Before you embark on this fascinating but virtual road trip with me, before I tell you more of this itinerary for a trip to Kinnaur and Spiti, here are some words of caution. A road trip to Kinnaur and Spiti region of Himchal Pradesh affect people in a very different way. While some turn wanderers for life, some start swearing by the Himalaya, that is, whenever they swear. A few might turn out to be poets after this trip, while some others might become great adventurists.
Landscapes change so swiftly in the Kinnaur and Spiti region that you’ll turn an insomniac, remembering the scenes with eyes wide open for the rest of your life. Hoping that these introductory words would keep the ones still attached to the more practical side of life away from the lure, let’s embark!
1) Sarahan or Narkanda
Time taken – Shimla to Sarahan – Around 3 hours
Your first pit stop on your way to Kinnaur and Spiti should ideally be at Sarahan or Narkanda. I would suggest Sarahan for it’s one of those quaint Himachal hamlets where life suddenly hits a pause button. The photograph below is of Bhimakali Temple at Sarahan that can also be your staying quarters for the night. Decent, well-equipped rooms and temple’s in-house canteen are perfect to spend a night.
One must experience here, apart from the temple, the tiny dhaba cum sweet house right opposite the temple. That one serves the most amazing ginger tea in the region. Not to be missed.
Watch the fascinating play of fog and light that starts pouring from the temple’s wooden windows once the sun descends and you’re in for a good time. Ancient trumpets and rituals await you at the arti time in the temple at around 7.30 every evening.
But, before you lose yourself to the rituals or the happy breeze that surrounds Sarahan, grab yourself some apples from the apple orchards that come into full bloom in early August.
Stay – Sarahan’s Bhimakali Temple or one of the many guest houses here.
Food – The temple canteen or one of the tiny shacks near the temple entry.
Quick Tip – En route Sangla from Sarahan, keep a lookout for the unnamed eatery, right by the side of Sharma Bhojanalya, at Badhal. It’s quite famous in the travel circuit for its delicious Rajma Chawal and red, fried chillies.
Time Taken – Sarahan to Sangla – Around 3.5 hours
This charming road, taking you to Sangla Valley, awaits you after Sarahan. It’s thrillingly riddled with shooting stones (!) that might or might not come tumbling from one of the grand mountains, right on the top of your car. Add to it the numerous waterfalls that you need to drive through and you’re in the middle of the great Kinnaur-Spiti road trip.
That said, there is little need to panic. A good number of vehicles can be seen ferrying passengers on this route. Just avoid driving through this stretch during rains and you’ll be as safe as anyone can be.
Breathtaking scenery that’ll make you count some countless shades of green in the region will awe and fascinate you as you near Sangla Valley. Once there, make yourself home for the day and enjoy the charm of yet another hamlet that’s decked with trees that bear peaches, apples, figs and more. Must visit at Sangla are the ancient Kamru Fort and Temple.
Modeled on the Himalayan architecture that uses rocks and wood to safeguard the buildings from earthquakes, even the houses in this tiny place are a wonder. Amazingly warm people add to its many charms.
Stay – One of the many budget guest houses here, or the PWD Guest House make for a decent, comfortable stay at Sangla.
Food – Sangla has a number of eateries in the main square, serving mostly north Indian fare and the hills’ special momos and noodles.
Time taken – Sangla to Chitkul – Around 45 minutes
Start early in the day from Sangla and get ready to be amazed. I write that as Chitkul, your next pit stop, would put to shame any claims of the Bavarian Forests being the most wondrous of all. A bumpy yet pleasant 2 hours ride to Chitkul goes right amidst pine and oak forests, Himalayan water streams gurgling their way down to the river, flowing right across the roads!
An ancient temple, made entirely out of wood, also makes for an interesting visit at Chitkul.
Gorge over plates of Maggi and cups full of tea at the rare few eateries in Chitkul before you head to the riverside meadows. Wild flowers in dazzling colours and water streams would greet you here. You can easily explore Chitkul in 2 hours and leave for Kalpa. Yet, if you wish to call it a day at Chitkul, here’s my recommendation.
