very similar to the walk of yesterday - more a doddle in the gardens than a walk in the gorge.

View across the gardens to the arid hills beyond

Washing clothes in the Dades

The Dades - source for the irrigated crops

However, eventually we reached a point where the track took us up into the twisted and distorted rock formations of a dry side gorge. Backed by the red and ochre-tinted hills beyond, it was the Dades gorge that I had hoped to see.

Climbing up a dry side gulch

View over the village of Tamellalt and its riverside gardens

This part was all too brief and we were soon descending back to the greenery to follow the muddy Dades River for a short distance upstream. Here, the river bank was lined with some of the original vegetation, including a grove of superb white-barked poplars - too high and cool here for the ubiqitous date palms.

Dades riverscape

Rest stop beneath the white poplars

Contrast between lush river valley and bone dry hills

A curious rock formation

From the river, we wandered up through Tamellalt, another of the string of villages that line the Lower Dades Gorge, to meet up with our minibus and take a drive deeper into the gorge system.

The road up through Dades Gorge

The Upper Dades Gorge was absolutely superb, as if an axe had sliced 500m deep into the High Atlas Mountains. We drove through the gorge on a vertiginous road that wound its narrow course up the edge of this cleft into the mountains. Frustratingly, the only places to stop and view the gorge did it no justice whatsoever, reinforcing my dislike of being in a bus and passing the best photo-ops by.

Auberge at the entry to the gorge

What we missed - the gorge from above ....

.... and below (Wikimedia Commons)

Overall, the Dades Gorge is a wonderful natural spectacle and I'm glad that I saw it, but my sense of frustration on this trip is close to red-lining, as again a 15km walk in the itinerary turned into something half that length. In fact, in a quiet moment on the garden doddle, the fair Nello and I agreed that this would probably be the first and last group walking experience for us (no disrespect to our congenial fellow-walkers and guides) - it is just so much better to organise things ourselves and know exactly what we are doing.

No more whingeing, I promise.