As a child, one of our most repeated works of art have been the elementary landscape of brown mountains, green meadows, a red hut, the odd lake and an all-pervading sun. And every bend you take through Uttarakhand's Kumaon region is guaranteed to bring to life this childhood conception. Only, the hills are awash with shades of green, the meadows are dotted with cattle, and hotels outnumber the huts.
Kumaon is home to the heavenly districts of Almora, Bageshwar, Champawat, Nainital, Pithoragarh and Udham Singh Nagar – each sustaining a plethora of hill stations, some maddeningly popular, the others unspoiled and waiting to be explored. So grab your camera, and your friends, hoard your car with chips and cola, and psych up for a journey through towering hills, pine forests, the bluest of skies and a brisk lingering mountain breeze.
Our journey starts from Delhi. After seven hours and 305 kilometres, we reach Uttarakhand's village of Pangot. We head to the town of Almora next and after an hour or so, arrive in the pristine valley of Binsar via the NH309A. Through Sheraghat and Berinaag, we reach Munsiyari and then drive towards the Pithoragarh district. Herein, lies Chaukori, two hours away from Kausani, in Kumaon's Bageshwar district. Next up, is Mukteshwar and then, Ranikhet from where we head back to Delhi.
This is a suggested route for the Kumaon region road trip:
Delhi – Pangot – Almora – Binsar – Sheraghat – Berinaag – Munsiyari – Chaukori – Kausani – Mukteshwar – Ranikhet – Delhi
This is an itinerary spread across 10 days:
Around 15 kilometres away from Nainital, this sleepy town is your best bet if you want to escape Nainital's touristy clamour. On your way to Pangot, you'll drive through the Cheena Peak Range, via Snow View Point and Kilbury. These terrains are densely forested and home to around 580 species of birds. Roll down your car windows, and a slaty-black Forktail or the Himalayan griffon might drop in to say hello.
Time on the road: 6 hours 33 minutes
Top experiences: Take an invigorating walk or a hike through any one of Pangot's cornucopia of hidden trails; head to Tiffin Top, perched on the Ayarpatta hills for a magnificent view of Nainital and its surrounding hamlets; for a few hours of absolute serenity, visit the Himalayan Centre of Sri Aurobindo Ashram near Bara Patthar; go to the Pahari Store if you want to take back home some local handicrafts; for food, take a walk to the Country Kitchen that will whip you up some simple yet delicious platefuls.
In stark contrast to the British-developed hill stations of Nainital, Ranikhet and Shimla, Almora was completely established by Kumaoni Indians. With thick forests of oak and rhododendron for neighbours, the red and green tin-roofed homes jump out at you the second you enter town.
Time on the road: 4 hours
Distance: 104 kilometres
Top experiences: Start your day with a visit to the Bineshwar temple; then head to Jageshwar, for its renowned Shiva temple; walk with the deers at the Almora zoo; gorge on Almora's famous bal mithai and singauri; head to Joshju's for lunch.
The all-pervading sweet, mountain breeze will be with you every step of the way, the second Binsar starts approaching. Locally known as Jhandi Dhar, Binsar sits at an elevation of 2,412 metres and is bursting with biodiversity. The landscape – roads bordered with endless fields of wildflowers, moss-laden trees, and the odd resort every now and then, stays with you long after you've left Binsar.
Time on the road: 7 hours
Distance: 198 kilometres
Top experiences: Catch the sunrise at Zero Point, and get more than a glimpse of the Kedarnath, Shivling, Trishul and Nanda Devi peaks; take an edifying stroll through Binsar's wildlife sanctuary that sustains musk deers, leopards, black bears and a motley of other animals; visit the ancient the Chitai temple worshipping Lord Shiva; feast on the local favourite of sisunak saag; get yourself a Kumaoni thali at the Grand Oak Manor.
In the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, lies Munsyari. Near synonymous with rows of snow-crested peaks, the town sits at an elevation of 2,298 metres. Referred to as the 'Little Kashmir' by the tourist circles, Munsyari is the gateway to the surreal Johar Valley and sits on the ancient salt route to Tibet.
Time on the road: 6 hour 30 minutes
Distance: 185 kilometres
Top experiences: If you plan on extending the trip, trek up to the Milam and Ralam glaciers; head to the village of Darkot and load up on pashmina shawls and locally-grown herbs; stop for pictures along the road from Darkot – Madkot – Jaulijibi that runs along the pristine Gori Ganga river; keep a few hours aside to visit the shimmering Birthi Falls.
