Sunderdhunga valley trek, a neighbor of the more famous Pindari and Kafni glacier treks is considered to be most beautiful trek of the three.
Sunderdhunga trek follows river Sunderdhunga upstream from Khati until its origin, making way through thick forests home to many animals; remote, almost bordering on exotic, villages; glaciers and pristine alpine meadows. Packing more variety in each kilometer than any other trek, Sunderdhunga is surely a trek that offers multitude of natural shows.
It’s said that a man washing his blanket in the river found a beautiful stone, presumably gold. The name Sunderdhunga, literally meaning valley of beautiful stones, is attributed by the locals to that anecdote passed vocally down generations. The authenticity of that lore is anyone's guess but inspiration behind that is for anyone to see.
Day 1 : Bageshwar to Kharkiya via Bharari & Loharkhet (5 hrs by Jeep) Trek: Kharkiya-Khati (5 kms, 1.5 hrs)
Religious town of Bageshwar is the base for all the treks in the region namely Sunderdhunga, Pindari and Kafni. Aptly named Pindari Road connects smaller towns such as Kapkot, Bharari, Saung and beyond to economic hub and district headquarter Bageshwar. This is the road, running along river Saryu, which takes you to the last point on road Kharkiya leaving only 5 kms to be covered on foot up to Khati. This beautiful drive takes you into heart of Kumaon; running along Saryu and affording glimpse of rural life along the way. The drive itself becomes an adventure once you reach Saung. The newly built road from Loharkhet to Kharkiya eliminates the need of tiring climb to Dhakuri on the very first day. The kuchcha road ascends steeply over Saung to Chaurasthal providing panoramic view of the Saryu valley. Some enterprising villagers have come up with small tea stalls providing spots for much needed breaks. The road at Kharkiya intersects the Dhakuri-Khati trek route and so that is the route that you take further. Kharkiya is not much of a village to speak of, just gained prominence owing to its geographical position on the road. Unsurprisingly there are some dhabas set up by villagers capitalizing on the importance of the place as the last road head.
Kharkiya welcomes you with cornucopia of untouched forest; Buransh (Rhododendron), Baanj and Kharsu (varieties of high altitude Oaks).Just a couple of yards down the trail and you see first water stream, one of the many more to come. The 5 kms trail follows a well laid out path cutting across beautiful forest. Although very deep into Kumaon hills, the signs of civilization are surely present on first day. A never tiring group of Kumaoni women, humming cheerfully while their practiced hands pack bundles of grass, a shepherd nonchalantly walking with his cattle- sights indicating a village nearby.
First village on the trail Dau, a settlement of handful of households, is an extension of larger village Khati which presents its first view from here. Khati, perched as if by design against a beautiful backdrop is a km further from Dau. Khati is a major village in the area and it thrives on trekking which is evident by number of lodges in the village. Apart from KMVN and PWD guest houses, Khati also has plethora of private guest houses to offer to backpackers.
Trekking concludes on Khati on day 1. The short 5 km hike from Kharkiya to Khati provides a glimpse of what is next to come and also a nice warm up before more challenging stretches ahead. Khati , a village of just 60 households presents you with perfect place to spend the night and prepare for the trek. Sounds of Ghat Gad and Pindar rivers flowing nearby are probably the last sounds you will hear on your first day as the quaint village goes to bed early.
Day 2: Khati to Jatoli (8kms, 5-6 hours of leisurely trek, 7216 ft to 8036 ft)
Situated at not too high 7216 ft, Khati still boasts off a chilly morning owing to its proximity with Himalayan peaks. The trail bifurcates at Khati, one leading to Sunderdhunga and other to more famous and frequented route of Pindari and Kafni. The trail to Sunderdhunga cuts right through the heart of the village. Pretty village houses with characteristic architecture line the trail. Camera shy kids watch you with amusement as you pass through their verandah .Some kids can be seen helping their mothers remove the husk from grains in a tiring manual process, others frolicking around in cool summer morning.
