Route of Caravans: Morocco Traverse (South)
700 Mi.(1,127 KM)
% Rideable (time)
To preface, this ‘new’ route formerly existed as three disconnected segments — some of the first routes created on this website — which have been joined and reworked to make up the larger Morocco Traverse. The Route of Caravans is a monumental bikepacking route that explores three distinct regions in southern Morocco, the first of which is the incredibly vivid Anti-Atlas Mountain range. It is one of the least visited areas in Morocco and a region of stark contrasts. High aromatic wildflower meadows at its red-granite peaks collide with the harsh expanse of the Sahara Desert to the south. From the heights of these mountains, ancient caravan routes — trading thoroughfares first established in the 3rd Century — funnel through mineral rich red cliff gorges with palm-filled oases and mud brick villages at their floors. It is a spectacular place.
From the Anti-Atlas escarpment, the route drops to the edge of the Sahara. This section guarantees riders will find sand and camels with a slight chance of dust storms and flat tires. Despite its hazards, it’s also quite enchanting, with an austere emptiness like nowhere else on Earth. Along the way there are plenty of opportunities to experience geologic marvels, palmeraies, authentic and remote oases villages, Berber culture, and incredible sand dunes. However, be warned, due to the heat and lack of water, this also makes for some challenging riding.
Once through the Sahara, the Route of Caravans takes riders on a slow climb north through the Draa Valley, a magical river valley lined with palm oases and ancient mud-brick kasbahs. It then begins it’s ascent back over the eastern Anti-Atlas Mountains, where the High Atlas range suddenly dominates the skyline with its 4,000+ meter snow capped peaks.
The ROC is designed to be ridden from south to north, in the spring, when the sky is a deep sea of cobalt, creating a tack sharp contrast with the reddish brown rock that zigzags across the horizon. The streams are swollen as the last traces of snow in the High Atlas are melted by the quickly warming air. The perfect time of year… when mountains beckon.
Ultimately the Morocco Traverse will continue north to Tangier with a second segment of similar length. But, the Route of Caravans segment ends in the small town of Imilchil, deep within the High Atlas Mountains. This actually makes a pretty good stop as there is a fairly easy exit point there. There are several ways this route can be done on it’s own or even in parts. See options in the Trail Notes below as well as a more detailed itinerary through each of the main segments.
Route Difficulty: This route crosses a diverse collection of terrain, so there are varying degrees of difficulty at different stages. While there are a few spots with steep and rocky climbs, the overall route is more or less non-technical in nature. However, be advised that there are sandy stretches and very rugged tracks peppered throughout. The biggest challenge on route is having enough drinking water, especially during the section from Foum Zguid to Mhamid. This is the Sahara Desert and should not be underestimated. Sand storms occur frequently and extreme dehydration is an ever present possibility. Be well prepared and check with locals before setting out. Also, make sure to read the Trail Notes below.
- The mesmerizing folds and peaks of the Anti-Atlas as they descend through oases into the Sahara.
- The crunching of piste in the empty silence of the Sahara.
- Foum Zguid and other interesting desert towns.
- Erg Chigaga and its amazing sand dunes.
- Camping amongst oasis, palmeraies, and ruins.
- Cycling through small villages and being greeted by countless locals.
- Invitation to Friday meals from friendly families across Morocco.
- Amazing mud brick kasbahs along the route, such as Zagora.
- Passing camels and nomads along the way.
- Beautiful dirt and piste roads that traverse the ever scenic High Atlas, with views of snow-capped peaks and endless wild flowers.
- Finding fossilized seashells at 8,000′ above sea level.
- Getting to the route start: There are regular bus lines that run the eastern corridor of Morocco. The 10 hour bus ride from Casablanca to Tiznit will cost you about 240 Dirham (65USD) via CTM, the largest bus line in Morocco (at the time of this writing). Busses will carry bikes on the roof or in the cargo hold. CTM charges 10dh per bike and up. Ours were still in boxes so they were stored underneath. Before booking, check with CTM to make sure that your bikes will be accomodated.
- Route changes: We started our route in Agadir, but our course was slightly botched. We mapped this version from Tiznit based on a goal to evolve this route. We used simple dirt, gravel, and B roads for the first workaround, so it should be fairly straightforward. However, we are also open to suggestions. There are two other changed connectors, so make sure to read the Route Development section above and see the green arrow icons on the map.
- When to ride: The best time to ride this route is in the early spring (Late-February/March/April) or in the fall. Southern Morocco gets very hot, but there is also snow-cover in the Atlas. So it was designed to be timed with the cooler late winter/early spring in the south and allow time for snow to melt in the mountains. We started at the beginning of April, which seemed almost perfect for spring in the very high mountains. Starting in March would be ideal.
