- The Srinagar Leh highway
- The Leh Manali highway
These are the two routes to reach Ladakh by road. The route that you take to reach Leh, Ladakh and how you travel on these roads to Ladakh will play a big role in planning your trip to Ladakh. In this travel guide for the Srinagar Leh highway, we will tell you everything you need to know for your road trip on this route to reach Ladakh.
- What are the travel options on the Srinagar Leh highway,?
- What are the places to see on the Srinagar Leh highway?
- Where can you stay between Srinagar and Leh?
- Where to stop for altitude acclimatisation if you reach Ladakh via the Srinagar Leh highway?
- How many days will the journey on the Srinagar Leh highway take, both, when you are on a short trip or you are slow travelling?
This travel guide is based entirely on our first-hand experience of our road trip from Srinagar to Leh using public transport, as we slow travelled in Ladakh. We spent several days travelling over this highway and halted in between at Drass, Kargil, and Lamayuru before we reached Leh.
Okay, so let’s get started. Let’s begin with the basics.
Where is the Srinagar Leh highway?
The Srinagar Leh highway connects Srinagar in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union territory of Ladakh, a high altitude cold desert in the Himalayas, in North India. This 420 km highway, NH1-D is built and maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), a wing of the Indian Army that builds these mountain roads in the border regions of India.
What is the best time to travel on the Srinagar Leh highway?
The best time to travel on the Srinagar Leh highway for a road trip to Ladakh is from July to September. These are the peak summer months and the chances of finding snow on this highway during this time of the year are almost zero.
The Srinagar Leh highway is shut for vehicular traffic in the winter months as it gets covered in snow. Snow clearing work typically starts in March, after which the BRO checks the condition of the roads and does any repair work that might be needed. Once they deem the road is stable (not prone to avalanches), the Srinagar Leh highway is opened up for vehicular traffic. This is typically when the tourist season for Ladakh begins. By October, it starts to snow again. The highway is shut for traffic typically in November.
When does the Srinagar Leh highway open for traffic?
Naturally, the weather conditions and the amount of snowfall in a particular year decide when the Srinagar Leh highway is opened and closed for traffic. Those planning to do a road trip to Ladakh should start keeping a track of the status of this highway around March end.
It is not unusual for the highway to be closed for brief periods, like a day or two even during the summer months. Small bursts of non-seasonal snowfall, especially in the shoulder season of April-May and October-November is not at all uncommon in Ladakh. Which is why, it’s highly recommended to have a couple of buffer days, and be prepared for itinerary changes when planning your trip to Ladakh.
Remember, when travelling to Ladakh, especially when you doing a road trip to Ladakh, you are undoubtedly at the mercy of nature.
Srinagar Leh highway – the start of your trip to Ladakh
If you are travelling to Ladakh by road then your trip should start not on the Srinagar Leh highway. This is the route we recommend for travelling TO Ladakh. You can take the Leh Manali highway at the end of your trip to Ladakh while returning back.
Why should you use the Srinagar Leh highway to reach Ladakh? For several reasons:
- Altitude acclimatisation
The highest altitude you will cross on the Srinagar Leh highway is around 4000 meters, which is the highest point of Fotu la. This is far lesser than the highest point of the Leh Manali highway, which is nearly 5300 meters. Even the average height of the Srinagar Leh highway is a notch below the Leh Manali highway. This lower altitude makes the Srinagar Leh highway a better choice of the route to reach Ladakh when your body is not yet acclimatised to the high altitude of Ladakh.
- Closer to civilisation
For most parts of the journey on the Srinagar Leh highway, you will be driving through or closer to villages – Sonamarg, Drass, Kargil, Mulbekh, Lamayuru, Alchi. Should anything go wrong on your road trip, and should you need human assistance, it is easier to find people along this highway. On the contrary, the Leh Manali highway goes mainly through the wilderness and you are cut off from civilisation for long stretches of the journey.
- Multiple places to break your journey
Being closer to civilisation obviously means you have more options to break your journey. If you have the time, you can even stay at these places for a few days, and better appreciate the experience of travelling to high altitude Ladakh.
- Fewer mountain passes
You cross only 3 mountain passes on the Srinagar Leh highway – Zoji la, Nakee la and Fotu la.
The start of the journey – Srinagar
Chances are, you would have reached Srinagar by flight. Or, if you are on a longer holiday or are slow travelling your way to Ladakh, you would have taken the Jammu-Srinagar highway to reach Srinagar. In either case, make good use of the time you have in Srinagar.