The construction site of a much needed PHC proclaims end of the village Khati as you descend into thick forest with roars of water flowing deep below becoming more pronounced which each step. The trail soon takes you to a narrow ridge with thundering Pindar on your right and subdued in comparison Ghat Gad, a small tributary of Pindar, on your left. A short descend and Pindar presents itself in all its unrestrained glory. Pindar famously has no dam built on it; a fact which locals proudly but inaccurately attribute to its might and rapid flow. A conversation on Pindar will invariably elicit anecdotes from locals on how a bridge in Maliyadhaud was washed away by might of Pindar or how a local was swept by its waves. A rustic looking bridge presents you with a perfect vantage point to view Pindar, the only sighting of Pindar enroute.
A short walk across the Pindar Bridge and you get first view of Sunderdhunga river, your constant companion from there on. Equally splendid and roaring, you can from this bridge see the confluence of Sunderdhunga river and Pindar which makes it way to Garhwal as Pindar.
As is usually the case, the route further is uphill. One of the better things about a valley trek is that you get to walk along river until it is reduced to a meager stream. The trail rises above the river into the narrow valley. 2 kms from Khati on the trail is small village Ritang, a handful of houses situated amongst thick forest. The trail follows a comfortable incline for half a km when a man made structure breaks the monotony of route. An out of use spillway is now used as pathway. Cattle’s dropping has rendered half of the spillway impossible to walk on, forcing to take more precarious parapet as the way forward. This precarious path, robbing you off chance to enjoy the view of river deep below owing to concentration it demands ends soon in yet another wooden bridge.
The path more or less follows similar pattern henceforth; uphill and downhill alternately. There is little height gain over the stretch of 8 kms. The forest is pristine, with lush green undergrowth and a well laid out path makes for an unforgettable walk. The relatively easy gradient of the ascents coupled with manageable overall distance gives you ample chance to explore the forest around and soak in every nuance of this extraordinary trail.
Village Jatoli presents itself across a small stream. Couple of steps later sure signs of human settlement present themselves in case you missed the village view. A "ghat", built beautifully on aforementioned stream pronounces arrival of the village. A ghat is a traditional village mill using energy of water to grind grains. This village still follows older system where the mill owner keeps a part of grains for himself. Some labored steps and this small village of 23 households presents itself. Women working on stepped farms with deft hands, group of elderly people chattering with smoke ridden eyes, children watching trekkers passing by with perplexed expressions and a small school at the top of the village watching it all below, Jatoli is a village straight out of textbook on rural India.
The first building you see is a hotel, hinting at the importance of tourism on local economy. Almost all the houses are traditionally built with low ceilings and mud plasters.
An enticing prospect if this trek is the chance to experience the lifestyle of such remote villages. Shy, almost intimidated villagers have all the time in their hands to share their experiences and listen to yours with innocent bewilderment. Trekking concludes early on day 2 giving you chance to enjoy beautiful evening in this lovely village with some peaks looming large in the backdrop. The height gained over Khati is not much however the proximity with peaks makes for much cooler clime. Evening will invariably be cold enough to force medium to heavy woolens.
Day 3 : Jatoli to Kathaliya (13 kms; 8 hrs, 8036 to 10660)
Day 3 is when the fun starts, the trail gets more challenging, the terrain more rugged and distance a bit stretched. Today you leave last signs of civilization and wander deep into the beautiful Sunderdhunga valley. The trail rises steeply over Jatoli village, leaving behind last of the village buildings. The steep ascent lasts only about half a km as the top is not too far and once there you treat yourself with splendid view of the village below. The next turn takes you deep into the thick forest; with Sunderdhunga river obscured deep below, making its presence felt only by its thunderous roars.
The trail is more challenging today as the uphill parts are steeper and longer. Also the constantly increasing altitude starts to take its toll. There are numerous streams and small waterfalls enroute to replenish your water supply. The constituents of the forest remain surprisingly constant since day 1 with oaks and rhododendron making the majority. This forest is home to many animals with reported bear sightings by trekkers and villagers alike. Other dwellers include Kakad, a variety of dear with its characteristic cries, other smaller dears, and a wide variety of birds. One small fury companion is a little less shy and can be seen along the trail. Locally called as meed, a tail-less rodent is most commonly sighted member of local fauna.
