WHY GO? Blooming rhododendrons and magnolias in the spring and clear views of the Himalayas (including Everest, Kangchenjunga and Lohtse) in the fall. Diverse fauna (especially birds) and flora and the breathtakingly picturesque village of Ghorkey. Frequent tea houses and lodges make it an easy trek to do without camping gear.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to intermediate depending on how many days you allow. Temperatures on the ridge can be cold and accommodation is basic. It’s a fair climb the first two days and the altitude can be a factor (Singalila peak is at 3,670 meters). Hard-to-predict and fast-changing weather can make this trek more difficult.
LENGTH: 5-7 days is the standard and will allow for a fairly relaxed pace. If you are a fast trekker it can be done faster. If you are going in the spring I’d recommend adding a few buffer days in Darjeeling in case of inclement weather. I’d also recommend keeping an extra day or two available to spend in the idyllic village of Ghorkey which is the closest thing to the Shire I’ve ever seen.
BEST TIME TO GO: The weather windows are the same here as they are for Nepal. October – November will give you the clearest views of the Himalayas. In April – May the views will likely be hazier (clearest just after sunrise) and the weather colder, wetter and less predictable but the rhododendrons and magnolias will be in bloom which cover the hillsides in fantastic eruptions of white, red and pink. If you go in the spring allow a few extra days as there may still be periods of thunder storms and heavy rain.
OVERVIEW: The Singalila Ridge trek takes you through the hills of the Lesser Himalayas along the border of Nepal and West Bengal, India. You will pass through evergreen forests, rolling hills, and lush rain forest and have the opportunity to see a wide range of plants and animals. It’s a not-too-demanding trek through beautiful terrain.
For me there were a few drawbacks to this trek. The first is the government’s frustrating policy toward trekkers (see section below). I found it hard to find good information about this trek because everyone in Darjeeling wanted to sell me an overpriced “all-inclusive trekking package.” Also for a large part of the trek you will be walking next to or on a dirt road. There isn’t too much traffic (just the occasional jeep packed with supplies or Indian tourists) but the road took away from the trek for me a bit. However the blooming rhododendrons and magnolias, spotting a rare red panda, the views (even without having a clear enough day to see the Himalayas) and the village of Ghorkey made this trek both memorable and worthwhile for me.
All in all it’s a beautiful trek that’s worth doing if you are in the area but I wouldn’t suggest making the trip all the way to Darjeeling for its sake alone. If you are just looking for trekking you’d be better off going to Nepal instead.
THINGS TO KNOW:
Guide Required – Officially, you are required to have a guide, a permit for Singalila National Park and must trek with a group of at least two people. Of all the places I’ve trekked, I found the Singalila Ridge trek to be among the most frustrating for this reason. I don’t have a problem with supporting locals but as far as the trek is concerned a guide isn’t necessary at all and will be more of a babysitter than anything else. You will be following a road for the majority of the trek, the trail is well marked and maintained and food and lodging is easy to organize on your own. I found the lack of freedom and flexibility that comes with having a guide frustrating at times.
For solo trekkers on a budget you shouldn’t have a problem finding other trekkers during the two main trekking seasons. If you are feeling adventurous, it would be easy enough to enter the park alone without a guide. For more info on both see the next section below.
Visa – You need a valid passport and a valid Indian visa as you will enter Nepal on several occasions and pass through a handful of Indian military checkpoints. You do not need a visa for Nepal for this trek.
Permits – You will need a permit for Singalila National Park which is purchased at the beginning of the trailhead just outside of Mane Bhanjhang. In April, 2017 the permit was 200 rupees and an additional 100 rupees to bring in a camera. The northern part of the trek (Singalila Peak and Ghorkey village) shares a border with Sikkim. You are not allowed to trek into Sikkim without a special permit.
Safety – There is a decent elevation gain on the first two days so give yourself plenty of time so you can take it slow. The easiest way to make this trek harder than it has to be is to take the first two days too fast and hurt yourself. You will pass many Indian military checkpoints along the way as you cross in and out of Nepal. In 2017 the political situation was stable but make sure to check before you go.
Gear – Many places along the route run on generators and do not always have power so bring a headlamp and a portable battery for any electronics you want to keep charged. In the spring this trek was very cold at night and at the places we stayed there was no heating so bring warm gear! A sleeping bag isn’t necessary but is nice to have. Also we did have thunder storms at times so make sure to bring waterproofs. You can see all the gear I carry with me here.
