Northeast of Delhi, bordering Nepal and Tibet, the mountains of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions rise from the fertile sub-Himalayan plains. Together they form the state of Uttarakhand, which (as Uttaranchal) was shorn free from lowland Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after years of agitation. The region has its own distinct languages and cultures, and successive deep river valleys shelter fascinating micro-civilizations, where Hinduism and Buddhism meet animism. The snow peaks here rank among the most beautiful mountains of the inner Himalayas, forming an almost continuous chain that culminates in Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India at 7816m.
The best travel tips for visiting Uttarakhand
Garhwal is the more visited region, busy with pilgrims who flock to its holy spots. At Haridwar, the Ganges thunders out from the foothills on its long journey to the sea.
The nearby ashram town of Rishikesh is familiar from one of the classic East-meets-West images of the 1960s; it was where the Beatles came to stay with the Maharishi. From here pilgrims set off for the high temples of Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges.
Earthier pursuits are on offer at Mussoorie, a British hill station and now a popular Indian resort. The less-visited Kumaon region remains largely unspoilt, and boasts pleasant small towns with panoramic mountain views, among them Kausani, Ranikhet, and the tiny hamlet of Kasar Devi, as well as the Victorian hill station of Nainital, where a lakeside promenade throngs with visitors escaping the heat of the plains.
Further down, it’s possible to stay inside Corbett Tiger Reserve and take a jeep safari to search for elusive wildlife. Both districts abound in classic treks, many leading through bugyals – summer pastures, where rivers are born and paths meet.
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What to do in Uttarakhand
From the pilgrim circuit to the four sacred sites of Garhwal to the Gangotri Trek beyond the tree line to Gaumukh Glacier, here’s what to do in Uttarakhand.
#1 Get spiritual at Char Dham
As the sacred land that holds the sources of the mighty Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Garhwal has been the heartland of Hindu identity since the ninth century when, in the wake of the decline of Buddhism in northern India, the reformer Adi Shankara incorporated many of the mountains’ ancient shrines into the fold of Hinduism.
He founded the four main yatra (pilgrimage) temples, deep within the Himalayas, known as the Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
Each year, between May and November, once the snows have melted, streams of pilgrims penetrate high into the mountains, passing by way of Haridwar and Rishikesh, the land of yogis and ashrams.
In addition to their spiritual significance, the hills have become a hub for adventure sports, offering all levels of trekking, whitewater rafting, paragliding, skiing and climbing.
#2 Witness devotion to the life-bestowing goddess Ganga in Haridwar
Split by a barrage north of Haridwar, the Ganges flows through the town in two channels, divided by a long sliver of land. The natural stream lies to the east, while the embankment of the fast-flowing canal to the west holds the ghats and ashrams around Har-ki-Pairi temple.
Bridges and walkways connect the various islands, and metal chains are placed in the river to protect bathers from being swept away. The clock tower opposite Har-ki-Pairi ghat is an excellent vantage point, especially during evening worship.
At both dawn and dusk, the spectacular ceremony of Ganga Aarti – devotion to the life-bestowing goddess Ganga – draws crowds of thousands. Lights float down the river and priests perform elaborate choreographed movements while swinging torches to the accompaniment of gongs and music
#3 Try yoga in Rishikesh
Rishikesh, 238km northeast of Delhi and just 24km north of Haridwar, huddles along the steep wooded banks of the fast-flowing Ganges as it exits the mountains of Garwhal to crash onto the plains.
The centre for all manner of New Age and Hindu activity, its many ashrams continue to draw devotees and followers, with the large Shivananda Ashram in particular renowned as a yoga centre.
Rishikesh has one or two ancient shrines, but its main role has always been as a waystation for sannyasis, yogis and travellers heading for the high Himalayas.
The arrival of the Beatles, who came here to meet the Maharishi in 1968, triggered the lucrative expansion of the yatra pilgrimage circuit; these days it’s easy to see why Ringo thought it was “just like Butlin’s”.
#4 Tackle the Gangotri Trek
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.
About 7km 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. It’s worth braving the cold to reach Gaumukh for sunrise.
#5 Admire The Valley of Flowers
Starting from the mountain hamlet of Govind Ghat (1800m), 28km south of Badrinath, an important pilgrim trail winds 15km up a steep stone path to the overgrown village of Gangharia (3048m), also known as Ghovind Dham. This one-street town is a stopover point for hundreds of Sikh pilgrims en route to Hemkund, as well as for a small trickle of visitors to the Valley of Flowers.
Starting at an altitude of 3352m, the valley was discovered in 1931 by the visionary mountaineer Frank Smythe, who named it for its multitude of rare and beautiful flora. The meadows are at their best during the monsoon, from mid-July until mid-August.
