Travel highlights of Pahalgam

Beautiful Betaab Valley on the way from Pahalgam to Chandanwari
Image courtesy: ©Gaurav Chaturvedi/Lonely Planet

Nestled in a valley between high conifer-dotted peaks and at the confluence of the Lidder and Sheshnag rivers, Pahalgam is a two-hour detour from the main Jammu to Srinagar highway. The sylvan charms of this low-rise resort town draw many visitors in summer – a mix of vacationers and pilgrims headed for Amarnath. The pilgrimage begins from Chandanwari, a picnic spot which transforms into a hub of activity with thousands of shops, rest houses and community kitchens when the pilgrimage is on. The place to visit, however, and even spend a night, is the delightful Aru Valley, a bit higher up the Lidder Valley and insulated from the crowds near Pahalgam town.

Here are the main travel highlights of this town in the Kashmir Valley.

Aru Valley

Skirted by the Lidder River, this fantastic valley and sprawling meadow is a place to experience the natural beauty of Pahalgam (it’s about 12km from the town). It is the kind of idyll usually reserved for tourist brochures and picture postcards – pine-lined hillocks and grassy slopes with horses galloping about and sheep grazing against the backdrop of the roaring Lidder. Aru is also the starting point for a number of treks, the notable ones including those to Tarsar Lake and as far afield as Sonamarg. You can also go sightseeing on ponies to various spots.

Betaab Valley

Rechristened by Bollywood as Betaab Valley, what was once known as Hagan Valley, it is accessed by a narrow road which leads down to the river bank from the main road to Chandanwari about 7km out of town. This is a pretty miniature vale on the banks of the Lidder River as it widens and meanders through pastures. The valley’s scenic charms have made it a major draw for the film industry ever since the 1983 film Betaab, starring Amrita Singh and Sunny Deol, was shot here. Film crews are routinely spotted to this day.

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Chandanwari

Located about 16km from Pahalgam, this is where the true test of determination begins for millions of pilgrims who undertake the arduous 32km trek to Amarnath Cave. Except in the summer months, when the yatra takes place, Chandanwari is a quiet picnic spot save for a few ponies and sleds taking visitors for rides on the glacier. During the yatra, however, it transforms into a mini-town with a proliferation of shops selling everything from medicine to clothes and tents. There are also tour operators doing brisk business and langars (community kitchens) offering free food to pilgrims.

Amarnath

This Shiva shrine in a cave located at an elevation of 3888m is one of the holiest destinations for Hindus. The Amarnath Yatra is possible for only around 45 days to two months, usually starting in late June or early July. There are two routes: the traditional route from Chandanwari is about 32km; a shorter but much more strenuous route from Sonamarg is the other option. The trip usually takes about five days from Pahalgam. Pilgrims start at the Pahalgam Yatri Base Camp where they can deposit luggage and valuables.