Himachal Pradesh: adventures in India’s mountain playground

Paraglider against a backdrop of Himalayan hills in Himachal PradeshGaining air above the Himalayan landscape © Pallavi Pasricha / Lonely Planet

But my fears quickly vanished as I saw India’s mighty Dhauladhar mountain range from this breathtaking vantage point, with the sun rising behind me and the picturesque valley that I had just stepped out from sprawled below me like a topographic map. As I returned to ground at the end of the flight, I was ecstatic, having just ticked off an adventure sport that I had never believed I would actually try.

The Spiti River twisting through a desert landscape in Himachal PradeshThe kind of landscape gods create in the Spiti Valley © Abhey Singh / Getty Images

Himachal Pradesh, India’s adventure playground

Tucked away in the western part of the Himalaya at the top end of India, Himachal Pradesh beckons to adventure seekers with a full basket of adrenaline-pumping experiences. From pine and deodar-covered mountain valleys to the high-altitude deserts of Lahaul-Spiti, Himachal’s towering mountains become a trekking playground in summer and ski slopes in winter, while gushing rivers challenge rafters to test their skills against some of the world’s most dramatic rapids.

But what gives every activity in Himachal Pradesh a special edge is the majestic views of snow-capped Himalayan ranges that unfold dramatically before you, whatever thrilling pursuit you sign up for. The hill resort of Manali in the north, nestled amid towering ranges, has emerged as the hub for adventure sports in the region, but a string of smaller settlements have bloomed as centres for specific thrills and spills.

Snow-capped mountains near the Hampta Pass in Himachal PradeshThe Hampta Pass trek starts in forests and ends in a high-altitude desert © rajatk / Getty Images

Set off on the trails

Himachal Pradesh’s scenic mountain trails offer everything from easy day hikes to arduous multi-day expeditions. A good start for beginners is the three-day Beas Kund trek starting from the Solang Valley, 14 km due north from Manali. As you meander through grasslands and dense forests along the rivulet that feeds the Beas River, you can pluck wild strawberries and meet friendly villagers in remote mountain settlements, before reaching your goal, the shimmering Beas Kund lake, nestled at 3,800 meters amid mountain peaks. And all along this two- to three-day ascent, you’ll bask in front of gorgeous views of snow-capped ranges such as Hanuman Tibba and the Pir Pinjal range.

To witness two contrasting faces of Himachal Pradesh, consider the more challenging five-day trek to the Hampta Pass, a corridor between the green Kullu valley and the barren high-altitude deserts of Lahaul and Spiti. Starting from Jobra, about two hours northeast of Manali, the trail climbs through pastures of grazing sheep and mules and pretty meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers, before climbing over icy streams and tongues of glacier to make a steep final ascent to the pass, perched at 4260 meters.

Chandratal Lake reflecting mountains on the horizon in Himachal PradeshChandratal Lake is a mirror onto the mountains © Nimit_Nigam / Getty Images

The views out over the desolate yet pristine landscape of western Spiti spread out beneath you makes every step taken to reach this lofty vantage point seem worthwhile. If you still have stamina after the slog to the pass, continue north for an extra day to Spiti’s lone east-west highway, and take a three-hour vehicle ride to the moon-shaped Chandratal Lake. Only accessible when the roads are clear of snow, its shimmering blue waters present a spectacular contrast to the white of the snow and the muddy brown of the mountains.

Practicalities: The best time for treks is from May to June and September to October, and numerous companies in Manali can arrange guides, porters and equipment. Himalayan Extreme Centre, Himalayan Caravan and Himalayan Yeti are well-regarded operators.

Paraglider landing at Solang Nullah in Himachal PradeshComing into land at Solang Nullah © Pallavi Pasricha / Lonely Planet

Come fly Himachal Pradesh’s spectacular skies

The slightly nondescript town of Bir (just south of Billing in the Kangra Valley) arrived on the global map after it hosted the paragliding worldcup in 2015. Today, travelers flock here to soar over the Dhauladhar range from the launch site near Billing, poised at 2400m above sea level, putting Himachal Pradesh firmly on the global paragliding map. In winter, the panoramic views of the glittering, snow-capped peaks are truly magnificent and even in summer, when cloud or haze can obscure the peaks, the verdant Kangra Valley spreads out below like a blanket.

Practicalities: Pilots from the Billing Paragliding Association are experienced and even first-timers will have no problems. Tandem flights, with a pilot and passenger, last for 30 minutes, while solo flights for experienced paragliders can go on for much longer, roaming as far afield as Manali or Dharamsala. Bir does not have great hotel options, so either pitch a tent at a local campsite, or stay in Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj, a two-hour bus ride away.

Alternatively, Solang Nullah (2248m) north of Manali is good for shorter flights. Paragliders take the cable car up to Fatru and launch from there, landing back in Solang Nullah after about 15 minutes. Flights also launch from Dobhi, south of Manali in the Kullu Valley, and from Gulaba and Marhi on the precarious mountain road linking Manali and Lahaul. Note that there is no paragliding during the monsoon season from July to September.

A group of skiers at the bottom of a snow-covered valley in Himachal PradeshGentle slopes but lots of enthusiastic skiers in the Solang Valley © Tarun Chopra / Getty Images

Skiing Himachal Pradesh’s powdered slopes

In winter, Himachal Pradesh gets blanketed in thick snow and the foothills of the Himalaya become one of India’s favourite playgrounds for ski enthusiasts. The Solang Valley above Manali has some of the most accessible slopes, but infrastructure is not great. There’s one cable car that takes you up 800m to the top of the valley but the slopes are not well groomed.

