Ait Ben Haddou → Merzouga: Sights, Smells and Serpents of the Dades Valley
Gazing across the Dades Gorge from the top of Morocco’s Serpentine Road, there were no words to describe the dramatic landscape in front of us. Later, during our drive through the Dades Valley, we came to a realization:
If you stop to take a picture every time you see something beautiful in Morocco, it will take you a decade to cross the country.
To say we were unprepared for this road trip would be the understatement of the century. Could Morocco be the most beautiful country in the world?
Unexpected treasures on the way to the desert
We woke up earlier that morning in Ait Ben Haddou with one thing on our minds: the camels and desert camps that awaited us in Merzouga. So, we looked at the long drive in front of us simply as a means to an end: let’s just get out there in time to start riding camels before sunset.
But the road between Ait Ben Haddou and the Sahara Desert offers much more than rocks and sand. For these 2 first-time travelers to Morocco, this corner of the country brought some serious A-game as far as unexpected awesomeness: movie studios…roses…snakelike roads…more roses…bright greens…dark reds…Monkey Fingers?!
We’ll do 2 things in this guide:
- Recommend some great places to stop during the epic road trip from Ait Ben Haddou to Merzouga
- Propose a beautiful detour through the Dades Valley and up to the top of the Serpentine Road
The direct route will take you 7-9 hours. The optional roundtrip detour will add 3 more.
We added the optional detour. The total drive took just under 12 hours. It was totally worth it.
Next time, we’ll stop and stay overnight in the Dades Valley. We could have used more time there.
Ait Ben Haddou | Ouarzazate | Kelaa M’Gouna | Tamellalt | Merzouga
Part 1: Ait Ben Haddou → Boumalne Dades
The first segment of the road trip has several cool places to stop and sightsee, or grab a bite to eat. Don’t let the short distance fool you: it’s easy to spend half a day along this stretch of highway.
- Distance: 90 miles (145 km)
- Google Maps estimate: just over 2 hours
- travelhelix tip: 3-5 hours is more realistic
The Hollywood of Morocco
About 20 minutes after leaving Ait Ben Haddou, you’ll discover 3 great opportunities to explore Morocco’s massive film industry:
- CLA Studios Morocco: used for Gladiator & Game of Thrones
- Atlas Corporation Studios: the world’s largest movie studio
- Musee du Cinema (Cinema Museum)
Both studios offer tours. If you’re a serious film buff, stay overnight at the nearby Oscar Hotel.
The Door of the Desert
Known locally & globally as The Door of the Desert, Ouarzazate has been a major regional hub for travel & commerce for centuries. It’s home to the region’s only international airport, making it convenient for actors, actresses, film crews and equipment flying in and out for the local film industry.
Ouarzazate has a big-city feel to it. We moved through it quickly, only stopping briefly to snap a few pics of the famous Kasbah of Taourirt: possibly the most impressive structure we saw in Morocco.
The City of Roses
An hour past Ouarzazate is Kelaa M’Gouna: Morocco’s City of Roses. This town is home to Morocco’s rose industry and largest producers of anything rose-related: rosewater, rose perfume, rose soap…and the most delicious item on the list: rose jam. Great place to stop and buy gifts for your loved ones back home.
travelhelix tip: plan your visit during early May and experience the Festival of Roses, a celebration of the annual rose harvest. Enjoy local food and music during the 3-day event (typically Friday – Sunday). On the last day, watch the crowning of the “Rose Queen” or “Miss Rose.”
The Festival of Roses usually takes place within the first two weeks of May. But much like the harvest, the dates vary from year to year. Check with the Morocco National Office of Tourism for the official dates.
After another 15 miles (22 km), you’ll reach Boumalne Dades. It’s decision time.
Part 2: optional detour through the Dades Valley
We say optional because you don’t need to do this in order to get to Merzouga. But it is–by far–the most memorable section of this road trip, and one of the most beautiful corners of Morocco. Give yourself some extra time in order to make it happen. You won’t regret it!
- Distance: 37 miles (60 km) roundtrip
- Google Maps estimate: 1.5 hours
- travelhelix tip: give yourself at least 3 hours…although you may decide to stay overnight
The Dades River
The main artery of the region is the Dades River. Local villagers rely upon it as a source of life, just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, when tiny settlements began sprouting up along its riverbanks.
Just north of Boumalne Dades, these legendary rock formations–known locally as Monkey Fingers–line the side of the valley for miles.
The Serpentine Road
The grand finale of this drive is the iconic Serpentine Road. Follow the winding highway up toward the village of Tisdrine and stop at Café-restaurant Timzzillite Chez Mohamed. Here, you can enjoy the breathtaking view with some hot mint tea.
After you’ve had your fun at the top of the Serpentine Road, it’s time to head back to Boumalne Dades. Driving back through the same villages, enjoy the opposite perspective–and your second chance to appreciate–the beauty of the Dades Valley.
Finding accommodation in the Dades Valley
If you decide that 3 hours isn’t enough time to explore the Dades Valley, stay overnight. Boumalne Dades is the largest town in the area, but you’ll also find plenty of options north of Boumalne Dades, along the river. The village of Tamellalt has several small guesthouses & hostels.
search local accommodation in Boumalne Dades
Part 3: Boumalne Dades → Merzouga
This is the last leg of your journey to the desert. It’s not at interesting as part 1 or as beautiful as part 2, but there are a few places to stop for food or a bathroom break.
- Distance: 157 miles (253 km)
- Google Maps estimate: 3.5 hours
- travelhelix tip: 4-5 hours should be fine, even with a stop
The last couple of hours of the journey were quiet and uneventful. The rich fertile greens of the Dades Valley eventually disappeared, and gave way to dry, rocky desert.
We arrived to our riad in Merzouga just before 7pm. This gave us exactly 3 minutes to check in, pack absolutely nothing for the evening, and begin our sunset camel excursion into the desert.
If we had to do it all over again, we wouldn’t change a thing. This road trip & this experience were truly unforgettable.