Keel’s Excellent Adventure: The Har Ki Dun Valley Trek

Not a bad camp site — but I’m getting ahead of myself

Hello Everyone — back again with details of our trek up to the Har Ki Dun Valley (Valley of the Gods) in Uttarakhand Province in late May. It was pretty hard to find details about the trek from people who weren’t tour guides trying to sell you a spot in their tour group, so hopefully this helps. To get the two big questions out of the way to start:

  1. No, you do not need your own tent, although it certainly will save you money (and give you a little more freedom) if you do. The little rest houses along the way (in Taluka, Seema, and Har Ki Dun) were generally ~500 rupees for a two-person room
  2. No, you do not need to bring your own stove and food. You should, however, bring snacks. For water, there are streams everywhere where you can fill up your bottles. Just bring a filter or steri-pen, if you are worried about that

Getting to the trek:

Our journey started with a train from Lucknow to Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand province. Booking train tickets in India is one of the strangest travel-related things I have ever done. We showed up to the train booking office the day before our train, and were told that the tickets were all sold out. Indian trains (at least some of them), have a batch of tickets that are released for last minute sale, so we purchased two “waiting list” beds, and hoped for the best. The next afternoon, we went to the train station to see if we got tickets. Only one was available, so we took it. However, when I asked if we should return our other ticket (that hadn’t worked out), the lady looked at me like I was crazy, and asked why I would want to do that. Instead of worrying too much about it, we decided to roll with it, get on the train with our single good ticket (and one other ticket-like-thing), and see what happened. I figured that at the very worst, I would get kicked off at the next stop and then just find my own way to Dehradun via bus.

To make a long story short, no one ever even checked our tickets. During the entire ~12 hour train ride, not a single person asked to see them. I even went to the conductor and showed him my not real ticket in the hope that there might be an open bed I could steal, and he just told me that no seats were available. So I sat on a chair in the aisle for a few hours while Birch slept on the bed, before switching with her for the end of the ride. Birch ended up sleeping on the floor in between two beds for the last few hours of the ride.

So we arrived in Dehradun the next morning, tired but pumped to have made it. I think the lesson of this story is: if you’re trying to get somewhere, just start moving, and don’t stop until someone forces you to turn around. It generally works out in the end.

Anywho, Dehradun. It was not a particularly exciting city. We spent the day sleeping and wandering the city in search of snacks. We landed on large amounts of dried chickpeas and nuts that we could throw in our backpacks. We also re-packed our bags so that we could leave the stuff we didn’t need at our guesthouse (Lakshmi Guesthouse) to pick up when we came back. There are daily buses from Dehradun to Sankri, the start of the trek. They take about 9–11 hours, and leave sometime in the morning. We were told the bus left at 6:30AM by our guesthouse operators, but when we got to the bus station at 5:30, we were told that the bus was not until 9. Alas for the loss of sleep. Still, we got on the bus with no problem, and were treated to a simultaneously beautiful and incredibly bouncy / windy bus ride for ~10 hours up into the Himalayas.

Our trusty bus!
Village across the valley

The best part of the ride was slowly moving out of the 100+ degree heat of sea-level into the pleasant coolness of mountains. I’ve never been so happy to need to put on a jacket on a bus. We made a brief stop on the way where all visitors (functionally, foreigners, as no one else on the bus got off) have to pay an entrance fee. We paid ~300 rupees each for each night we planned to be in the park, plus another 50 rupees for bringing our own tent. We did not know exactly how many days we were going to spend in the park when we entered, and I think we ended up overstaying by a day, but no one checked our tickets after we entered, so it didn’t really matter.

Sankri just before sunset
Sunset view from the hotel

Sankri has plenty of housing options. We paid 800 rupees for a double room with a western toilet and hot water. Two of the most beautiful things you can have in a hotel while traveling.

Also delicious food options in the town — Chapati, pickled veggies, and dal (lentils)

And the next morning, we were off!

Day 1: Sankri to just past Taluka (~14km)

Sankri and the clear morning air

The first leg of the trek goes from Sankri to Taluka, a relatively flat ~11km stretch. The track actually follows a dirt road that jeeps occasionally pass by on — you can actually take one of these directly to Taluka if you want, but the walk is lovely with periodic waterfalls and great views of the valley opening up in front of you.