- Direction to ride: As mentioned, the route was designed to be ridden from south to north and ultimately connect with the Altravesur in Spain to form a larger meta-route. The ROC could be ridden in from north to south as well. This would likely require an autumn start in the Atlas, however, this would make it slightly difficult to get to the start.
- Mechanicals: There aren’t many modern bike shops in Morocco outside the bigger cities. So be prepared. There are a lot of thorns and spines in the desert; we had 8 flats in 24 hours (some were due to faulty tubes); make sure you run tubeless and bring plenty of spares and patches.
- Hassles: The children in villages can be aggressive on occasion. They are notorious for grabbing the bike as you are moving, chasing you down, and occasionally throwing rocks. In my opinion, irresponsible tourists are at least partially responsible for this type of behavior. Handing out gifts to children promotes begging, discourages education, and ultimately hinders tourism and the local economy.
- Tire size: It is highly advisable to use plus-size tires on this route. You could get away with standard 2.1″ mountain bike tires, but you will likely be pushing in sand on several occasions. There are a lot of rough and chunky dirt roads as well as sand along the ROC. No, this route is not doable on a cross bike.
- Don’t forget: A Buff. It can get very dusty in the desert. Also, make sure to have plenty of water storage capacity. We carried over 8 liters each through the Saharan section.
- There are guesthouses and auberges in Tiznit, Tafroute, Monsour, Zaouia Timguidcht, Tata, Foum Zguid, the flats of Iriki, Mhamid, in both Zagora and Agdz, Imilchil, as well as other small towns along the way.
- Expect to pay anywhere from $15-60, and up, depending on the location and your level of comfort.
- In the desert we were told it is OK to camp anywhere.
- There is an oasis near Tata with free camping; it’s marked on the map.
- There are also plenty of wild camping options. If you camp in an oasis, ask someone if it’s OK (if you happen to see anyone).
- There are plenty of lodging options around the Dades Gorge that are fairly inexpensive.
- In the Atlas, wild camping is available in the more remote sections, but it’s often tricky as much of the land is very arid and desolate.
- Wild camping is harder to come by near civilization as much of the land is farmed. We found a couple of places by asking local farmers. Most of the time they have no problem with it. Just make sure to stay out of the site of pesky children… they can be fairly exhausting in Morocco.
- The Moroccan people are incredibly hospitable. You will most likely be invited to a family meal at some point during your travels. Graciously accept the offers, as these experiences are likely to be the most rewarding of your entire trip.
- The three places where food and water are scarce are from Tiouadou and Imitek (40ish rugged miles), the desert section between Foum Zguid and Mhamid, and the massive climb from the Draa valley at Afra to the Oued Dades.
- We carried about 7-8 liters each in the Sahara. I would advise more if possible; consult the map and analyze the terrain based on your personal water needs.
- There is a small village in the hills below the escarpment around Lake Iriki that has water, but you will need to carry all of your food and water on that stretch.
- There are food options and shops in the larger cities and small shops in many areas between. Lentils and rice can be found in even the smallest of shops. Guests and non-guests alike can purchase inexpensive and hearty meals at auberges.
- Along the Oued Draa, water is ever present in the river, and there are plenty of wells all along the way too.
- There is very little food available from the end of Dades gorge until Imilchil. There are a couple of small villages with shops, and even a campground along the way, but in our experience they tend to be closed when you need them most.
- Alcool a Bruleer (for alcohol stoves) is best found in open markets, look for the guy selling gasoline. It can also be found at hardware stores. Best to bring your stove with you to show them what it’s for.
While the Route of Caravans can be ridden in either direction — and may even be a little more fun from north to south, where it would be trending downhill — it was designed to be ridden in the spring, from south to north, allowing the snow to melt in the High Atlas Mountains.
The Anti-Atlas (from Tiznit to the Sahara)
The Route of Caravans starts at La Source Bleu, an historic fountain in the old medina of Tiznit, a town of about 75,000 that’s known for its historic charm and Berber jewelry. From there, the route leaves the city and quickly finds its way into the country via tertiary roads and dirt tracks. As with many bikepacking trips, the first day will likely be one of the most difficult. Those words ring especially true on the Route of Caravans, as it quickly ascends from the coastal plain into the Anti-Atlas Mountains. As mentioned in the Route Development section above, the beginning of the route is largely unscouted. We took a very similar set of tracks from Agadir and met up with the route near mile 50. We’ve rerouted this section, because the geography looks a little more interesting and the new route is contains more unpaved roads. On day one, if you are very strong, you can get to the first marked campsite (wild camping). However, this would be a very big day of climbing. If you aren’t quite up to it, there are additional wild camping options several miles after a resupply in Anzi.
