Rabat – Last weekend, two friends and I set out to climb Mount Toubkal, the tallest peak in North Africa. Our two-day trip up and down the mountain was quite literally a breathtaking adventure, as we climbed up to incredible views in the thin air.
Most tourists coming to hike Toubkal choose to purchase a package deal that includes transportation, a guide, and lodging from agencies in Marrakesh. We spoke to two French girls who had paid 600 euros for the experience. However, there are far cheaper options available for more experienced hikers and tourists with basic French or Arabic language skills.
For hikers attempting to summit Toubkal in 2 days, it is possible to spend approximately 60 dollars a person. Here’s how:
Getting to Imlil
We stayed in a cheap, beautiful riad-style hostel in Marrakesh called Equity Point on Friday night. Equity Point has air conditioning, a pool, free breakfast, WiFi, a roof deck, and friendly staff. You can leave items that you don’t want to bring with you to the mountain in a luggage room. The hostel is located in a confusing area of the old city, but it is worth the trek through the winding streets.
The next morning, we took a grand taxi to Imlil. In Morocco, there are two types of taxis: grand taxis, which can travel outside of the city, and petit taxis, which do not leave the city limits. The grand taxi station is located at Sidi Mimoun, a street near the Djemma al-Fna square. You can negotiate with a driver for a private taxi to Imlil for your group, which should cost no more than 300 dirhams. Alternatively, you can get in a taxi headed to Asni, a town near Imlil. The trip to Asni should cost about 20 dirhams per person, but you will be traveling in a packed grand taxi with other Moroccans that probably will not have air conditioning. In Asni, the grand taxi will let you out on a street filled with white vans that will offer to take you the final 20 minutes to Imlil. This option is cheaper than hiring a taxi, but will take longer and be more stressful.
Once in Imlil, the taxi will drop you off near the bridge (al-qantara or el ponte). There, you can meet up with your guide or start out on your own.
Finding a guide
Most tourists choose to hire a guide certified by C.F.A.M.M., the Moroccan mountaineering school, to take them up the mountain. These guides generally speak English and French as well as Arabic and are trained in wilderness first aid. You can email the Bureau of Imlil Guides to acquire a guide, or go through various tourism services in Marrakesh that provide a package deal. These guides generally cost 100 euros. Moroccans in Imlil, who may not be certified guides, will also offer to take you up the mountain when you get there.
Since we speak decent Arabic and darija, the Moroccan dialect, my friends and I were able to choose a slightly cheaper option. We hired Mohamed, a local muleman, to take us up the mountain, for 100 dirhams (10 USD) per person per day. Although Mohamed is not a certified guide and only speaks Arabic, he knows the path up the mountain and was able to carry our bags on his mule. You can email the Imlil guides bureau to inquire about mulemen.
However, after completing the hike, I believe that it would be possible for hikers with any mountain experience to summit Toubkal on their own in the summer. Although the path may be slightly confusing during the first hour from Imlil, you will be able to find the route if you head uphill in the general direction of the stream that runs through Imlil and ask locals for directions. From there, the path is obvious all the way up to the refuge. From the refuge, the trail to the summit is clear. Although it was nice to have a guide ensuring we took the easiest route on the scree slopes near the summit and help us down the steepest part when we slipped, it was not necessary. In addition, it would have been very easy to follow other guided groups up the final summit to make sure we were on the path. The route up the mountain is secure, and you will encounter many other hikers. As a reference point, I would feel completely comfortable, as a young American woman, doing this hike with another girl.
It is important to note that I did this hike in the summer. Although there were small pockets of snow at the top, the path was completely clear of ice. I would definitely not feel comfortable climbing this mountain without a guide in the winter.
What to Bring
You should bring warm layers for the night at the refuge and the climb to the summit. I wore a light long-sleeved hiking pullover, a sweatshirt, a windbreaker, and gloves for the ascent to the top in midsummer. Although I did not wear all the layers the entire time, I was happy to have them at the beginning and on the windy summit.
In terms of shoes, running shoes will suffice in the summer months, although you would be happier in hiking boots. I wore Asics sneakers and did not have problems, but I found that I slipped on the scree more often than my friend wearing hiking boots. You should bring sandals to wear at the refuge at night.
The small stops on the way up the mountain and the refuge all sell water, drinks, and small snacks. However, prices increase the higher up you go, so you might prefer to bring some snacks and water with you. A big bottle of water, which costs 6 dirhams in Marrakesh, will cost 15 dirhams at the refuge.
Be sure to bring your passport, as you will need to show it to the refuge staff.
Where to Stay
There are two lodging options at the top: the Refuge du Toubkal and the Refuge les Mouflons. We stayed at the Refuge du Toubkal, the older of the two. The Refuge du Toubkal was filled with friendly hikers from around Europe and Morocco. For 21 euros each, we received bed space, blankets, a delicious pasta dinner, and breakfast the next morning. For an additional 5 euros, you can also get lunch the next day.
You can show up at the refuge without a reservation or book a place.
