How to hike Jebel El-Kelaa, Chefchaouen, Morocco

Any guidebook or website about Chefchaouen will mention the hiking possibilities in the Rif Mountains, those hills that rise up immediately behind the blue town.  One oft-mentioned hike is to summit Jebel el-Kelaa (1616 m).  Unfortunately, there’s very little information as to how exactly one should hike Jebel el-Kelaa.  Consequently, most of the stories I read online about the hike ended with “…and after a few hours we were lost, so we went home”.

Chefchaouen, the beautiful blue city in the Rif Mountains of Morocco.

Chefchaouen, the beautiful blue city in the Rif Mountains of Morocco.

A friend and I hiked the peak the other day.  We are both competent and experienced hikers and route-finders, and yet we still needed to use the map and GPS on Chris’s phone to make some decisions along the way.  But we took detailed notes, and, in the hopes that more hikers will successfully summit Jebel el-Kelaa, here is a detailed route description with photos and maps!  Click on any image for a larger version.

Note: we hiked in overcast winter weather, and only used a fraction of the water you’d want in the summer.  Be sure to bring several liters in hot weather.  There are water sources along the way, but you would need to purify them.  Hiking shoes are perfect footwear for this hike–anything less and your feet will be hurting.

THE MAP

This is a stitched-together screen capture of the digital map we used to climb the peak.  We started out on a trail that wasn’t on the map (red line, which I’ll refer to as the ‘steepcut’), then met up with the normal road/trail (blue line until junction) for the rest of the hike.  Numbers on the map refer to the times/distances listed below, and to the captions of some of the photos.

Map of the route from Chefchaouen to Jebel el-Kelaa

Map of the route from Chefchaouen to Jebel el-Kelaa

TIMES AND DISTANCES

(Note: the times listed here are just from our personal experience and should be used as a guideline, not a rule).

  • From (1) to (3) via the steepcut (red):  45 minutes
  • From (1) to (3), via the normal route (blue):  perhaps 1.5 hrs
  • From (3) to the road/trail junction (5):  1 hour
  • From (5) to the summit (8): 1 hour
  • Total ascent via the steepcut: 3 hrs from Chefchaouen, 8 km
  • Total ascent via the normal route:  perhaps 4 hours from Chefchaouen, 10 km
  • Total descent via the normal route: 3 hours, 10 km
  • Round-trip:  6-7 hours, 18-20 km

THE ROUTE

Finding the start of the trail:

The route begins just beyond the wall behind the Medina.  Exit the Medina through the gate that leads to the waterfall and washing station at the northeast corner of town.

The route begins when you pass through this gate on the way to the waterfall

The route begins when you pass through this gate on the way to the waterfall

About 10 m after the gate, hang a left and ascend the series of stairs that climb toward the corner of the Medina wall.

Just after the gate, turn left and ascend a series of staircases to the corner of the medina wall

Just after the gate, turn left and ascend a series of staircases to the corner of the medina wall

Option 1: The ‘normal’ way

From the corner of the Medina wall, the typical route follows the wall west, then meets up with the dirt road you will follow for almost the entire remainder of the hike.

From the corner of the Medina wall, follow the wall west to its next corner.

The trail follows the wall at first (wall will be on your left if you're ascending)

The trail follows the wall at first (wall will be on your left if you’re ascending)

At that corner, take the short dirt track that branches right to the nearby paved road.

At the end of the wall, hang a right and head up to the road

#9 on the map: at the end of the wall, hang a right and head up to the road

After about 15 m, take a right at the intersection.

Turn right at the next intersection

Turn right at the next intersection

Follow the road for about five minutes, past a pond, to another intersection.  Hang another right.

Follow the road past the pond, then hang a right

Follow the road past the pond, then hang a right

Almost immediately take another right at a cluster of signs, including the sign for the campground.

Turn right here, then head straight to the dirt road ahead of you

#10 on the map: turn right here, then head straight to the dirt road ahead of you

Head straight and curve slightly left.  You should now be on a dirt road heading through the forest.

After another, um, 10 minutes or so, take a right.  There’s a boulder with the yellow and white paint blaze that supposedly marks the entire trail, but actually only shows up a handful of times along the way.

Turn right onto another dirt road

Turn right onto another dirt road

The road you’re on now will climb steadily upward, tracking back and forth along big switchbacks.  I went down this way, not up, so I don’t know how long you’ll keep climbing.  Perhaps one hour from this junction you’ll meet the ‘steepcut’ coming in from your right.