Note that once the route turns to dirt after Anzi, there is a particularly steep ascent and descent that goes over a lovely pass. However, if you are on a heavily laden bike and not interested in the scenery, you may choose to take the road around. See map for details.
After dropping down from the higher Anti-Atlas, the route meanders into the bustling town of Tafroute, the center of the southern Anti-Atlas. You may stay in town or find a camping spot just outside of town, where it joins a dirt road. This leads to the Painted Rocks, an art installation on the edge of town comprised of giant boulders covered in light blue paint. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the rocks… it’s definitely worth a look.
The next 15 miles dish out a hearty 3,000′ climb that eventually gives way to a long freewheel down the escarpment. There are two options you can take here. The ROC follows a lesser road that gives way to dirt and gravel, leading through Taghaout and continuing to Tizerkine. We later learned about this passage from other cyclists and opted to add it to this route. However, during our trip, we unknowingly took the alternate paved road through Vallee d’Ait Mansour, a beautiful oasis surrounded by dramatic red cliffs. However, this way is paved, more touristed, and requires a little jog north to rejoin the route and a final resupply, so we recommend staying onroute. From there, the road ebbs and flows before dropping the final escarpment to the edge of the Sahara.
The Sahara (Escarpment to Tagounite)
It then turns east on a 45km remote piste road that weaves through an amazing desert full of sculptural rock outcroppings. The dirt ends at an intersection with a tarmac road around mile 145 (km 235). So begins a 30+ mile stretch of pavement just before Imitek. Expect a couple towns and oasis scattered in between. There is likely a dirt option cutting some of this out by utilizing the track marked at mile 141 (km 227). However, we were completely out of water when we reached the road and it’s hard to discern whether this track connects via Google Earth. There are regular busses from Tata to Foum Zguid if needed. We also included an unscouted section as mentioned in the Route Development section. This begins at mile 192 (km 309).
The 90 mile section from Foum Zguid to Mhamid is real-deal desert riding. It starts as an unbelievably rough track full of embedded stones that shake you to your core. Luckily the terrain changes continuously. There are a few places where you can actually stumble onto nice singletrack carved out by camels and the occasional motorcycle. The smooth and serpentine gashes through the Martian-like surface are nice reprieves from the rocky doubletrack.
Eventually the road turns to sand, and it’s easier to stay on the northerly track that turns in to the flats of Lake Iriki. There, the track continues across the ancient salt lake and is marked only by the occasional cairn.
About 20 miles prior to the road split to Mhamid, the track skirts the edge of the main attraction, Erg Chigaga. Unfortunately we missed it, due to a massive dust storm that clouded visibility. Otherwise, it’s advisable to plan a night on the dunes.
The Draa Valley (Tagounite to Agdz)
The Oued Draa (river) flows from the High Atlas and erupts in a series of lush oases as it inches toward the desert, particularly between Zagora and Agdz. This segment follows a long dirt track that flows up river through the Draa Valley and meanders through a continuous wave of green palmeraies and oasis towns. It’s also known as the Kasbah Trail, named for the many bud-brick cities en route. This same route has been trodden for centuries by caravans from the Sahara.
This dirt road parallels a main road that is sometimes far out of site and, at other times, visible. This is an excellent way to reach more untapped villages, people, and landscapes in an otherwise touristed area.
Make sure to allow time to visit a few of the Kasbahs along the way, such as Zagora.
The Atlas Mountains (The Draa to Imilchil)
With snow capped peaks at over 4,000 meters, the High Atlas Range dominates the skyline for miles to its south. The ROC takes a fairly safe approach into the mountains. This segment was planned via local maps and advice from people we met along the way to create a route through the Dades gorge and over the eastern portion of the Atlas.
This quickly developing area still has a scattered reserve of sublimely beautiful riding options, but, as warned by a mountain bike guide we met, “There are plenty of dirt roads here, but you can’t go by the maps. They might show them as piste [in the legend], but they are paving as we speak. You might find a great dirt route, then come back the next year only to discover that it’s been tarred.” This section has a share of tarmac, especially on the initial ascent, but it’s good in that there is little to no traffic, and the section of dirt in the middle is dreamy. That said, we are open to finding options on the initial ascent, should something prove worthy to the route as a whole.
If you are taking on the Route of Caravans on its own, Beni Mellal is a good place for an exit. There are plenty of interesting ways to get there, but the most obvious choice is about 1-2 days ride from Imilchil — 8 miles and 8,000′ of climbing (129km/2400mt). From Beni Mellal, you can get busses to Marrakesh, Fes, or Rabat.
Interested in a shortened desert version of the ROC? Agdz makes another easy exit point. There are direct busses to Ouarzazate, a fairly large city from where you can catch a bus almost anywhere.