This is Part 1 of our 5 part series on planning the ultimate road trip to Leh Ladakh in India. We will cover every aspect – itinerary, accommodation, packing, driving – of planning an unforgettable Ladakh road trip:
Read Part 2 – Leh Ladakh Road Trip II (Nubra, Pangong, and Manali) (opens in new tab)
Read Part 3 – Packing for a road trip to Leh and Ladakh (opens in new tab)
Read Part 4 – 10 Dos and Donts for a roadtrip to Leh-Ladakh, India (opens in new tab)
Read Part 5 – Accommodation: Luxury Camping in Ladakh (opens in new tab)
As we make our way to Ladakh, lush meadows, Chinar forests, and apple orchards give way to barren landscapes illuminated by the glimmering sun. Monks are everywhere and monasteries dot the landscape – that’s when you know you’ve arrived in one of the most spectacular places on Earth!!
A road trip to Ladakh is no small feat- it is well and truly the stuff of dreams. Ladakh’s soundlessness, its cobalt blue skies, bright rainbows, and glistening lakes are pure magic. This road trip boasts of iconic landmarks such as the highest motorable road in the world (Khardung La); some of the highest mountain passes in the world such as Zoji La and Tanglang La; splendid scenic drives in remote regions, and some little known gems such as the kaleidoscopic More Plains, Lamayuru, and the hypnotic Gata Loops. It is truly a road trip like no other!!
Before the fun stuff and a day-by-day itinerary of our roadtrip to Ladakh, here’s a quick look at the logistics:
Here’s an overview of the route we followed over the course of 3 weeks. We drove from Delhi to Ladakh via Gulmarg. We drove back from Leh City to Delhi via Manali.
This self-drive road trip is only for experienced drivers who are comfortable driving in India and skilled at driving in the hills. There are dubious roads, bumpy stretches, and unpaved mountain passes by the dozen (all details in the daily breakdown below). Having said that, if you enjoy driving and are fond of road trips, it truly doesn’t get better than this. Look at these panoramas and those crystal clear skies. Don’t forget to read our article on 10 Things to keep in mind while planning a road trip to Leh and Ladakh before embarking on this road trip.
Try to stick to bottled/filtered water while you are in India. Stock up on water and also on non-perishable snacks including dried fruits, nuts, and cookies before the road trip. However there is no need to go overboard as hot food is plentiful, cheap, and easily available in India.
There are hundreds of dhabas (shacks) along the way, most of which cater well to vegetarian and vegan travellers. Expect to find paranthas (stuffed flatbreads) and sandwiches. As you begin to inch closer to Leh, you will start noticing a smattering of mok mok/momos (steamed dumplings), chowmein (an Indian take on traditional stir-fried noodles), and Maggi (Instant noodles) on menus. A meal at a roadside shack will rarely set you back by more than £5 (INR 500). There are also loads of mid-range and some truly exquisite restaurants in the bigger cities you’ll hit during this road trip. We’ve mentioned a couple of our favourites in the itinerary below 🙂
The cumulative expenses depend on the kinds of hotels and restaurants you choose to stay and dine. As with every other country we visit, we chose quaint lil B&Bs for the days when we had to be on the road all day and just needed a place to crash at night and luxury hotels for languorous days that had to be spent in the same city. Besides accommodation and food, expect to spend approximately £120 (INR 12000) on fuel and £40 (INR 4000) on tolls and road taxes if you’re driving a rental car. This sum is a bit lower if you’re driving your own car.
Try renting a 4X4 for your road trip to Ladakh – this isn’t essential but it makes the ride easier. It is easy to rent a car in most major cities in India. As most of you probably know, driving in India is like nowhere else in the world. Roads are chaotic and lane driving is but a myth. Taking these things into consideration, it’s best to rent a car from an Indian rental company. Such companies understand the nuances of the Indian market well.
There are a number of car-rental companies in India. Here are a couple of things we kept in mind while renting a self-drive car in India:
- Make sure you opt for a company that provides unlimited mileage. A lot of companies offer a quote that includes limited mileage. Customers are charged an extortionate amount for every kilometre over the fixed mileage. This is never a good idea if you, like us, love taking detours and discovering offbeat gems along the way.
