Dades Gorges in Morocco – What to Expect?

In Morocco a river has carved a miniature version of the Grand Canyon through rocks that once lay deep beneath an ancient sea.

Although it is small and frequently dries up completely, the Dades River has carved some of the most rugged gorges found anywhere in northern Africa. The river rises in the High Atlas range of the Atlas Mountains in central Morocco. From its source the river runs southwest for about 220 miles (350 kilometers) before joining the Dra River at Ouarzazate, an oasis community at the edge of the Sahara. The lower part of the Dades Valley is noted for its palm and almond groves, as well as the many roses that are grown there for the production of fragrant rose water. But the river's most distinguishing feature by far is the series of four deep gorges that hem in its upper course.  The area around the Atlas Mountains make for some of the best walking holidays in the world.

Winters are severe along the head-streams of the Dades, and snow persists on the mountain peaks well into summer. During the rest of the year precipitation is quite sparse and intermittent. When storms arrive, however, the rain often falls in tremendous downpours. Streams that were dry before a storm become raging torrents within a matter of hours, and then the flow quickly subsides once again. Geologists call such streams ephemeral, since they are dry much of the time and filled with water only immediately following a rainfall. In the arid American Southwest, streambeds of this sort are known by their Spanish name, arroyos, while in the Arab world they are called wadis or oueds.

The sporadic but intense runoff in the Dades River results in awesome erosive power. When the river is flowing at flood stage, it carries immense loads of debris down from the mountains. Each particle, large or small, acts like a bit of sandpaper, rasping away at the soft rock of the riverbed and gradually deepening it. In some places the winding gorges are so narrow, deep, and nearly straight-walled that a person standing on the rim can barely make out the river at the bottom of the abyss.

Ranging from about 650 to 1,600 broader, more open canyons. In some places the horizontal layers of rock resemble piles of shelves stacked haphazardly one upon another. Elsewhere the canyon walls are interrupted by terraces or masked by heaps of debris. Where tributaries join the Dades, they have in places cut off isolated bastions shaped like tabletops, stepped pyramids, and jagged peaks.

Because of the gorges' great depths, their ocher-colored walls become an ever-changing palette of tones as the angle of the sun changes with the time of day and season of the year. In spring and summer, their somber hues are accented by the delicate pastels of blossoming oleanders and a variety of wildflowers, as well as bright clumps of grass that cling tenaciously to the cliffs. In fall, the rust and golden leaves of figs and pomegranates enliven the scene.

The gorges' distinctive profiles are due to their geological origin. Millions of years ago the area now traversed by the Dades River lay at the bottom of an ocean. Giant coral reefs developed on the sea floor, and huge quantities of sediment were washed in and deposited there. Over the millennia all this material was compacted into layers of limestone, sandstone, and other kinds of rock.

Shifting movements of the earth's crust eventually elevated the region above sea level and, in the process, created the immense folds of rock that now form the Atlas Mountains. The Dades River, however, established its course relatively early in the upheaval. As land surfaces rose higher and higher, the river incised its serpentine valley ever deeper into the uplifted rocks. Local variations in the cutting power of the river and the hardness of the rocks resulted in the present-day variations in the contours of the walls throughout the gorges.

Portions of the gorges are accessible by an unpaved road that winds up and down and in and out, offering superb views of the valley. Elsewhere footpaths within the narrowest sectors of the chasms provide new surprises at every turn.

Anyone who has seen the Dades Gorges will understand why they have been likened to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The comparison is apt, both scenically and geologically. Although the Dades's valley is much smaller than the Colorado's, the two - rivers have carved their unique gorges.

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