A beautiful 87km drive from Srinagar, Sonamarg (‘Meadow of Gold’) is not much of a town, but it occupies a memorable mountain valley setting- white-tipped peaks leading down to forests of fir, sycamore and pine, culminating with expansive grasslands sporadically bisected by the Sindh River.
Many tourists make a beeline for the Thajiwas Glacier to enjoy snow and sledding, even in the summer months. A short drive from the town takes you to the mysteriously red waters of Nilagrad where the Indus River meets a mountain stream. Further northeast, at the base of the Zoji La, the striking meadow of Baltal is a base camp for pilgrims en route to Amarnath. History buffs can traverse the pass to go to Drass from where battlefields of the Kargil War can be seen.
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This magnificent river of ice is possibly the most accessible glacier you’re likely to find in Kashmir. Taxis won’t take you all the way up to it, but it’s just a 3km-walk or pony ride over grassy meadows. Warning: a crowd of operators will start haranguing you the minute you get off your cab. The hour-long walk is ideal if you’ve got the energy for it. The best place on the glacier is a 500m stretch along the valley, where you can get your thrills by hurtling down rudimentary wooden sleds that the locals manoeuvre somewhat recklessly down the slope. While walking on the glacier, watch out for approaching sleds, and don’t venture too far up the valley- there’s a fast-flowing stream below the glacier and in the summer months it can be treacherous where the ice is thin.
At a distance of 6km from Sonamarg, the Indus River merges with a mountain stream- a confluence that imbues it with a strikingly reddish hue. Locals believe that the water at Nilagrad has curative powers over skin ailments; people turn up in large numbers to bathe here on Sundays. Visit early in the morning or on weekdays when the crowds thin out.
A pretty mini-valley and meadow 14km east of Sonamarg, Baltal serves as a base camp for pilgrims who choose to make the short but steep one-day trek to the Amarnath Shrine (located 14km away) instead of the more popular route from Pahalgam. Ponies and porters can be hired at Baltal. The beauty of this spot gets obscured by the thousands of pilgrims who camp here during the summer months, so you might be better off visiting later in May and June before the onset of the Yatra. Even if you don’t want to trek to the cave, consider taking a short chopper joyride to Panchatarni, located 5km from the Amarnath shrine.
Nine kilometres from Sonamarg, the road leaves the alpine valleys behind to climb over the double loops of the 3529m Zoji La, a spectacular pass that becomes treacherously muddy after rain, then descends into a series of high-sided valleys. Even if you’re not going on further to Kargil or Leh, it’s well worth the effort to traverse over the pass all the way down to Drass. The pass was an integral part of the Silk Route and connected Kashmir to Central Asia.