The world's highest mountain range, the Himalayas, spans five countries including India. Not surprisingly, it's the most well known of the major mountain ranges in India. The Himalayas are where three religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam—meet. The range features prominently in Hindu mythology, and attracts holy sages and Tibetan monks alike. The Himalayas also influence the climate in India by preventing cold winds from blowing south. However, there are a number of other major mountain ranges that play an important role in India's environment and culture too. Read on to find out about the top ones.
Want to stay in the mountains? Check out budget hotels and homestays in the Indian Himalayas and boutique Himalayan getaways off the beaten track in India. Adventure enthusiasts may also be interested in these five remote Himalayan treks in India that are still under the radar.
Great Himalaya Range
In India, the Himalaya mountain range is geographically split into the Great Himalaya, Middle Himalaya and Outer Himalaya ranges. The Great Himalaya is the highest zone, with perpetually snow-covered peaks rising more than 22,000 feet above sea level. It stretches for over 1,200 miles along India's northern border, all the way from Jammu and Kashmir in the West (where it's bounded by the Indus River) to Arunachal Pradesh in the East. The section in Sikkim has the loftiest peaks, with Mount Kanchenjunga being the third highest peak in the world at 28,169 feet above sea level. It's shared with Nepal though. The highest peak that's entirely in India is Nanda Devi in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, at 25,643 feet above sea level. The Great Himalaya also has two of Uttarakhan's important glaciers: the Gangotri glacier is the source of the holy Ganges River, while the Yamunotri glacier feeds the Yamuna River.
India's forbidding but magnetic Great Himalaya Range draws both trekkers and religious devotees. As Hindus consider it to be the abode of the gods, some of the most visited pilgrimage places in India are located there, such as the Char Dham in Uttarakhand. While Mount Kanchenjunga remains unconquered, the trek to Dzongri Peak in Sikkim is more doable. Various organizations also conduct treks to Nanda Devi from Munisyari. You'll need to be super fit though! The high altitude of the range means that there are only a few mountain passes. One of them, Nathu La, connected India to Tibet before it was closed and is a popular day trip from Gangtok in Sikkim. Unfortunately, it's off limits to foreigners for security reasons.
Middle Himalaya Range
The fertile and predominantly forest-covered Middle Himalaya mountain range runs parallel to the Great Himalaya on its southern side. Its peaks are much more accessible, with elevations of about 5,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level. Most of India's popular hill stations are located in the Middle Himalaya, in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These include Shimla, Manali, Dalhousie, Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama lives), Nainital, Mussoorie, and Almora. The Great Himalayan National Park (one of India's little-known UNESCO World Heritage sites), in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, is part of the range as are popular adventure destinations Auli and the Valley of Flowers National Park in Uttarakhand. The Middle Himalayas also cover the Kashmir Valley in Jammu and Kashmir, Darjeeling in West Bengal, and Gangtok in Sikkim.
There are two major mountain ranges in the Middle Himalaya—the Pir Panjal Range and Dhauladhar Range. The Pir Panjal Range is the longest and most significant one. It starts near Patnitop in Kashmir and extends southeast for about 180 miles to the upper Beas River in Himachal Pradesh. Its tallest peaks are in the Kullu district, with Indrassan being the highest at 20,410 feet above sea level. The range offers moderately difficult treks such as Kashmir Alpine Lakes, Deo Tibba, Pin Parvati, Bhabha Pass, and Hampta Pass. The ski resort of Gulmarg in Kashmir is within the Pir Panjal Range too. India's longest railway tunnel, which runs for about 7 miles, also passes through the range to connect the Kashmir Valley to Banihal in Jammu. The Dhauladhar Range, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, looms over Dharamsala and McLeodganj. Its highest peak is Hanuman Tibba at about 19,488 feet above sea level. Trekking opportunities are plentiful there too.
Outer Himalaya Shivalik Range
The Outer Himalayas, also known as the Shivalik Range, is regarded as the Himalayan foothills. It separates the mountains from the plains, and consists of valleys and hills that rise no more than about 5,000 feet above sea level. A large part of the range is located in Himachal Pradesh, up to the Beas River. It also encompasses Jammu, some of Punjab and Chandigarh, Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, and Kalimpong in West Bengal.
The historic Kalka Shimla Mountain Railway toy train winds its way through the Shivalik Range from Kalka, about 45 minutes north of Chandigarh, to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Haridwar is a popular Hindu pilgrimage destination. Foreigners frequently head to the ashrams at Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga. Adventure activities such as river rafting and bungee jumping are also offered there. You'll be able to get a superb view of Mount Kanchenjunga from Kalimpong and river rafting takes place along the Teesta River nearby. The town also has Buddhist monasteries, established by the many monks who fled Tibet, and provides opportunities for hiking and experiencing local village life.
