This meadow in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district is surrounded by dense pine forests. It features a button-shaped plateau with a lake that has an island at the centre. This combination of three alpine features has led to it being christened “Mini Switzerland”. Though there are brief spells of snowfall, winters here aren’t as harsh as in the rest of Himachal Pradesh. Hike through the Kalatop Khajjiar Sanctuary that surrounds the meadow. Visit the Khajji Nag temple, famous for the wooden images of the Pandavas and Kauravas hanging from its ceiling. The main reason for Khajjiar’s popularity is that it affords travellers a tranquil, isolated winter experience without having to travel to extreme altitudes or locations.
The trail to Sandakphu, the highest peak on the Singalila Ridge, is one of Darjeeling’s toughest trekking routes. Located on the edge of the Singalila National Park, the 3,780-metre-high peak is famous for its panoramic view of the Himalayas. Four of the five highest peaks in the world—Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu—are visible along the trail. The trekking season lasts from October to May, but for those looking to experience the extremes of winter, December to February is the time to go. Many trekkers tend to camp overnight around Sandakphu to catch the early morning view of the four peaks.
The Zanskar river has some of the most thrilling white-water rafting routes in the world. But during the winter, it gives way to a whole new adventure sport—trekking on ice. The sole route connecting the villages in the Zanskar Valley to the rest of Ladakh is known to travellers as the Chadar trek. The nine-day journey through the canyon goes past Buddhist monasteries and frozen waterfalls. It is considered one of the most difficult routes in the world because of altitudes that go as high as 3,850 m and temperatures that can drop to -35°C. The ice can be thin in some areas, so it is important to hire guides.
India’s longest cave system, the 25-km-long Krem Liat Prah, was discovered in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills in 2006. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
Meghalaya is home to some of the deepest and longest caves in the subcontinent, some of which are still unexplored. Negotiating the caves can be a challenge even for experts, but a good option for beginners is the 7-km-long Krem Mawmluh cave near Cherrapunji. The hike involves walking through water pools past dramatic stalactites and stalagmites, while avoiding run-ins with the occasional bat. The ideal time to visit is between December and March when the region’s rivers are at their shallowest.
The dizzying array of Himalayan ski slopes can rival the more popular Alpine routes. Photo: Anastasia Zolotar/Shutterstock
Narkanda is one of India’s oldest skiing destinations. Located 64 km northeast of Shimla, it has numerous slopes, from gentle inclines for beginners to steep tracks for experts. The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation offers ski packages with courses, equipment, and accommodation. The best time to visit is between December and March, when there is plenty of snowfall.
One of Gulmarg’s most prominent attractions is the Gulmarg Gondola, the highest ski lift in the world. The first phase goes to Kongdori station, located at an altitude of 3,099 metres. The second goes all the way to Apharwat peak, at a height of 4,200 m. Apharwat has some of the most difficult skiing routes in the country. Another recently-added attraction is heli-skiing: expert skiers are flown to a peak in a helicopter so that they can ski back down. Apart from the regular routes, Gulmarg also has several routes that experienced skiers can explore with the help of guides. A bonus: It has one of the longest skiing seasons in the country, from December to mid-April.
In February, hordes of skiing enthusiasts, both amateur and professional, head to Solang Valley for the Alpine Premier League—one of India’s biggest skiing competitions. Thanks to infrastructure projects like the Solang ropeway, it has become a major skiing destination. While Solang does not have many extreme or unexplored slopes, there are several ski routes suitable for both beginners and experts. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports conducts certificate courses in skiing here. Several private instructors and guides are available. The best time to visit is between January and February, when snowfall is at its peak.
Located near the Yumthang Valley of Sikkim at a height of 3,500 metres, Phuni has some of the world’s highest ski routes. However, since it’s one of the country’s newest skiing destinations, infrastructure is still rudimentary. When planning a trip, it is advisable to organise guides and instructors well in advance. The closest available accommodation is in Lachung village, which is about an hour’s drive away.
The ski slopes of Auli rise from 2,500 to 3,050 metres above sea level. They offer a panoramic view of some of the highest peaks of the Himalayas, including Nanda Devi, Kamet, Mana Parvat, and Dunagiri. Auli can be accessed via road or a 4 km-long ropeway from Joshimath. It also has a ski-lift connecting the lower and upper slopes, making it easier to do multiple ski runs.
The lowest point in the Namdapha National Park is 200 metres above sea level, while the highest is 4,571 metres. This dramatic range of altitudes gives Namdapha the rare distinction of having tropical, temperate, and alpine forests within its area. As a result, its residents include 60 per cent of the species found in any checklist of Indian mammals. It is one of the few places in the world that has four species of big cats—snow leopard, clouded leopard, common leopard, and the tiger. It also has over 500 species of birds, including some that are only found in northeast India. Jeep and elephant safaris are available in the park, while trekking is also an option for those who want to head into less-visited territory. There are government-run lodges inside the park and camping accommodations are also available.
An hour’s drive from Guwahati, Pobitora is a relatively small sanctuary. Large parts of it are covered by marshland, making it the perfect habitat for the one-horned rhinoceros and thousands of birds. Between November and March, several species of migratory birds visit the sanctuary. They include the greylag goose, grey heron, great egret, and large-billed crow. Visitors can take jeep and elephant safaris. Though accommodation is available within and around the sanctuary, most people tend to visit Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary as a daytrip from the city of Guwahati.
Deserts and salt flats might not be the first things to come to mind when you think of sanctuaries, but the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch is an interesting exception. Spread over 5,000 sq km, it is the only place in the country where the Indian wild ass survives. During the winter, the sanctuary is home to hundreds of kinds of birds, including migratory species such as the ceraneous vulture, demoiselle crane, blue-tailed bee-eater, and houbara bustard. Camel and jeep safaris are available from the nearby towns of Dhrangadhra, Patdi and Zainabad.
Rising to an altitude of 3,000 metres, Neora Valley National Park is a region with extreme biodiversity. The national park has leopards, clouded leopards, Himalayan tahrs, black bears, civets, and the adorable red panda. It also has one of the most diverse bird populations in India. Rare species that have been spotted here include the satyr tragopan, rufous-throated partridge, and pygmy wren-babbler. The only way to explore the park is to trek through it. A number of camping trips are organised by private operators between November and March.
Appeared in the December 2013 issue as part of “In Praise of Winter”.
Tushar Abhichandani is a freelance journalist, struggling stand-up comedian, and former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. He prefers travelling to places that are devoid of hipsters.