Cash – You will need to pay for lodging and food with cash and there is no opportunity on the trail to get more so make sure you bring all the money you’ll need with you.
GETTING (OR NOT GETTING) A GUIDE: Avoid the overpriced “all-inclusive trekking packages” offered in Darjeeling—you will pay two to three times as much as it will cost you to hire your own guide and buy food and there really is no added benefit. Do not bother with hiring a guide in Darjeeling either—again you will likely pay more than is necessary. There is a small guide station in Mane Bhanjhang which is where you will start the trek. We easily arranged for a guide here in less than an hour. Don’t worry about knowing exactly how many days you will trek—if you decide to extend your time on the trail you can pay your guide directly.
My guide spoke little english and didn’t add much to my knowledge of the area. If necessary do not be shy in asserting yourself if you don’t agree with your guide’s suggestions on when to start and where to stop, eat and sleep—the first night we found our own lodging which was a quarter of the price of the place our guide had recommended. After this “getting to know each other period” our guide proved more helpful in finding cheap, nice places to stay, organizing meals and was more flexible with our trekking schedule.
Finding other trekkers – I was trekking with a friend but we ended up hooking up with another pair to split the cost of hiring a guide. If you’d like to find other’s to trek with here’s a couple suggestions for where to look:
Mane Bhanjhang – If you have time you can hang out near the guide office in Mane Bhanjhang and proposition other trekkers as they arrive in the village (most will start from here). It’s a small place: there’s a tea shop, some basic restaurants and lodging. Your chances of running into other trekkers will be better the earlier you arrive.
Darjeeling – There’s a fair amount of trekkers hanging around Sonam’s Kitchen on Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd (the back road that leads away from the main square called Chowrasta) and Himalayan Java on Nehru Road (the main road leading to Chowrasta). For more info on these and other places I recommend in Darjeeling see here.
Going Without a Guide – There was pretty much no enforcement and it would be fairly easy to trek this route without a guide (one friend of mine did) but keep in mind it is officially not allowed. I had heard the fine if you are caught without a guide was 1200 rupees (~$18). If you choose to risk it make sure you know the possible consequences before setting out. I hiked with a guide but below is the info I would have wanted to know beforehand if I were to go without one.
There is a checkpoint at the beginning of the trail just outside of Mane Bhanjhang where you purchase the required permit for Singalila National Park. They will require you have a guide to purchase the permit. You can pass the checkpoint without a guide by leaving town early in the morning (before sunrise) when the checkpoint is still closed (confirmed by a friend). This means staying one night in Mane Bhanjhang. An alternative is to say you are just going to Tumling, which is where most people stop on the first night. It isn’t in the park and doesn’t require a guide or a permit to visit. I’d expect to receive sideways looks though if you show up with a full pack and trekking gear.
There are military checkpoints all along the trail but they are not concerned if you have a guide or permit and will only want to see your passport. Multiple times I came across soldiers alone on the trail and they never showed any interest in me. I never saw a park ranger, if indeed one exists. The jeeps on the road were all either loaded with Indian tourists or supplies—never on the trail did anyone stop me and ask to see a permit (I walked a good distance in front of my guide or behind him for much of the trek).
At the beginning of the second day, after you leave Tumling, you will come across a checkpoint at the entrance to the park. There was only one person checking permits here and they were not checking everyone individually, just speaking with the guides who had collected all the permits for each group. If you were to you hang out down the trail from the park checkpoint in the morning it would be easy enough to walk into the park on the back of one of the large tourist groups that are bound to pass through without being noticed (this was obvious to me when I crossed the checkpoint and also what a friend did).
After that the only place that asked for our permit was the trekker’s hut at Sabarkan/Molley which is the last stop before Phalut. It is very easy to avoid this hut and won’t be an issue as long as you don’t stop there.
If you plan to eat and stay in the huts and lodges you may be asked where your guide is—so be prepared for that. This happened to my friend and I when we parted with our guide on the last day and walked alone from Ghorkey to Rimbik. I’m not sure if anyone would really mind as things are pretty laid back along the entire route but there’s always a chance so if you want to avoid this you’ll need to bring a tent and your own supplies.
