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Chopta - A Trek Through The Enchanted Forest

There is something special about the trek to Chopta. Something magical in the forest around it. The sounds of the forest are wild and beautiful, the sloopes soft and grassy and the teak invigorating and exciting.

One of the most incredible areas in Uttaranchal Himalayan terrain is Chopta. A forerunner of Garhwal beauty, the setting is prefect. Tucked into folds of undulating meadows, is the red slant roofed, yellow Tourist Rest House. The backdrop is a thick dark oak forest facing the fading layers of hills, leading into the imposing grey-white Himalayan peaks. This commanding sight reveals a beautiful but hazy view of the snow capped mountains-the Bhaghirathis, Kedar and Choukhamba amongst others. I indulged in the luxury of the soft grassy slopes, the velvety turf and the cool climate. Further down the road were a cluster of thatched dhabas and shops. We were rather charmed by the quaint soft-spoken politeness of Gopal, who with folded hands welcomed us into his dhaba. Sitting about on the clean mud plastered platform and wooden benches, we ordered food and discussed plans for the day. A decision was made-we would head towards Tunganath.

After a big breakfast of hot parathas and yoghurt we started off on the stone paved path up a hill. It was an exhilarating and tiring hike, our first since we arrived. The going was tough. City polluted lungs were shocked by the crisp fresh air. Unexercised limbs ached… we kept going through a lovely wood, after a while, opening out into a vast expanse of bugiyal (meadows). Rolling grassy folds, fringed by hills and a dense oak forest.

We rested here for a while watching the great white clouds billowing lazily across the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun and the hillscape view. Some of the group were sprawled out on the grass in lazy content. The rest of us, took to ambling through the forest for some “birding.” Our leader-with-binoculars-handy, a keen bird watcher of many years standing, spotted and pointed out a host of various winged life. This pursuit was quite infectious and set a precedent for the rest of the trip. All of us were more perceptive of the flitting movements in the air and amongst the leaf laden branches, camouflage and all. The previously elusive melodic bird calls were now being recognized and identified with a shape, size, colour and name. A most wonderous awareness.

Above the meadows, the forest opened out into steep hillsides, dotted with clumps of yellow-green grass. My adventurous and surefooted self found these slopes fun to scramble up since the grass clumps, though sometimes slippery, were reasonably good footholds. Far down below I could see the others pilgrim’s progress. They were obscured, somewhere on the winding path. We had opted for an “as the crow files” route, recommended at your own risk!

The final stretch climbs past a group of light-pink flowered trees and eventually curves right into Tunganath. Once again the view, now looking over the top of the forest, into distant valleys and ranges, is breathtaking. The meadow slopes, patched with colonies of small yellow and purple flowers, surround the small groups of huts and temple. One of the Panch Kedar temples built by the Pandavas, Tunganath Mandir is an important and historic pilgrimage, visited each year by many believers. Built at such a wonderfully picturesque and awe-inspiring spot, it was highly imaginable that with belief, here was a place where one could realize the beauty and omnipresence of God.

Further from Tunganath, having climbed 1500 feet higher, up another steep grassy slope, was the summit of Chandrashila peak-3750 metres above sea level. Here from amongst the strewn piles of stones, left for the spiritual benefit of the departed, one regaled a 360 degree panoramic sight. It was overcast and cloudy, visibility being rather low. But one could imagine on a clear day of sun-shine and azure skies, the sight would have been fantastic! It was 4 p.m. With five kilometers descent ahead of us, sobriety dawned. We headed back to Chopta, to reach exhausted, Straight to Gopal’s dhaba for a welcome hot cup of tea and a chat around the cooking fire.

That evening, we made camp against the lovely rubescence of a sundown hillscape. We lit a fire and then had a house warming party! You see, I had pitched and entered my blue tent for the very first time! We laid out a great spread of local buns toasted-on-twigs, cheese, half raw roasted potatoes and vegetable stew. The feast was interspersed with lots of songs, and the occasional bawdy joke, evoking peals of laughter from the ladies and guffaws from the gents. By the time I took off my shoes and socks to air my toes before snuggling into my sleeping bag, I was exhausted. But happy. It had been a good day and a good evening, ending with the warm glow of sunset, fire and camaraderie.

The 11 kilometre descent from Chopta, deep down the valley to Mandal, was another exciting experience. Four kilometers down the metalled road till Dhobidhar, straight into a thickly wooded forest with convoluting oak trees and vines, the dried leaf strewn path was steep and downhill. Thick undergrowth and trunks were lush and soothing to behold. Weathered, rounded stones splashed with a sheen of green, sat in mossy groups, in a somber participation of monochrome emerald. Bubbling brooks punctuated the journey, bringing a much welcome drink of cool spring water. The sounds in the forest were wild and beautiful, orchestrating natures’ harmonious symphony. A sensuous audio-visual concerto. Tangled and entwined trees emerged from a fronds-of-fern carpet, into thick leafy foliage.

There was something special about this wood. Something magical. An enchanted forest from a fairy-tale, with goblins, elves and pixies. One could imagine coming across a rednosed gnome in a tapered cap, here in some clearing. Leaning impatiently on a gold club with his ankles crossed, looking up from his 18 inches. “Do get off old chap. This is private club you know!”

Halfway down, in clearing in the valley, a stream gushed down over the pebbles. A clump of lovely white wild rose, mushroomed out. We dipped our toes and washed our faces. Now we were quite down in the valley. The whole scenario had changed. Instead of looking down into the valley, over tops of trees, we were having to look up to the mountains. They loomed over us, tall, imposing and unapproachable. To think just four hours ago we were up there and beyond… That was yesterday…l I guess life has it’s ups and downs!

A tried, straggly bunch of five walkers reached Mandal, staggering in, in ones and twos. The path we had just come down was the age old route to Tunganath, trodden for centuries by pilgrims from far and wide. What we had achieved wasn’t unique or historic by itself. Yet for each of us it was a special individual experience. The four days we had spent walking around Chopta, dozing in the sun on soft grassy meadows, browsing in the woods or just wandering about, had been a peaceful and invigorating spell. For the sake of all us nature lovers of modern times, I am ever so grateful that an area like Chopta exists. I am also grateful, that I have had the good fortune to visit and witness its present beauty… For who knows what judgement the sweeping scythe of the future may pass.

To get to Chopta from Delhi

One takes the following route:

Delhi-Roorkee-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Devprayag-Srinagar-Rudraprayag-AgastMuni-Ookhimath-dugal Bitta-Chopta.

The road all the way is pretty good, except certain stretches ahead of Ookhimath. Delhi-Rishikesh is well connected by frequent buses, from where one can get connections to Rudraprayag. From Rudraprayag, the local bus service takes one to Chopta. On the way back, buses are available from mandal to Gopeshwar, from where one gets back to Delhi via Rishikesh.

Even though there is a rest house in Chopta, accommodation is not always available and it is better to get a booking done at the nearest U.P. Tourism Office. I personally recommend camping out. A tent, warm sleeping bag and a good pair of walking shoes and you are set. Firewood is available from the dhabas nearby. Some vegetables and basic food supplies can also be produced. It is better to keep a rainproof jacket, since the weather is unpredictable. The best time to go it from March-April to August-September.