Keeping these things in mind, we rented a Scorpio from Myles Cars for our self-drive road trip and the experience was seamless. We opted for their personalised service, which included a pick up/drop off at our doorstep (something we’ve seen only in India 🙂 ). Our car was in great shape and didn’t give us trouble as we drove through varied terrains, bumpy roads, and mountain passes. We drove it much more than we anticipated but paid no additional cost (thanks to the unlimited mileage clause!)
Now that the logistics are out of the way, let’s head to the fun stuff. Here’s a day by day breakdown of a road trip to Ladakh:
Day 1: Driving from Delhi to Patnitop
The first day’s drive through bustling Indian towns and cities and plains is perfect to acquaint oneself with driving in India. The drive from Delhi to Patnitop, a small hill-station in Jammu and Kashmir is long. It can take about 16 hours (although Google says 10 ;-)), so you might consider breaking it if you don’t enjoy long days on the road. In any case, always take frequent breaks especially if you are the only one driving.
Start early – we left Delhi at 4.30 am. We took the following route: Delhi-Karnal-Ambala-Ludhiana-Jalandhar-Pathankot-Udhampur-Patnitop. This drive isn’t particularly scenic and there are frequent toll booths along the way. However the first 7-8 hours boast of great roads. Also, there are lots of service stations and public toilets along the way.
There is no shortage of restaurants. International chains – McDonald, KFC, Subway – seem to be extremely popular in the area. But if the weather’s conducive, we’d suggest taking a pitstop at a traditional Indian dhaba (shack) for some North Indian grub.
Fight the impulse to follow your GPS blindly and try to stay on the highway as much as possible. For eg. our GPS took us through ‘shortcuts’ towards Gurdashpur and Binanagar. Instead of following the highway and driving towards Pathankot, we obeyed the GPS. This was the worst idea ever as roads were bad and in horrible condition. We ended up wasting 2 hours on an already long day!
Patnitop is a small hilltop town that makes for a perfect pitstop for the night. There are a few hotels and resorts in the area. We chose to spend the night at Vardaan Resorts because it was recommended by a couple of locals. Rooms are clean but dated and food is fresh. The view however is enviable. Waking up to this view made us really excited about the panoramas that lay ahead.
Day 2: Driving from Patnitop to Gulmarg
This is when the fun begins in real ernest. Almost as soon as you leave Patnitop, you will start spotting lush forests, meadows, glistening waterfalls, and blue skies. Apple farms start making an appearance and Kashmir’s sun-drenched panoramas put visitors in a good mood. At one point you’ll cross Jawahar tunnel and the moment you come out on the other side, you’ll be greeted to the first glimpse of the beautiful Kashmir valley.
The winding hilly drive from Patnitop to Gulmarg takes over 8 hours. Expect to make loads of stops along the way – rainbows play hide and seeks with red-cheeked kids in the countryside and Kashmir. Glowing and throbbing nature is at its best and most magical here in Kashmir.
Make sure your fuel is topped up when you leave Patnitop as gas stations start getting scarce at this point.
You could choose a hotel in Srinagar or Gulmarg. We chose to stay in a slightly secluded spot in Gulmarg – The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa was recommended to us by a reader and we’re so glad we chose it for our stay in Gulmarg. It’s a magical property, nothing short of splendid. Decadent rooms overlook snow-capped peaks and coniferous forests. On sharing a photo on our Facebook page, we found out dozens of our readers have stayed there in the past and all of them gush about it – so glad we aren’t the only ones! 🙂
Days 3-5: Gulmarg & surroundings
We spent 3 nights at The Khyber Himalayan Resort as we explored Gulmarg and its surroundings. It provided the perfect break from all that driving. Nature is extravagantly beautiful in this part of Kashmir.
You could just pick up your car, pack a picnic basket, and find an idyllic picnic spot just about anywhere. Alternatively you could go for a hike, one that’s as easy or strenuous as you want it to be, through Gulmarg’s magical woodlands. Don’t forget to hop on the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the highest operating cable cars in the world. The first level of the gondola ride is passable but the views of the Himalayas from the second level are splendid. Highly recommended. Tickets cost £16 (INR 1600). Go prepared for LONG queues 🙂
Day 6: Driving from Gulmarg to Kargil
Finally it was time to leave the serene environs of Gulmarg and head to faraway hills. The drive from Gulmarg to Leh cannot be covered in 1 day, so it’s best to cover it over 2-3 days. Kargil is the perfect pitstop if you decide to do this stretch over 2 days.
