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Road Trips

Road Trip: From Marrakesh to the Sahara

JS photo editor Gretchen Moosbrugger swaps the souks and sights of Marrakesh for a three-day road trip through the Atlas Mountains and a night in the Sahara.

Once you’ve done the souks and sights of Marrakesh, a road trip through the Atlas mountains is a must. We signed up for a 3-day excursion with Morocco Desert Tour, which picked us up at our hotel, Riad Jardin Secret, at 7am. The car headed south east via Tizi n’Tichka, a mountain pass linking Marrakesh to the city of Ouarzazate through the High Atlas Mountains.

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The road along the High Atlas Mountains passes through rugged landscapes peppered by small clay homes typical of the region. Between stops our local guide, Elhoucine, tells us jokes and shares his knowledge of Moroccan and Berber history.

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A few hours in, we stop at Aït-Ben-Haddou, a well-preserved ancient fortress town built on a hilltop. The site is jaw-dropping — made up of six forts (Kasbahs) and nearly fifty palaces. Elhoucine tells us it’s a classic example of earthen clay architecture, and has been the site for many Hollywood movies and TV shows like Gladiator and Game of Thrones. I thought it looked familiar.

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We continue through the Draa Valley, an oasis lined by palm groves, and watch the landscape turn orange as the sun sets. Our final destination that night: Dadès Gorges, a gorgeous fertile section of the Dades River, which separates the Atlas Mountains from the Anti Atlas.

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We spend the night in the nearby Hotel La Gazelle du Dades, with simple, traditionally decorated rooms and spellbinding views of the valley. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we continue driving through cliffs of the High Atlas, eventually reaching Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara. My first glimpse of the dunes at Erg Chebbi is something I’ll never forget.

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As the sun begins to dip, a line of camels carries us over red dunes for an hour or so until we reach our camp for the night.

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We are welcomed with Moroccan mint tea, dates and almonds, followed by a Moroccan feast, and local Berber music around a big campfire. With zero light pollution, the stargazing is unreal, and we watch the moon rise over the dunes until falling into a blissful sleep.

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We wake up early to catch the sunrise, then the camels carry us back to Merzouga where a lovely breakfast of baghrir (moroccan pancakes), jam, fruit, and rich coffee awaits.

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Back on the road by early afternoon, we cover over 200 miles before stopping at Ouarzazate to marvel at the Taourirt Kasbah, a commanding 19th-century citadel formerly owned by the el Glaoui clan that sits against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. Inside, we lose ourselves in a maze of endless rooms and narrow passageways. It’s the perfect ending to our tour.

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