Birding in the Raksham Chhitkul Wildlife Sanctuary, Baspa Valley, Kinnaur

A tributary of the Sutlej, the Baspa river originates at a point near the tri-junction of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Tibet. It flows due west for about 60 kilometers before joining the Sutlej at Kharcham. This is the Baspa valley.

A part of the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, the Baspa valley lies in the lap of the great Himalayas. Sangla is its largest town, and therefore the Baspa valley is sometimes also referred to as the Sangla valley.

The Baspa valley is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. And I am not alone, among others, the Gerard brothers, one of the first outsiders to have visited this region in the early the 19th century, also rated the Baspa valley as the most beautiful of all the Himalayan valleys. The valley is at its scenic best during early autumn when the ripening Ogla (a local variety of buckwheat) turns the fields into a sea of pink. Winters are also very beautiful. I will try and post a gallery of images that do more justice to the beauty of the valley sometime later. However, here are some images that might motivate you to visit the Baspa valley:

Ogla field near Raksham

Ogla field near Raksham

Raksham in winter

Raksham in winter

A view of the Baspa Valley, near Raksham, in winters

A view of the Baspa Valley, near Raksham, in winters

A scenic foot bridge near Raksham

A scenic foot bridge near Raksham. This bridge was later replaced by a motorable bridge.

The Baspa valley near Raksham.

The Baspa valley near Raksham.

Sunset from Raksham

A view of the the Sunset from the Raksham Chhitkul road.

Raksham (3150 m) and Chhitkul (3450 m) are the last villages of the Baspa Valley. Named after these villages, the Raksham Chhitkul wildlife sanctuary comprises of the forested and alpine areas of the Baspa valley lying east of, and above the village of Raksham. The sanctuary has an area of about 65,000 hectares and an altitudinal range from 3200m to about 5500 meters. A large part of the area of the Raksham Chhitkul Wildlife Sanctuary consists of alpine meadows and permanently snow covered glacial and mountainous regions. In its lower regions, the sanctuary also has good pine, fir, birch and rhododendron forests.

White-tailed Rubythroat

White-tailed Rubythroat, Luscinia pectoralis

The Raksham Chhitkul wildlife sanctuary has been classified as a criterion A1 and A2 Important Bird Area (IBA).

This region is especially interesting for birders because of its un-spoilt forests and also because it is one of the few areas in the Himalayas where birders can reach the alpine meadows and even the glaciated regions within a short walk (2-3 hour) from the road head. Thus bringing the high altitude alpine species, which would otherwise take days of trekking to see, within easy reach.

Reaching the Baspa Valley :

The road to the Baspa valley follows the old Hindustan – Tibet highway.
The route is as follows :
Shimla – Narkanda – Rampur Bushahr – Karcham – Sangla – Raksham – Chitkul

The distance from Shimla to Chitkul is about 240 Kms and the drive takes about 7-9 hours depending on the driving conditions.
You can see the route from Shimla to Chhitkul in the map below:


View Larger Map

Birding in the Baspa Valley :

Pink-browed Rosefinch

Pink-browed Rosefinch, Carpodacus rodochrous

The upper Baspa valley is quite wide and gentle at most places and can easily be explored on foot without a guide, provided one does not venture too high into the mountains. Almost all areas in the valley are good for birding. Places along the road that connects Raksham to Chhitkul and the fields and forests around the villages are great to start with. You can park the car almost anywhere and start exploring.

For people interesting in walking further, I am putting down a list of my favourite day-return walks. I have used the trails described in this post many times. These trails will take you though some interesting birding areas. They are easy to find, scenic and should not present any difficulty to a fit person. I have deliberately given general directions only as the actual paths keep changing from season to season, but they are always easy to find.

You can see the walks on the map below :
(click on the “larger map” link to get a better view.)

View Interesting walks in a larger map

I am also attaching a kmz file containing the tracks of these walks. This file can be opened in Google Earth to see these tracks and can also be transferred to a suitable GPS device. Please download it by clicking on the link below.

Zip file containing a googlemap .kmz file having the tracks.

The walks are described below in no particular order.

Walk 1:

Upstream from Chitkul on the left bank of the river

Distance : Approximately 7 km to the Alpine meadows, round trip of about 14 kilometers.
Time : A walk to the alpine meadows and back should take about 5-6 hours (including time for halts and birding).

Walk down to the bridge just below the Chitkul village and cross the river. After crossing left and head upstream along a well defined footpath. The footpath stays on the left bank of the Baspa river till it reaches a stream about 2.5 kilometers from the bridge. The path then turns right and follows the stream up to the alpine meadows. An easy 2 to 3 hour walk along this path will take you right up to the alpine meadows at an altitude of about 4000 m.

A view of the valley upstream of the Chhitkul bridge.

A view of the valley upstream of the Chhitkul bridge.

This route then continues up to the Kimilea pass (5280m) which leads to the Supin valley in Uttarakhand. It is interesting to note that the Kilmilea pass (and ridge) is on the watershed between the Indus and the Ganga. Water falling a few feet to this side of the pass will flow to the Arabian sea while the water falling a few feet on the other side will flow to the Bay of Bengal, thousands of kilometers away from the Arabian sea.

