The numerous trails crisscrossing through West Sikkim’s wonderful profusion of orchid and rhododendron forests, waterfalls, terraced hillsides and river valleys, give independent walkers the opportunity to explore the region without the headache of red tape (permits) and the expense of tour operators and expedition costs. Apart from the occasional forest lodge or guesthouse, a growing network of homestays allows intrepid trekkers to wander off the beaten track, especially along the Monastery Trail from Pelling. On the western boundaries of the state, the rhododendron forests are best seen around Varshey.

Rhododendron walks

The Singalila Range’s rhododendron forests, lauded by the famous botanist Sir JD Hooker who travelled here in 1848, are best visited between mid-April and mid-May when the flowers are in full bloom. Of these forests, the Varshey Rhododendron Sanctuary (aka Barsey or Varsey) covers 104 square kilometres, ranges in altitude from 2840m to 4250m and is home to black bear, red panda and pheasant. Entry to the forest is via Hilley, Soreng or Dentam and entry permits for the sanctuary are available from forestry departments at Hilley, Soreng, Uttarey and Gangtok. The most popular route is the 8km round trip from Hilley to Varshey (3030m), which offers majestic views. You can extend the walk to Uttarey (3–4 days with tented accommodation), from where you can either take transport out or continue on foot to the small town of Dentam.

From Dentam, a river-valley trail leads to the quiet village of Rinchenpong (4–5hr), a good base for West Sikkim village walks; another trail from Dentam leads east up the ridge to Pelling (4–5hr). There are numerous permutations and possibilities for trekking around Varshey including an extension (with prior arrangement with tour operators and the appropriate permits) into the long high-altitude Singalila Ridge trek to Dzongri and beyond.

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