RESOURCES: There’s very few resources I could find on this trek in Darjeeling; probably because it’s a fairly commercial route and it’s mandatory to have a guide. However the trek is pretty straight forward and a serious map isn’t necessary as long as you follow the road.
Our hosts at the very nice Ko Ko Mhendo Guesthouse (see my Darjeeling guide) gave us a really helpful packet of maps, trail information and lodging recommendations that had been made by other trekkers over the years. We made a copy of this and carried it with us on our trek.
COST: A guide can be easily hired at Mane Bhanjhang (1200 rupees/day in 2017). All-you-can-eat meals along the trail were around 200 rupees (a little less for breakfast) and basic lodging along the trail ran roughly 200 rupees a night (dormitories, trekker’s huts and shared rooms…expect a double room to run around 1,000 rupees at the more established lodges). I split the cost of a guide with three other trekkers and considering this my total daily cost on the trail was 1,100 rupees or roughly $16/day (as opposed to the 2,500-3,000 rupees a trekking company will charge you for roughly the same thing with a larger group and less freedom).
GETTING THERE: Darjeeling is the typical base for this trek. There are shared jeeps leaving for Mane Bhanjhang from Darjeeling every day from the main jeep station just above the botanical gardens. Your chances of catching one quickly are probably higher in the morning (we left around 11:00 AM and it was 70 rupees per person). The ride takes a couple hours and the trail (road) starts just outside the village. The first section to Tonglu is uphill and took us about 4 hours at a moderate pace so you should be fine if you start by early afternoon. There isn’t much reason to stay long in Mane Bhanjhang.
The trek typically ends in Rimbik where there are shared jeeps leaving early morning back to Darjeeling (170 rupees per person in 2017). Your guesthouse should be able to organize this for you. It’s roughly 5 hours back to Darjeeling and the road is very bad and very windy—avoid getting the back seats in the jeep if you can.
ACCOMMODATION, FOOD & WATER: There are plenty of lodges and tea houses along the way—you will rarely ever be more than an hour or two away from a bed and a hot cup of tea. Low cost, basic lodging wasn’t an issue in most places if you ask around with the exception of Phalut which only has one trekker’s hut which is often completely booked up by Indian tourists (see my experience for an alternative to staying in Phalut).The only shower I had on the trek was an icy dip in the river in Ghorkey village. There are plenty of good camping spots and some scattered water sources along the way as well so bringing a tent is an option if you are prepared for the cold.
You do not need to bring your own food and anywhere you eat will be able to boil drinking water for you (consider also bringing a water filter or UV sterilizer). Please do not buy bottled water on the trail as villages are not equipped to recycle your trash—they will either burn it or dump it. Everywhere had blankets but you will appreciate a good sleeping bag if you bring it (I slept in my down sleeping bag every night). The food on the trail is simple but delicious and well suited for trekkers. I trekked with a celiac and it was easy for both of us to eat gluten-free on this trek—just avoid the chapati. Expect light breakfasts (potatoes, eggs and chapati) and hearty lunches and dinners (rice, vegetables, dal, egg curry and papadum).
MY EXPERIENCE: I arrived with a friend in Darjeeling in late March to escape the 100+ degree heat in Rajasthan. Although you might be able to do this trek in late March I wouldn’t plan on it as the weather may be an issue and you’d likely miss most the rhododendrons and magnolias. We stayed 10 days in Darjeeling before the weather was good enough to set out on the trail. During that time visibility was low and thunder storms were frequent. If I didn’t have my writing and reading to occupy myself, 10 days in Darjeeling would have been way too long for me—it’s a comfortable place but I didn’t find it particularly interesting. As soon as the weather cleared and we saw sun in the forecast we headed for the trailhead in Mane Bhanjhang. We met two other trekker’s in Sonam’s Kitchen leaving the same day and paired up with them to split the cost of a guide.
DAY 1: Took a shared a jeep from Darjeeling to Mane Bhanjhang (1928m) around 10:30 AM. Hired a guide in Mane Bhanjhang and was on the trail by 2:30 PM. It’s a good climb to Tumling (2980m) where we stayed the first night. There’s a water source roughly 30 minutes before arriving in Tumling and plenty of places to camp. The first large lodge you see on the left in Tumling has dorm beds for 200 rupees per person.
DAY 2: A long day. In the morning we entered Singalila National Park and not long after spotted a red panda. We had beautiful views all day. The climb to Sandakphu where we stayed the second night is steep and fairly challenging.