Option 2:  the ‘steepcut’

From the corner of the Medina wall, and instead of following the Medina wall to the road, you can head up the steep valley to your right.  It’s a trail, not a road, and it’s primarily used to access the handful of residences in the valley.  If you’re not comfortable with passing through people’s property, being barked at by dogs, or finding your own way when the trail peters out, this is not the route for you.  With that in mind, the locals we met along the way had only smiles for us, the dogs didn’t approach too close, and the endpoint is pretty obvious, with or without a trail.  The length of this route is considerably shorter than the main route.  Consequently, it is also steeper, hence its name.

Just before the corner of the Medina wall, hang a right and climb trail through tall prickly pear cactus.

Normal route straight ahead, steepcut to the right

#1 on the map: normal route straight ahead, steepcut to the right

The trail straightens out and leads up the left side of the valley towards a mud and tin house nestled beneath a cliff.  You’ll pass just in front of this house.  It’s a good idea to have a couple stones in hand in case the dogs come toward you.  No need to throw the stones hard—-dogs in this part of the world are pretty wary of rocks.

Looking down on the steepcut. The trail cuts below a house, then crosses the stream and continues up the right side of the valley

#2 on the map: looking down on the steepcut. The trail cuts below a house, then crosses the stream and continues up the right side of the valley

Another 5-10 minutes past the house the trail crosses the stream and continues up the right side of the valley.  The trail gets pretty thin from here out, but if you look ahead you can see where the valley will intersect the road up ahead.  Just keep aiming for that point.  When in doubt, stay high and right.

Follow the dirt road along the hillside. The red line shows the steepcut heading up the valley to meet the normal route.

The red line shows the steepcut heading up the valley to meet the normal route.

Eventually you’ll top out the valley at a rock outcrop with a nice view back down at Chefchaouen, and the road will be in front of you.  Head right up the road.

This is where the steepcut pops out and meets the normal route

#3 on the map:  this is where the steepcut pops out and meets the normal route

The rest of the route:

Shortly after the steepcut meets the normal route, you’ll see a cool rock on the left.  it’s not important, just kind of cool ;-)

Neat rock formation about 5 minutes beyond where the steepcut and normal route meet

Neat rock formation about 5 minutes beyond where the steepcut and normal route meet

Keep following the road for the next hour or so.  It’ll head straight and flat for awhile, then start switchbacking up the hillside to the left.

The dirt road then switch-backs all the way up this hillside

#4 on the map:  the dirt road then switch-backs all the way up this hillside

About halfway up you’ll pass a house on the left.  Someone surely will invite you in to smoke some hash…for a price.

Head left off the main road and onto a trail

#5 on the map:  head left off the main road and onto a trail

After another handful of switchbacks you’ll come across a trail that cuts off to the left.  It’s not much of a trail, so look for the reddish stone structure that may be the remnants of…uh…a room?  A kiln?  There may or may not be a cow standing there when you arrive.

Contour along the hillside and over a crest

Contour along the hillside and over a crest.  The house is circled in orange.

Follow the trail straight along the contour of the hillside, over a small ridge, and toward another home.  Just before the home, at a cluster of small ponds and trees, the trail splits in many directions.  Take the trail immediately above the ponds; it leads slightly above and away from the house.

Just before the house, turn right and follow the trail just above the little ponds

#6 on the map:  just before the house, turn right and follow the trail just above the little ponds. The house is circled in orange.

You’re now in a shallow valley.  Follow the trail up the right side of the valley toward a small distant saddle.  Well, I couldn’t see the saddle because of clouds, but maybe you’ll be able to.  You’ll pass a couple of rocks numbered with red paint, starting with “9” and ending with “13” at the saddle.

Head up the valley along the right side. Note the rock with a red "9" on it.

Head up the valley along the right side. Note the rock with a red “9” on it.

At the saddle, turn left and follow the shoulder of the ridge up to the summit of Jebel el-Kelaa.

Turn left at the saddle

#7 on the map:  turn left at the saddle

The trail at this point is more like a “choose your own adventure” story.  A whole network of trails spreads out through the undergrowth.  Some dead-end, some go through.  Either way, you can see the summit from here, so just keep heading up.

Congrats, you made it!  I hope you have better weather than we had ;-)

Summit of Jebel el-Kelaa on a cloudy day

#8 on the map:  summit of Jebel el-Kelaa on a cloudy day

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35 Comments

  1. Wow what a complicated trail. I am glad you made it. So glad you two will be together on Jsn. 1, 2015. Where will you be on Christmas Eve?

