Fes to Merzouga: A Bike Touring Route
Party with the Moroccans in the royal Swiss-style ski resort of Ifrane, pedal through a forest filled with monkeys, enjoy a cracking downhill run into the bustling town of Midelt and take in the scenery of the Ziz Gorge. And that’s all before you reach the giant sand dunes of Merzouga, where you can play Lawrence of Arabia and ride a camel into the desert.
Duration: 7 days
Terrain: You’ll usually be within reach of a small store although the stretch between Ifrane and Midelt is desolate in parts.
Accomodation: Hotels in Fes, Imouzzer, Ifrane, Midelt, Er Rachidia, Erfoud and Merzouga. Campsites around Midelt, Merzouga, Erfoud. You will likely need to wild camp for one night between Ifrane and Midelt in the empty mountain landscape.
Road condition & traffic: Good between Fes and Ifrane. A small paved road turns into a dirt track going through the monkey forest, then returns to asphalt which continues all the way to Erfoud. The backroad to Merzouga starts paved but soon turns into a track. Only for the adventurous! There is a longer paved route to Merzouga if you prefer.
Climate: It’s possible to do this trip anytime between September and May. In the height of summer the desert will be sweltering. In winter you should be prepared for snow on the ground and chilly temperatures in the mountains until you cross the last pass after Midelt.
Highlights: So many to choose from! Fes is a must-see city in Morocco for good reason. The mountain passes and Ziz Gorge feature beautiful landscapes but nothing can prepare you for the wonder of cycling up to sand dunes that tower over your head in Merzouga.
Lowlights: This route takes in a few tourist hotspots and is very popular in winter with French and German motorhomes so unfortunately there’s plenty of begging from children and some creative pricing from merchants and hotel owners. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Ifrane is priced to European standards (outrageously expensive compared to the rest of Morocco) so budget extra if you plan to stay here.
Tips: Pack a range of clothes for this trip.
Section 1 – Fes to Ifrane (70km)
Follow the N8 out of Fes and towards Ifrane. The first 30km or so are reasonably easy going with a wide shoulder before the climb starts up to the town of Imouzzer. Here you’ll find plenty of cafes, restaurants and a few hotels. Imouzzer is a taste of what Ifrane is like, already a bit more modern than many Moroccan towns and consequently more expensive. However, if you are penny pinching and trying to decide between a hotel here or in Ifrane you will almost certainly find cheaper options in Imouzzer. Just past Imouzzer, there are signs pointing off the main road to gites near some mountain lakes, perhaps an option worth exploring.
There is little else until you get to Ifrane, where the cheapest hotels start at 350DH a night and even at that price they aren’t clean. Your room may also come with the thumping beat of the hotel nightclub a few floors below. As you enter Ifrane, you’ll likely be surrounded by touts offering rooms on the edge of town for about 150dh a night. Normally we wouldn’t recommend following touts but in this case it may be worth a look. Like the hotels, everything in Ifrane is about double the price it would be elsewhere in Morocco. On the other hand, it’s probably the only place where you can buy wine and beer openly from stores and there’s a range of imported foods, in case you’re missing a fix of peanut butter or Thai Green Curry.
Section 2 – Ifrane to Timahdite (50km)
Leaving Ifrane, turn right onto the main N8 road and then right again to follow the signs to Azrou. The road is scenic once you get out of Ifrane, going through forests where you may see some monkeys. There are also two hotels and a campsite about 15km out of Ifrane, which may offer an alternative to the pricey ski resort! As you come downhill past a few stands selling fossils on the right and a small village on the left, look for the first sign for the N13. Making a hairpin turn to the left is a minor paved road which takes you up into the hills, on a scenic detour through a forest where you can see the famous 800-year-old tree named Cedre Gouraud and woods filled with Barbary Macaques monkeys. Make sure you don’t have any food on the back of your bicycle as the monkeys are expert thieves! The asphalt on this route ends partway through but we were able to navigate it even in winter with some ice and snow so in milder temperatures it should be reasonably easy. Keep going and eventually you’re dropped at the N13 and the main entrance to the monkey forest. A few stalls sell souvenirs here.
