Snow Leopards resting in a cave of Kibber wildlife sanctuary

Spiti Snow Leopard Trail: Winter & Wildlife in Spiti & Kinnaur

Last updated on November 18th, 2019 at 12:26 pm

It may feel bizarre to travel Kinnaur and Spiti valley during wintertime, but for a die-hard mountain lover, with a goal to unplug and get off-grid, the winterscapes of the  Spiti and Zanskar Himalaya are a true refuge and a place for the mindful pause.

Winter Spiti Snow Leopard Trail

The winter trip to Spiti has its own charm and vulnerabilities. The charm lies in less to no crowd, snow-white winter wonderland landscape, no electricity, and no internet. Drive to Kinnaur and the Spiti valley in winter is a complete digital detox and an expedition itself.

Winter Drive To Kinnaur & Spiti valley

The winter Spiti valley itinerary covers one of the most treacherous parts of NH – 5 and Sumdo to Kaza road. In winters you get to know local life and culture more intimately and see for yourself how hard it is to survive in the Himalayas.

The vulnerability lies in limited road connectivity, driving on icy roads, no running tap water, limited warm water, and room heating. But the major concern always is the fragile road connectivity which gets snapped when there is heavy snowfall and avalanches block the road for weeks.

Snow Leopard Sighting Rising In Spiti Valley

According to the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh, the population of the snow leopards is rising and expected to be around 100.

Even though the process of population estimation is still underway, the staff of the wildlife wing has already recorded 49 snow leopards in upper Kinnaur, Pin Valley, Tabo, Tharot-Miyar, Bhaga, Chandra, and upper Spiti landscape.

The most frequent sighting has been in Kibber Plateau, slopes between Kee, Gete and Tashigang, Shilla Nalla area, plateau around Langza, Hikkim, Komic and slopes around Demul, Salung, Rama and Lalung.

Snow leopard habitat infographic
Infographic of Snow Leopard Habitat

The International Union for Conservation of Nature is an international organization(IUCN), the apex body working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, has put the Snow leopards in the vulnerable category. In this category, the species are likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve. Vulnerability is mainly caused by habitat loss or destruction of the species home. The situation is opposite in the Kinnaur and the Spiti valley.

Winter Spiti Itinerary

REGIONS COVERED:
Shimla, Sarahan, Kalpa, Nako lake, Tabo, Dhankar, Lalung, Ki, Kibber, Pin valley, Gete, Tashigang, Hikkim, Langza and Komic.
SEASON: December – March
CLIMATE: Bitterly Cold
MAX. ALTITUDE: 4,520 m (Komik Village)
NUMBER OF DAYS: 10  days
TRIP TYPE: Road Trip & Hiking

  • Day #1: Shimla – Sarahan
    Sarahan Altitude 2100m Distance covered 180 km. Drive Duration: 7 hours (Overnight at hotel)
  • Day #2: Sarahan – Chitkul village: Chitkul Altitude 3400m. Distance 106km. Drive Duration; 5-6 hours(Overnight at hotel).
  • Day #3 Chitkul – Sangla – Kalpa. Kalpa altitude 3000m. Distance 75km. Drive Duration: 6-7 hours. (Overnight at a hotel)
  • Day #4: Kalpa – Nako – Gyu – Tabo. Tabo altitude 3300m. Distance 160km. Duration: 7-8 hours (Overnight at a Homestay)
  • Day #5: Tabo – Dhankar – Mud. Mud altitude 3900m. Distance 70km. Drive duration: 4 – 5 hours(Overnight stay at a homestay).
  • Day #6: Mud, Pin valley – Kibber Kibber altitude 4270m. Drive duration: 6 – 7 hours(Overnight at a Homestay).
  • Day #7: Rest day at Kibber. Explore Kibber village and Kibber wildlife sanctuary.
  • Day #8: Kibber – Langza-Komic-Hikkim-Tabo
  • Day #9: Tabo – Reckong Peo
  • Day #10: Reckong Peo – Shimla