Stay & Food – A few good guest houses, tariffs starting from INR 500 a night. For food, your guest houses’ cook or packed food would be your best and only friends.
Time taken – Chitkul to Kalpa – Around 2 hours
You would be holding your breath when you first near the very gorgeous Kalpa. I write that for Kalpa is where you’ll have a rendezvous with the Kinner Kailash mountain. Astonishingly lofty, the twin peaks play hide and seek with the clouds. Come night and you’ll have dozens of shootings stars setting the sky on fire. A tiny town that reeks of Himalayan hospitality, Kalpa has an ancient goddess temple and a Buddhist monastery for must visits.
If you ask me, Kalpa is one of Kinnaur’s most amazing wonders. Cafes (Jyoti Eating Corner to put it short) that serve world’s best pancakes, kids who wouldn’t stop shooting smiles at you, apple orchards that set the very wind on an aromatic fire, the bluest skies that you would have ever seen and shooting stars to dazzle the night with, Kalpa is bliss. After Kalpa, keep your seat belts latched, for the road further up is hailed as world’s most dangerous road!
Stay – Kalpa has an impressive number of budget hotels that score quite good on comfort too.
Food – While most of the hotels have in-house restaurants, Kalpa has some quaint cafes that will delight and surprise you with offerings like pancakes, Israeli food and more.
5) Nako Village
Time taken – Kalpa to Nako – Around 3.5 hours
As you cross Kalpa after a night halt, get ready for surprises, for the landscapes will take an alarmingly charming turn now. The lush green of Kinnaur, which accompanied you right from Shimla, will turn into barren brown now. Some of the highest mountains of Himachal Pradesh will astound you with their sheer loftiness as you leave for Nako. Impressively serene, Nako Lake, around which the village of Nako is clustered, will alarm you by casting crystal clear reflections of the high mountains in its water.
Nako also has the tiny but ancient Nako Monastery and a few trails for trekkers. En route Nako from Kalpa are roaring rivers and ramshackle swinging bridges, which turn the roads as fascinating as the destination.
6) Tabo via Giu Village
Time taken – Nako to Tabo via Giu – Around 3 hours
After you’ve spent a night of wandering around the lake at Nako, it’s time to enter Spiti and Lahaul, for this is where the border of Kinnaur ends. While you can head straight to Tabo from Nako, there is a little wonder that goes by the name of Giu Mummy, which you shouldn’t miss. Housed in a tiny room, this 550+ years old mummy supposedly belongs to a Buddhist monk. Putting the tiny village of Giu on the travel circuit, the mummy sees a steady number of travellers and villagers coming in all day.
Surprisingly green for its altitude, Giu Village has a few places to stay if the 2 hours drive from Nako has made you tired. If not, then you can go back on the main highway that connects Nako to Tabo. Back on the highway, a 3 hour drive will have you at Tabo.
An ancient, really ancient, considering it was built in 996 AD, monastery at Tabo is its prime attraction. Made mostly out of mud and rock, this is one of the oldest monasteries in India and a major attraction as well. Worth exploring at Tabo are a few rock caves as well.
Stay – Tabo has quite a few budget lodgings. Other than that, the Monastery Guest House is a great and interesting stay option. Tariffs start at INR 300 a night.
Food – Other than the Monastery Restaurant that serves really delicious food, there are a few restaurants at the back of monastery that serve Spitian food. Not to be missed.
Time taken – Tabo to Dhankar – Around 1 hour
Dhankar Village would be your next probable pit-stop after Tabo Village on the Kinnaur Spiti road trip. At 12,774 ft, Dhankar is a major stopover between Tabo and the town of Kaza. Famous, majorly for the Dhankar Monastery that is one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, Dhankar can also be your stop for the night.
The other must visit at Dhankar Village is the Dhankar Lake. A 1 hour trek that starts from the new monastery below the Dhankar Monastery takes you to this high altitude lake. The green tinged clear waters of the lake come more as a surprise, as the high mountains that surround it are completely barren and the landscape itself is a cold desert at its might.