If it’s just one evening, you will most likely head to the Dal lake, especially if this is your first visit to Kashmir. Even though the Dal lake is all kinds of a touristy place, it’s alluring. In one evening at the Dal lake, you can:
- Take a sunset shikara ride over the Dal lake
- Visit the Chashm-e-shahi Mogul garden
- The Tulip season is in April, which is not typically the season to travel to Ladakh. But if that’s when you find yourself in Srinagar, do visit the tulip garden which is just next to Chashm-e-Shahi.
- Pari Mahal is a little above the Chashm-e-shahi garden. We highly recommend visiting the Pari Mahal for the spectacular panoramic views it offers of the Dal lake and its surroundings.
- Dal lake is the centre of all tourist activities in Srinagar and there’s a lot of places to visit in the periphery of the Dal lake itself.
If your plan is to travel in Ladakh using public transport or shared cabs, then the first thing you should do as soon as you arrive in Srinagar is to book yourself a seat on the shared cabs. These cabs leave from the Dal lake near the Srinagar TRC (Tourist Reception Centre). Unlike the Tata Sumos which are used as shared taxis within the Kashmir valley the cabs to travel on the Srinagar Leh highway are SUVs. It could be either a Tavera, a Xylo or an Innova.
These shared cabs leave early in the morning at around 6 AM. There are two kinds of shared taxis that leave from Srinagar:
- Going directly from Srinagar to Leh, the whole 420 km. With these direct taxis, you will reach Leh by evening.
- Going to Kargil, the midway point of this journey. If you plan to get off the taxi somewhere before Kargil (like we had, in Drass), you will still be charged to full-fare from Srinagar to Kargil.
If you do not want to take a shared taxi, and want to book an entire taxi instead, you can book that as well at this taxi stand at the Dal lake. We recommend you book your taxi seat as early in the day as you can, especially if you are travelling in the peak season from July to September and want to leave for Ladakh immediately the next day.
Buses also ply from Srinagar to Leh. The bus stand for these buses is also close to the Srinagar TRC. It’s not easy getting on the spot tickets on these buses. Though the buses are a cheaper option than the taxis to travel from Srinagar to Ladakh, we would still recommend the shared taxis. The fare difference isn’t that much but the comfort and safety they offer are far greater.
If you are on a self-drive trip to Ladakh, you might you should fill up your fuel tanks in Srinagar. It’s not like you won’t find fuel on the way, but Srinagar is the biggest city you will cross until you reach Leh. You do not need to stock up on fuel in cans on the Srinagar Leh highway, but it’s best to start the journey with a full fuel tank.
Another suggestion is to sleep well the night before the journey. Even when you plan to break the journey on the Srinagar Leh highway into several parts, you will still be driving over mountain roads, and very soon be at a high altitude. A relaxed body and mind (even if you aren’t driving yourself) are a must to enjoy this journey. You will, after all, be seeing some of the most beautiful places of the Himalayas!
Once you have your seats booked, your fuel tank is full and your body well-rested, you’re all set to start your journey on the Srinagar Leh highway.
Places to see on the Srinagar Leh highway
As you start your journey from Srinagar to Leh, these are the places you will cross in the same order as they are listed:
- Zoji La
- Namika La and Fotu La
Let’s have a detailed look at these places to see along the Srinagar Leh highway. We will also indicate here if we recommend a night stay at any of these places. We will also suggest some options to stay at the places along the Srinagar Leh highway.
As you leave Srinagar to start your journey to Ladakh you will take the exit towards Sonmarg. You will cross places like Ganderbal and Kangan on the way.
You can spend a day in Sonmarg. There are a number of hotels in Sonmarg. Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Board have a well-run guest house, right on the highway.
During your stay in Sonmarg you can:
- Visit the Thajiwas glacier and meet the nomadic tribe, the Gujjars, on your way
- Walk to the hidden village of Sarbal
- Run around on the meadows.
- There is an officially designated fishing Point in Sonmarg. You can rent equipment, get a fishing pass and try your luck with catching some trout.
- If you do visit these places, we suggest you walk instead of taking the horses (you will be asked by several horsemen).
If you are travelling to Ladakh using public transport and want to spend a day or two in Sonmarg, don’t book a seat on the taxi to Kargil or Leh for this day. But do book it, in advance, for the day you plan to leave from Sonmarg. The seats in the taxis that ply towards Ladakh are all filled u when they leave Srinagar. Finding a seat in these taxis at Sonamarg might be almost impossible. It’s quite likely that you will be charged full fare, from Srinagar to your destination. You could try hitchhiking if you aren’t in a rush and don’t mind waiting.