Spiti Snow Leopard Trail Itinerary

  • Day #1: Shimla – Sarahan Sarahan Altitude 2100m Distance covered 180 km. Drive Duration: 7 hours (Overnight at hotel)
  • Day #2: Sarahan – Kalpa Kalpa Altitude 3000m. Distance 85km. Drive Duration; 5-6 hours(Overnight at hotel).
  • Day #3  Kalpa – Kibber Kibber altitude 4270m. Drive duration: 7 – 8 hours(Overnight at a Homestay).
  • Day #4: Rest day at Kibber.  Explore Kibber village and Kibber wildlife sanctuary.
  • Day 5,6,7: Hiking and following the elusive snow leopard around Kibber wildlife sanctuary.
  • Day #8: Kibber – Reckong Peo
  • Day #9: Reckong Peo – Shimla

Spotting wildlife in Spiti valley

It involves short hikes and trekking in the snow in Pin valley and around Kibber Wildlife sanctuary. One should be in no illusion about how difficult it would be to photograph a snow leopard at a decent range. Their camouflage and cautious nature make them difficult to spot and locate.

Winter is the best time to spot the mountain cats because snow will drive them to lower elevations where it’s easier to find food, and starting in mid-February, mating season commences, so you’re more likely to get leopards crossing into each other’s territory.

 

How to visit Spiti in winter?

Rohtang and Kunzum pass get closed in late September or early October month, so the only way to reach Spiti is through Shimla – Rampur Bushahr – Reckong Peo – Nako – Tabo – Kaza route.

Kinnaur district headquarters Reckong Peo is well connected to Shimla and Chandigarh. Direct public transport HRTC buses are available from Delhi/Chandigarh/Shimla to get to Reckong Peo. Shimla – Reckong Peo road remains open even when there is heavy snowfall.

A HRTC bus runs from the Reckong Peo bus stop in the morning ( departure 7 AM) and reaches Kaza around 6 PM. No public transport exists in the Spiti valley in winter so traveling by own vehicle or shared taxis are the only mode of transportation.

Spiti river meandering through Hangrang valley Kinnaur | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Spiti river meandering through Hangrang valley Kinnaur

Snow Leopard Trivia

  • Unlike the other wild cats, Snow leopards don’t “roar”
  • Although Snow Leopards are usually found between 3,000m-4,500m altitudes, snow leopards can range up to 6,000m!
  • There’s no record of a snow leopard ever killing a human
  • A snow leopard can jump 10m in one (big) leap!
  • Snow leopards are mostly solitary.….unless it’s mating time
  • Climate change is possibly the greatest long term threat to the snow leopard
  • Snow leopards have light green or grey eyes, most big cats have yellow/orange eyes
  • Snow leopards are most active at dawn and dusk

High in the lofty peaks of central Asia, a rare, elusive cat sits curled on a rocky ledge overlooking a deep, rugged valley. A cold wind wisps frozen snow into the thin air, creating a dazzling silver shower against a brilliant azure sky. It’s quiet up high, just the occasional crack of a distant glacier, a few rocks dancing down the shoulders of near-vertical mountains. Across the valley, a herd of blue sheep, the cat’s favorite food, grazes peacefully on a steep southern slope. Piercing feline eyes are fixed on nothing but see everything. There are no people in sight, just miles and miles of snow-clad peaks in every direction-a sign that all is well at the roof of the world. The big cat rises contentedly, rubs at the knees of the mountain gods then disappears.

Tracks, vanishing into the snowy mist, are the only evidence it was really there. This near-mythic beast is the snow leopard, the highest mammalian predator, and symbol of all that is free and truly wild in the mightiest mountains on earth-its presence, its aura, a living soul given to citadels of stone and ice. Like no other large cat, the snow leopard evokes a sense of myth and mysticism, strength and spirit. A mystery cat shrouded in a snowy veil, seldom seen but always present.

