At 4,163 metres, Jebel Toubkal looks mighty intimidating from afar, a violent act of geology fronted by a forbidding stone fort. From the 19th Century until Morocco won its independence from France in 1956, the local Glaoui clan ruled the High Atlas from this foothill stronghold, often ruthlessly. Woe betide Marrakesh-bound traders who used High Atlas mountain passes without paying their dues to this family of mountain toll-keepers: goods and freedom could be forfeit to the Glaoui.
But upon arrival in the village of Imlil, the highest of the High Atlas mountains seems to soften. Terraces are notched into Jebel Toubkal's base, and tender shoots sprout from vegetable plots. Cherry and apple orchards line whispering mountain creeks, which suddenly burst into waterfalls on exposed rock faces. The dreaded Glaoui Kasbah du Toubkal is now an upscale, eco-friendly hotel.
Footpaths wind gently upward to the Berber hamlet of Tamatert, wedged snugly between two stern rock faces. A trail zigzags among low-slung houses made of pisé (clay mixed with straw). Footballers all appear to be on the same team, chasing a ball down a sloped dusty pitch; a sheep on a nearby rooftop bleats a neighbourly hello.
From here, goats and trekkers climb onto Jebel Toubkal's hunched shoulders, which are freckled with pine trees planted in a reforestation initiative. A closer look reveals flowering shrubs lining the rugged passes. Knowledgeable local guides point out wild herbs: verbena, mint, rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme, and absinthe.
"All of these herbs are native to the High Atlas, and they serve medicinal purposes passed down by Berber families through generations," explains Rachida Mouch, advisor to the local Dar Taliba Berber botany project. "We're trying to capture all those uses, beyond the obvious muscle balms and cold treatments. There's so much to learn from these mountains. The closer you look at them, the more it broadens your horizons."
Where to Stay
Mid range: Stone steps lead to candlelit, wood-beamed guestrooms at Douar Samra. Donkeys deliver your luggage and aperitifs precede bountiful dinners (from £74 half-board).
Top end: A Berber-English partnership transformed historic fort Kasbah du Toubkal into a welcoming retreat with panoramic views and its own hammam and knowledgeable mountain guides (from £110, including breakfast).
EasyJet and Ryanair fly to Marrakesh from various UK airports (from £29.99), while Ryanair also flies to Fez from Stansted (from £29).
Cover the High Atlas and Skoura Oasis by car - try Hertz (from £45). Supratours runs buses from Marrakesh to Essaouira (from £8; book at their office next to Marrakesh train station), and Fez can be reached by train (7 hours) or plane (from £45; 3 hours).
The article 'Morocco’s best for walking: High Atlas Mountains' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.