To reach Sonmarg from Srinagar, take a local shared Sumo jeep. You might have to break your journey at Kangan and get another jeep for Sonmarg at Kangan. This is a regular route and finding these jeeps will not be a problem.
Places to stay in Sonmarg
- Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Board guest house. This is where we stayed.
- Hotel Snowland
- Hotel Village Walk
- Zoji la
From Sonmarg, a steady climb starts. If it’s the season of the Amarnath yatra, you will see camps set up on a flatland under the highway, at Baltal. Soon after, you will be on your first high altitude mountain pass – the Zoji la.
This is where the “heart-in-you-mouth” situation, which will become all too familiar during your travel in Ladakh, starts. Your driver should be able to pint you to some important landmarks of the Kargil war. You will also see shepherds who get their flocks here from as far as Minimarg, crossing by foot over some high mountain passes. Your car or taxi will have to make an entry at the checkpoint after the Zoji La. Foreigners have to show their passports at this point and make individual entries.
Zoji La is a relatively smaller mountain pass, but a major point of transition. The landscape changes dramatically as you get to the other side of Zoji La. The green valleys are now replaced by the imposing brown and barren mountains.
Soon after Zoji la, you will be in Drass. Famed as the second coldest inhabited place on the planet Drass is a striking little town.
You can stay in Drass. In fact, this is where we recommend you break your journey if you’re taking just one break. The Jammu and Kashmir tourism department has decent accommodation, just at the beginning of the town. Walk-in bookings shouldn’t be a problem.
You are now in the midst of the Greater Himalayas at a high altitude of almost 3000 meters. You might notice a heaviness in your breath and face difficulty in breathing. This might also be accompanied by headaches. This is where you must start walking slowly, deliberately. And keep yourself hydrated.
If you still feel uneasy then return to your room, and rest. Do not venture out. Spend the day on the bed, and allow your body to acclimatise to the high altitude and reduced oxygen levels.
There are enough places to see in Drass to keep you occupied for a day. Drass has public transportation in the form of minibuses. If you have arrived in Drass by a shared taxi, you can use these buses to explore Drass.
- The Kargil War Memorial is in Drass and a visit is highly recommended.
- Walk around the town of Drass through the small lanes of houses. Notice the wooden houses in Kashmir being replaced by the stone houses in the higher Himalayas.
You will find local shared cabs to travel from Drass to Kargil. It’s a short drive of a couple of hours.
Places to stay in Drass
- Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Board guest house. This is where we stayed.
Kargil is the biggest town you will cross on the Srinagar Leh highway before you reach Leh. It is roughly only 60 km from Drass.
Most tourists break their journey from Srinagar to Leh, Ladakh in Kargil. Naturally, there are a number of hotels in Kargil that fit all the budgets. Not more than one night is usually allotted to Kargil.
Kargil at around 2700 meters is at a lower altitude than Drass. Even then, you will sense the effects of reduced oxygen levels. You must take all the precautions mentioned above for altitude acclimatisation. If you are travelling to Ladakh in the peak season from July to Septemeber, Kargil might actually feel quite hot, especially during the day.
The main street of Kargil is just a busy market. There’s not much to see here, in the main market street. But there are a few things to do in Kargil even when you spend just a day in Kargil.
- Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts. The museum has artefacts from the silk trade era and throws light on the life on the silk route. Ask for the Kargil Post Office. This museum is on the uphill road from the post office.
- Further ahead of the museum is the village of Goma Kargil. A visit here will give you the first glimpse of life in the high altitude Himalayas.
- If you are taking to slow to travel to Ladakh, then you can use Kargil as the base to explore the Suru valley. Or you can go all the way and travel to Zanskar.
If you are travelling on the Srinagar Leh highway using public transport then you will most likely take the bus from Kargil. The bus to Leh leaves from the bus stand in the middle of the market at 4 AM (ask the people at your hotel for exact directions to reach the bus stand in Kargil). It is better to book your ticket a day in advance as these buses usually run to full capacity and are used by both, the locals and tourists.
Places to stay in Kargil
If you are on a backpacking budget, then there are plenty of small, hole in the wall type of hotels in Kargil. But remember, you get what you pay.
There is an alternative to the Srinagar Leh highway. It passes through the Batalik sector and you get to visit the villages like Dah and Hanu which are dominated by the Brokpa tribe. Unlike the places along the Srinagar Leh highway, you do need an ILP (Inner Line Permit) to visit these villages.
