A flight of steps beside the Gangotri Temple begins the 20km trek to Gaumukh Glacier, one of the most beautiful and accessible glaciers in the inner Himalayas.
Leaving Gangotri, the trail rises gently above the north bank of the river, offering increasingly spectacular mountain vistas. Just 2km along is the forest checkpoint, where permits are inspected. About 9km further is the oasis of Chirbasa, where the skyline becomes dominated by magnificent buttresses and glass-like walls, culminating in the sharp pinnacles of Bhagirathi 3 (6454m) and Bhagirathi 1 (6856m). The path then climbs above the tree line, passing across a steep rocky area prone to landslides. Just around the bend, beyond a stream crossing, 5km from Chirbasa, is the cold grey hamlet of Bhojbasa, cowering in the shadows of the surrounding peaks. Most visitors spend a night here before the final push to the glacier.
From Bhojbasa, it’s a further 4km up the giant boulder-strewn path to reach Gaumukh (“the cow’s mouth”), bringing into view the beautiful Shivling Peak (6543m), the “Indian Matterhorn”, and providing a closer look at the Bhagirathi peaks and the huge expanse of the Gangotri Glacier – 23km long, and up to 4km wide – sweeping like a gigantic highway through the heart of the mountains. At the source, the river emerges with great force from a cavern in the glacier. The steadily retreating ice is in a constant state of flux, so the huge greyish-blue snout of the glacier continually changes appearance as chunks of ice tumble into the gushing water. Visitors are advised to keep 500m back from the glacier’s mouth: many pilgrims have been crushed to death by falling ice while attempting to collect holy water. It’s well worth braving the cold to reach Gaumukh for sunrise, though it’s also rewarding in the afternoon, when the source is lit by the sun. From the glacier, most hikers return to Gangotri via Bhojbasa, while others may continue beyond the glacier to the meadow of Tapovan (6km) or further afield.