A Country of Contrasts: A Lay of the Land Overview from Coast to Desert

Toubkal Trekking
Toubkal Trekking Peter Makholm
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With the iconic Sahara desert, rugged mountains, and both Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, Morocco’s landscape features a wide variety of unforgettable vistas. Adventurous travelers can follow Berber paths to mountain huts, ski Africa’s highest-altitude resort, and harness the Atlantic wind with a kite or windsurfing sail.

And set between the peaks and oasis-like valleys are isolated tribal communities and sophisticated cities with thousands of years of rich history. Narrow streets wind to ancient caravanserais, while locals gather in cafés and steamy hammam baths. The Marrakech marketplace hums with snake charmers’ tunes and fast-talking touts, and inside the bustling Fes medina are colorful tanneries, craftsmen’s shops, and the longest-running university in the world.

That diversity offers you the chance to trace a path from wilderness to traditional culture, from campfires to high cuisine. Morocco’s landscape follows the curve of the coast as sandy beaches transition to a pair of mountain ranges that ripple through the heart of the country, followed by the Sahara Desert at the southeastern edge. Here’s the lay of the land.

Between the Ocean and the Sea

A quiet beach just north of Agadir.
A quiet beach just north of Agadir. Come to the Sahara

Sand extends along Morocco’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, linking historic port towns, lively cities, and swaths of timeless desert. The Atlantic Coast, which unrolls from the Strait of Gibraltar, catches long swells and wind from across the ocean, powering point break surf spots and a thriving kiteboarding scene. Surf camps in Taghazout and El Jadida blend traditional culture and peeling waves in fall and winter, while steady winds in the UNESCO-listed city of Essaouira keep kites filled from early spring through the fall.

Long swells and wind from across the ocean power point break surf spots that have attracted surfers from around the world.
Long swells and wind from across the ocean power point break surf spots that have attracted surfers from around the world. Dale Adams

The calmer, quieter waters of the Mediterranean Sea lap postcard-ready beaches: think white sand and easy-going swimming. This shoreline alternates between European-influenced hotels and desert-island landscapes—the town of Al Hoceima offers a cheerful blend of the two in a seaside resort where Spanish mingles with the Berber language of Tarafit.

The Beginning of Sand

Take a camel on a desert trek to explore the Sahara Desert.
Take a camel on a desert trek to explore the Sahara Desert. Celso FLORES

The Sahara Desert is one of the most unique geographic areas on Earth, occupying more than 3.6 million square miles. Go traditional and explore the rocky flats and powdery dunes on a desert trek, which can include riding a camel through the sand. Trips depart from many cities the along the edge of the desert, including Erfoud, Rissani, and Merzouga, which looks out to the dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Morocco Alpine

Chefchaouen serves as an excellent base of operations for exploring alpine Morocco.
Chefchaouen serves as an excellent base of operations for exploring alpine Morocco. Erik G. Trigos

Sweeping across the northern edge of Morocco, the Rif Mountains complete the Gibraltar Arc that links Spain and north Africa. With views to the ocean and lost-in-time, whitewashed villages, this is a remarkable place to explore on foot—blue and white Chefchaouen is the perfect base for exploring these hills, with day hikes to mountain streams and traditional Berber communities.

The rugged Atlas Mountains are Morocco’s snowy spine, dividing the coastal plains from the edge of the Sahara Desert. Mountain peaks come to a head at Jebel Toubkal, a 13,671-foot peak that’s the highest summit in North Africa, and the country’s most iconic destination for hut-to-hut trekking and ski touring.

The Atlas Mountains are sub-divided into three ranges, the Anti-Atlas, the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas. With terrain like a rocky moonscape, the Anti-Atlas extends from the Atlantic coast to Ouarzazate in the east. Ouarzazate sits at the crossroads of the old trade routes into Africa and beyond, and serves as the jumping-off point for many adventures in the region. These red hills are the longtime stronghold of the Chleuh tribes, who tend lush, irrigated palm groves in isolated valleys. While the Anti-Atlas region is still far less visited than Morocco’s other mountain areas, the footpaths that link mountain villages are perfect for multi-day hikes and town-to-town mountain biking. Warm, dry conditions through the winter months make this a good destination from October through May, when more northerly peaks are blanketed in snow.

The rugged Atlas Mountains offer a stark contrast to the desert landscape.
The rugged Atlas Mountains offer a stark contrast to the desert landscape. dyonis

Overlapping slightly with the northern edge of the Anti-Atlas, the High Atlas are Morocco’s mountains at their most extreme. Narrow roads twist and turn up steep passes, and a sea of high peaks surrounds Toubkal National Park. The most popular base for multi-day, backcountry ski tours is the mountain village of Tacheddirt, while Africa’s highest-altitude ski lift climbs the slopes of Adrar-n-Oukaïmeden (though a more offbeat option is to hop a mule to the top of the ski hill). Deep river gorges cut through the landscape of the High Atlas: towering walls shade the Todra Gorge from all but a few hours of sunshine, and the red rock canyon is a growing destination for rock climbing, with single- and multi-pitch sport climbs and several via ferrata. High Atlas rivers offer the finest whitewater rafting and kayaking in the country, from the relatively easy-going Ahansal River to the more challenging, snow-fed Ourika River.

A mountain view on road to Azrou.
A mountain view on road to Azrou. Come to the Sahara

Brushing up against the Rif Mountains, cedar forests, and deep valleys break the Middle Atlas into a stark landscape of contrasting colors. Mountain streams are stocked with brown and rainbow trout for fly fishing, and powerful rivers drive tiny grain mills in far-flung Berber communities, most dramatically at Cascades D’Ouzoud, a series of waterfalls that’s a popular day-hiking destination from Marrakech. Keep an eye out for Morocco’s Barbary macaques, playful monkeys that live in the region.

Originally written for Come to the Sahara.

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