The Toubkal Circuit is one of Africa’s finest multi-day treks. Situated in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, it takes hikers on a 60 km (37.3 mi) loop around Jebel Toubkal, which at 4167 m (13,671 ft) is the highest peak in the Arab world. Along the way it traverses oasis valleys, mountain passes and panoramic ridges. Walking the same trails that the native Berbers have trodden for millennia, hikers will experience a memorable fusion of natural and cultural elements, the latter coming in the form of ancient villages and the legendary local hospitality. I hiked the Toubkal Circuit in October, 2008. All logistical information has been updated as of March, 2018.
Distance : 60 km (37.3 mi) – 72 km (44.7 mi) if you include an ascent of Jebel Toubkal.
Average Time : 4 – 6 days
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Start / Finish :
- The village of Imlil.
- Grand (shared) taxis regularly ply the route between Marrakech and Imlil. As of February, 2018, it costs 50 dirham (dh) / US$13.6 per person for the 75 to 90 minute journey. Alternatively, you can book out an entire taxi for 300 dh (US$81.7).
- Late spring and early autumn are the ideal times to do this trek. Summer, despite the heat and lack of water, is peak season and is often crowded with foreign trekking groups (mostly around Jebel Toubkal itself).
Maps and Information:
- Topographic Map: The 1:50,000 Jebel Toubkal (1994) sheet and a compass is all you need for navigation purposes. It is widely available for purchase in Marrakech, or alternatively you may be able to pick up a copy at the the Bureau des Guides in Imlil. It can be downloaded for free at GISEnglish.com (Geographical Information Systems).
- Guidebooks: As of March, 2018, there appear to be two principal options that cover the Toubkal Circuit: 1. The High Atlas (2012 – Cicerone Press / Available in Kindle), and; 2. Moroccan Atlas: The Trekking Guide (2015 – Trailblazer Publications). Both contain trekking notes, sketch maps, and logistical details for the circuit. Please note that I haven’t personally seen either of these books (I hiked in 2008), but for what it’s worth, the reviews for both seem mostly positive.
- Supplies: These should be brought from Marrakech, as choices in Imlil may be limited. Note that it is possible to obtain meals and basic supplies along the way in some of the villages such as Tacheddirt and Amsouzert. The latter is by far the largest village on the route, and sports a range of restaurants, shops and accommodation options.
- Water: There are a few natural springs along the route from which good water can be obtained. Otherwise, all H2O should be purified.
- Guided Vs Independent: The vast majority of people (more than 90%) hike the Toubkal circuit as part of a guided group. However, for those with the above mentioned map and/or guidebook, good equipment and decent navigation skills, there are no issues with doing the trek independently. If you choose to go sans agency, you can lighten your load by eating at least some of your meals at villages along the way. The food is very tasty and reasonably priced.
- Cultural Considerations: Although famous for their hospitality, the Berbers are a conservative people whose dress code reflect those values. As a sign of both courtesy and respect, foreigners should dress modestly (pants rather than shorts, no sleeveless shirts) during their stay in the Atlas mountains. It is also recommended to make the effort to learn some basic Berber phrases; this particularly holds true if you are hiking independently. If people see that you are genuinely trying to communicate, nine times out of ten they will make the effort to understand and help in any way they can. If on the other hand you just start rambling on in English without making any effort whatsoever, then chances are that people will be a lot less likely to assist you. For more tips on hiking in developing countries see Cultural Considerations when Hiking Abroad.
Route / Conditions :
- Route: Starting and finishing in the picturesque village of Imlil, the Toubkal circuit traverses a series of interconnected valleys and mountain passes during its 60 km course. Though the trail is generally clear and easy to follow, for those that choose to hike independently, good navigation skills are required. This particularly holds true during the shoulder seasons when snowy conditions are often encountered on the higher sections.
- Terrain: In regards to the terrain, the climbs to the passes are often rocky and long, and the adjoining valleys range in character from lush and cultivated to barren and windswept. One of the standout natural features is the beautiful Lac d’Ifni, an emerald colored jewel situated just west of the village of Amsouzert.
- Berber Culture: Aside from the impressive landscapes, one of the highlights of hiking in the Atlas mountains is experiencing the Berber culture. During the course of the circuit, the trail passes through several ancient villages that provide the trekker with a fascinating insight into local way of life. The mud brick dwellings, children splashing around in the river, a local shepherd wandering through the main street with his flock in tow; in many ways it feels like not much has changed over the centuries.
- Side Trips: During the circuit there are multiple side trip options for those with the time and energy. The most notable are excursions to the summits of Agounss N’Tiniline and Jebel Toubkal. The latter peak is the highest mountain in Northern Africa. Standing some 4167 meters above sea level, the trail to the top is non-technical, easy to follow and unlike the rest of the Toubkal Circuit, remains a popular option with hikers all year round. The side trip up to the top of Jebel Toubkal is definitely worthwhile. I imagine the views would be spectacular in fine weather. The summit was covered in cloud whilst I was there.
- Camping, staying at Gite d’Etapes in the villages, or a combination of both. There is also a large mountain hut at the base of Jebel Toubkal which sleeps 80 people. Note that this can often be crowded with groups that have come to the area solely to climb Jebel Toubkal.
- I’d personally recommend spending at least one or two nights in the villages. Be sure to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible. My favourite were the Tajines – slow cooked savoury stews prepared in an earthenware pot.
The Toubkal Circuit offers hikers the chance to experience one of the world’s most unique cultures. When combined with the impressive mountain vistas, excellent food, and legendary local hospitality, it makes for an irresistible combination. It may only be a short drive away from the hustle bustle of Marrakech, but walking the ancient pathways of the Berbers, you can’t help but feel like you have been transported back to a simpler time and place. One in which the primary mode of transport is still by foot, and all the people nod and say hello as you pass them by.