Trans-Himalaya Karakoram Range
The Trans-Himalaya, to the north of the Great Himalaya in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, is India's most isolated and remote mountain range. It's made up of the Karakoram, Zanskar and Ladakh ranges. The craggy Karakoram Range is bounded by the Nubra Valley to the south, and extends north into the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. This formidable, impenetrable mountain range is sometimes referred to as "the roof of the world." It has eight peaks over 24,600 feet in height and its elevation rarely falls below 18,045 feet. The tallest peak, K2, is located in disputed territory that's currently controlled by Pakistan. At 28,251 feet above sea level, it's the second highest mountain in the world.
In India, the Karakoram's highest peak is Saltoro Kangri in the Saltoro mountain range, at 25,400 feet above sea level. The five peaks of Saser Kangri, in the Saser Muztagh range, are not far behind with the tallest having an elevation of 25,171 feet. Mamostong Kangri, in the remote Rimo Mustagh ranges around Siachen Glacier is 24,659 feet above sea level. The Karakoram Range is the most heavily glaciated part of the planet outside the polar regions. Mountaineers can access its Indian peaks from the Nubra Valley but permits must be obtained, as it's a sensitive border area. Rimo Expeditions conducts trips.
Trans-Himalaya Ladakh Range
The Ladakh Range lies to the south of the Karakoram Range, between the Nubra Valley and Leh. It runs parallel to the Indus River and extends to India's border with Tibet. The landscape is characterized by granite rocks and sparse vegetation. The peaks in this range are about 16,400 to 19,700 feet above sea level. Instead of having any notable peaks, the Ladakh Range is better known for its spectacular high-altitude mountain passes. The most famous of these is Khardung La, which is often incorrectly said to be the highest drivable road in the world. At an altitude of 17,582 feet above sea level, you won't want to stay there any longer than about 15 minutes before feeling lightheaded. Going on the Sham Valley Trek, through foothill villages, is an excellent way of experiencing the Ladakh Range. Yama Adventures and Ladakhi Women's Travel Company are two reputable organizers of this trek.
Trans-Himalaya Zanskar Range
South of the Ladakh Range, on the other side of the Indus River, the Zanskar Range separates the Ladakh region from the Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir. Its peaks are higher than that of the Ladakh Range, with many rising more than 19,500 feet above sea level. The tallest are the twin peaks of Nun, at 23,409 feet, and Kun at 23,218 feet. It's possible to climb them, although the trek is challenging. Adjacent to these peaks, in the Shafat Glacier, Pinnacle Peak is the third highest mountain in the range at 22,736 feet above sea level. White Needle and Z1 are other significant peaks in the same area.
The Zanskar climate is harsh. Snowfall blocks the range's mountain passes during winter, effectively cutting residents of the Zanskar Valley off from the rest of the country. During this time, the only way in or out is by walking along the frozen Zanskar River, which has cut a sharp gorge through the range. This trek, popularly known as the Chadar Trek, is one of the most difficult in India. Should you undertake it, your accommodations will be in caves along the route. In July and August, it's possible to go rafting down the river on Grade 4 and 5 rapids. Buddhist monasteries are another attraction in Zanskar. The most incredible one is Phugtal, halfway between Padum and Darcha. It can't be reached by road, so you'll have to trek (or ride a pony) to it. Himalayan Homestays, a community-based tourism initiative of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, arranges treks and accommodations in several villages in Zanskar.
The Purvanchal Range lies south of the Brahmaputra (Dihang) River in Arunachal Pradesh and forms the boundary between India and Myanmar. It extends along the Northeast Indian states and has a relatively low elevation that decreases towards the south. The average height of peaks in this range is about 9,845 feet above sea level. The highest is Dapha Bum, in the Mishmi Hills at the northeastern tip of Arunachal Pradesh. It stands at 15,020 feet above sea level. In Nagaland, the highest peak is Saramati in the Naga Hills at 12,550 feet above sea level. In the hills of Manipur, the elevation is generally less than 8,200 feet above sea level. The highest peak in Mizoram is Phawngpui, also known as Blue Mountain, at 7,080 feet above sea level in the Mizo Hills. However, the elevation of the Mizo Hills is generally less than 4,920 feet.
The Northeast region is largely tribal. Its remoteness, poor roads and lack of infrastructure have kept tourists away, although this is slowly changing. In addition to tribal culture, nature and wildlife are top attractions, including Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh and Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur. Pangsau Pass, on the Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh, provides a superb view across the Purvanchal Range.
The 500-mile-long Aravalli Range (meaning "line of peaks") runs from Champaner and Palanpur in eastern Gujarat to the outskirts of Delhi. About 80 percent of it is situated in Rajasthan, where it borders the Thar desert and provides protection from the extreme desert climate. The highest peak is Guru Shikhar at Mount Abu, near the Gujarat border, with an elevation of 5,650 feet above sea level. However, most of the hills are concentrated in the area around Udaipur. Mewar rulers used this to their advantage by constructing immense forts, such as Chittorgarh and Kumbhalgarh, in strategic places. There are many other forts and palaces dotted through the range, as well as tourist destinations including Bundi, Bera (popular for leopard spotting) and Pushkar (where the famous annual camel fair is held). As one of the oldest fold mountain ranges (formed when tectonic plates are pushed together) in the world, the Aravalli Range has an extensive history. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of civilization dating back to the Stone Age. Unfortunately, these days, the range is being degraded by deforestation and illegal mining.