This drive is one of the most scenic drives so far. Expect glacier views at Sonmarg, little streams at Drass, herds, cheery shepherds, flocks of sheep, and seductive stretches of countryside. At Zoji La (Zojila Pass), one of the bottlenecks along the way, roads are dubious but stunning views abound. Snow-laden panoramas are everywhere to be seen so it’s hard to get annoyed at the bad roads or traffic jams.
Start early. The drive from Gulmarg to Kargil is just 250 kilometres long but it took us 12 hours because the mighty Zojila Pass is always jam-packed and the roads on this stretch are in bad shape. To add that, there was a protest in one of the villages on our way and the villagers had blocked all traffic for a couple of hours. Always stay prepared for things like these when driving in India 🙂
It being peak season we were unable to find any hotel in Kargil for the night. Finally, after over 2 hours of first pulling into Kargil, we found a dingy room at a local guesthouse. We were grateful for the beds at the end of a long day but we can’t recommend the place. I won’t get into the nitty-gritties but let’s just say we were very glad to get out of there next morning! 😉
Day 7: Driving from Kargil to Leh City
The military presence in this area can’t be glazed over. You will spot soldiers everywhere – this is because of the volatile political situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Scenery wise, this stretch of road is spectacular! In fact, it is so scenic you will want to stop every 5 minutes especially as you inch closer to Leh. As we made our way to Ladakh, we could see lush meadows, and Chinar forests giving way to barren landscapes illuminated by the glimmering sun. Monks could be seen everywhere and monastries dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see – that’s when we knew we had arrived in Leh!!
Some of the places that are worth stopping on the way are Lamayuru village (mid-way between Kargil and Leh), Alchi, and the famous (and much hyped) magnetic hill.
Start early with lots of time on hand and stop to absorb the scenery every 20 minutes 🙂 Have lunch at Lamayuru to break your journey and enjoy the peaceful vibe at the monastery.
Leh City has loads of guesthouses and hotels to suit every budget. Choose one that gels with your travelling style – just make sure the hotel offers parking (as you will need to leave your rental car here while exploring Nubra Valley & Pangong Lake), rooms are heated, and it has oxygen supplies should you need them.
Since we had to spend quite a few days in Leh city, we chose the luxurious Chamba Camp Thiksey. It overlooks the gorgeous Thiksey Monastery, far from hustle-bustle of Leh City. Glamping is the only way to stay next to some of the most remote panoramas of the world in such luxury. We’ve been glamping in loads of places around the world but I’ll say this – nowhere has it been more decadent or scenic that in India. We loved waking up in our decadent tent at The Ultimate Travelling Camp, nestled amidst snow-capped mountains and spending languorous days absorbing Leh’s natural beauty, with cappuccino on call 🙂
Days 8-10: Explore Leh City and surroundings
There are loads of things to see in Leh City.
- Explore Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist stupa located on a hilltop
- The Old Town of Leh also makes for a fascinating self-guided walk – explore its crumbling houses, the buzy marketplace, and Leh Palace
- Leh Palace offers great views of Leh City but for truly spectacular views of Leh City, head to the neighbouring Namgyal Tsemo Monastery
- Outside the city, Thiksey Monastery and Hemis Monastery offer an insight into the Buddhist way of life. It’s easy to spend hours at each monastery – exploring rooms, marvelling at staircases, and talking to monks. Don’t miss the early morning call to prayer and prayer ceremony at Thiksey Monastery.
All these historical and cultural sites draw visitors. However here in Leh City, the landscape is the real draw – you could stop just about anywhere and be treated to a special view.
Take it easy on your first day in Leh City and give your body time to acclimatize to the altitude. If you’re on a road trip, chances are you will adjust pretty quickly because the ascent to such high altitudes has been gradual. However the difference in altitude might hit you harder if you’ve flown straight to Leh City. In any case, refrain from consuming spicy/heavy food or alcohol for the first couple of days. Have loads of water and keep yourself well hydrated.
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