ADDRESSDadès Gorges, Morocco
Situated in central Morocco, the Dadès Gorge should be at the top of the bucket list for adventurous souls in search of astonishing scenery and immersion into authentic Berber culture. The gorge (actually a series of separate gorges) was carved out by the passage of the Dades River and is navigable via a road known locally as the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs. Those that drive its hairpin bends can expect to discover breathtaking rock formations in colors that range from tan and beige to gold, rust red, and dusky mauve. The historic kasbahs and ksour, or fortified villages, of the Berber people overlook the valley, where the river breathes life into groves of palm and almond trees. Local people still inhabit some of these villages, while many of the kasbahs have been converted into boutique hotels for Dadès Gorge explorers.
History of the Gorge
The geological history of the Dadès Gorge began millions of years ago when the surrounding area was still submerged beneath the sea. Eventually, the tectonic movement led to the creation of the Atlas Mountains and the establishment of the Dades River. The river eroded a path through the mountains’ soft sedimentary rock, making the gorge broader and deeper with every passing flood season. Today the Dades River flows for some 220 miles from its source in the High Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara Desert, where it joins with the Draa River. The walls of the gorge reach 1,600 feet in height in some places, and local people have learned to use the river to irrigate rose fields, olive groves, and thatches of almond and palm. In the surrounding mountains, nomads continue to dwell in troglodyte caves as they have for hundreds of years, using the valley as a seasonal pathway to grazing pastures in the High Atlas.
How to Visit
The most popular way to experience the Dadès Gorge is to drive (either in a rental car or as part of a guided tour through Morocco) along the R704, or the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs. This romantically named section of blacktop follows the course of the Dades River, taking you through the gorge’s most spectacular scenery along the way. The most dramatic section of the road begins roughly 18 miles north of the town of Boumalne Dades. Here, the road crosses the Dades River and enters into a series of dizzying switchbacks. There are numerous viewpoints along the way, and at the top of the gorge, Hotel Restaurant Timzzillite offers a famous vantage point from which to admire the road’s twisting progress. Stop for a cup of coffee or a glass of mint tea, and make sure to take plenty of photos.
This section of the R704 is ranked as one of the most scenic drives in the world. However, it is also not for the faint-hearted, with countless twists and turns, and no barrier to separate you from the sheer drop into the valley below. In some places, the road is only wide enough for a single vehicle, and in others, it brings you within 12 inches of the edge. If you don’t feel confident driving to the top of the gorge yourself, many hotels in Boumalne Dades and the first part of the valley offer 4×4 excursions up the Dadès Gorge and along the dirt road to nearby Todra Gorge. If you’re an experienced off-road driver with a high clearance 4×4 vehicle, you can also choose to tackle the challenging 26-mile, five-hour journey to Todra Gorge yourself. The state of this road can be significantly affected by flash floods, so be sure to ask for an up-to-date report on its condition before heading out.
If you have more time, it is also well worthwhile exploring the gorge on foot. There are hundreds of hiking trails to choose from, some lasting for just a couple of hours and others for several days. The route linking the Dades and Todra Gorges, for example, takes between two and three days to complete. Most hotels can arrange a hiking guide to lead you on your adventure, while some also offer mountain biking expeditions.
Where to Stay
There are many hotels and guesthouses to choose from, either in Boumalne Dades or along the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs itself. For gourmands, Auberge Chez Pierre is the stand-out choice. A traditional kasbah built into the hillside and nestled amidst terraced gardens filled with fruit trees, it is well known for its restaurant, which serves an innovative fusion of European and Moroccan favorites. It also has a swimming pool (a significant plus after a hot and dusty day of trekking), a salon and bar, and beautifully decorated rooms and apartments. All have en-suite bathrooms and central heating, while some have private patios. Auberge Chez Pierre offers 4×4 excursions to the Valley of the Roses and the Dades and Todra Gorges, as well as hiking and mountain biking tours, and donkey rides for younger guests.
Alternatively, Dar Jnan Tiouira is a bastion of traditional Berber hospitality, built in the classic kasbah style by the owner and his family over 10 years. Choose from 10 uniquely decorated rooms and a single luxury suite, all with en-suite bathrooms and heating to ward off the winter chill. From the kasbah’s terraces, you can enjoy stunning views of the mountains or gardens, while the restaurant serves authentic Berber cuisine. The owner is a professional mountain guide and offers guided hikes, mountain bike adventures, and 4×4 excursions to various points of interest in the surrounding area. For budget travelers, EcoBio Riad is another worthy choice. It offers six simple, environmentally conscious rooms, all with air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. The restaurant serves organic, Moroccan fare, and the terrace overlooks vertiginous valley views.
Weather and When to Go
The asphalt section of the Dadès Gorge road can be slippery after heavy rains, while the dirt section can be rendered impassable by flash flooding. Therefore, the safest and most pleasant time to visit is during the dry months of late spring, summer, and early fall (May to September). Summer is mild and sunny in the mountains, and far more pleasant than it is in the sweltering lowland cities. If you travel in late spring or early summer, you will see the valley at its most verdant after the annual winter floods, while both spring and fall coincide with the seasonal movement of the nomads and their herds through the valley. If you plan on combining your trip to the Dadès Gorge with a tour through the nearby Valley of the Roses, consider timing your visit to coincide with the Rose Festival held in the oasis town of Kalaat M’Gouna. Usually hosted over three days in mid-May, the festival celebrates the rose harvest with parades, pageants, and performances.
The small town of Boumalne Dades is the gateway to the Dadès Gorge. It is located 72 miles northeast of Ouarzazate (just under two hours’ drive on the N10) and 52 miles southwest of Tinghir (less than an hour away via the N10). From Boumalne Dades, head north on the R704, which will take you through the gorge en route to the High Atlas Mountains. The R704 is sealed until Msemrir, which is approximately 38 miles north of Boumalne Dades. After that, you will need a 4×4 to continue (although most visitors choose to turn around at the top of the gorge and return the way they came).