The first ascent and subsequent descent is easily managed and it leads to first bridge encounter of the day. However, much more splendid than the beautiful idyllic bridge is the thunderous waterfall it is built to cross. Its roars can be heard much before first visual contacts and it provides a great spot for taking first break. Little droplets shower on you as you stand on the bridge leaving you breathless at this picturesque show put up by nature.
The trail is steeper than before and the path transforms into more natural terrain unlike the paved path until this point. Apart from the level of difficulty, there is little or no difference in the scenery or the nature of trail. The major change occurs at around 6 kms mark. The valley suddenly and unexpectedly opens up and presents first clear view of part of Panwali Dwar and Maiktoli ridges, the peaks still elusive. The trail leaves the mountain edges and follows the river, making way through a large boulder area along the bank. A large expanse of way forward is visible.
Surer steps and caution is required to maintain fair purchase on the numerous rocks stacked loosely over each other. The path is not clearly marked and the trail follows river uphill. As the valley narrows, the trail again hugs the mountain edge and rises gently above the river.
The boulder zone is not the end of the adventure as next stretch throws another tricky section to be traversed. Subject to the time of year you are trekking, there is a large seasonal glacier some 1 km ahead the boulder zone. The hardened ice makes firm footing difficult and poses a palatable challenge. The river flowing underneath the huge layer of ice makes for a remarkable view.
Right after the glacier, the trail makes it way through a waterfall. This is one of the many reasons why the route from Jatoli onwards is not deemed fit for ponies. Slippery wet surfaces always require attention, even more so if you are carrying a heavy rucksack. This is no exception and the picturesque waterfall is sure to provide some shaky moments of its own.
The narrowing valley and reducing size of the river suggests that destination is near. The trail now rises steeply for some distance. A point directly opposite the camp site is visible from here and gives some idea of distance to be traversed. The remaining 3-4 kms of the 13 kms long trail are more or less uphill and owing to distance already covered prove to be a bit tiring. The route cuts through various shrubs and trees begin to make way for smaller vegetation as we near the end of tree line.
A shepherd hut visible on opposite side of the river indicates some sort of settlement. The valley comes to an end as a dominating ridge stands right in front with two streams coming from either side of the ridge making a natural Y. On the right hand side of the ridge rests Panwali Dwar with only some parts visible. Maiktoli, one of the more beautiful peaks and highest in the vicinity looms over another ridge on the left with only the characteristic peak visible and the massif below obscured.
There is a shepherd hut in Kathaliya which makes for a cozy accommodation. The place is surrounded by snow clad peaks on three sides and is pretty cold. A young mountain goat, called Kathli in local dialect, gives the place its unique name and its understandable why as numerous herds can be found scattered in the mountains around. The place is only inhabited by a handful of seasonal shepherds tending to groups as large as couple of hundred animals. The confluence of two streams making Sunderdhunga Gad is a breathtaking site and a perfect place to get some well earned rest.
Day 4 : Kathaliya- Maiktoli Base Camp ( Kathaliya ; 8 kms, 10660 ft - 12628 ft )
Striking ridge of Panwali Dwar range , shrouded in morning haze stands majestically in the direction of today’s destination :Maiktoli Base Camp. Maiktoli Peak, bathed in golden hue of early morning sun stands on the left. The trail takes you down to river first, crossing it through a huge boulder acting as a natural bridge. The terrain is lush green with grass making it a natural choice for shepherds. Baluni top is clearly visible from the river rising almost vertically from the valley.
The trail is continuous uphill from the river following a narrow path between two ridges. The altitude is comfortably over tree line and only vegetation is in form of small shrubs. The narrow path follows a stream uphill and is pretty steep incline for about half a km. The incline gradually decreases to a more comfortable level and continues so for some distance.
The trail takes an adventurous turn as a large glacier zone looms large ahead. A look at route ahead surges a rush of adrenaline as the route follows a very narrow gorge completely laden with hardened glacial ice at a steep incline. This part of trek is rendered far more challenging by amount of hard snow which, once the rains set, is completely washed out.