After Kargil, you will notice a transition to Buddhism. You are now entering the Buddhist dominated part of Ladakh. You will cross several monasteries on your way to Leh. Public transport buses do not stop here. So if you want to visit these monasteries on the Srinagar Leh highway you will need your own transportation.
Shargole monastery is the first stop you would want to take on your way to Leh from Kargil. The monastery is a little off the Srinagar Leh highway. Which means you can visit it only if you are on a self-drive road trip to Ladakh or have personal transportation. You can not visit the Shargole monastery if you are taking any form of public transportation on the Srinagar Leh highway.
Places to see in Mulbekh
- Shargole is a cave monastery around 31 km from Kargil. You get off the Srinagar Leh highway by taking the right after the Shargole bridge. Roughly 2 km later is the monastery.
- Nearly 10 km after Shargole is Mulbekh. The Mulbekh monastery is on the Srinagar Leh highway. It is commonly referred to as Mulbekh Chamba. The biggest attraction here is an enormous rock-cut statue of Maitreya Buddha, housed inside the monastery.
You can stay in Mulbekh. If the busy streets of Kargil don’t appeal to you or you are travelling to Ladakh on a budget and don’t want to spend as much on accommodation as you would have to in Kargil, then you can break your Srinagar to Leh journey at Mulbekh. Remember, however, that Mulbekh is a small village and apart from a few homestays there won’t be too many options. The facilities available would be basic. If that’s okay with you then you will find that the stay in Mulbekh is not just cheaper but also calmer and most likely, more beautiful.
Places to stay in Mulbekh
- Nun Kun camp at Shargole
- Matrieya guest house at Mulbekh
- You can just walk around the village and ask for homestays.
- Namika La and Fotu La
Namika La and Fotu La are the two mountain passes you cross after Kargil on the Srinagar Leh highway. This is where you gain the most elevation. Fotu La is also where you cross the highest point of the Srinagar Leh highway, at nearly 4100 meters.
BRO maintains these roads in top-notch conditions, and you can easily glide on these roads.
Fotu La is followed by the village of Lamayuru, famously known as the Moonland of Ladakh. There are a number of monasteries here. The biggest attraction here is the mountains that make you feel like you have landed on the moon.
Many travellers who are slow travelling to Ladakh spend a long stretch of time in Lamayuru, to stay away from the tourist crowds of Leh. The village of Lamayuru, the Moonland of Ladakh is right on the Srinagar Leh highway and there is no dearth of accommodation here.
Places to see in Lamayuru
- Lamayuru monastery
- Moonland of Ladakh
Places to stay in Lamayuru
- We stayed in the homestay which was the first house in Lamayuru, right next to the post office
- Mountain homestay, another homestay with a garden
- There are several other homestays and guest houses in Lamayuru. It shouldn’t be a problem finding one on the spot.
If you are travelling to Ladakh by public transport, you take the buses that arrive in Lamayuru in the morning to make your way to Leh. Your homestay family should be able to guide you with the exact timings of the buses.
- The final stretch from Lamayuru to Leh
Lamayuru to Leh is a distance of 115 km. In this stretch, you will cross villages at regular intervals. After Lamayuru, you cross several villages like Khalsi (where you have a petrol pump and where you should fuel up if you’re on a self-drive road trip to Ladakh and haven’t refuelled at Kargil), Khaltse, Uleytokpo, Saspul, Basgo, and Nimmu – to name a few.
Homestays would be available at all these villages. One notable place to stay, in this final stretch after Lamayuru on the Srinagar Leh highway is at the village Uleytokpo. You can stay at the Ule Ethnic Camp, a sustainable tourism initiative run by a local family of Uleytokpo before you make your way to Leh.
Places like the Sangam point (where the Zanskar and the Indus rivers meet), Magnetic hill, and the Hall of Fame are all on the way to Leh.
How many days will this journey take?
If you are on a fixed itinerary and want to take the shortest possible time to cross the Srinagar Leh highway, we will say 2 days. It is imperative to spend at least one day at an altitude below the altitude of Leh, to give your body enough time to acclimatise. Acclimatisation time can make or break your trip to Ladakh.
If you do not have a fixed itinerary and are slow travelling to Ladakh, 7-10 days will give you a good feel of the places on the Srinagar Leh highway. You can stay at all the places we have mentioned earlier, r just stop by some and relax for longer in places that you really like. Except for Kargil, these places do not get that crowded, so finding accommodation and extending your stay at any of these places should not be a problem.