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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
About 10 m after the gate, hang a left and ascend the series of stairs that climb toward 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.
At that corner, take the short dirt track that branches right to the nearby paved road.
After about 15 m, take a right at the intersection.
Follow the road for about five minutes, past a pond, to another intersection. Hang another right.
Almost immediately take another right at a cluster of signs, including the sign for the campground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ;-)
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.
About halfway up you’ll pass a house on the left. Someone surely will invite you in to smoke some hash…for a price.
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.
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.
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.
At the saddle, turn left and follow the shoulder of the ridge up to the summit of Jebel el-Kelaa.
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 ;-)