#6 Complete the Kuari Pass trek
The old route over the Kuari Pass (4268m) in northeastern Garhwal, also called the Curzon Trail after the British viceroy who traversed parts of it in 1905, provides some stunning mountain views.
Officially renamed the Nehru Trail after Independence, the popular five-day trek crosses the high ranges without entering the permanent snowline, making it an ideal expedition for those not equipped to tackle glacial terrain.
Following alpine meadows, crossing several major streams and skirting the outer western edge of the Nanda Devi National Park, the trail affords excellent views of Trisul (7120m), the trident, Nanda Ghunti (6309m), and the elusive tooth-like Changabang (6864m), while to the far north on the border with Tibet rises the unmistakeable pyramid of Kamet (7756m).
Camping equipment is needed, especially on the pass; guides can be negotiated in Joshimath or Ghat.
#7 Spot big cats at the Corbett Tiger Reserve
Based at Ramnagar, 63km southwest of Nainital, Corbett Tiger Reserve is one of India’s premier wildlife reserves. Established in 1936 by Jim Corbett (among others) as the Hailey National Park, India’s first, and later renamed in his honour, it is one of Himalayan India’s last expanses of wilderness.
Almost the entire 1288-square-kilometre park, spread over the foothills of Kumaon, is sheltered by a buffer zone of mixed deciduous and giant sal forests, which provide impenetrable cover for wildlife. The core area of 520 square kilometres at its heart remains out of bounds, and safaris on foot are only permissible in the fringe forests.
Corbett is famous for its big cats, in particular, the tiger – it was the first designated Project Tiger Reserve in 1973 – but its 215 or so tigers are elusive, and sightings are far from guaranteed.
Best places to stay in Uttarakhand
Across Uttarakhand, better quality and more contemporary places to stay are primarily found in the larger cities. Towns and mountain villages often provide only minimal amenities. Here’s where to stay.
With a range of accommodations, from budget guesthouses and ashrams to luxury resorts, Rishikesh provides a perfect blend of spirituality, adventure, and tranquillity.
Perched at an elevation of 2,000 metres (6,500 feet), Mussoorie is a charming hill station nestled in the Garhwal Himalayas. It boasts a range of accommodations, including cosy hillside retreats and luxury resorts, making it an ideal choice for a rejuvenating mountain getaway.
Nestled around the sparkling Naini Lake, is a picturesque hill station known for its natural beauty and serene atmosphere. Waterside Nainital offers a variety of accommodation options, including lakeside resorts and charming colonial guesthouses.
For a serene and offbeat experience, stay in Almora. This quiet hill town is known for its panoramic views of the Himalayas. It has a mix of heritage hotels to cosy guesthouses.
Browse the places to stay in Uttarakhand.
How to get around
Known for its breathtaking landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and spiritual significance, Uttarakhand offers a multitude of transportation options to help you explore its hidden treasures. Here’s how to get around.
Uttarakhand is well-connected by rail, with several important railway stations serving as gateways to the region. Major railheads include Haridwar, Dehradun, Kathgodam, and Rishikesh.
From these stations, you can easily access popular destinations in Uttarakhand via local transport options, such as buses or taxis.
Uttarakhand State Transport Corporation (UTC) operates an extensive network of buses connecting various towns and cities within the state. These buses offer a budget-friendly option for travellers and provide an opportunity to soak in the scenic beauty of Uttarakhand during the journey.
Uttarakhand's bus services range from ordinary buses to deluxe and Volvo buses, catering to different comfort preferences. However, be prepared for longer travel times due to frequent stops and winding mountain roads.
By shared jeep
Shared jeeps are a popular mode of transport in Uttarakhand, especially for short to medium-distance journeys. These shared vehicles operate on fixed routes, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.
However, be prepared for potentially crowded seating arrangements and longer waiting times until the vehicle fills up.
By private car
One of the most convenient and flexible options for exploring Uttarakhand is by hiring a private car or taxi. This mode of transport allows you to navigate at your own pace, making stops at scenic viewpoints and lesser-known attractions along the way. Private cars or taxis can be hired from major cities and towns.
How many days do you need in Uttarakhand?
For a short but memorable visit to Uttarakhand, you will need a minimum of 4 to 6 days. During this time, you can focus on one or two key destinations and immerse yourself in their unique offerings. You may choose to start your journey in Rishikesh, experiencing its spiritual ambiance and engaging in yoga and meditation practices. From there, you can venture into the nearby towns of Haridwar or Mussoorie, or delve into the natural wonders of the Rajaji National Park.
Otherwise, you can truly embrace the essence of Uttarakhand and delve deeper into its wonders by allocating 8 to 10 days for your visit. This time frame allows for a more comprehensive exploration of the region, enabling you to experience multiple destinations, including a visit to the ancient temples of Kedanath or Badrinath, and soak in the spiritual ambiance of these revered pilgrimage sites.
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