Folded deep into dense oak forests, Pithoragarh district's Chaukori is fanned over by the towering peaks of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli. The town is essentially a patchwork of fruit orchards, tea gardens and a few hundred temples. To its east, delineated by the Mahakali river, Chaukori is studded with quite a few charming resorts.
Time on the road: 3 hours 36 minutes
Distance: 97 kilometres
Top experiences: Visit the Nag Devta Temple near Berinag; go rafting across the Thal and Ghat rivers; head to the Dharamgarh forest and be greeted by an assortment of bird folk; feast on the fantastic and one-of-a-kind rhododendron pakoras.
Plan a day trip to Patal Bhuvaneshwar, before returning to Chaukori. This limestone cave temple is shrouded in mythological legends. One of them being that the complex enshrines Lord Shiva and 33 crores of other Hindu gods. Essentially, Patal Bhuvaneshwar isn't just a cave, but a series of caves within a cave. A downhill climb of 100 steps will lead you to a narrow cave that takes you to the sanctum sanctorum, that'll have you feeling like you've stepped into the very centre of the earth.
Time on the road: 2 hours 37 minutes
Distance: 75 kilometres
Kausani is the very picture of idyll. Sleepy villages, orchards teeming with fruit and the sun glinting through pine forests welcome you into town. The jungles tend to change colours in Kausani, with nearly every bend you turn and every corner greeting you with a spectacular panoramas of the Panchchuli peak.
Time on the road: 2 hours 50 minutes
Distance: 85 kilometres
Top experiences: Trek up to the Rudradhari falls and explore its surrounding caves; the Pinnath temple is a must visit and is accessible by a small five kilometre trek; head to the apple orchards of the Gwaldam village; for a fantastic cup of tea, visit the Kausani Tea Estate; in the evening, at 7:30pm, catch the live planet show at the Hill Queen’s telescopic view point.
Planted under the shadow of the dizzying Annapurna peak, Mukteshwar ushers you in with rows of wooden cottages and picket fences. You'll drive through, and leave behind pine forests, trees camouflaged by moss, mooing cattle and a multitude of century-old Kumaoni homes that have now been transformed into heritage hotels and resorts.
Time on the road: 3 hours 30 minutes
Distance: 102 kilometres
Top experiences: Visit the overhanging cliffs of Chauli Ki Jali; head to the 350-year-old temple, Mukteshwar Dham temple that worships Lord Shiva; plan a picnic lunch and engage in angling by the Dhakuna waterfalls; a small hike to the Bhalu Gaad Falls will take you to the red billed blue magpie, grey treepie and some other stunning birds' favourite stomping grounds; for souvenirs, go to the Kilmora shop at Sitla Village for organic jams, chutneys and scrubs.
Perched at an elevation of 1,789 metres on the Bhowali-Mukteshwar Road, Ramgarh is home to a few hundred vibrant orchards (hence the moniker – 'Fruit Bowl of Kumaon'). Once a cantonment to the British armies, the town has been flocked time and again by popular literary figures.
Time on the road: 2 hour 35 minutes
Distance: 70 kilomtres
Top experiences: Take a leisurely stroll through the apple and peach orchards; hike through Nathuakhan's lush valley; attend a meditation session or two at Madhuban (the charming Sri Aurobindo Ashram); head to Joshi Cafe for the best tea in Ramgarh; while Ramgarh lacks in fancy restaurants, its street-side momos more than make up for it.
Intermittent with a multitude of deodar-fringed trails you would be happy to get lost in, Ranikhet sits at an elevation of 1,869 metres. The captivating Raj-era cantonment is dotted with ramshackle houses, vast expanses of plum orchards and tuck shops set amidst pine thickets. After you've soaked up and had your fill of the Kumaoni wilderness, head back home to Delhi.
Time on the road: 2 hours
Distance: 55 kilometres
Top experiences: For a lesson in medieval Katyuri architecture, visit the Maa Dunagiri Temple; go to the sprawling golf courses of Upat and Kalika; head to Chaubatia – translating to 'four fruit gardens' and get yourself some of the sweetest fruits of Uttarakhand; go to Dwarahat for its ancient sculptures; take greedy gulps of the Buransh juice made out of rhododendron flowers.
October through January are the months when the region of Kumaon is at its most beautiful. The sporadic rains withdraw by October, making way for chilly nights, and winters are welcomed to the hilly towns by mid-November. If you are lucky, you might even catch a snowfall or two while driving through Munsiyari, Chaukori and Kausani. Regardless, Kumaon will offer you the most arresting panoramas all year round.