More accomplished (and deep-pocketed skiers) can opt for heli-skiing on virgin powder on the flanks of some of the state’s highest mountains. Northwest of Manali, Hanuman Tibba (5982m) offers stunning slopes at around 4300m, reached via a short helicopter ride that affords breath-taking views from mid-air. Next thing you know, you’ll be dropping out on smooth, powder-covered slopes and whizzing from giddy heights in blissful peace and isolation – truly exhilarating!

Skier kicks up powder against a blue skyHeli-skiing offers unparalleled access to the most spectacular slopes © Chris Noble/Getty Images

Practicalities: Heli-ski operators run trips from Manali, but weather conditions have to be ideal for helicopters to fly and for the slopes to be stable and safe. You may be disappointed if the wind is not exactly right. Allow time for cancellations (there’s plenty else to do in the area) and make sure you go with a professional operator such as Himalayan Heli Adventures.

There’s a smaller, low-key skiing scene at Narkanda, 60km northeast of Shimla, but there’s less infrastructure here than at Solang Nullah, so this is best for expert skiers with their own gear.

Motorcycle parked in an arid desert landscape in Spiti in Himachal PradeshFor a true sense of the scale of the terrain, skip the bus to Spiti and travel by motorcycle © May_Chanikran / Getty Images

The Himalaya on two wheels

Traversing Himachal Pradesh’s high altitude roads is thrilling even in a bus. On a motorcycle, it becomes a serious adrenaline rush – particularly if you pit your wheels against the 3978m Rohtang La, the most famous pass on the epic mountain road journey from Manali to Leh, the mountain-ringed capital of Ladakh.

Motorcycle hire companies in Manali rent out classic Enfield motorcycles for experienced bikers, and motorcycle tour agencies arrange guided Enfield tours for less confident riders who prefer some company as they cross five mountain passes and many a hairpin bend on the two day crossing to Ladakh. Rudimentary tented camps offer overnight beds to break the journey, or you can stop in Keylong, the capital of Lahaul.

Jeeps passing through a desolate landscape in Himachal PradeshThe road from Manali to Leh winds through an elemental landscape © Inderanim / Getty Images

Along the

490km route, you’ll have desolate peaks and glaciers, pristine lakes and ancient Buddhist monasteries perched on stark, wind-scoured mountain slopes for company. And you’ll have to scramble across some of the world’s highest mountain passes, each wrapped in multi-coloured prayer flags by passing Buddhist devotees.

Should you have thighs of steel, mountain biking from Manali to Leh takes 9 to 10 days, camping along the route. An easier way to experience Himachal Pradesh’s gravity-defying downhill slopes is on one of the many mountain bike trails around Manali. Operators such as Himalayan Bike Bar can rent you sturdy wheels and help arrange transport to the top of the trails and a pick-up at the bottom.

Mountain biker framed by icicles near the Rohtang La in Himachal PradeshMountain biking over the Rohtang La is a thrilling way to test your grit © Manish Lakhani / Getty Images

Practicalities: Based in Manali, Himalayan Inder Motors has a long history of renting motorcycles for trips over the Rohtang La. If you’d rather have the comfort of a guide, Motorcycle Expeditions, Hardev Motors and Himalayan Raiders all run trips from Manali.

Start early from Manali to traverse the first obstacle along the road – the Rohtang La can get gridlocked with traffic by late morning (even mountain passes can have traffic snarls in India!). And take it slowly to give your body time to acclimatize. The road climbs to a height where altitude sickness can be an issue. Prime time for road trips is mid-June to mid-October; at other times, the road can be snowed under and closed to traffic.

Whitewater rafters glide towards rapids in Himachal PradeshWhite water and serene mountain sunshine along the Kullu Valley © Anand Purohit / Getty Images

Wet and wild in the Kullu Valley

If you can tear your eyes from the tall mountains on all sides for a moment, the rivers churning down from the Himalaya offer plenty of rafting rough and tumble. Himachal Pradesh’s favourite rafting river, the Beas traces a path through the Kullu Valley south of Manali, serving up abundant white water from Grade 2 to Grade 4 between Pirdi and Jhiri, about 14km downstream.

Practicalities: The longest ride takes about an hour and 20 minutes, but there’s no rafting during the monsoon from July to August and few trips run in the depths of winter. Agents in Manali and along the Kullu Valley – as well as at the take-out point at Jhiri – offer daily rafting trips in season, so don some safety gear and take the plunge. You’ll get soaked with plenty of icy mountain water but you’ll be too thrilled to complain, and there are changing rooms at Jhiri.

Tunnel on the rocky mountain road to Spiti in Himachal PradeshHair-raising turns on the rugged road to Spiti © Pallavi Pasricha / Lonely Planet

Driving off the map in Himachal Pradesh

You’ll need to get off the highway, and sometimes even off the road entirely, to properly explore Lahaul and Spiti. These linked valley systems north of Manali are staging posts on the journey north to Ladakh, but a detour east into Spiti will take you into a rugged moonscape whose drama is its sheer starkness. As green valleys give way to exposed rock, the road becomes little more than a dirt track, crossing stream beds lined with rough boulders. You’ll pass only the merest traces of civilization for long stretches either side of the tiny district capital, Kaza.