The Vindhya Range runs across central India on the northern side of the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh. It extends more than 675 miles from Jobat in Gujarat to Sasaram in Bihar. Technically, it's not a single mountain range but chains of hills, ridges and plateaus. This is particularly so after it divides and branches east of Madhya Pradesh's Malwa region. The general elevation of the Vindhya Range is around 980-2,100 feet above sea level, with peaks rarely going over 2,300 feet. The tallest is Kalumar Peak, at 2,467 feet above sea level in the Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh. The range's sandstone structure is largely responsible for its stunted height. However, the ancient Hindu epic "The Ramayana" says that the mountains deliberately reduced their size to please revered Vedic sage Agastya, after they grew so big they blocked the sun's path.
Several ancient Hindu texts mention the Vindhya Range as the dividing line between Sanskrit-speaking Aryans in the north and indigenous Dravidians in the south. Evidence of prehistoric activity has also been found in the area, including India's highest concentration of prehistoric paintings in the Bhimbetka caves at the foothills near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Mandu is another popular tourist destination. This abandoned city from the Mughal era is perched on a plateau 2,079 feet above sea level about two hours southwest of Indore.
Fun Fact: The Vindhya Range and the Himalayas are the only two mountain ranges to be mentioned in the national anthem of India.
On the southern side of the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh, the Satpura Range runs parallel to the Vindhya Range in between the Namarda and Tapti rivers. It extends for about 560 miles from the Rajpipla Hills in Gujarat to the Maikala Hills in Chhattisgarh (where it meets the Vindhya Range at Amarkantak). The Satpura Range is higher than the Vindhya Range, with peaks reaching over 4,000 feet in the heavily forested Mahadeo Hills at Pachmarhi. The highest one is Dhupgarh, at 4,400 feet above the sea level. This is the tallest peak in central India.
Pachmarhi is the only hill station in Madhya Pradesh and numerous Bollywood movies have been filmed there. It's known for its cave temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. According to the ancient Hindu epic "The Mahabharata", they were built by the Pandava brothers during their exile. The most important temple in the area sits atop Chauragarh Peak, at about 4,363 feet above sea level. The peak also has a fort that served as capital of the Gond dynasty in the 16th century. Sunrises are spectacular from there but be prepared for an arduous climb up more than a thousands steps to reach the top! The rugged terrain of Satpura National Park is popular for nature, wildlife and adventure activities such as trekking.
The lengthy Western Ghats runs for approximately 5,250 miles along the western side of India, separating the coast from the Deccan plains. It extends from near the Satpura Range in Gujarat down through Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to end at the southernmost tip of India near Kanyakumari. The Western Ghats is made up of multiple mountain ranges, with more than 70 peaks varying in height from 1,713 feet to 8,842 feet above sea level. Almost a third of them are above 6,561 feet, with most of these being in Kerala. The highest is Anamudi, in the Anaimalai Hills on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Other major ranges in the Western Ghats are the Sahyadri mountains in Maharashtra, Cardamom Hills in Kerala, and Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu. These mountains influence India's weather by acting as a barrier against the southwest monsoon clouds and drawing much of the rainfall.
However, what really makes the Western Ghats remarkable is its biodiversity. The mountains are home to about 30 percent of India's flora and fauna species, and are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the top biodiversity hot-spots in the world. National parks such as Mollem, Periyar, Silent Valley, Nagarhole, Bandipur, and Mudumulai are popular. Other tourist places include Matheran, Mahabaleshwar, Wayanad, Munnar, Ooty, Coonoor, Coorg, and Kodaikanal. Riding the historic Nilgiri Mountain Railway toy train up to Ooty is a memorable experience.
Similar to the Western Ghats, the lesser-known Eastern Ghats separates the coast from the plains on the eastern side of India. It runs through Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (where it meets the Western Ghats at the Nilgiri mountains). The Eastern Ghats is flatter than the Western Ghats, and its hills have been divided into several parts by the major rivers in southern India (the Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna, and Kaveri). It still has a few peaks over 3,280 feet above sea level though, mainly in the Maliya Range in Odisha and Madugula Konda Range in Andhra Pradesh. The highest is Jindhagada Peak in Andhra Pradesh, with an elevation of 5,545 feet.
The fertile Eastern Ghats plays a significant role in agriculture, as the region is very suitable for crops. Bhubaneshwar in Odisha and Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh are the major cities for accessing the Eastern Ghats. Tourists spots in Odisha include Satkosia Tiger Reserve, Simlipal National Park, and the Koraput district in the far south where many tribes reside. In Andhra Pradesh, the most popular parts of the Eastern Ghats include the Araku Valley, Gandikota canyon, and Borra caves.