What is like to visit Gangotri?

Backpacking Gangotri Glacier

Gangotri, one of the holiest places in India, hosts one of the most breathtakingly beautiful Himalayan glaciers. At over 4000 meters above sea level, this trek is likely to challenge your wits. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an account and recommends the planning essentials for backpacking Gangotri glacier.

‘Simple. Just follow the river to its source’ said a vendor. We had bought walking sticks from an outlet at the gates of Gangotri National Park and asked for tips on how-to reach the summit. It was 08:00 am and, as per local estimates, it took about 3 hours to get to Bhojwasa, the camping plateau, to rest overnight and then proceed to Gaumukh glacier the next morning. It was all good. But. Was it?

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Gangotri National Park

Gangotri is a relatively busy town in the summer months, when pilgrims make a beeline. Food stalls and kiosks are setup along the entire route to the glacier. With numbers on their side, and faith on their lips, people from all age groups undertake this high-altitude trek; the frail ones in palanquins, some mounted on mules, and some with the aid of walking sticks and supported by porters.

In October though, when a nip in the air had signaled an impending winter in the north of India, it was a solitary trek. At 3000 meters, about the same altitude as the picturesque Leh, the temple town of Gangotri was frigid. Word on the street was that in a few weeks time, when it begins to snow, the park trails would be shutdown to visitors. On that day, it was sunny.

With a coniferous forest offering shade, and a roaring, chaotic Bhagirathi (as River Ganga is known here) below, we ascended with a chorus of songs.

Gangotri Glacier Trek

What is it like to trek to Gangotri Glacier?

About noon time, we could see a concrete structure in the distance. Faint voices of people echoed in the valley. Against an estimated 3 hours, we thought we were an hour behind. But. It turned out to be only the midway resting station of Chirbasa. The spirited climb had us exhausted. Others resting there were on their way back from the glacier. Their words ‘its not far now’ were reassuring in an otherwise surprising turn.

Beyond Chirbasa, the trail transformed from a dense forest to an arctic tundra-like, treeless, colorful expanse of craggy terrain. We were exposed to the afternoon sun, with rocks and pebbles reflecting the rays.

Beads of sweat on the foreheads and a trickle on the neck forced us to remove our down jackets. To avoid dehydration, we sipped water more often and soon, ran out of it. Five hours into the wild, the camping plateau was nowhere in sight. The terrain confounded the situation furthermore with a fork in the river.

What to expect on the Gangotri Glacier trek?

Without a GPS, telecom coverage, or a compass, and no water, the staggering landscape was scarily beautiful. It was one of those situations that required reliance on gut, an intuitive sense. We chose a tributary. We chose well. Barely 100 meters on that track, we came across two guys walking in the opposite direction. The duo was from Israel. They said the same thing ‘its not far now’, as if a mantra. Meeting them was reaffirming and the small talk proved to be a good breather too.

Thirty minutes ahead, thirst took over, we lowered empty bottles into the flow of stream. Only when the icy water had lined our parched throats that we saw a bright, mustard colored, small-sized scorpio swimming inside the bottle. The soothing taste of glacial water took away the jitters and we released it back, refilled, and pushed forward.

When we ran out of water the second time, the stream was not in sight. We trekked along edges of the ridge, dodging loose soil and tumbling stones from above. The walking sticks that all this time were playful props, had gradually become a support system. By 04:00 pm, the sun was beginning to show signs of fatigue and the valley was graying. We had not spoken a word in a while.

The unrelenting terrain, with rocks punching into the soles of our feet, was testing us. A snow-covered ridge emerged in the distance and we managed to smile for pictures.

What about wildlife on the Gangotri Glacier trek?

Right then, walking past a cluster of pinnacles, we spotted a herd of Himalayan blue sheep. Few of them were perched atop with all fours – a fine balance. When they moved, they jumped from one to another. Their appearance on the trek was a reminder about deadly fauna in the park. Singing loudly earlier in the day, we had left behind the Asian Black Bear’s arboreal territory. But. The snow leopards? We had got to be on the move.

Is the trek to Gangotri Glacier difficult?

With every passing moment, enthusiasm was paving way for doubts. Our day-packs were beginning to feel heavier. Rock heavy. Fear was setting in. Fear that we might be lost and end up spending the night in the cold wilderness. At one point, we simply sat on the ground, took off the backpacks, and assessed our preparedness: one packet of glucose biscuits, a torch, but no water. Despair was setting in. The scarily beautiful scenery was now threatening. We had got to be on the move.

