From the precipitous peaks of the Karakoram range to the fertile Indus River plain, Pakistan is home to a diversity of stunning landscapes. Two new parks—Himalaya National Park and Nanga Parbat National Park—were designated in 2020, covering more than 2,200 square miles of biodiverse, high-altitude terrain in the northern territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Although its spectacular topography and fascinating history date back thousands of years, Pakistan is a relatively young nation, formed in 1947 when Partition split the Indian subcontinent into two separate countries.
Travelers can explore both cultural monuments (lengths of the ancient Silk Road, the ruins of Mohenjo-daro) and dazzling national parks, alpine lakes, and scenic drives. Here are the best ways to get into that lesser-known, wilder side of Pakistan.
Deosai National Park
Known as “Land of the Giants,” Deosai National Park sits on an alpine plateau backdropped by snow-dusted mountains. Each spring, the lush valley is swept by wildflowers and rare butterflies, earning the name “Summer’s Palace” by locals, who enjoy the wildlife after winter’s thaw.
This biodiversity hot spot is home to the Tibetan wolf, Himalayan ibex, Tibetan red fox, and golden marmots, but the government granted the park protected status in 1993 to safeguard the critically endangered Himalayan brown bear. The park was also nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016.
Kaghan Valley National Park
Northern Pakistan’s picturesque Kaghan Valley is a place of fairytales. According to a local legend, a prince of Persia fell in love with a fairy princess on the crystalline waters of Lake Saiful Muluk. But a giant was also enraptured with the princess, and held her captive. One day, the prince escaped with her, and in his fury, the giant flooded the valley and created lakes with his tears. Today, visitors from around the world travel to Kaghan Valley for its mountain scenery, alpine lakes, and clear night skies.
Makran Coastal Highway
The Makran Coastal Highway is a scenic drive along Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. The route starts in Karachi and runs through Gwadar to the Iran border, and is considered a major infrastructural achievement. Unique, lunar rock formations line a section of the highway known as the Buzi Pass in Hingol National Park. Natural rock sculptures, like the sphinx-shaped “Lion of Balochistan,” can be found along the highway.
In the northern territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, icy peaks soar above the Hunza River. Situated on the riverbank and surrounded by glaciers and gorges, the town of Hunza traditionally served as a resting place for travelers descending the Hindu Kush mountains into the Vale of Kashmir. The valley is home to snow leopards, markhors, ibexes, and red-striped foxes.
Hingol National Park
Pakistan’s largest national park extends hundreds of miles along the Makran Coast. While Hingol National Park is renowned for its diverse wildlife—Sindh leopards, chinkaras, honey badgers, and Indian pangolins–it is perhaps best known for its cluster of active mud volcanoes.
A mix of hot spring activity, gas, and water reacts chemically with the surrounding rocks to form boiling mud. When the mud is expelled, it continuously rebuilds the cones, which are easily eroded. One of the most famous mud volcanoes is Chandragup, a sacred annual pilgrimage site for thousands of Hindus, along with the nearby Hinglaj temple.
Baltoro Glacier National Park
In Pakistan’s eastern Karakoram, Baltoro Glacier is one of the world’s largest valley glaciers. Though difficult to access, it is one of the most highly trafficked regions in Pakistan because of mountaineering destinations including K2, Broad Peak, and the Gasherbrum peaks at its head. The area is not only known for its stunning scenery, but as a life source–a large portion of northern Pakistan’s population depends on meltwater from the Karakoram glaciers.
Neelum Valley National Park
In northern Azad Kashmir, the bow-shaped Neelum Valley is sandwiched between 13,000-foot peaks and blanketed by verdant forest and streams. The small hilltop village of Arang Kel, dotted with traditional wooden houses, is known as the pearl of Neelum Valley. Hiking paths around the valley afford prime views of mountains and waterfalls.
Nestled in the Hunza Valley, Attabad Lake’s vibrant turquoise waters cut through the rocky terrain. Although beautiful, the serene landscape has a violent origin story. The lake was formed in January 2010, when a massive landslide at Attabad Village flooded nearby towns, blocked the flow of the Hunza River, and displaced thousands of people. Today, it’s a popular stop for tourists who can take boats out on the water.
This story was originally published April 5, 2018. It has been updated.