NOTE: After you leave Bhikey Bhaniang (the last village before Sandakphu) you may notice a fairly established trail that breaks off from the main road on your left hand side. This trail WILL NOT take you to Sandakphu (3630m) —for that stay on the road. I followed this trail for roughly 6 – 8 km before realizing this and having to double back. It’s a beautiful (albeit challenging) trail that wraps around the side of the mountain and offers stunning views of the mountainside and rhododendrons and magnolias though so if you have extra time and energy it’s a rewarding side trek.
DAY 3: After a chilly night in Sandakphu we continued up and down along the ridge with nice views to Sabarkun (3530m) where we had tea and were asked for out permit (it’s easy to avoid this stop if need be). Our original plan was to continue on to Phalut (3590m) which is 80 meters below Singalila Peak (3670m) and climb up in the morning to watch the sunrise but there is only one hut at Phalut and we had heard it was full so instead we cut the day short and hiked east about a kilometer to Molley (3420m) where there is a military base and a basic lodge surrounded by forest. It was a relaxing place to spend the afternoon and a good alternative to the crowded trekker’s hut at Phalut.
DAY 4: Another long day. In the morning we climbed to Phalut where we left our packs before summiting Singalila Peak. It’s an easy climb from Phalut and from the top there are good views into Sikkim and Nepal—we spent around an hour at the top. After a light lunch at Phalut we left the road and descended a little over 1,000 meters through bamboo thickets and rain forest to the village of Ghorkey (2390m). This was one of my favorite sections of the trek and the view when the forest finally opens up and the trail winds down the terraced hill into Ghorkey are out of a fairytale.
DAY 5 & 6: We spent two very happy days wandering around Ghorkey, eating, drinking tongba, feeding the animals and hanging out by the river. It was very tempting to stay even longer. Our friends had to get back to Darjeeling so they left with our guide on Day 6.
DAY 7: A pretty long day but it’s mostly downhill and the first section through the forest is gorgeous. We had a late lunch at Shri Khola (2050m) and then followed the road to Rimbik (2285m). We stayed at the first place we came across (left side) on the outskirts of Rimbik called Sherpa Tenzing Hotel which had dormitory beds for 200 rupees and hot showers. It was nice and they arranged a shared jeep to pick us up and take us to Darjeeling in the morning.
DAY 8: A long, windy and bumpy 5 hour jeep ride back to Darjeeling. Make sure you don’t drink too much tongba the night before (I did and I paid dearly for it). The shared jeeps leave early in the morning from Rimbik so plan to stay one night there.
FINAL NOTES: You can cut this trek short by heading down from Sandakphu to Gurdum (2,600m) —> Shri Khola (2050m) —> Rimbik (2285m) although you’d miss a lot of what I loved about this trek by doing so. Gurdum came highly recommended to us as a nice place to stay for a few days. You can add it to the end of your trek with a 500 meter climb from Shri Khola. We decided to skip it. Also keep in mind that although I have provided altitudes for my itinerary the elevation covered is more as the trail is “Nepali flat”—AKA hilly.
Tongba – A delicious, mildly alcoholic drink found mainly in Nepal. It’s fermented millet (also sometimes barley is added so if you are gluten-free be sure to check before ordering) and is served in a large steel or wooden mug with a bamboo straw along with a pitcher of hot water which you pour into the mug. It’s warm, tasty and comforting. I was able to order it in Ghorkey and Rimbik but anyone on the trail will know what you are talking about if you ask for it.
Ghorkey village – A small village tucked away in the woods where two rivers meet and unreachable by road. It’s a pristine paradise and one of the most idyllic and serene places I’ve ever come across—do not miss it! It was the highlight of my trek.
Himalayan views from Sandakphu – If the weather is clear (your chances are better in October and November) your climb to Sandakphu will be rewarded with a stunning panorama of the Himalayas. Unfortunately for me it was cloudy so I had to settle for gazing at pictures of what the view would have been.
Singalila Peak – The highest peak along the trek (3,670 m) with good views into Nepal and Sikkim.
Diverse fauna – We spotted a rare, red panda and many types of colorful birds which would serenade us along the trail with their many beautiful bird calls.
Rhododendrons & Magnolias – Explosions of red, pink and white flowers litter the hillsides in April and May. This was one of my favorite aspects of this trek.