Mountain Unicycling in Imlil, Morocco

Even though I grew up in Alaska, I find Danish winters difficult. It’s not the cold or the rain or the wind that gets me – it’s the lack of sun. After a few weeks of constant cloud cover, I am often depressed and de-energized. So, for 2018, I decided to take a winter vacation in Morocco and bring my mountain unicycle. My first stop: the village of Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains.

Author’s note: logistical information on getting to Imlil, where to stay, and trail directions are at the end of this article. There are also more photos on Flickr.

I’ve never been to Morocco before. When I started telling people I was going there for vacation, the first question was frequently “By yourself?”. When I said yes, this question often followed: “Are you sure?”. My answer was always the same. Yes, I’m sure I’m doing it, but, no, I don’t really know what I’m doing.

That’s why I did research. Or, to be more specific, I Googled things a lot. It was through Googling that I first heard of Imlil. When I searched for single-track in Morocco, I was led time and time again to the Atlas Mountains, the mountain range directly south of Marrakech. Imlil is one of the most well-known villages in the Atlas Mountains for mountain sports, since it serves as a hub for ascending Mount Toubkal. From this history has sprung up a strong tourism industry based on hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities.

So I decided to spend a few days here in Imlil. I booked a lush (by my standards) Riad for three nights, and yesterday I bumbled my way through getting here from Marrakech. (Some tips on that are at the end of the article if you’re interested.)

My first half-day in Imlil was not adventurous by anyone’s standards. I will eventually post a Flickr photo journal so you can see/read it if you’re interested, but I won’t write about it here because it’d likely be boring for you. Though I do admit the Moroccan cooking lesson and solo romantic dinner were actually pretty fun. Ooh, and the afternoon nap. That was a good nap.

Now, my second day in Imlil. That’s actually where I started to do the fun stuff. First, I finally put my unicycle together. Huzzah! After feasting off of a classic Moroccan breakfast served by Mohammed at Riad Ouassagou, shown below, I went to the Imlil bike shop to get some pedal grease. Of course, since it’s Morocco, the shop wasn’t actually open even though their hours on Google maps said they would be. But the owner was just hanging out nearby so he opened up shop for me and gave me some grease. And, even better, he gave me some tips on a single-track trail right next to Imlil.

Moroccan breakfast is primarily breads with butter, jams, and honey, accompanied by a boiled egg or two. The pancakes with holes are baghrir, the flatbread with dark spots is m’semmen, and the round bread by the kettle is khobz.

The trail he mentioned is actually a hiking track that leads west from Imlil up the hillside for a few hundred meters, where it eventually joins with a dirt road that leads from Imlil to the nearby village of Aroumd. He recommended biking up the dirt road and taking the trail down as single-track, but I accidentally wandered up the first half of the hiking trail looking for the waterfall that is near Imlil so I just hiked up the rest of the way.

Rugs adding a splash of color to otherwise neutral surroundings on the way up to the single-track
View from the single-track on the ascent.

Hiking up was fun. I stopped to session a few times because I haven’t ridden rocky downhill since…last March?…and the video clips really reflect that. (I look like a complete dork, but that’s okay!) The trail was frequented by other people (both tourists and Moroccans) and mule after mule after mule. A wonderful Flemish couple with their super-cute, mule-riding toddler chatted with me at the top, and they were kind enough to take some pictures of me with the cool village of Aroumd in the background.

The hiking trail was definitely a challenge to ride for out-of-shape me, but the views made the trip worthwhile.
Found some Belgians who were kind enough to snap a photo of me with Aroumd.

The dirt road was nice enough but not great, so I soon turned back to visit the “famous” waterfall at Imlil that I missed the first time. Finding it was easy once I got my bearings – instead of heading up the hillside with the hiking trail, I just needed to follow the irrigation channels back to the river. No need for a guide for this one. 😉

Follow this bad boy straight to the waterfall.
The waterfall is probably more fun in the early morning when no one is here.
Imlil must look much different in the summer, but I really like it in the winter. When the sun is out, the rocks turn red, but when it’s hiding behind the clouds the only colors you really see are the rugs hung out to attract sales from passing tourists. Kind of like lamps and moths.

I ended the ride by struggling up the last kilometer of road between Imlil and Riad Ouassaggou. Luckily, there were schoolchildren walking home who were fascinated by my unicycle, so I used them as an excuse to stop and take a break. (You gotta cater to the kiddies, right?)

All in all, I call this day a victory. I didn’t ride very far or explore very much, but I got out and enjoyed the sunshine, met some great people, and awakened a thirst for more adventures here in the Atlas mountains. This is just the beginning.

Getting to Imlil:

  • I found the “Get In” section of the WikiTravel page to be pretty good…except for the location of the grand taxi pickup. I’ve since edited the page to reflect the difference between hiring a grand taxi (300dh, pick-up near the Jemaa el-Fnaa bus stop) and getting a seat in a collective (50dh, pick-up a few hundred meters from the normal grand taxi station). I took the collective and highly recommend it. But be ready to tip if they take your bag and load it in the taxi for you.

Where to stay in Imlil:

  • There are tons of places, and most have reviews and pictures on websites. I picked Riad Ouassaggou based on a few blog recommendations and couldn’t be happier. My room has an ensuite bathroom with beautiful mountain views, I got to help Mohammed make tagine and Moroccan vegetable soup, there’s a filtered water tap, and the price is pretty reasonable (250dh, about 22 euros, per night). The only thing I would note is that it’s about a kilometer away from Imlil, so if you’re coming in with heavy luggage you might consider hiring one of the many donkey dudes asking you if they can schlep your luggage. I personally loved how it was a little bit distant from the main village.

Trail directions (picture-directions are here):

  • To get to the waterfall:
    • From the center of Imlil, walk uphill until you see a dirt road on the right leading up.
    • Follow this dirt road a few hundred meters until the road makes a sharp right turn and there is a trail that goes to the left. There should be signs for the Riad Atlas Prestige pointing along this trail.
    • Follow the mule tracks up the hill (or the mules, if there are any) until there are almost no buildings above you on the hillside.
    • Follow signs for the Dar Adrar if you see them.
    • Keep following the mule trail until you see an irrigation channel, then follow the irrigation channels upstream to the waterfall (it’s that easy).
  • To get to the single-track:
    • Do the same steps as you would for getting to the waterfall, up until the point where the trail crosses over the irrigation channel.
    • At this point, look up the hillside and you should see switchbacks.
    • That’s the trail. Enjoy.

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