To the north, India wears the Himalaya like a white crown. Plains and plateaus are riven by the mountains’ spawning rivers, carving stunning gorges and hidden valleys. Jungles, deserts, and beaches abound across the Indian peninsula.
India has inspired profound spiritual relationships to the natural world for thousands of years. Now this awesome and diverse geography is kindling a different kind of connection among the adventurous athletes and enthusiasts who are waking up to see India as an adventure sports frontier. Here are some of the best adventures India has to offer.
The diversity of treks through India include romps across wild meadows, cultural tours through anachronistic valleys, and demanding ascents of high altitude passes. Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir offers a wide variety of challenging trekking routes and is a destination rich in culture. The Sandakphu Phalut Trek in West Bengal offers grand vistas of the world’s four tallest mountains from rhododendron lined trails along the border of Nepal. The Valley of Flowers trek in Uttarakhand boasts a riot of exotic flora in its prime summer season. From here, one must venture onward to nearby Nanda Devi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to gaze upon its namesake mountain, India’s second tallest and arguably most beautiful peak.
Go Extreme: The Chadar trek is a demanding winter adventure up the frozen Zanskar river.
Mountaineers must approach the Himalaya—considered the home of the Hindu gods—with respect, not to mention proper skills and acclimatization. A good place to start is the easy Friendship Peak, more than 16,000 feet high, in Pir Panjal range in Himachal Pradesh. Hanuman Tibba, the highest point in the Dhauldhar Range, is a geometric pyramid of snow that offers mountaineers a moderate proposition with an outsized reward. Then there are far more formidable challenges on the myriad peaks over 19,000 feet, including Kedarnath Peak and the trio of summits along the Trisul massif, said to represent the trident of the great Lord Shiva.
Go Extreme: Mount Shivling, more than 20,000 feet high, is striking spire of rock and snow that simply beckons brave mountaineers.
There has been a renaissance of rock climbing development throughout the country, particularly in the southern state of Karnataka. Hampi is a world class destination for bouldering enthusiasts due to its seemingly endless hillsides that are covered in giant egg-shaped granite boulders. Badami is a relatively small village surrounded by striking red sandstone cliffs that lend themselves to excellent trad and sport climbing. Here there are over 150 routes of varying difficulties set beside ancient stone cave temples.
Go Extreme: With a difficulty rating of 5.14a/8b+, “Ganesh,” at Badami, is currently India’s most difficult rock climb.
With easy access and gorgeous rolling terrain, the entire state of Himachal Pradesh is an ethereal playground for paragliders. But if you had to choose just one place to start, the idyllic meadow launch point of Bir Billing above the village of Bir is perhaps the best.
Go Extreme: Just beyond Manali, the Solang Valley with its steep terrain, thick pine forests, and surrounding snow capped peaks make it a crucible of adventure. However, it’s the stable, strong winds that make Solang an ideal paragliding destination for long flights most of the year.
True powder hounds will want to lap it up in Jammu and Kashmir, with its “curry powder,” the locals’ affectionate term for their own brand of granular, fluffy snow. At the Gulmarg Ski Resort, the gondola deposits skiers a good way up Mount Apharwat, though many skiers continue higher to reach the over 13,000 foot summit. Here, they will be rewarded with a leg-crushing nearly 4,000-foot straight-shots down chutes and bowls.
Go Extreme: If you’re looking for even bigger terrain, there are many backcountry heli-skiing opportunities throughout Kashmir, as well in Manali, Himachal Pradesh.
With India’s massive coastline of over 4,000 miles, the real question becomes: where isn’t there surfing? In Tamil Nadu, there’s Mahabalipuram, Covelong, and Auroville. Kovalam and Varkala are among the best surf spots. Most of the year, these destinations are perfect for beginners and intermediates to thrash around in the wake. In general, the east coast has bigger waves than the west—consider the east point break at Visakhapatnam (Vizag) in Andhra Pradesh or Puri in Orissa. Experienced surfers will want to visit during the monsoon (June-October), when the waves get big enough for a good time.
Go Extreme: Off the coast of India, the Andaman Islands, with their remote boat-accessed waves, are a premiere destination for more adventurous surfers.
Rivers are held in high regard throughout India, especially among kayakers and rafters who hold a deep and profound reverence for the might and majesty of these Himalayan-fed rivers. From Gaumukh (“cow’s mouth”), the head of the sacred Ganges River, numerous rafting adventures of all grades abound as you head down its tributaries, including on the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, and Mandakini.
Go Extreme: The Zanskar River in Ladakh offers a class 4 rafting experience through a tight-walled canyon at over 4,000 meters elevation.
The mangrove-lined coastlines of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may be best experienced by kayak. Camping opportunities make it possible to choose your own adventure and explore any one of the 572 distinct islands in this archipelago—just contact the Tourism Information Counter of the Directorate of Tourism at Port Blair for camping regulations. If you’re looking for mainland access, head to Kerala, with its numerous lakes, channels, bays, and open back-waters.
Go Extreme: Consider testing yourself against class 3 whitewater of the Kali River in northern Karnataka.
Among the oldest mountains in India, the Western Ghats are a mighty range with hundreds of biking trails that range for mellow day trips to tough multi-day excursions through jungle single track. Bangalore is a good place to launch a tour through the mountains; just make sure that you finish your ride at any one of the beaches on the Konkan Coast.
Go Extreme: The trail from Srinagar to Manali is a 12-day ride across multiple 13,000-foot passes that is regarded as one of the best, if not toughest, high-altitude mountain biking trails in the world.
When not snacking on fresh prawns, lobster, fish, and crabs flavored with spices using traditional Tandoori preparations, you can strap on your scuba gear and actually look at these abundant sea creatures living in a vibrant coral landscape surrounding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Go Extreme: Check out the smoldering Barren Island, South Asia’s only active volcano, in the Andamans and explore turtles, manta rays, and a striking florescent coral cave at the Purple Haze dive site in some of the clearest water you’ve ever seen.