    Love you,
    Dru

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for posting this! My friend and I hiked from the medina in Chefchaouen today and it was breathtaking. It was made 100 times easier with your step by step directions! Only question I have is how in the world you actually summitted? We got to just below the final climb (the little intersection at the top, before you turn left and get to the peak) and could hardly breathe anymore so we had to turn back! Very impressive, and thank you again for posting :)

    • So glad my post was helpful! And thank you so much for commenting and letting me know. As for how I summited, I’m from Colorado–we’re pretty used to it here ;)

  3. Yes, here again. Thanks for posting this, i would have never managed without it. The pivotal information is picture #5 which shows the exact point of exit from the 4WD track to the footpath. The unique clover-shaped cavity is a perfect distinguishing feature.
    Hiked up a few days ago on December 30th: up the blue trail, down the red trail when path-finding was no longer an obstacle. Weather was fine and views fabulous.
    On my way back, a kid in the isolated farm at point #6 showed me a steep short-cut down to the 4WD track, emerging from the rhododendron shrubbery about 10 minutes short #3 (near the axe-shaped rock). That’s the trail the locals use on their way to and from town.

    • Glad you found it useful, and thanks for posting the new information! Wish I’d had great views, too, but I still had a wonderful time :)

  4. done this back in October 2014 in 31c. had to work the route out on our own and wouldn’t recommend going up before September as the farmers will express serious disapproval. we also swore not to post photo’s and GPS data () so’s not to harm their economy as without cannabis cultivation they would have nothing. Ever wonder what all the vans are full of running down the mountain road ; well done for putting Interpol right up the street and possibly endangering future hikers.

    • People will climb the mountain regardless of my directions—there’s a paragraph about it in all the guidebooks and all the online articles about Chefchaouen. These directions help prepare hikers so they won’t end up stranded or in trouble because they were unprepared, thereby reducing potential conflicts. And, to clarify, these are not GPS tracks, merely lines drawn over a pre-existing map to highlight the route that is already in place.

      Thank you for providing your perspective. People reading the article can now make an even more informed decision about tackling the hike.

  5. Thank you so so much for posting this. We would never have found the top if it weren’t for your instructions!!!!

  6. Huang, Chun Yang

    Today, I and my wife also hiked the similar way. However, we climbed from another side (west entrance under “maps.me” guide. This way was very steep and the route was not clear. We could not find the trail. Fortunately, we met a shepherd (teenager). We followed him and his goats. No trail was found and we walked on rock. Finally, we arrived the saddle. However, we considered our water not enough (very hot , no shadow ) and dehydration. So, we kept go the other side (east side of mountain). Initially, the trail still could be identified. We passed the marijuana area and kept descent. However, the trail gradually became not clear. Fortunately again, we found the road in the valley and just below 300-500m in height. So, under “maps.me” guide, we directly transverve bush on the slope and descended to the road. So, we kept walk along the road and back to Eco museum. It is really difficulty. I hoped our experience could help the others. By the way, the scenery of west side of mountain was spectacular~

  7. Thanks for the post. We did this hike today and started when it was still dark, so the pictures helped. We are also from Colorado and would be happy to email you some summit pics. Or you can see them once they’re posted on facebook.com/trouserin.
    Thanks again!

  8. really good article. very instructional. Read it, did it, awesome!

  9. Hi guys , quick question . I m travelling alone ,
    I want to do this trail and I m 25y old girl. Do you think I can walk in peace? Thanks in advance !

    • I would have done the hike solo, I just happened to be there with a male friend. Be smart, but yes, it should be fine. Have fun!

    • I would not do it on your own,. you could be fine 99 percent yes but you also could be in trouble. In Nepal a friend male was robbed on his own and found in a river dead. Take a guide its not worth the risk Fran

  10. So many thanks for this blog! It was very useful! i did the trekking 2 days ago! Nowadays is very clear to c the intersection cos is just after passing the hotel in front of the pond!i just followed all the time the dirt road and I got a bit confused, but once I saw the “funny rock” I knew I was right 😉 I didn’t c the redish rock cos I counted 1hr walking and it seems I walk to fast cos after one hour I was 6km away from the hostel in the next village😅 so I came back and i found it! Thank u so much!

