The Atlas Mountains stretch for 1,600 miles through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. They have some of the most beautiful landscapes North Africa has to offer and the mountains act as a natural boundary between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts and the Sahara Desert. Every year, thousands of visitors travel there to hike amidst stunning scenery, or to go mountain biking and rock climbing. In winter, it is even possible to ski in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. The traditional home of the Atlas Berbers, the mountains are also steeped in culture and history.
In this guide, we focus mostly on the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, since these sub-ranges are the most frequently visited and home to some of the region’s best-known attractions.
Geography of the Atlas Mountains
The Atlas Mountains as we know them today were formed between 66 and 1.8 million years ago during the Paleogene and Neogene periods, with the collision of the European and African landmasses. This period of upheaval was also responsible for the formation of the Alps and Pyrenees mountain ranges in Europe. The Atlas Mountains can be divided into six distinct sub-ranges.
The Anti-Atlas is the westernmost mountain range, stretching approximately 310 miles northeast from the Atlantic Ocean towards Ouarzazate and Tafilalt, the largest oasis in Morocco. To the south of the Anti-Atlas lies the Sahara Desert. This region of the Atlas Mountains is defined by its arid, rocky landscapes and fantastic rock formations, and is punctuated in places by verdant oases and natural swimming pools. It lies entirely within Morocco.
The High Atlas is the most famous and most frequently visited of the Atlas sub-ranges. It is also exclusively Moroccan, rising in the west near the Atlantic Ocean and extending eastward towards the border with Algeria. The High Atlas includes the range’s highest peaks, including Jebel Toubkal. With a total height of 13,671 feet, Jebel Toubkal is the tallest mountain in North Africa and is a top destination for experienced climbers.
The Middle Atlas is the country’s northernmost range and the second highest. It is defined by its warmer, wetter climate; and the dense cedar forests that provide shelter for a variety of unique flora and fauna. These forests make the Middle Atlas the most biodiverse sub-range and the best destination for wildlife enthusiasts and birders. It is also a rewarding choice for less experienced hikers.
The only sub-range to cover all three countries, the Tell Atlas extends for more than 930 miles through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It runs parallel to the Mediterranean coast and provides a clear geographical boundary between the mild climate of the Mediterranean and the hot, dry climate of the Sahara Desert. Several large cities, including the Algerian capital Algiers, are situated in the foothills of the Tell Atlas.
Saharan Atlas and Aurès Mountains
The Saharan Atlas is mostly located in Algeria, although its eastern end extends into Tunisia. This sub-range marks the northern boundary of the Sahara Desert. The Aurès Mountains connect to the Saharan Atlas in the west and constitute the easternmost section of the Atlas Mountains. They run through Algeria and Tunisia and are known for their particularly rugged terrain, and as one of the least developed areas in the Maghreb.
Highlights of the Atlas Mountains
Hiking is the primary reason that most people travel to the Atlas Mountains, and the High Atlas is usually their sub-range of choice. There are several peaks of over 13,000 feet in the High Atlas, including the three highest mountains in North Africa (Jebel Toubkal, Ouanoukrim, and Ighil M’Goun respectively). Companies like Much Better Adventures and High Atlas Hiking offer guided trekking expeditions in the High Atlas.
For a more relaxed approach, consider hiking through the Dades and Todra Gorges. Located in between the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas near the city of Tinghir, these gorges boast stunning red cliffs and rock formations, and groves of olives, palm, and almonds fed by the rivers that give them their names. There are hundreds of hiking trails of varying lengths, with one of the most rewarding being the three-day hike between the two gorges.
Note: Hiring a Berber mountain guide is highly recommended (and compulsory for some routes). The guides are fountains of local knowledge, and can greatly enhance your experience. Muleteers and their mules are also available for hire throughout the Atlas Mountains and will carry your pack so that you can hike unencumbered.
