The changing landscapes and dramatic rock formations of the Mgoun summit trail in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains make it one of my top hikes to date.
Rabat – The drive from Casablanca to the remote valley of Ait Bouguemez, the starting point of the Mgoun summit trail, is long, 10 hours long, give or take time for lunch and a mint tea break.
We leave the chaos of Casablanca’s traffic behind and head south-east towards the small regional capital of Beni Mellal on a shiny new, quiet freeway.
It’s mid-summer, hot and dry. We make a quick stop at a service station for a rooster, onion, and olive tajine, then we get back on the road.
From Beni Mellal, we take a smaller sealed road south towards the little town of Azilal. The road then winds up into the High Atlas mountains, finally arriving at Ait Bouguemez.
Ait Bouguemez, also called “the valley of happiness,” is green and lush. Ancient, giant walnut trees and thousands of apple trees grow in dense fields along the river-bed. The houses are almost all mud brick, forming a patchwork of square brown roofs near the river. Some, further away, hang off the base of the steep mountains like brown beehives.
When we arrive at dusk, we can see three or four other hiking groups, Moroccan and international, watching the sunset from the terraces of their guest houses. The sounds of crowing colourful roosters, braying donkeys, and laughing children carry from far through the still evening air.
We booked our hike ahead of time through a Moroccan outdoor sports association, but you could just drive into Ait Bouguemez and organize accommodation and a hike from there. There are dozens of guest houses along the main road, each offering similar hiking packages.
Our hiking package includes mules and porters. It’s a first for me and I can’t quite believe I won’t be carrying my own pack, or food, or water. Nor will I have to pitch my tent or cook dinner. By my standards this is “glamping!”
We chose a four day circuit, but there are plenty of options for longer hikes, which would give more time to see and absorb all of the interesting things in the area. There are dinosaur footprints, and ancient, mysterious, circular rock carvings that I would like to see, but I’m short on time so save these for my next visit.
Our first day is a short three hour hike out of the valley, towards the base of the mountain range. The day is just long enough to stretch our legs and get into the groove of walking uphill. It is also long enough for both my shoes to fall apart. My hiking boots are 15 years old, close to the end of their life. I wasn’t expecting the soles to fall off on the first day of the Mgoun summit hike though. Lucky for me, our guide has come prepared with super sticky shoe glue. Crisis (or going home by mule) averted.
On day two things get a little more serious. Six hours of walking uphill, after 8.30am start. It’s steep, and hot, but beautiful. The mountain range behind us looks 2D, like a green and pink pastel drawing.
I’m starting to wonder if I should have trained for this hike. Walking up four flights of stairs to the office everyday hardly counts. I’m quite happy to reach our second camp, the Mgoun summit base camp, in the early afternoon. Salad, sardines and bread taste more delicious than ever. And we also have a whole watermelon for dessert. Not something I would usually carry in my hiking backpack. One of the mules must be feeling lighter.
At the base camp, there is a spring to refill water, and a mountain hut, with warm showers for a small fee. When the sun sets behind the mountains it starts to get cool, time for thermals and a down jacket, even in mid summer.
It’s pitch black when we set off towards the Mgoun summit at 4.30am the next day. It looks like we are the last group to get moving. I can see some head torches flickering away in the distance, already halfway up the first mountain range.
When the sun finally rises after a few hours of hiking in the dark, we get a glimpse of Mgoun in the distance. The summit still seems very far away.
This part of the hike is tough. I guess that’s to be expected when you climb a 4000 meter mountain. Mgoun is Morocco’s third highest peak, and while it isn’t a technically difficult hike, it is still hard work.
Like slow-motion ants, we make our way across a moon-like landscape. There is hardly any vegetation up this high, just never-ending sharp rocks, all different tones of grey and brown.
It’s so windy on one of the mountain-faces that I can’t quite open my eyes properly, and have to admire the purple mountains below through half closed lids. Some hiking websites talk of epic winds and “flying rocks” at the summit. I can certainly believe this.
The view from the Mgoun summit up at 4071m is awe-inspiring to say the least. The rock formations are spectacular: folds of stone, slopes of loose rock fragments, and dramatic outcrops shape the landscape.
After the summit, it’s almost all downhill for the next day and a half. Down a scree slope, between sheer rock faces, following a ridge and through the valley down towards Ait Bouguemez.
Gradually the vegetation comes back, small tufts of bright green grass on red clay earth, and lower down, we sit in the shade of a rare thurifera juniper tree. The numbers of trees is dwindling, as its branches and trunks make excellent firewood, in places where trees are otherwise sparse. The area around us feel remote, but when you look closely, you can see shepherd tents on the side of the mountain or down in the valley, and the occasional circular stone enclosures for keeping sheep and goats during the summer months.
Mgoun may be one of Morocco’s best kept secrets, but I hear from our guide that the area is becoming more and more popular. With good reason I think. The changing landscapes and dramatic rock formations of the Mgoun summit trail make it one of my top hikes of all time.