First of the two tricky stretches is relatively smaller one and less challenging as the trail cuts perpendicular to the stream making traverse easier albeit slow. This also looks and feels easier as there is plenty of ground to arrest a fall. This section can be tackled without use of ropes; ice axe however is essential especially for inexperienced trekkers who will require steps to be cut in the surface.
The second stretch, separated by the first one by a flat area is trickier. It starts with some very loose mud and pebbles at very difficult angle. Although not too long, this stretch requires cautious traversing. Right after this the surface is again that of ice and snow with angle more steep than the last one. The trail does not go uphill but cuts the incline on the slope with drop on the right side. There is no obstacle to arrest the fall which makes it more terrifying. Inexperienced trekkers will require ropes to assist in the climb. The river can be heard roaring below the layer of ice and is also visible at some places, exposed due to broken layers. After a relatively clear area the trail goes straight uphill. The path is through ice for about 200 mtrs and is very steep, forcing use of hands or ice axe at points.
The path beyond glacier zone is equally challenging as it leads through loose mud along steep incline. Up to this point both Maiktoli and Panwali Dwar remain elusive. The incline comes to a welcome end and as a reward Panwali Dwar presents itself unobstructed and shimmering in sunlight. The trail is majestic from there on and small ups and down on grassy surface present no difficulty. Panwali Dwar is clearly visible with its characteristic sheer drops which can be unmistakably seen even from far off places like Kausani, Chokori and Mukteshwar. With each step more of the massif begins to appear and at the same time Maiktoli's silken slopes start dominating horizon on left side. The same pattern continues for about 1-1.5 kms when after a last obstacle the vast expanse of the valley is thrown open. With peaks rising from 3 sides of the bed of the valley with you standing on the 4th side, a fine sense of achievement sets in. Layers of ice and snow flowing in from all the peaks meet, creating a large field of ice and snow with gentle slopes.
This large field is Maiktoli base camp, bounded by Maiktoli on left , Panwali Dwar on front and an unnamed peak on the right. For those with urge to view Panwali Dwar massif right from the bottom, two small hummocks at the end of the field provide perfect vantage points. They are deceptively far and look much smaller than they actually are as they are dwarfed by the mighty stature of Panwali Dwar.
The surface is solid ice and at places completely covered by mud. A part of Sunderdhunga river flows underneath and gives frequent appearances through cracks. Path up to hummock is uniform with only incline starting at the base of the small hill. The path to top is not marked and you need to climb uphill guided by commonsense. The deceptively small hill looks imposing from the bottom and requires determined effort which looks sure to present a handsome reward.
And sure handsome it is. For any mountain lover this sight is pure ecstasy, with whole massif of mountain visible; rising from valley to the peak. This point is the highest point for the day and invariably provides best views. A large glacier flowing down from flanks of Maiktoli meets the eyes on the left side with only a part of Peak now visible. Pitting yourself against nature is always a humbling experience. Bound by two of the famous peaks of Kumaon Himalaya, the sense of physical and psychological remoteness is exhilarating.
The path back to Kathaliya tracks back on same path. The time taken on downhill journey is substantially less than the uphill. But at the same time risky stretches pose greater challenge while descending, the only respite being the added softness of the snow owing to mid day sun which makes for surer footing. The glacial zones require steps to be cut using ice axe at least for inexperienced trekkers.
The most challenging part downhill is the loose mud zone between two glacial zones. With very small to no flat patches, each step needs to be measured and placed with utmost care. The daunting slide on the left with no obstacles leads to ice cold and rapid glacial stream. Once crossed, the remaining way is a breeze.
Don’t be surprised to find locals’ scanning the precarious edges. The race to find Yarsa Gambo, a local herb known colloquially as Kida Jadi owing to its appearance as an insect, is a mad gold rush. The recently discovered medicinal value of the herb, used as aphrodisiac, has rendered this erstwhile useless herb a treasure. Come the season and locals flock in drones to higher reaches such as these and in an excruciating process comb the areas for traces of the herb. Selling at quite a price, this is a lucrative option for locals, no outsiders to each nook and cranny of the mountains.