Water break!
Oops, looks like the road is a little flooded
Outskirts of Taluka

We got to Taluka in the mid-afternoon. I’ve never been somewhere that had more flies. We got swarmed at the little dhaba where we stopped for instant noodles, and left the town as quickly as possible. There were guesthouses in Taluka, but we were pretty pumped to start camping, so we continued on another 3km or so to a little flat-looking wooded glade along the river, set up our camp, and called it a night.

That patch of green grass on the left was our campsite
Dinner hut!

Oh, we also hiked another kilometer or so up the trail to one of the ubiquitous huts that sell instant noodles, chai, and other snacks along the way. Aside from the villages, which tended to have little houses where you could get chapati, dal, and veggies, these little huts were the main food-sources we had when we were hiking along. They probably popped up every hour or two along the trail, until you got to the very top of the valley. The huts were run by local villagers, and usually just consisted of a tarp, a small open fire for cooking things, and some wooden benches for sitting.

Day 2 — Taluka to Seema or Osla

The trail the next day goes from Taluka to either Seema or Osla. Seema, on the same side of the river as Taluka (true left), holds the government run guest house and is a great place to stop for a delicious dinner of chapati and dal. It is little more than a rest-stop / overnight though, as the actual village, Osla, is on the other side of the river (there are a number of bridge crossings). Osla apparently has homestays and dhabas where you can get food, although I can’t confirm as we did not walk through the village.

Getting started in the morning — it’s pretty green
Purifying some stream water. Delicious!
There were tributaries every few kilometers that we had to cross

On the way, we passed by two smaller villages: Datmir (high above you on the true left at the beginning of the day) and Gangwar (close to the river on the true right about two-thirds of the way to Seema).

First views of Gangwar
Passing by and above Gangwar
The terraces extend hundreds of meters up the valley walls — you can just see Osla at the top there
Closer view of Osla high above

As you walk, terrace farms spring up all around you — mostly growing wheat and barley (I think) as well as other vegetables. After passing by Osla and walking through Seema (and stopping to weather a brief storm in the dhaba where we had dinner), Birch and I followed the path across the river, crossing to the river’s true right for the first time of the trip, and began a much steeper ascent up and away from the river.

Seema from the other side
Crossing the river
Looking ahead towards Har Ki Dun

It was starting to get a little dark, so we quickly started looking for a place to camp. We settled on a series of empty terraces that had a few other tarp tents pitched around.

Camp site #3!

Little did we know, the place we pitched our tent was actually a commonly used by the Gujar shepherds — nomadic people who live in the parks and herd sheep and goats. Our first sign was when their dogs came up from the other tent sites we’d seen to investigate us. Fortunately, my sister does not share my fear of dogs, so she was able to placate them with some well-timed head scratching.

Not so fearsome when they’re in it for the scratches
And now we had our own protectors!

Dogs successfully co-opted, we settled down to unpack our tent, only to be surprised by a huge flock of sheep and goats appearing on the ridge-line above our tent.

They’re flocking this way

We were soon engulfed by the herd as they came down to their evening sleeping grounds — the terraces around our tents.

So many goats (and sheep)!
Fine. Just don’t pee on us please

It was no problem though. As the shepherd man followed the last of his flock down the ridge, he called out to us “Chai!?” We decided to accept his offer of tea, and joined him and his wife for an evening of chilling around the fire. They spoke very little Hindi, and we spoke even less, so it ended up being a pleasant evening of sipping chai and watching the sun go down. Right when we got there, the man took a small bowl, walked over to his goats, and started milking one.

Thanks for sharing!

It was definitely the best chai we had in India — creamy and incredibly flavorful. The man and his wife also insisted that we join them for dinner. Again, a fresh bowl of milk stirred into a pot of boiling rice and a large helping of salt — almost like a mountain risotto — was on the menu, and it was delicious (if difficult to eat with just your hands). We headed off after the sun set, and fell asleep to the sounds of goats and sheep shuffling around at night.

Mmmmm, goats milk chai

Day 3: Seema to Har Ki Dun

We got an early start the next day, as the sun was shining brightly. Still, the sheep had already headed out by the time we rose.