  11. Hi Sarah! I have to echo everyone who has thanked you for posting – these are great instructions and we followed without an issue! Some updates to the path include that the Atlas Chaoien hotel is a great landmark for the pond/bottom of the 4-Wd road that goes up the mountain (and can be seen from anywhere if you’re trying to begin the hike from outside the medina!). We recommend keeping your eye on the saddle on the way back down to avoid accidentally losing your way – we almost came down the extra scenic route! But it was completely gorgeous and worth the time and effort. Finally, we realized that the empty/dry fields throughout the second half of the hike were all the “spice” farms (we hiked yesterday, in December) and were glad we hadn’t attempted this during any type of growing/harvesting season. Thank you again and keep up your posts! I’ve enjoyed your blog since finding it :)

  12. Hi guys!

    This looks absolutely gorgeous! Thank you for posting. Myself and my girlfriend will be travelling to Chef in summer (June) and were wondering if we would be able to Hike this. We are not experienced hikers but are physically fit. I have some hiking experience. What do

  13. Hi guys!

    This looks absolutely gorgeous! Thank you for posting. Myself and my girlfriend will be travelling to Chef in summer (June) and were wondering if we would be able to Hike this. We are not experienced hikers but are physically fit. I have some hiking experience. Do you think we’d be able to Hike this beautiful route?

    Thank you,

    Josh.

  14. Sarah,

    Thanks a milliom for posting this. My friend and I hiked this route today and we were very grateful for your descriptions. As we didn’t get any maps at the ecological museum (opposed to what Lonely Planet indicates), we totally depended on your blog. We found the trail easily. It’s a beautiful hike, very lonely these days. We only met one other tourist on the way, and guess what, he was also following your descriptions. So thanks so much and all the best wishes from Chefchaouen!

    P.S: march is quite good a time of the year for doing the hike if someone’s afraid to get into trouble because of thr cannabis cultivation. Right now all you can see is plain soil. So no worries.

    Cheers
    Julia

    • Thanks for the feedback, Julia, and I’m glad you had a good hike! It was very lonely when I was there, too–not a popular hike, but that just means more peace and nature for the rest of us!

  15. Went up last week, found your directions really helpful – well, let me put it another way, I would not have found my way without them! So thanks for that, Sarah.

    Thanks very much also to the 2 German girls I met along the way, Julia and Samyra (I am that other tourist they mention!), who found my phone for me, miraculously, on the rock where I laid it on the way up to change some clothes. So grateful!

  16. Thanks for the guide! For the steep path between 2 and 3, make sure you don’t follow the obvious trail that keeps going east. Past the house, just continue headed up beside the valley. Climbing down the steep path it took me 1hr 45mins.

  17. fantastic! if we do not want to hike for so long, does it make sense to do, for example 1-3 only? are there nice views? unfortunately we have only one day in chefchaouen and we want to be in town on the other half. other alternative would be the shorter climb to the spanish mosque.

    • Hi Amit! I’d actually recommend doing the other end of it if you don’t have enough time for the whole hike. Maybe try going from 1 to 9 to 10. You can stop there, or keep hiking a ways, or even continue all the way to 3 and hike down via 2 and 1. Have fun!

  18. Hi I did the hike today and as everyone else is saying your instructions were invaluable particularly #5. I also wanted to say that the red numbers that you saw on the rocks either aren’t there anymore or I’m very bad at looking but nevertheless I figured out how to get to the saddle on the right side of the valley! The hike itself was truly beautiful and the cannabis crops (which is in full bloom right now) actually proved to be a useful landmark plus the farmeessential I met were really nice and gave me directions when I misread yours. Thanks again!

  19. My mate and I did this hike in 32C heat in June. We walked through marijuana farms and had some fun encounters with the locals.

    We couldn’t have done it without your directions so thank you so much.

    I wrote a blog about the hike. Would love for you to have a read :)

    http://jackfranks.co.uk/morocco-hiking-jebel-el-kelaa/

  20. Wow! this is very detailed and helpful. The view from the Medina top is beautifull

  21. Dear Sarah! Thank you so much for your directions! Actually, we checked all pictures. Believe it or not there was even the cow standing by the trial :-) . We had beautiful weather. It was great trip – thank you very much :) jitka and petr from czech rep

  22. Hey, this looks like one complicated trail to hike, but from the pictures posted here, it seems it is definitely all the trouble. Thankfully, with this detailed article, one knows where the twists and turns are so there is no getting lost and going back. Nice article!

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