Kathaliya, like most parts of this trek, is home to many Himalayan birds. Many different varieties can be found in their choice of habitats like near the water bodies or in small shrubs. For those not interested in bird watching, nature puts up various other shows to spend cool evening.
Day 5 : Kathaliya to Baluni Top (7 kms, 10660 ft to 12513 ft )
The best place to view beautiful Maiktoli peak is Baluni Top and not Maiktoli Base camp. The peak washed in early morning sun rays shows more of it with each step and reveals its characteristic slopes near the top. Apart from Maiktoli, Baluni Top also affords views of some other peaks, Tent peak being most prominent and easily recognizable.
The trail starts unannounced right from the Kathaliya shepherd hut. The top visible from trail of previous day is the same mountain on which Kathaliya sits pretty at the bottom. The rise is sheer and so is the trail with most difficult, although not too risky, incline yet.
The trail is not well laid and cuts through small trees and shrubs. A small clearing amidst thick vegetation is all that indicates a path. The altitude gain is sudden and in a short while Kathaliya camp site looks distant. Maiktoli provides a beautiful sight from here, with a big waterfall in foreground.
Water sources are scarce in this particular stretch with only one source enroute at around 2 kms away. The incline decreases and tree line is left behind after this point. The path thereafter is through beautiful Bugyal with sheer drops leading straight to bed of the valley.
The trail is easy after the initial ascend finishes and the more than 180 degrees of peak view welcomes you at the top. A large clear area provides a great vantage point for viewing Maiktoli which appears stone throw away, Panwali Dwar on right and Tent peak, Sukhram on the left. Though the actual top is still some distance away, but it is only accessible when not blocked with snow. The same path leads to Devikund, some distance away which is part of another Trek namely DeviKund-NagKund-Pataki pass which ends in Jatoli and is considered to be a very challenging trek.
Depending on season and amount of snowfall the area received, there can be no or lots of snow at the top and that determines the highest point achieved. The point 3.5 kms away from Kathaliya is usually the end point for most treks as the difference in view is not significant and risks increase with snow as the drops are very steep.
Maiktoli is considered to be one of the most beautiful peaks of Indian Himalaya and it’s not difficult to see why when it presents itself unobstructed from Baluni top. A steep incline on one side and gradual silken slope on other, it forms an important part of Kumaun Himalayan panorama visible from all the famous hill stations. Having viewed it from such arresting proximity gives a truly special feeling.
The way back to Kathaliya follows same path as uphill and is mostly uneventful. It takes significantly less time on the return leg. The trekking for the day concludes early giving time to indulge in photography, bird watching or lying idle soaking in great views.
Day 6 : Kathliya-Jatoli ( Distance - 13 kms )
The return leg follows the exact same path which for many is the only downside of this trek. As a general rule, speed downhill is at least double that of uphill. The distance to be covered, 13 kms, is not too daunting and can be covered leisurely, enjoying the surroundings one last time in this trek.
Day 7 : Jatoli to Kharkiya via Khati , optional: Khati-Supi 8 kms By road: Supi to Bageshwar or Kharkiya to Bageshwar
Trek: Jatoli- Khati-Kharkiya, optional: Khati-Supi 8 kms
By road: Supi- Bageshwar or Kharkiya-Bageshwar
This is by far the easiest day of trek as all of 8 kms are downhill. The trek to Khati can be completed in about 2 hrs giving ample time to start for Bageshwar from Khati straight away.
An interesting option from Khati onwards is to take Khati-Supi route via Pangu Top. Although significantly longer than Khati -Kharkiya route, this is much scenic and more importantly eliminates the need for Kharkiya-Loharkhet jeep ride which is surely a back-breaking experience. The 8 kms long route is uphill for 4 kms and downhill for another 4. The route is again through beautiful forest and on a clear day provides great views from the top. The first village enroute is Khati with motorable road just a km from there. This road connects with Bageshar-Saung motorway through Munar and is much better in comparison with Kharkiya-Saung route.
Irrespective of the path chosen, the amazing trek ends today. Sunderdhunga surely lives up to its reputation of being most beautiful trek in the region and at the same time most challenging.