Morning view

In the picture above, there is a green meadow across the river from us. The meadow turned out to be the last stop on our trip — Dev Thatch — but I’ll get to that later.

We passed a couple more little chai-huts on our way, before deciding to take a break to read and soak up the sun on a view point.

Another guard dog — the collar is to protect its neck if it gets in a fight with a bear or snow leopard
Not a bad place to chill

Unfortunately, as was the case almost every day of our hike, rain clouds started to roll in, and we were forced to head out and continue on our way. The trail continued up and over a ridge to the junction of the Har Ki Dun and Ruinsara rivers. We turned left, and continued along with path above the Har Ki Dun river through groves of Birch trees until we came up to a small pine forest. There are still little chai stands along the way. The valley is at ~3600m above sea level, so the last day can get tough.

Storm clouds coming in
Checking out the Birch trees
Steep drop-off down the sides
But still hinting at the mountains to come
We passed a lovely little waterfall
Walking through alpine meadows
View down the meadow
Starting to get a little tired
Last chai-stand before the valley
Just need to clear the pine trees

And we were there! There were a number of tour groups that had set up tents along the river, so we climbed up to the ridgeline overlooking the valley to get away from all the people and set up camp. There were also two guest houses, for those who didn’t have their own tents. The main camping area and the ridge we camped on are littered with huge boulders, making the landscape look like one where giants should be living, not people.

View of the main campsite from the ridge above
Walking through the boulder field to dinner from our tent

We arrived wet and pretty cold, and it didn’t get better during the night. With temperatures in the valley dropping to around freezing, we needed every layer of clothes we brought in addition to our sleeping bags to stay warm. So we were pretty relieved when we woke up the next morning.

Day 4: Har Ki Dun Valley

Ah! The sun

We had tucked our tent into a nook below a giant boulder, and it was immediately time to dry things off.

Dry clothes are the best
As is doing some reading in the sun

Birch wasn’t feeling well, but I decided to do a day hike up the valley to the Jamdar Glacier. We weren’t quite sure where it was, but if you look at the picture above, I figured there must be a glacier just around the corner at the far end.

I headed out the right side of this picture

Rather than climbing down into the valley, I decided to go through the boulder field and along a ridge on the side of the mountain until I got to the end of the valley.

Heading out
The cow bones everywhere were a little disturbing
View back down the valley — our tent is on the ridge on the center-right near the pine trees

It didn’t work. After a couple hours I got to a large cut that did not have a viable crossing. Not wanting to turn back, however, I decided to climb down the steep walls of the cut and get back to the valley floor from there. I had to scramble down a rock field leftover from a landslide and over an ice patch, but after a while I made it down to the valley floor and continued my way towards the glacier.

Even in the summer, the trees looked a little foreboding

I pretty quickly got off of the grassy valley floor and into a slowly rising area (I have no idea, from a geological / natural perspective, what to call it). The ground was covered with large boulders and long grasses that were interspersed around small streams that were coming together to form the Har Ki Dun River that we had been following for the entire hike.

View down the valley back towards the campsite
Climbing up the boulders
The beginning of the boulder and grass field

It was a kind of forbidding landscape, made all the more so by the omnipresent threat of rain and distant rumble of thunder. Still, it was beautiful in a dark way.

The river coming down out of the glacier
More boulders to climb up!
Also the occasional green meadow
More waterfalls coming down out of the heights
Lots of clambering up rocks to be done
I’m not sure why the trees were not covered in leaves, but it was ominous
Still, there were wildflowers blooming to cheer things up

In the end, I did not make it to the glacier. It started to rain even more, and I also came across some relatively fresh looking bear scat. As the only person within miles of my location the warnings I had gotten about bears made me feel a little skittish, and I decided it was time to head back. Still, it was a lovely hike, and my return downhill was rewarded with a little more sun and views like this:

Not a bad way to spend the day

Day 5: Har Ki Dun to Seema

We got up the next morning and decided to head back down to Seema, as Birch still wasn’t feeling well. Still, this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and the view of and from our tent still astounds me.