Now you’re in for a spot of hard work as you climb to a pass at 1965 meters. A cafe appears shortly afterwards but it was closed when we were there. A couple more hills follow and then you’re on a downhill stretch into Timahdite, where there are plenty of restaurants and shops but no hotel. We found accomodation here with a local family by asking at the police station.
Section 3 – Timahdite to Midelt (95km)
The road has lots of ups and downs as you head out of Timahdite. The Col de Zad at 2,178 meters is reached about 30km later. There are very few shops or houses along this stretch of road so stock up in Timahdite. Once you reach the peak it’s smooth sailing, going downhill nearly all the way to Midelt. The first town of any real size is Zeida, a crossing point where there are plenty of restaurants, cafes, shops and a place to take a shower. About 20km outside of Midelt there is a campsite. In Midelt itself, expect plenty of hassle from kids and touts who want to lead you to a restaurant or hotel. It may be worth giving a small tip to one of them to lead you to Hotel Atlas, on a side street near the town centre. The simple but clean rooms are quite cheap at 60DH for a double and the staff are friendly. There’s a great view from the rooftop. Showers are extra and toilets are shared.
Section 4 – Midelt to Rich (80km)
After the hard work of yesterday, you have a fairly flat stretch out of Midelt to recover. The climb to the last pass of this journey starts at about the 20km mark although the grading is reasonably gentle. Once at the pass you have a downhill route nearly all the way into Rich, your first chance to buy food since Midelt. We didn’t see a hotel in Rich but there’s plenty of potential for wild camping throughout this route.
Section 5 – Rich to the Source Bleue de Meski (96km)
This section features some fantastic cycling through the Ziz Gorge but first fill your panniers. Aside from the occasional small village, Rich is your best bet for buying food before Er Rachidia. You’ll find a campsite as you enter the gorge, then follow the twisty road as it winds its way along the river and between mountains. There are a couple challenging but short climbs here. Er Rachidia is quite a modern town, perhaps the only one in Morocco with bicycle lanes! The market near the end of the main drag has lots of bread, olives, vegetables and other goodies. Pushing on about 25km outside Er Rachidia on a flat road, you’ll come to the popular campsite at La Source Bleue. It’s covered in palm trees and tranquil, although the showers aren’t so great and there are lots of kids trying to get pens and candy at the entrance.
Section 6 – La Source Bleue to Erfoud (50km)
A fairly quiet road leads you through nice views on the way to the desert. There aren’t many towns of any size, aside from Aoufouss where you should be able to stock up on the basics. There was a small campsite about 30km into this stretch, as well as one where we stopped about 7km before Erfoud. In fact, the whole area is built to cater to tourists so in and around Erfoud you can have your choice of accomodation from campsites to budget hotels and luxurious restored riads. Erfoud has plenty of tourist restaurants but check out the side streets and you’ll find some local spots to eat. The souk is small but should have everything you need.
Section 7 – Erfoud to Merzouga (50km)
There are two routes to Merzouga. Here we detail the shorter but more challenging one. If you don’t feel like leaving the asphalt, instead just follow the signs for Merzouga via the N13. This road is well travelled and you should have no problems with navigation. For the adventurous souls out there, we followed the route that leads out of Erfoud near the souk but first make sure you have plenty of water and food for the day. A compass would also be a handy aid.
The road starts out paved but the asphalt runs out after about 15km and you’re left with a track. There are practically no signs and you may often wonder where you are but the route is well travelled by 4x4s so keep in their path and you’ll be fine. You pass through a small village after you’ve been on the track for a few kilometers and you’ll know you’re still on the right path since children sit in the village, ready to sell crafts to passing tourists and beg for candies. Past the village, the landscape becomes increasingly remote but you can use the ONEP water pipeline and mobile phone masts as a guide until the dunes of Merzouga appear on the horizon. When the dunes come into view, you can see a series of luxury hotels near the base of the dunes. At this point you’ll see a series of crossroads running left and right. Turning right would take you to the asphalted main road and going left takes you nearer the dunes where a second more-travelled track runs parallel to the dunes. You can followed that to a small village where there’s a popular campsite and into Merzouga with its hotels and services. With a loaded touring bike you should be prepared to walk for some stretches as the track can be quite sandy in parts.