Trekking in the Indian Himalayas
Some of the world's most amazing mountain scenery can be accessed via a web of mountain trails and mule tracks in the western Himalayas of India
The snowbound heights of the western Indian Himalayas offers endless adventure for trekkers, writes local tour guide and mountain leader Ravi Tickoo. An extensive network of trails provides access to all, from the lush foothills to the highest passes and icy peaks.
A series of high ranges, roughly parallel, ascends to some of the highest altitudes on Earth. Trekking through these landscapes you’ll pass flower-strewn meadows and dark forests of deodar and rhododendron, ascending to high passes with sublime views of the snowcapped Himalayas.
Aside from the landscapes, there is plenty of cultural interest, too. Treks are enlivened by encounters with shepherds and yak-herders, residentes of isolated mountain villages, visits to ramshackle yet still-elegant hill stations beloved of the British Raj, holy Hindu shrines along the upper Ganges and remote Buddhist monasteries perched on cliffs in the wilds of Ladakh.
There are several prime trekking regions in the western Indian Himalayas (west of Nepal), from the Garhwal in the east through Himachal Pradesh, and north to a completely different climate and culture in Zanskar and Ladakh.
The Garhwal Himalaya
Occupying much of the state of Uttaranachal, the Garhwal region has a picture-perfect beauty replete with high green valleys, spectacular mountain peaks (including Nanda Devi, at 7,816 metres) reflected in clear blue lakes, and a profusion of wildflowers.
One of the four great pilgrimage centres in the Garhwal Himalaya - along with Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Yamunotri, Badrinath sits at just over 3,000 meters, ringed by towering peaks that are the source of the Ganges River.
One of the most spectacular treks ventures north from Joshimath, the main town in the mountains, into the Valley of Flowers National Park (a World Heritage Site, also called the Bhyundar Valley) near the borders of China and Nepal, which bursts into bloom during the monsoon season from mid-July through August. This is a glacial valley, ranging in altitude from 3,350 to 4,250 meters, home to some 300 species of flowers including poppies, orchids, and vast stands of rhododendron. The best time for flowers is July and August, but June to October are all good trekking months. Views take in several peaks including Nilgiri Parbat (6,474m). South of Joshimath trails lead to the Kuari Pass, another fabulous trek with staggering views.
The lush Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh is the adventure hub of the western Indian Himalaya, and a beautiful place in its own right. Peaks loom in the distance, while fruit orchards and wildflowers line the banks of Beas River. Hindu temples and a few Tibetan monasteries dot the valley, with the town of Manali making an excellent base for forays into the mountains. Many treks start out from the valley and ascend north and east to the beautiful regions of Lahaul and Spiti. September and October are ideal times for trekking.
There are also great treks to be enjoyed from the old British hill station of Shimla, and the fascinating town of McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala, where there is a large Tibetan community.
Ladakh and Zanskar
Ladakh, the land of jagged peaks and barren landscapes on the Indian side of Tibetan plateau is simply awe-inspiring. Hidden behind its arid and forbidding facade is an ancient civilisation and captivating culture. Beyond its old frontiers lies the land of wilderness with its unaltered character and overwhelming natural beauty that will appeal to the most inquisitive and adventurous of travellers. And the best way to see it is on foot.
Effectively closed to outsiders until the 1970s, the region of Ladakh is an arid, ancient Himalayan land, almost entirely Tibetan in culture. At a lofty 3,600 meters and only 120km from Tibet’s western border, the capital Leh is isolated from the rest of India. Trek to the sheer walls of the Nun-Kun or Stok-Kangri massifs, climb high passes to the Rupshu and Markha valleys, or visit the Zanskar Valley’s main town, Padam. It all adds up to an unforgettable trekking experience.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Valley of Flowers, Garhwal
This spectacular place has one of the most idyllic mountain settings on Earth. Visit in July or August for the best floral displays.
2. Tso Moriri and Tsokar lakes, Ladakh
These two lakes high on the arid Changtang Plateau of Ladakh have an entrancing, ethereal beauty like nowhere else. Getting up here generally involves several days of hard trekking.
3. Treks from the Kullu Valley, Himachal Pradesh
Trek out of the Kullu Valley to the Manali Sanctuary following the trails of Gaddi shepherds to the Kaliheni and Thamser passes for stunning views across Himalayan peaks including Mt Kailash.
4. A circuit from McLeod Ganj
A 6- or 7-day circular trek from the fascinating hill station of McLeod Ganj takes in lush rhododendron forests, the sublime meadow-fringed Kareri Lake and the dramatic Dharamkot ridge.
5. Zanskar trekking
Explore Zanskar on a 8- or 9-day trek. From the regional capital, Padum, trek through the dramatic Tsarap Gorges, up to the Phirtse La pass (5,350m), then back down to Keylong Serai.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The trekking season begins in May as most of the snow has melted, and continues through until early November. Ladakh is at its best in July and August, and does not suffer from the monsoon rains which can be a problem further south. Overall the best times for trekking in the Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh is September and October, with May and June also good although haze can spoil the views on some days.
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