If you look closely, you can see our tent right in the middle
And just an incredible view from our tent

We headed back the way we came, wanting to make it down out of the valley as quickly as possible. There is a small bridge across the river that you can take across the Har Ki Dun River before it meets the Ruinsara. If you do this, you can then cross over the Ruinsara River and hike up to Dev Thatch from the upstream side. We didn’t do this, but it looked beautiful. Here are some pics from our hike down:

The Har Ki Dun campsite
Farewell guesthouses and mountains
The bridge over the river in camp
Looking down the river
Down and out of the valley
Alpine meadow
Goodbye Har Ki Dun
Trail back out
Back to goat-land
Coming round the mountain
Carrying on down the trail
Break time!
The bridge guardian — our final challenge

The hike was fairly uneventful. However, when we got back to the village, we quickly sensed that something interesting was going on. As it turned out, the head of the Forestry Department (an important government official) was in town for meetings with each of the villages in the valley. As it turns out, the entire area is part of a national park, and as such is protected from certain types of development. The problem is that the villagers want the government to build a road to their villages and install electrical lines so that they have access to things like electricity and modern medicine. The government was not willing to do that, and had made a proposal to fully relocate all of the villages to the next valley over and provide them with roads and electricity there. The villages have been there for 1,000 years, however, and it seemed most of the villagers did not want to move. So the forestry official and local village leaders were essentially holding a Q&A session at each village for people to come and ask questions and express their opinions. The assembly began when a young boy began blowing a giant horn and beating a drum, calling everyone down out of the fields. Then they held the Q&A session, and finally there was singing and dancing with communal chai drinking. It was an interesting experience, even moreso because I really am not sure what I think the correct answer is.

The gathering begins
Little kid crushing the horn
The village leader is in the green sweater — the forestry department official is in the blue track pants
Villagers circling up
This guy had a lot of questions — every one listened attentively and applauded after each question and answer
Final questions for the leaders

Day 6: Seema to Dev Thatch, Dev Thatch to Taluka, Taluka to Sankri

Morning view from Seema
Swarm of goats!

Day 6 was a bit of a marathon. After eating breakfast, we decided to head up to the Dev Thatch meadow, a short 2.5hour hike from Seema, before heading back to our first campsite from there. The meadow is a major stopover point for the Gujar shepherds as they move through the valley, and is also the gateway for a hike to Ruinsara Lake. You can stay overnight in Dev Thatch if you have your own tent and food. From there, you can visit Ruinsara as a day hike or carry on to the Bali Pass and do the Yamunotri Trek. Unfortunately, the snow was still too high in the passes (and we did not have enough time) for us to do this, but it is a possibility if you are feeling particularly intrepid.

It’s hard to tell, but this boulder is on the other side of the valley, and is at least 50 ft tall
It’s a pretty steep drop down the cliff
First view of Dev Thatch
View back to the other side of the valley
I found the shepherd camp — with horses!
There were wildflowers in bloom everywhere
And a big forest going up the side of the mountain
The shepherds built wells to collect rainwater where there were no streams
View up towards Ruinsara Valley
Farewell Dev Thatch

The morning hike was sunny and lovely, and we spent a couple hours hanging out in the Dev Thatch meadow reading our books. A great way to refresh before heading back down out of the higher mountain areas.

Time to head down
Past locals carrying firewood on their backs
Beautiful butterflies
And more swarms of goats
Rinsing off in the mountain stream

After we got down to Seema, we picked up our bags and headed to Taluka.

Water fountain in Seema
Farewell terraces
Some of the trees were blooming
First view back of Gangwar
Farewell Gangwar
The ridgelines started to tower above us
Back down into the jungle
Birch made a new friend
And we finished up the trek
With a last look at Datmir
And a final view of the river

As we neared Taluka, the promise of a warm shower was too much to pass up, and we decided to take a jeep back to Sankri rather than camping outside Taluka for night. We found several jeeps waiting near the entrance to the village, and were able to convince one to take us along the road back to Sankri for 600 rupees. The 12 km trip took about ~45 minutes, so bad was the road, but it was totally worth it for the beautiful sunset as we got back to Sankri. And yes, we got that warm shower (and a sit-down toilet!) back in the world.

A perfect end to an awesome trip
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