Snow Leopards resting in a cave | Kibber wildlife sanctuary
The Trinity | Snow Leopards resting in a cave | Kibber wildlife sanctuary
Red fox
Red fox
Red fox -- The spirit animal
Red fox — The spirit animal

Killing time - Snow leopard, Kibber Wildlife Santuary, Spiti Snow leopard trail
Killing time

To the West, the snow leopard is a cat of strange, foreign lands, a prowler of high peaks, symbol of survival in the high mountains. To Asia, the snow leopard is embedded in ancient lore and lately has become the symbol of unity and conservation in a region Marco Polo described as “noisy with kingdoms.” For local people who share their mountain realm, there is respect and fear.

Not personal fear, for the snow leopard doesn’t harm humans, but fear of the occasional night stalker that kills precious livestock, the literal lifeblood of existence for those hardy souls who share the snow leopard’s world. The snow leopard is endangered, Imperilled by ever-growing human encroachment into its mountainous world. Even with international protection, it is still killed for its bones and luxuriant fur or in retaliation for killing livestock. Climate change adds another dimension of stress to the snow leopard’s world, warming the great mountains, pushing the snow leopard and its prey higher and higher. Like the polar bear and Arctic ice, the snow leopard’s habitat is sharply defined with no options for a retreat or alternative refuge-the balance of life is easily degraded but not easily restored. Beyond the mountaintops lies extinction. Strangely, the snow leopard ranks high among notable rare animals-alongside the bald eagle, polar bear, lion, tiger, and panda-yet it is perhaps the least studied and certainly the least written about. There is a good reason why we know so little about the snow leopard. Its support system is a delicate veneer of vegetation draped over the highest and most rugged landscapes on earth.

Buddhist prayer flag fluttering in icy winds | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Buddhist prayer flag fluttering in icy winds | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Hangrang valley Kinnaur
Hangrang valley Kinnaur
Halting for savoring the snowscape | Spiti snow leopard trail
Halting for savoring the snowscape | Spiti snow leopard trail

And the great mountains are not always a friendly place. For centuries, treacherous travel, rugged terrain, ageless border disputes, and political intrigue have kept this region of the world from the in-depth study. The seven great ramparts of central Asia present one of the most formidable and foreboding environments in the world. Their names alone evoke a sense of wonderment: Altai, Pamir, Tien Shan, Kun Lun, Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and the mighty Himalaya. Here, in the land where the snow leopard finds comfort, humans can suffer frostbite and sunburn at the same time. Anyone who has traveled in this region will attest that half the enterprise (and half the adventure) is just getting around these impressive giants of the world. To study the snow leopard is as much bold adventure as a scientific expedition. The high places attract two kinds of adventurous spirits: those who drink at the moment and move on, and those who are moved deeply by an awesome connection with something beyond human description. The latter cannot leave behind only footprints. Their souls would not bear it; they must in some way tithe to the spirit mountains, the spirit cat-in time, deeds, words.

– Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World by Don Hunter.