Stay – The Monastery Guesthouse at Dhankar is quite well-equipped for a comfortable stay. Other than that, a few homestays also make for an experiential stay at Dhankar.
Food – As for food, other than a tiny shack, the monastery kitchen is your best bet. The Kashmiri cooks there can dole out some of the best biryani and zeera aloo that you would have ever tasted. Also serves non-vegetarian fare.
8) Kaza & Ki/Key
Time taken – Dhankar to Kaza – Around 1 hour, Kaza to Ki – Around 45 minutes
At a drive of around 2 hours from Dhankar Village, the little wonderland of Kaza awaits you. One of the most well-equipped towns of Lahaul and Spiti, Kaza is a major commercial hub too. A huge Buddhist Monastery and some really impressive cafes dot Kaza. This is where you ought to dig for souvenirs, Spitian handicrafts, food or more. A backpacker’s hub, Kaza is also the trekking base for the meadow-like villages of Komic and Lanza. Must-visit this.
Stay – Kaza has an impressive number of hotels and homestays. My top picks for a stay at Kaza are the Sakya Abode Hotel (tariffs start at INR 1300/night) and Sakya’s Homestay (tariff start at INR 750/night, breakfast included).
Food – A visit to the German Bakery at Kaza’s Kunzum Complex is a must, for they dole out some very sumptuous desserts, including the must have Apple Crumble.
After a night or two of camping at Komic, you can head out for the must visit Ki Village. Immensely famous for the cliff side Ki Monastery, Ki has a few trekking trails as well. Close to Ki are the two villages of Kibber and Tashigang, which is famously hailed as Asia’s highest village.
Time taken – Kaza to Chandratal Lake – Around 3 hours
Well, of course. A trip to Kinnaur Spiti would stay incomplete if I miss Chandratal Lake. A wetland of international repute, Chandratal Lake can be accessed via a trek from Battal, or the other 8 km trek from Kunzum Top, or via the motorable road that takes you quite close to the camps here. Nestled from all the sides by the lofty mountains, Chandratal Lake is a natural wonder at 14,100 ft.
Camps are allowed outside of a 5 km radius from the lake, and a night of camping at Chandertal is an experience in itself. A few adventure sports companies also offer tents at the campsites, with one night’s rental at around INR 1500; the rental charges also include two meals. Some bits of bargaining can further scale it down.
10) Manali via Rohtang Pass
Time taken – Chandratal Lake to Manali – Around 4 hours
An early morning from Chandratal Lake is highly recommended for the route to Manali is fraught with some wild water streams, popularly known as pagal nallas for their mad streak! Thus, it’s advisable that you cross the stretch before the Sun gets too high and the water streams grow more wildly with newly melted snow water!
Again, this 8 hours ride though quite bumpy is amazingly scenic, for lush green mountainside greets you again after the brown barrens of Spiti. Rainbows, waterfalls, mist and deliciously good food awaits you at Manali down this road.
I’m sure that reading this most common itinerary for a road trip of Kinnaur and Spiti, would have made you dash for your backpack and hit the roads. But before you do that, here are some quick tips –
> Best time for a Kinnaur-Spiti road trip – May to October (to be avoided during heavy rains)
> In case you are wondering how to book PWD Guest Houses in Kinnaur region, call them at – +91-1786-222252 to book a room for yourself.
> You can also access Spiti via Manali though it increases the risk of getting hit by AMS because of a quick increase in altitude.
> Carry most of the money in cash for there are a rare few ATMs en route. I saw the last one at Nako. Same applies for fuel requirements as well; carry a filled fuel can.
> Driving on the Kinnaur-Spiti roads is strongly unadvisable after sunset, for these are nothing less than treacherous.
If you’re still left with any queries regarding a road trip to Kinnaur and Spiti, write it in the comments section below to get a quick answer. Leaving you on that dreamy mountain trip now, I’ll scoot off for another trip.
Till then, happy travelling.
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