Other Adventure Sports
Surrounded by grandiose rock formations, the Anti-Atlas town of Tafraoute is a must-visit spot for rock climbers of all experience levels. It offers an impressive range of both trad and sport climbing routes. The Anti-Atlas is also a center for mountain biking, although mule tracks and pistes across the Moroccan Atlas Mountains are increasingly frequented by cyclists. Check out Morocco Bike Tours for fully assisted mountain biking tours.
In winter, the High Atlas mountains offer the opportunity to don skis or snowboards. Oukaïmeden, the only proper ski resort in North Africa, is located 49 miles south of Marrakesh on the flanks of Jebel Attar. It boasts six downhill runs with a maximum elevation of just over 10,600 feet in addition to beginner and intermediate slopes, a sledding area, and a ski school. To reach the top, hop on the single chair lift or travel Moroccan-style: on a donkey.
There are countless places of scenic wonder in the Atlas Mountains. A good place to start is at Ouzoud Falls in the Middle Atlas. At 360 feet high, these are the highest natural waterfalls in North Africa, and you can admire their splendor on a boat trip to the base, or on a hike to the top of the falls. Either way, photographic opportunities abound.
If you’d rather go sight-seeing from the comfort of your rental car, plan a journey through one of the Atlas Mountains’ spectacular passes. Top choices include the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs and Tizi-n-Test pass. The former follows the route of the Dades Gorge and offers mesmerizing mountain and desert panoramas from its many switchbacks. The latter is located on the road between Marrakesh and Taroudant and reaches 6,867 feet in altitude after a series of dizzying hairpin bends.
For animal lovers, one of the top reasons to travel to the Middle Atlas is the presence of three-quarters of the world’s Barbary macaque population. These endangered primates are the only macaque species found outside Asia, and the best place to see them is in Ifrane National Park. Other wildlife includes Barbary deer, Barbary sheep, Cuvier’s gazelles, and wild boars. Birding specials include the endemic Moussier’s redstart and the alpine chough, thought to nest at higher altitudes than any other bird species.
The rich and colorful Berber culture adds to any Atlas Mountains experience. Whether you travel on foot, by bicycle, or in a vehicle, you’ll pass through traditional villages and admire fortified castles known as kasbahs. The local people have a reputation for friendliness and will often invite visitors into their homes for a cup of mint tea. Many villages have weekly souks, where farmers and artisans from the surrounding countryside congregate to sell their wares. Two of the most popular markets are the Monday souk at Tnine Ourika and the Tuesday souk at Amizmiz.
One of the most famous fortified villages in the Altas Mountains is Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been occupied since the 11th century (although most of the buildings that exist today are no older than the 1600s). It's located on the historic caravan route between Marrakesh and the Sahara Desert and is made entirely out of compressed earth, clay, and wood. Its impressive architecture has served as the backdrop for many films and series including "Gladiator" and "Game of Thrones."
In the Middle Atlas, the best-known historic sight is the ruined city of Volubilis, which was one of the southernmost cities of the Roman Empire.
Where to Stay
The Atlas Mountains span 1,600 miles and include hundreds of villages, towns, and cities. Choosing where to stay is a matter of deciding which area of the range you most want to visit, and what you want to do while you’re there. Generally speaking, the mountain village of Imlil is considered the gateway to the High Atlas mountains. Ifrane fulfils the same role for the Middle Atlas, while Tafraoute is a great base for adventures in the Anti-Atlas.
Weather and When to Go
The Atlas Mountains are a year-round destination, with the peak time to travel depending on your exact destination and chosen activities. Traditionally, the best time for trekking, mountain biking, and rock climbing is in spring (March to May) or fall (September to November) when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, and rainfall is minimal. Rain is a particular consideration for those headed to the Middle Atlas. Since precipitation is abundant in winter, late spring to early fall is the best time to travel to this region.
Experienced climbers looking for an additional challenge may relish the prospect of climbing the High Atlas peaks in mid-winter, when snow and ice add to the technicality of the climb. There are several tour companies that specialize in winter ascents of peaks like Jebel Toubkal. Of course, winter (December to February) is the only time to travel if you would like the unique experience of going snow skiing in Africa. Whenever you go, be sure to pack adequate clothing and weather protection.