Whinchat bird | Spiti snow leopard trail
White-crowned robin | Spiti snow leopard trail
Tabo monastery | Winter Spiti
Tabo monastery
Tabo in winters | Spiti snow leopard trail
Tabo in winters | Spiti snow leopard trail
Relishing the landscape | Spiti snow leopard trail
Relishing the landscape | Spiti snow leopard trail
Thumbs up for the view | Spiti snow leopard trail
Thumbs up for the view | Spiti snow leopard trail
Contemplating the valley | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Contemplating the valley | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Dhankar monastery gate | Winter Spiti
Entrance Gate of Dhankar Monastery
Colorful Buddhist prayer flags adorning the valley | Spiti snow leopard trail
Colorful Buddhist prayer flags adorning the valley | Spiti snow leopard trail
White landscape of Spiti valley | Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
The white landscape of Spiti valley | Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
View from Dhankar monastery | Spiti snow leopard trail
Dhankar Monastery | Winter Spiti
Magical views from Dhankar Monastery
Dhankar Monastery | Winter Spiti
View of Spiti river from Dhankar Monastery
Winter landscape of Dhankar Monastery
Winter landscape of Dhankar Monastery
Frozen lingti waterfall | Spiti snow leopard trail
Frozen Lingti waterfall | Spiti snow leopard trail
Driving on icy roads | Spiti snow leopard trail
Driving on icy roads | Spiti snow leopard trail
Hibernated Pin river basin | Spiti snow leopard trail
Hibernated Pin river basin | Spiti snow leopard trail
Sagnam village , Pin valley Spiti | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Sagnam village, Pin valley Spiti | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Snowbound Sagnam, Pin valley Winter Spiti.
Snowbound Sagnam, Pin valley Spiti.
White Vistas of Spiti valley | Spiti snow leopard trail
White Vistas of Spiti valley | Spiti snow leopard trail
Key Monastery | Winter Spiti
PERSPECTIVE – Key Monastery
Ki Monastery | Winter Spiti
Breathtaking View of Key Gompa
Key village | Winter Spiti
Patterns painted by snow on fields of Key village, Spiti
Chicham bridge | Winter Spiti
Asia’s Highest Bridge – Chicham during Winters
Snow leopard, Kibbar Wildlife | Santuary Spiti Snow leopard trail
Snow leopard, Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary | Spiti Snow leopard trail
Initial fleeting glimpses. Snow leopard, Kibber Wildlife Santuary, Spiti Snow leopard trail
Initial fleeting glimpses.
Curious cat - Spiti snow leopard trail
Curious Cat
Protecting the kill - Spiti snow leopard trail
Protecting the kill
Savage look - Snow leopard, Kibber Wildlife Santuary, Spiti Snow leopard trail
Savage look
The blue-eyed beast - Spiti snow leopard
The blue-eyed beast
Hunter's lair - Spiti snow leopard trail
Hunter’s lair
Time for a sun bath - Spiti snow leopard trail
Time for a sunbath
Himalayan Griffon spotted in Sangla | Winter in Kinnaur | Wildlife in Kinnaur
Himalayan Griffon spotted in Sangla

Himalayan blue sheep or Bharal spotted in Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary | Wildlife in Spiti
Himalayan blue sheep or Bharal spotted in Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary

Himalayan Ibex spotted near Kibber , Spiti valley | Wildlife in Spiti
Himalayan Ibex spotted near Kibber, Spiti valley

Red fox spotted in Kibber | Wildlife in Spiti
Red fox spotted in Kibber wildlife sanctuary
Snow leopard prowling in snow | Winter spiti
Prowling in snow
The Red fox trail | Winter Spiti
The Red fox trail
Gazing snow leopard | Winter Spiti
The gaze
Snow leopard on hunt | Winter Spiti
The routine hunt

Weather conditions and essentials to carry

It gets really frigid. Winter travel requires serious protection from the bone-chilling Himalayan weather. So you’re going to need layers. Lots of them, along with thick winter clothing. If anything, you shouldn’t underestimate how cold and windy it can be. The temperature often drops to -30 °C. The air in Spiti is very thin due to high altitude and no vegetation so it is advised to see your doctor and take the required medication. If you have prior experience of trekking or hiking high altitude terrains then there shouldn’t be any problems related to high altitude sickness.

  • Backpack (70-90 liter) for multi-days Hikes.
  • Trekking Boots – High ankle support boots.
  • Trek Gaiter – To prevent snow/moisture seeping inside the boot.
  • Trekking Pole
  • Down Jacket – Thick, windproof material, fleece and feather based recommended.
  • Trek Pants – (at least 3 Trek Pants), no Jeans. Synthetic, Quick Dry fabric-based Trek Pants are ideal.
  • Full sleeve woolen/fleece – (at least 2)
  • Full sleeve T-Shirts – (at least 4)
  • Thermal Inner – (for Lower body recommended/ upper is optional)
  • Balaclava
  • Sunglasses – It is a must for a snow hike. UV rated ones.
  • Hand gloves
  • Socks – (3 pair of woolen and 4 pairs of cotton socks)
  • Waterbottle – (2 water bottle, each 1 liter). Avoid plastic drinking bottles.
  • Toiletries (Sunscreen – SPF 60+, moisturizer, light towel, lip balm/chapstick, small soap, toilet paper, wet tissue)
  • Headlamp/LED Torch
  • Energy bars/dry fruits. Very essential for surviving the winters in Kinnaur & Spiti
    Medicine Kit

Accommodation

There are plenty of options to stay in Kinnaur. Options are limited to only homestays in Spiti because most of the hotels get closed due to water and heating issues.