Looking back, across the Baspa river, towards the Chhikul village.

Looking back, across the Baspa river, towards the Chhikul village.

The pass itself is quite difficult and should not be attempted without a knowledgeable guide, however, one can easily walk up to the alpine meadows.

Walk 2:

Downstream from the Chitkul bridge on the left bank

Distance : Approximately 1.5 kilometers, round trip about 3 kilometers.
Time : About 2-3 hours (including time for halts and birding).

A board on the path going down down river.

A board on the path going down river.

Walk down to the bridge and turn right after crossing it. Follow the path leading downstream. The path goes through a dense pine-rhododendron forest growing on a steep hillside and then reaches a small flat area which houses a plant nursery run by the Forest Department. On continuing past the nursery one reaches a clearing filled with boulders and small meadows. This place is ideal for a picnic.
After this patch the path goes down a steep slope and reaches a well bouldered stretch through which has a stream running thought it. Usually a primitive wooden log bridge is made by the locals to cross this stream. This can be used to go across to a stretch of birch-rhododendron forests growing along the Baspa river.

Looking down river from the bridge.

Looking down river from the bridge.

Looking back, over the nursery, towards Chhitkul.

Looking back, over the nursery, towards Chhitkul.

 

Walk 3:

Up the spur on the left bank

Distance : 3.5 Kilometers to the Alpine meadows, round trip about 7 kilometers.
Time : About 2-3 hours (including time for halts and birding).

Walk down to the bridge, cross over and head downstream along the path. About 200 meters from the bridge a faint trail breaks off towards the left. Take this trail. It goes steeply uphill and after climbing for about 300 meters through a beautifully dense pine-rhododendron forest it reaches a small clearing in the forest. This is a good place to rest before climbing on.
It is a good idea to explore this area before proceeding further. I have seen some very interesting birds, most notably the spectacled finch, in this clearing.

The Ridge

The path going down river and the path going up along the spur can be seen

The forest changes slowly from predominantly pine-rhodendron to birch-rhododendron. Higher up, at the treeline, on can find dense thickets of rhododendron and stands of very old birch trees.
The gradient of the path becomes easier now. As it follows the ridge upwards, the footpath becomes quite faint at times. But it follows the spur and in the flatter areas it stays towards the right (west) side.

A view of the meadows and the birch-rhododendron forest when looking up the ridge.

A view of the meadows and the birch-rhododendron forest when looking up the ridge.

After about 2 kilometers the path crosses another flat area with an irrigation channel running through it. If water is flowing in the channel this place can be a good spot for a camp. This area should also be explored thoroughly. We saw some rare and endangered white throated tits here.

A view of Chhitkul from the ridge.

A view of Chhitkul from the ridge.

The path continues onwards to the alpine meadows and then to the Kimilea pass (5280m) which leads to the Supin valley in Uttarakhand. As already pointed out, the pass should not be attempted without an experienced guide.

Walk 4:

Upstream from Chitkul on the right bank of the river

Distance : 3 Kilometers to the checkpost., round trip about 6 kilometers.
Time : About 2-3 hours (including time for halts and birding).

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Accipiter Nisus

Follow the path that leads upriver from the village. The path bifurcates after going under an old traditional gate. From this point one path veers right and goes steeply down hill to the village school near the river. Do not take this route, instead follow the path on the left. This path moves along the plateau and after going through a series of agricultural field it reaches a boulder strewn bushy plain. The habitat in this area is very different from that found in the earlier walks. It is much drier and more open and has very few trees.

The path continues along the edge of the plateau for about 3 kilometers before sloping down towards the ITBP camp. Walking further up the river is not allowed unless one has permission.

Walk 5:

Upstream from Raksham on the left bank of the river

Distance : 6.5 Kilometers to the alpine meadows, round trip 13 kilometers
Time : About 5-6 hours (including time for halts and birding).

From the Raksham village a jeepable road goes down to a bridge, crosses the baspa river, and reaches a tented camp on the left bank. You can park your car at this camp. From the camp follow the main path going up the valley. The path meanders around some beautiful marshy meadows before it climbs a bit, crosses a small forest and reaches the boulder strewn valley of the Shaone Gad, a turbulent stream which joins the Baspa river at this point. The path now turns right and starts following the right bank of the Shaone Gad.
After about a kilometer the path leaves behind the last of the agricultural fields. It is an easy walk along the right bank of the Shaone Gad valley and the gradient is quite moderate.

Looking back towards Raksham.

Looking back towards Raksham.

This footpath eventually leads up to the Lamea Pass (5020 m) which also connects the Baspa valley to the Supin valley in Uttarakhand.
One can easily walk up to the alpine meadows at about 4000 m.

Looking down the Shaone Khad.

Looking down the Shaone Khad.

Looking up the Shaone Khad

Looking up the Shaone Khad towards the Lamea pass.

26 Comments

  1. Goabirder April 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Hi Somendra!

    Could you give some pointers on good stay options there(Chitkul)? Is it better to stay in Chitkul or Raksham?