The Route Up
We set off from Imlil just after ten on Saturday morning. The three of us followed Mohamed and his mule up a trail through the forest. The trail began on the side of Imlil facing the mountains, following the stream that runs through the town. We climbed the trail until we reached a dusty dirty road above the narrow river valley. Below, we could see the cascades of Imlil and the cafes surrounding them.
The road was empty aside from three persistent vendors that hawked rugs and traditional handicrafts from their wooden stalls. We walked towards the high peaks in the distance, passing the beautiful village of Aroumd on our left. A fairly large town for its location, Aroumd’s pastel buildings are built into the steep hillside of one of the foothills of the Atlas. The road sloped downwards after we passed the town, and we continued onto the pebbled wash of a wide riverbed. After ten minutes of following a faint trail up and across the riverbed, we turned left onto a trail that led upwards and away from the wash.
From this point, the trail was obvious. The route follows the streambed from above, there were no turns, and the path was distinct. We walked past four small shops selling cold water, drinks, and snacks. Two hours into the hike, we stopped to rest at the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, a large rock edifice surrounded by a small village. Near the shrine, small waterfalls created beautiful rock pools perfect for cooling off from the hot sun.
As we climbed higher, we passed groups of hikers descending from the peak. The landscape became more dramatic, and the wind picked up. The altitude began to affect us. Although I run daily and am in good shape, I felt my legs becoming fatigued and was short of breath. I would definitely not recommend this hike to anyone who struggles with altitude, has no experience hiking, or is not in good shape. After four and a half hours of walking, we reached the refuge huts at 3,200 meters elevation.
We spent the night there in good company. The hostel-style set-up of the lodging allowed us to meet friendly hikers from all over the world. Instead of paying for a 20-dirham shower, we walked down to the waterfalls near the refuge and rinsed off in the late-afternoon sunshine.
We woke up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, lying in silence on the rock wall outside the refuge hut and taking in the Milky Way glimmering in the distant sky. I have only seen better stars twice in my life. While we stargazed, a group of Moroccan men arrived at the refuge. Equipped with headlamps and jackets, the hikers swarmed jovially into the compound. Refuge staff came out to say hello, and the hikers explained that they had left Imlil after the ftour (Ramadan breakfast meal). Since they were not allowed to eat or drink during the day in Ramadan, they inverted their schedule and summited Toubkal at midnight under the stars.
The next morning, we woke up before sunrise and set off from the refuge at five in the morning. From the refuge, you could not see the peak of Toubkal. We had to climb a steep, rocky ridge to the left of the buildings for about an hour before the peak came into view. From the top of the ridge, we could see the peak, but it was still an hour and a half away. The middle section between the ridge and the start of the final peak was a large, steep scree slope.
There were two paths available – a steep, more direct path on the left side for more experienced hikers, and a longer path that switch-backed up the right side of the basin and approached the peak from a more gradual slope on the side. We scrambled over boulders and slipped on the scree, stopping often to rest. The altitude made it hard to breathe, the wind was cold, and the footing was treacherous. Finally, we made it to the beginning of the final ascent of the peak. The sun had risen over the ridgelines of the mountains to the east, and the morning rays relieved the cold.
After resting, we began our final ascent to the peak on the well-marked path. I was breathing heavily in the thin air as we climbed over boulders and up the steep grade, but the sun was warm and the cliffs around us were breathtaking. Although I could see many steep drop-offs in the terrain around us, the path was protected with no direct exposure to the cliffs. After thirty minutes of hard trekking, we finally crested the last rise. A large triangular marker crowned the summit, and cliffs surrounded the peak. The sun was rising higher in the deep blue sky, contrasting with the rugged brown cliffs and peaks around us.
Low clouds covered the land in the distance, but Mohamed told us that on clear days hikers can see Marrakesh, the Sahara desert, and the far-off Atlantic ocean from the peak. Below us, we could see the distant river valleys of the High Atlas. According to ancient Greek mythology, the Atlas Mountains are where the Titan Atlas used to hold up the sky on his shoulders. Looking at the vast expanse of land below us, it was not hard to see why the Greeks thought this was the top of the world. We rested under the summit marker, taking in the spectacular view and the sunshine.
Getting Back to Marrakesh
After relaxing at the peak, we began the long trek back to Imlil. The climb down the scree slopes in the middle was more treacherous than the climb up. However, if you descend slowly, you will make it easily. We rested and ate a snack at the refuge before beginning the four-hour trek to the bottom.
We had negotiated with our grand taxi driver from Saturday to return and pick us up in Imlil that afternoon for an additional 300 dirhams. I was exhausted after two days of hiking, and was happy to pay slightly more for the taxi to take us directly back to Marrakesh. However, we easily could have found transport back to Marrakesh from Imlil without previous negotiations. You can take a grand taxi from Imlil back to Marrakesh, or take a white van to Asni and find a grand taxi to take you back to Marrakesh.
Climbing Toubkal was an adventurous, challenging experience that I would recommend to anyone in Morocco that loves to hike.