Kalpa-Charang winter walks

Charang is the last village on the Indo-China Border. The last ITBP post is located in this village. For the city folks, the village offers a complete escape from the busy city life. No network coverage – bosses can’t call you. For a comfort trip seeker, I will recommend Charang only during summers. Kalpa in winters, with the temperature plunging to about    -15 ºC & heavy snowfall blocking all the roadways for weeks – the place is either for the brave hearts or for ignorants like us.

View of Pangi village from Kalpa , Kinnaur
View of Pangi village from Kalpa, Kinnaur
Unnamed peak on Kinner - Kailash mountain range
Unnamed peak on Kinner – Kailash mountain range
View of the valley , Kalpa , Kinnaur
View of the valley, Kalpa, Kinnaur
Roof of the Kalpa temple , Kinner Kailash peak (6050 m) in background
The roof of the Kalpa temple, Kinner Kailash peak (6050 m) in background
Chini village , Kalpa , Kinnaur
Chini village, Kalpa, Kinnaur
Chini temple , Kalpa , Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
Chini temple, Kalpa, Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
Hiking to Kalpa football ground , Kinnaur
Hiking to Kalpa football ground, Kinnaur
Snow covered fields of locals from Chini village
Snow-covered fields of locals from Chini village
Strolling in Kalpa football ground , Winters 2015
Strolling in Kalpa football ground, Winters 2015
Raldang peak (5425 m ) , Kinner - Kailash mountain range , Kinnaur
Raldang peak (5425 m), Kinner – Kailash mountain range, Kinnaur
Moorang fort , Tidong valley , Kinnaur
Moorang fort, Tidong valley, Kinnaur

Slippery road near Moorang on National Highaway 05 [Winter 2015]
Slippery road near Moorang on National Highway 05 [Winter 2015]
The trails to Charang , Kinnaur [Winter 2015]

The trails to Charang, Kinnaur [Winter 2015]

View of last ITBP check post and Rangrik Tungma monastery , Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
View of last ITBP check post and Rangrik Tungma monastery, Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
Halting place , en route Rangrik Tungma monastery , Charang Kinnaur [Winter 2015]

Halting place, en route Rangrik Tungma monastery, Charang Kinnaur [Winter 2015]

Day hike to Rangrik Tungma Monastery , Charang
Day hike to Rangrik Tungma Monastery, Charang
Charang village , Tidong valley , Kinnaur
Charang village, Tidong valley, Kinnaur

Chorten , a Buddhist stupa , Charang Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
Chorten, a Buddhist stupa, Charang Kinnaur [Winter 2015]
Walking with the wind , returning from Charang , Kinnaur [Winter 2015]

Walking with the wind, returning from Charang, Kinnaur [Winter 2015]Singing stream , Tidong [Winter Kinnaur 2015]

Singing stream, Tidong [Winter Kinnaur 2015]

15 thoughts on “Spiti Snow Leopard Trail: Winter & Wildlife in Spiti & Kinnaur”

  1. Awesome. Thanks for sharing the beautiful and amazing journey details of kinnaur himachal pradesh.life mei kabhi moka mila to definitely I visit this place.

  2. Fantastic and very alluring !
    Lovely snapshots.
    I remembered the few days spent at Chicham home stay @ 7/8 years ago in the company of great Monks and yellow mustard fields.

  3. Hi !!

    That is truly one of the best narratives sewn together with profound experience & a deep-seated reverence for the marvel of nature.

    I am looking forward to taking a winter run at Spiti this year. While all the gear mentioned from the above are ready from my end, please do inform me if you would be organising a sprint this year and other relevant details I should be keeping in mind.

    Sincerely,
    Arko Cy
    +91-9986738051 | [email protected]

  4. Hey
    I am looking for Spiti valley winter trip . If you arrange the trip please send me the details and cost plus the itinerary.

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