Nepal is best known for its enormous mountains, and many of its beautiful national parks do include giants like Everest, Langtang, and Makalu. However, there's much more to Nepal than just its mountains. The plains bordering India, called the Terai, contain several national parks full of steamy jungle and fantastic wildlife. Other hill national parks are easily accessible from the capital, Kathmandu, and don't require days of trekking through the wilderness to enjoy. Here are eight of Nepal's most beautiful national parks, and what visitors can see there.
Chitwan National Park
On the border with India and about equal distance from Kathmandu and Pokhara, the Chitwan National Park is the most popular and most easily accessible of Nepal's jungle national parks. It has run a successful one-horned rhinoceros conservation program and has recorded several zero-poaching years in the past decade. There are more than 600 rhinos in the park, so there's an excellent chance that visitors will see at least one while on a Jeep, ox-cart, or foot safari (elephant-back safaris are available but discouraged for animal-welfare reasons). Elephants, gharial crocodiles, and numerous bird species also live within the park, as well as the Royal Bengal Tiger, which is more difficult to spot.
Most hotels and tour companies are based in the small town of Sauraha, on the Rapti River, but an alternative base is Barauli, on the Narayani River and in the west of the park. Chitwan is about a four-to-five hour bus journey from Kathmandu or Pokhara. The best time to visit is between November and March when the weather is cooler. Between April and October, temperatures on the Terai (the plains bordering India) are sweltering.
Bardia National Park
People who have been visiting Nepal for decades say that Bardia (also spelled Bardiya) is like how Chitwan used to be before it became so popular. Located in the far west of Nepal, the Bardia National Park is much harder to get to than Chitwan, but that means fewer people go there. There's a better chance of seeing tigers here. Nepal's last free-flowing river, the Karnali, flows through Bardia, after having made its way down from Tibet. An epic way of visiting Bardia is at the end of a 10-day white-water rafting trip down the Karnali.
Bardia can be reached via a very long bus ride from Kathmandu, or a flight and then a shorter overland journey from Nepalganj. Like Chitwan, it's best to visit in the cooler months.
Even further west than Bardia is the Shuklaphanta National Park, an area of wetlands and grassland. Avid bird and wildlife spotters can combine visits to the two parks into one trip.
Sagarmatha National Park
Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for Mount Everest, possibly the most famous mountain in the world, and indeed the highest. Everest sits on the northern edge of the Sagarmatha National Park, on the border with Tibet. There's a great deal more to see in the park than "just" Everest, however. Several other very high mountains are close to Everest and within the park (Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Thamserku, Nuptse, Amadablam, and Pumori), as well as the dazzlingly blue Gokyo Lakes, the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar, the ice-cold Dudh Kosi River, and remote valleys.
Many travelers visit the Sagarmatha National Park on the famous Everest Base Camp trek, but this is just one of many trekking routes that can be taken in the park. Unless you can afford a private helicopter tour, however, trekking to the park is the only way to get there, as there is no road access. Flights from Kathmandu to the small airstrip at Lukla leave throughout the day, weather dependent.
Makalu-Barun National Park
Just east of the Sagarmatha National Park, the Makalu-Barun National Park is a far less frequently visited alternative for travelers seeking a real mountain wilderness experience. This national park is notable for covering a vast altitude range: there's a difference of around 26,000 feet between the lowest and highest points in the park. The Arun River runs through the park, and the Arun Valley trek can be joined up with the Everest Base Camp Trek to the west. The park is accessed via a short flight from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar.
Langtang National Park
The multi-day treks within the Langtang National Park are some of the most easily accessible from Kathmandu, as they can be reached after a few hours' travel in a bus, as opposed to a flight like many other routes. The five-day Langtang Valley trek follows the Langtang River to near the border with Tibet. Enormous landslides caused by the 2015 earthquake tragically wiped out the small village of Langtang, killing hundreds of locals and tourists, but infrastructure has since been rebuilt. Take a Jeep or a bus from Kathmandu to Dhunche or Syabru Besi.
Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park
Travelers short on time in Nepal, or who have to stick close to Kathmandu, can still enjoy visiting a national park right on the capital's edge. The Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park is comprised of two unconnected parts: Shivapuri, on the northern side of the Kathmandu Valley, and Nagarjun, to the west. Shivapuri is more often visited, and the park is commonly referred to as Shivapuri National Park. It's an ideal place for a day hike, as there are sweeping views of Kathmandu from lookout points near the Nagi Gumba monastery. The park is also where the holy Bagmati River starts at Baghdwar, deep in the forest near the summit of Mt. Shivapuri.
The Shivapuri part of the park can be easily reached from Kathmandu by getting a bus or taxi to Budhanilkantha, a suburb on the northern edge of the city.
Rara National Park
The highlight of remote Rara National Park, in western Nepal, is Rara Lake, one of Nepal's most beautiful lakes, and its deepest. Located at 9,809 feet, many visitors like to camp beside the lake after trekking through forests of coniferous trees and juniper. Trekking here can be combined with a trek to another beautiful lake to the east, Phoksundo, in the Shey Phoksundo National Park. From Kathmandu, the Rara National Park must be reached via a flight to Nepalganj on the plains, and then another to Juphal.
Shey Phoksundo National Park
East of the Rara National Park, the Shey Phoksundo National Park sits partly in the Dolpo region, an ethnically Tibetan area that is in the rain-shadow of the Himalaya. The vivid turquoise Lake Phoksundo is a highlight of trekking through the park. Avid readers of travel literature may know of this area from Peter Mathiessen's 1978 classic, "The Snow Leopard." In this, the "Crystal Monastery" that he visits is actually Shey Monastery. The park can be reached via a flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj. Non-Nepali travelers require a special permit to enter Upper Dolpo.