advertisement

When Sir Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt headed for Marrakech after the Allies' Casablanca Conference in 1943, Churchill told his travel companion, "I must be with you when you see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas Mountains."

Beautiful, rugged, and sometimes harsh, the High Atlas mountains save Morocco from being another Saharan-battered country of Africa's north. Rising abruptly from the Atlantic coast near Agadir and stretching northeasterly across Morocco toward the Algerian border, the High Atlas encompass some of the most scenic and intriguing regions of the country. Visitors have the chance to stand on the summit of a peak and look down in awe and self-contemplation, seemingly upon the rest of the world, invigorated by the sense of nature and culture that pervades the range. Yes, there are some well-trodden, almost overhyped areas, but there are also places that, with a little planning and flexibility, will have you wondering if you've entered the land that time forgot.

An obvious physical barrier between Morocco's encroaching southern desert sands and fertile northern farmlands, the High Atlas are also home to a Berber population that has historically acted as a cultural buffer between their nomadic cousins of the Saharan south and the Arab-dominated northern plains. Living among a landscape characterized by jagged peaks and steep-sided valleys, High Atlas Berbers are tough and resilient rural folk who, particularly away from the few touristed areas, still live in their traditional manner in flat-top villages constructed from a mix of stone and packed earth, called tabout. Part of their culture is the well-known warmth and hospitality they extend to travelers.

The High Atlas is separated into roughly three regions -- western, central, and eastern. The Western High Atlas is home to North Africa's highest peak and has long been the most popular trekking destination in Morocco. Here you will also find the country's only ski resort, along with a number of pretty villages scattered among the region's valleys. This is the most popular region of the High Atlas, and consequently offers the widest range of accommodations and adventure pursuits. Its close proximity to Marrakech supplies the region with a steady stream of visitors and, more recently, improved infrastructure, but the impact of tourism and development on both the villagers and the land appears to be reaching a critical point. The increased accessibility to its higher reaches is putting a strain on an area that has traditionally lacked environmental services. Aware of this impact, some villages banded together to instigate a trekkers code, informing visitors of their environmental and cultural responsibilities. Some international tour companies have reacted positively to the challenge by conducting Clean Up Toubkal days, and there is also talk of an entrance fee being charged to all those entering the Toubkal National Park as a way to raise funds for better management of its environment.

Morocco's south is accessed by routes running through the Western High Atlas, and the views afforded by the numerous tizis, or passes, are alone worth the drive.

The Central High Atlas also offers excellent trekking, as well as providing four-wheel drivers with a seemingly never-ending network of dirt tracks, or pistes, that eventually wind over and down the range to arrive in the fertile valleys of the Middle Atlas or the dramatic gorges of the south. The northern flank of the region is beginning to be discovered, having been in the past the relatively exclusive domain of intrepid travelers and small groups. The eco-friendly architecture in the higher reaches here is both fascinating and inspirational, and it's mostly in these local structures that travelers can choose to stay in and experience the extremely friendly nature that the Berbers of this region, in particular, are renowned for.

The Eastern High Atlas rises north from the lower Middle Atlas, while the southern flank is dissected by dramatic gorges, which carve a passage southward toward the Sahara. This section of the High Atlas was one of the last in Morocco to accede to colonial rule, and is more closely linked to the southern oases area than the other High Atlas regions to its west. Its barren landscape is dotted with traditional ksour (kasbahs) and broken only by the odd village or pasture. Like the Central High Atlas, the region's tizis and pistes are popular with four-wheel drivers. The pistes are everyday thoroughfares for the local Berber trucks and link the more remote Atlas villages with one another. For the traveler, Berber trucks provide a leisurely, cheap, and fascinating way to travel around. On the western fringe of the Eastern High Atlas is the formerly remote village of Imilchil and its annual marriage market, a traditional fair that's heavily marketed as a tourist attraction but still manages to retain most of its cultural and social significance.