    Planning to go there mid-May with family.

    Regards

    • Somendra April 21, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      If you have a few days you could spend a couple of days each at Chitkul and Raksham. Both are beautiful :).
      Both Raksham and Chhitkul have many small hotels. In Chitlkul I like the Alpine View and the Panchali Resort, while in Raksham I stay at the Rupin River view.
      Try and reach early, see all the options, a bit of bargaining will help :).

      • Goabirder April 22, 2014 at 7:55 am #

        Thanks… looking to do a bit of birding if we manage to make it there this summer:-)

        I have loved your blog…the text and the pics are amazing. Will follow it hereafter!

  2. Tanveer Singh March 20, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    Lovely!
    Love the info. I am wondering how doable are these walks around mid april.
    There will be lots of snow, right? Or is it manageable?

    • Somendra April 7, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      Most of the treks should quite doable in Mid April.

  3. Jitaditya August 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    just mindblowing stuff! Is early October OK for the region?

    • Somendra August 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Thanks. October is probably the best time for a trek in these regions. Have a good trip.

  4. Narbir Kahlon October 13, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Lovely images !! and very informative article.

    I am planning a visit on the 18th 19th and 20th of October to Chitkul. I have been there in June twice earlier and have enjoyed birding in the area.

    What in your opinion would be the best birding trails out of the five mentioned at this time of the year?

    • Somendra October 13, 2012 at 10:28 am #

      Thanks Narbir.

      Birding in Raksham – Chitkul in October should be very interesting.

      I would go for these two :

      Walk 5:
      Upstream from Raksham on the left bank of the river

      Walk 3:
      Up the spur on the left bank

  5. Somendra September 25, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Hi Shabnam,

    I assume you plan to drive to Raksham. The route from Delhi to Raksham is as follows :

    New Delhi – Ambala – Chandigarh – Shimla – Narkanda – Rampur – Karchham – Sangla – Raksham

    Hope this helps.

    Somendra

  6. shabnam September 25, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    how to reach raksham from delhi?

  7. Bijender Rohilla September 12, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    Hi Somendra, landscape photos are really amazing. Just wanted to know when (ddmmyy) are these photographed?

    Rgds

    • Somendra September 14, 2012 at 9:15 am #

      Hi Bijender,

      The images in the main article are from May 2012. The landscape images in the beginning of the article are much older. The images with the snow are from March 2006 while the images with the pink ogla flowers are from August 2007.

      Best Regards,

      Somendra

  8. premnath paliath September 2, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    is it possible to visit these places in winter? if yes how? can I take the same route that you have mentioned ?

    • Somendra September 7, 2012 at 11:41 am #

      First of all, thank you for visiting my site and for your comment.
      It should be possible to trek on these routes before a heavy snowfall happens. In this region the first heavy snowfall usually happens around the first week of January.
      After snows these routes get blocked and treking on them is NOT advisable due to the constant danger of avalanches.
      Also please keep in mind that Chitkul village is snowbound in winters and vehicles can usually go only till Raksham (in heavy snows only till Sangla). All hotels of this region close down for the winters.

      Hope this information helps.

  9. ravi July 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Great Photos..Which camera & Gear u use for shooting Landscapes such as Himalayan gorges..Pls suggest a good camera and give some tips
    Warm Regards,
    Ravi

    • Somendra July 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Thanks Ravi.

      While photographing outdoors I try and travel as light as possible because I tend to walk a lot. I use my Canon EOS 7D and I normally I carry two lenses, the Canon 100-400 mm IS L and the Canon 15-85mm IS. Once in a while, when I feel the need for a wider lens I keep the Canon 10-22mm and when a macro is needed I carry the Canon 100mm macro.

      Most cameras from reputed companies are very good now a days. Your choice of camera will depend on a lot of factors. Budget, type of photography you are interested in, quality of images you need, conditions under which you will be photographing, to name a few. I might be able to suggest a camera if I knew more about your needs. Please contact me on email.

      I am planning to write some articles on tips and techniques on my site so stay tuned :-)

  10. rita June 28, 2012 at 6:42 am #

    wonderful. thanx for such an informative article.
    hope to make it soon.

  11. sagar June 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Thats a wonderful report and images ! TFS

  12. Maitreyee Das June 26, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    excellent landscape and bird images!
    Best regards!

  13. Maitreyee Das June 26, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Your landscape shots are amazing, excellent! Bird images are also very nice but wanted to see many more of them!
    Best regards,
    Maitreyee

  14. Garima June 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Fantastic post with great pictures and detail! Will be especially useful as I am driving through Spiti valley next month and spending some days in this area. Thanks for sharing this info.

  15. Mahipal Singh June 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Those pictures are amazing. And of course with a fine touch of photography they look even more professional.
    Regards

  16. Manish June 25, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Superb pics, reminded me of the wonderful views and lovely snow when we visited.

    • Somendra June 25, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      Yes Manish, the winter images of Raksham are from that trip Manish.

  17. C>V>SINGH June 25, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Beautiful, and very interesting.

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