McLeod Ganj, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, may be a destination for Buddhists the world over, but for those with an affinity for nature and a passion for walking, it is merely a gateway. The hikes/treks accessible range from short, hour-long walks to gushing waterfalls, to overnight trips to the snowline, to five-day hikes to a lake dropped smack bang in the middle of the mountains.
Bhagsunag Waterfall and Shiva Cafe
Although the journey to Bhagsunag Waterfall could hardly be called a trek, it still deserves a place on your list. It’s best to go later in spring, as the more the snow on the mountain peaks has melted, the heavier this waterfall runs. At around 2.5km and one hour each way, Bhagsunag isn’t out of reach for anyone. There are some steep stretches, but kids, families and those of us who don’t really enjoy walking will still find their way here.
As always in the mountains, it’s best to get into nature in the morning. Afternoons inevitably bring clouds and perhaps some light rain, so get out while the air is crisp, fresh and clear. The water will be cold as it was snow not so long ago, but don’t let that stop you taking a dip. Once you’ve dried off, head around and above the waterfall to the cozy Shiva Cafe. I highly recommend bringing a book to read, as their wonderful food and the sound of the waterfall perfectly complement the serene and quiet atmosphere.
Camp at Triund and the snowline
This camping trek is a bit more of a challenge. Be sure to bring plenty of water. The journey to this popular camp site will take approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on how fast you move. If you want to camp out, you’ll need a guide as they’ll organise your camping equipment. It is a magnificent journey, often with a Himalayan snowcaps looming over you and the pin-pricked homes of Dharamsala below. Bright red rhododendrons line the path, and are both edible and delicious.
Coming up over the precipice to Triund, a Himalayan sensory assault greets you. The bright green grass of Triund’s rocky landscape contrasts beautifully with the towering peaks directly in front, a sight you will not soon forget. Lunch bought from the nomads living in a tarp-constructed cafe will sufficiently refuel you, and should you choose it, the snow awaits.
Many choose to end their walk here, and some even trek back to town in the same day. But I recommend staying the night here and making a push for the snowline. The gradient increases, though the ninety-minute effort reaps rewards as you trek up into the Himalayas. A cup of the best masala tea you’ll ever drink awaits you, served by nomads in their cafes buried in the snow. If you go in spring – prime trekking time – you’ll hear the sound of a river flowing, a sign of the snow melting and delivering fresh water to the dry riverbeds of Himachal Pradesh.
Upon returning to Triund, indulge in another cup of masala tea and kick back, waiting for the sun to set over the mountains below you. The next day the sun will rise directly behind the Himalayas. Return to McLeod Ganj.
Kareri Lake and Minkiani Pass
This final trek is the longest and the most difficult. Spanning four days, with an optional extra day for the more weathered trekkers, the Kareri Lake trek takes you out from McLeod Ganj and west across the mountains, as opposed to Triund’s easterly direction. A guide is essential for this trek. They again supply the camping necessities.
The first day takes you from McLeod Ganj to Kareri Village, through lush pine forests and other local villages. A little more level than the trip to Triund, this first day of trekking is longer but flatter. Camp in the village at the end of the day.
On the second day, continue to Kareri Lake. This is a decidedly more challenging leg of the journey. The trail is steep and often criss-crosses a river on makeshift bridges, providing a higher challenge and a little adrenaline.
The end of this day results in reaching Kareri Lake, a beautiful body of water in lush green surrounds. Camp here tonight. Kareri Devi, a small shrine with a bonfire room, lies just to the side of the lake. With nothing to disturb you, have a night of peace here. The light of the full moon will illuminate the dark, sparkling lake.
Day three is either your challenge day or the return home. Those returning home will trek back to Kareri Village and camp there again, returning to McLeod Ganj on the fourth day.
For those wishing to extend their trek, today the intensity ratchets up another level as you head up to Minkiani Pass. The journey is around 14 kilometers and will take about 8 hours, round trip. Reaching the pass puts you above 4000 metres, so the altitude will start to affect your climb. The steepness of the ascent, coupled with rising altitude, will make the climb a fun day out for the experienced trekker, and a rewarding but difficult one for a trekking newcomer. Return again to Kareri Lake for another night, before heading back through Kareri Village and back to McLeod Ganj as planned.
Whether you’re a novice trekker in search of a gentle hike, or a budding mountaineer, the area around McLeod Ganj has something waiting for you.
Article by Michael Kelly.