Nine hours and thirty minutes into the wild, chasing a rapidly vanishing sun, and viola! From the edge of the cliff, where we stood, we saw the camping plateau with few colorful flags fluttering in the wind. Relief flooded us. It paced us downhill, straight to the dormitory.

One possible explanation for the delay we experienced was an erroneous detour that miraculously got us back to the arterial trail.

Is it safe to do Gangotri Glacier trek?

As we checked in, park staff was putting together a search party, two forest guards and a mule, to look for a missing Swiss national. A professional dancer, she was part of a larger group and had fallen behind. Had we not made it before dusk, our names would have been on that missing list too. Mishaps are real [see precautions below].

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Fortunately, the search was successful and, four hours later, the girl was back home, safe. That night, while we slept with chattering teeth, the Swiss group started a bonfire, sipped on hot tea, and continued a chorus. Their happiness was infectious.

Gaumukh Glacier: A summit in the sky

When the morning rays sneaked in, we opened the dormitory’s window to a shiny snow-capped mountain.

The five kilometers trek to the Gaumukh glacier, though shorter, was on a rougher terrain. If last evening, we were amused by scenes of Himalayan Blue Sheep jumping on pinnacles, today they would have been startled by our ability to imitate them. There probably was an easier route. But. We were having fun to get to the sandy beaches of Gaumukh.

The landmark, at above 4000 meters and with Tapovan as its backdrop, appeared dramatic. The wind had blown enough sand to color the massive glacier into streaks of brown. Though we expected to witness chunks of ice falling off, there was none of that. This one melted a lot slower.

Slow enough that few Sadhus, dressed in merely a loin cloth, took to the yogic lotus posture in natural depressions underneath the ice wall. The serene flow of frigid water was in complete contrast to the mighty force we had witnessed at Gangotri. Like most trekkers, we hiked up to to feel the glacier, while maintaining complete silence to not disturb the monks.

How to plan for Gangotri Glacier trek?

Best time to visit, food, stay options, and precautions

  • What’s the best time to visit Gangotri Glacier? Plan this excursion between April and June (high pilgrim season) or September and November (trekkers season).
  • How to get Gangotri National Park permits? National park permits to Bhojwasa are allotted usually for a maximum of two nights. Visit this website for details.
  • Where to stay in Gangotri? After obtaining the park permit, send an email to [email protected] (or contact any other offices listed here) to request reservations for Bhojwasa and Gangotri. While you can book privates in Gangotri town, a dormitory is the only option at Bhojwasa – base camp for Gaumukh glacier. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited or GMVNL operates accommodations at both Gangotri and Bhojwasa.

Remember, Bhojwasa is remote and, at the time, produced its electricity from diesel. As such, if the facility is not full, the staff wont run the generators and instead hand over a few candle-sticks. Unless power lines have made it to the heart of the glacial valley, be prepared for a magical starry night.

  • What to eat when in Gangotri? Religious places in India typically offer vegetarian food. You will have a variety of vegetarian meals to choose from at Gangotri. However at Bhojwasa, options are limited and, given the remoteness, priced higher than usual.

What precautions should you take when trekking the Gangotri Glacier?

  • Start early: Days in winter are shorter and you must reach the glacier base camp before sunset. Start your trek early.
  • Guided treks: It is possible to lose your way when following a vague instruction such as ‘follow the river to its source’. The many tributaries of Bhagirathi river can make things confusing. To avoid the kind of adventures we have had, it is best to hire a guide or a porter at the park gates.
  • Sun protection: The trek had also left us with severely burnt faces. It took us few weeks of peeling layers of skin to normalize. Do not forget to carry a 50 SPF sunsblock tube. Or else.

Gaumukh, source of the mighty Ganges, had us spellbound. In the breathtaking scenery, the achy bodies refused to ride the mules, though you can hire them either way. Before leaving the region, we made sure to visit the famous Gangotri temple.

Have you trekked this glacier? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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44 thoughts on “Backpacking Gangotri Glacier”

  1. Great post Abhijeet. I had heard of the Gangotri trail and I am now a little closer to it ? . The trek seems arduous but the beauty around you would be mesmerizing. I can only imagine how ecstatic your group must have felt on seeing the camp, scary experience that !


    Wow this looks like an amazing experience. I haven’t backpacked anywhere but can imagine it must be an amazing experience with all the amazing views etc.

