WHETHER YOU SEEK WILDERNESS ADVENTURE, immersion in a unique culture, or a spiritual journey, a trek through Bhutan’s mountains puts you in the heart of this little-known Himalayan Kingdom.
Here are some considerations for first-time trekkers:
Trekking in Bhutan involves a multi-day trip, arranged like a camping expedition. This is due to government guidelines and because many areas are remote and devoid of accommodations. It is not uncommon to walk for several days before encountering a village.
A typical day consists of 5 to 7 hours of walking among some of the world’s most pristine natural surroundings, including subtropical jungles, alpine highlands, and snow-capped peaks.
You will be accompanied by a licensed Bhutanese guide, cook, and mules or yaks that carry tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food and other supplies.
In a nation steeped in Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the mountains are sacrosanct, housing deities. As such, you cannot scale peaks higher than 6,000 meters. At 7,570 meters, Gangkhar Puensum, the highest mountain in Bhutan, remains the highest unclimbed peak in the world.
While treks range from easy to strenuous, it helps to be moderately fit. Daily altitude gain is relatively high, so be aware of how best to acclimate your body.
When to Go
The best high altitude trekking seasons are in late April, when colorful bursts of wildflowers dot the landscape, or during the pleasant, clear days of October.
Short treks at lower elevations are possible during most months. You can also time your visit to coincide with one of Bhutan’s colorful festivals, getting a glimpse inside the dzongs, or fortress-monasteries, that serve as administrative, religious, and social centers.
Climate varies significantly by region. The north, bordering Tibet, is perennially covered with snow. The central regions enjoy four distinct seasons similar to those of Western Europe, and the subtropical south is hot and humid. Monsoon rains pelt the country from June to September.
There are more than a dozen treks, ranging in difficulty. Some combine scenery and culture, passing dense pine and oak forests on the mountainside; whitewashed dzongs overlooking valleys; and chortens, squat monuments housing sacred Buddhist relics.
Druk Path is a week-long trek that crosses mountains connecting the valleys of Paro and Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. The sparsely populated route winds around freshwater lakes, and if your timing is right, dozens of varieties of scented rhododendron bloom in late spring.
Bumthang Cultural and Gangtey Nature treks are shorter, lasting from two to four days. Gangtey passes through isolated valleys, including the winter home of rare black-necked cranes.
Of the thousand or so trekkers who visit each year, most head for Jhomolhari, the third highest peak in Bhutan and “abode of the Goddess Jhomo.” Following the river, the trek offers some of the best mountain scenery, including highland villages, yak pastures, and a base camp embedded in natural beauty.
Taking two weeks, the Jhomolhari – Laya – Gasa trek is an extension of the above. It weaves through the high Himalayas, leaving the Jhomolhari trail and heading east along the Tibetan border to Laya, and then south to Gasa and its hot springs.
Lunana Snowman is one of the hardest high altitude treks, involving walking and living in remote areas beneath the peaks of 6 mountains, each over 7,000 meters high. The mystical trail crosses nine passes, taking you by villages and nomad groups, and through forests of blue pine, juniper and rhododendron.
You cannot visit Bhutan on a whim as the government controls the number of travelers allowed into the country each year. Arrangements must be made through registered Bhutanese tour operators beforehand, and you have the choice of customizing your own trip or joining a pre-planned tour.
Each visitor is required to pay a fee of US $200 per day — $250 in the high season. This sounds steep, but it includes taxes, accommodations, meals, a licensed guide, camping equipment and haulage for treks. This fee applies across the board, whether or not you go trekking, and it includes $65 that the government puts towards education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation.
The easiest way to get to Bhutan is by air. Druk Air, the national airline, is the only carrier that serves Paro Airport, offering flights from Bangkok, Kathmandu, Delhi and several other South Asian cities.
There are plenty of online resources. For starters, check out Matador editor Tim Patterson’s excellent guide to, and impressions of, Bhutan.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan also provides handy information, including a list of tour operators (many of whom have their own websites), local news and events, approved treks, and the latest on travel regulations.
And finally, get a copy of seasoned trekker Bart Jordans’ Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide , including insights on numerous trails, a comprehensive trek grading system, and information on trekking for families with children.
This article was first published on December 8, 2008.