As you leave the Atlas mountains heading south east to Ouarzazate, you find yourself, almost without warning, in an arid semi-desert which blends gradually into the classic sand dunes and rocky ranges of the Sahara. But these first brushes with the desert are surprisingly well-watered, thanks to the run-off from the Atlas, with bright green riverside meadows and extensive palmeries dotted with once-wealthy ksour (kasbah-hamlets).
Ouarzazate itself is a modern, regional administrative town with little of interest for the tourist, but 32km away is the famous Ait Benhaddou, one the best preserved kasbah-towns in the Atlas and featured in many films, including Lawrence of Arabia. If you continue past the throngs of Ait Benhaddou, you reach the equally lovely and lesser-visited village of Tamadaght with its crumbling fortifications and alleys.
From Ouarzazate, there are two main routes to the desert:
1. To Erfoud (and the dunes at Merzouga) via the Dades Valley (aka the 'Valley of a thousand Kasbahs'), Tinerhir and the Todra Gorge.
2. To Zagora (for the dunes at Tinfou and M'hamid) via the Draa Valley.