  3. Caroline Brandt

    These pictures are breathtaking! This sounds like a one of a kind adventure. I’ve always wanted to go backpacking, especially in the Himalayas! -Tonya Tardiff

  4. Sigrid Says Blog

    I would love to go on an adventure in Gangotri. But since I have a problem with heat and humidity, I think I will go slow and I would need a really nice airconditioned room to come home to at the end of the tour.

    1. Thank you. Well, we did the Gangotri trek in October which is almost end of the season and starts to get really cold by then. So heat and humidity would not be a problem. Since this is Himalayas, the natural air conditioning is awesome.

  5. This looks like such a great experience, and you should be so proud of the achievement. I’ve done a few treks before but never where we’ve had to stay overnight x

  6. Wow – you have a way with words that made me feel as if I was experiencing your trip with you! Whilst your imagery are amazing – I have never seen terrain quite like that before – so imposing and magnificent! I’m so glad you made it to the camp safely.

  7. This looks like such a great experience! I bet it was really hard work but so very rewarding. Well done on completing this trek.

  8. I definitely would have been panicking at one point. The wild animals would have been scary for sure (seen or unseen). I’m glad you made it to your destination! The photos are awesome.

  9. Wow this sounds and looks so amazing! I want to get into hiking! Id also love to try back packing haha

  10. It sounds so challenging but definitely worth it. It was awesome following along your adventure while backpacking through the Himalayan Heights. Definitely an experience you’ll never forget!

  11. It looks like a breathtaking experience. Would definitely love to experience it once!

  12. would love to visit the himalayas & bask in the awesomeness! Se manifique moments captured. Great views and vibes.

  13. Wow. That surely seems like a great and scenic trek. Especially loved the view of the snow capped mountain from afar! Gorgeous! I’m a newbie, you think someone like me can handle that? I have never been over 600m.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sreekar. Yes, its a great trek to experience. Take time adjust to the low temperatures. May be spend a bit more time in Gangotri before stating the trek. Take a guide along if you feel managing by yourself could be a bit difficult. You could even consider doing it in summers when there are many more people on the route.

  14. Wow what an adventure albeit getting a lost. I was wondering how it was that you had run out of water twice but only realised in the end that it took longer than anticipated. I guess we learn to carry more water than required. Glad you didn’t make it on the search party list although that’s quite reassuring. The mountains look majestic. No doubt it was worth it.

  15. Wow – I’ve never heard of Gangotri! I’m an avid backpacker and I’d definitely add this to the list of places I need to backpack soon judging from your post and pictures.

    It was very detailed that I felt I was backpacking along with you! thanks for sharing!

  16. Gosh, what a shocker that your three hour expectation turned into a nine hour marathon and you were calmer than I would be to have nearly drunk a scorpion! So glad you made it eventually despite the probably detour!

    1. Some of the backpacking lessons learnt on this trek in Himalayas 🙂 Yes, seeing the summit was a big relief!

  17. Firstly, I’ve realised from my own experience, if the ‘local’ people say 4 hours, it’s most likely not going to be less than 8! If the local people say it’s easy, it’s likely to be extremely tough! Sorry that you had such a horrifying experience, I’d be freaked to see a scorpion in my bottle! And also, to have the sun going down after a grueling trek of 9.5 hours, without the camp in sight. But I am happy that you finally made it and have a good story to tell your peers! You also managed to catch some lovely scenery.

  18. Nice write-up. Having heard a lot about Gangotri being the sources of Ganges, I had no idea it was a trekable place. Your journey and tips are immensely useful and makes planning a trip to Gangotri very easy. Thanks a lot for this wonderful guide.

  19. Wow. Must say great attempt. Gangotri is so beautiful and I would love to get a real glimpse of it some day but I guess will need to work towards it. The trek is not easy and like you said needs good planing. The dometry without full electricity and running on generators gives an idea of the remoteness. But the hard work pays off with those amazing views of the snow peaked mountains. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Wow… Those views are so worth the trek and I really enjoyed your narrative writing style! It felt like I was right there with you and how scary to think you’d have had to spend the night in the wild… Thank goodness everything worked out in the end and now you also got a great story to tell!

  21. I would love to see the beautiful Himalayan glaciers at Gangotri! It would be an amazing experience to trek here.

  22. Wow! This sounds like an incredibly adventurous hike. I truly salute the passion and the dedication that you guys have towards this thing. I would have probably hiked back at the sight of a scorpion in my water bottle. But you took things in your stride and went ahead to reach the summit! Kudos to all your courage. Keep going and keep writing.

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