Auli, one of the best places to visit in Uttarakhand, rose to prominence as a snow skiing destination after hosting the first South Asian Winter Games in 2011. While Gulmarg in Kashmir is undoubtedly more accessible and has superior facilities, less-commercialized Auli offers serene conifer-lined slopes and spectacular Himalayan mountain views. It's located about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level in the Chamoli district of Uttarkhand, on the way to Badrinath. Admittedly, it's not easy to get there (be prepared for a long 10 hour drive from Haridwar or Rishikesh). The uncrowded, pristine terrain is worth it though! Here's the pick of things to do in Auli, even if you're not a skier. The destination has something for nature-lovers throughout most of the year except the monsoon season, during July and August.
Ski, Of Course!
Auli's south-facing slopes mean that the ski season is limited to just a month or so, from around mid January to the end of February, each year. Snowfall has become temperamental too, due to global warming. Downhill and cross-country skiing are both possible at Auli, although the skiable area isn't large. There are four downhill runs, with one ideally suited to beginners. A 500-meter J-bar standing surface lift services the beginner run, while the other runs are connected by an 800-meter chairlift. One ride on the chairlift costs 300 rupees per person, while it's 100 rupees for the J-bar. Day passes are available.
There are a range of options for learning how to ski, for all levels. These include freelance instructors, courses by private operators, and seven and 14-day courses conducted by Uttarakhand Tourism's Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (which provides and maintains Auli's infrastructure). Local skiing champion Ajay Bhatt founded Auli Ski and Snowboard School, the recommended private operator. If you enroll in a course, the cost will include accommodations, equipment rental, lift fees, meals and training. Otherwise, you'll need to arrange and pay for everything separately if you get lessons from a freelance instructor,
Ride Asia's Longest Aerial Tramway
During winter, the aerial tramway/ropeway is the easiest way to reach Auli. It runs from Joshimath to Auli, over a distance of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), and is the only way of getting to Auli if the road is covered in snow. The journey takes about 25 minutes and costs 750 rupees per person, return. Tickets can be purchased from the ticket counter at Joshimath. There are fixed departure times every 15-25 minutes throughout the day, with the first departure at 9:15 a.m. and last departure at 4:20 p.m. in winter. However, the aerial tramway will often only run if it's filled to capacity of about 20 people.
Spot the Himalayan Peaks
One of the things that makes Auli special is that it's surrounded by so many major Himalayan mountain peaks. These include Nanda Devi (7,817 meters), Kamet (7,756 meters), Mana Parvat (7,272 meters), Chaukhamba (7,138 meters), Trishul (7,120 meters), Dunagiri (7,066 meters), Nanda Kot (6,806 meters), Hathi Parbat (6,727 meters), Gauri Parbat (6,719 meters), Neelkanth (6,597 meters), Bethartoli (6,354 meters) and Panchchula (5,904 meters). Nanda Devi is India's highest peak, not taking into account Mount Kanchenjunga (which is partially in Nepal). A panoramic view of these powerful snow-clad peaks, which literally loom over you from some places in Auli, has a profound impact.
Trek to the Highest Point in Auli
For unsurpassed views of peaks such as Nanda Devi and Dunagiri head up to Gorson Bugyal (meadow). At 3,056 meters above sea level, it's the highest point in Auli. Although it's not very far from the aerial tramway station, the steep incline requires a picturesque 2-hour trek through oak forest to get there. Alternatively, it's possible to ride on a pony at a cost of about 800 rupees. The meadow is particularly attractive during spring, when it's carpeted in lush green vegetation. If you're feeling energetic, you can also include Chattrakund, a pretty sweet water lake, in your day trek around Auli. Do take a guide with you to Chattrakund, to avoid getting lost in the dense forest.
Visit the Temple Where Lord Hanuman Rested
Auli is even connected to the great Hindu epic, "The Ramayana," which narrates the life story of Lord Ram. Accordingly to mythology, Lord Hanuman rested there for a while when traveling to the Himalayas to get a healing herb called Sanjeevani for Lord Ram's brother Laxman, who was injured while fighting demons in Sri Lanka. The small temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman sits near the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam hotel at Auli and provides a magnificent view.
Check Out the Artificial Lake
Another of Auli's claims to fame is its artificial lake, which is said to be one of the highest in the world. It's located next to the Clifftop Club. The water from the lake is used to feed the snow-making machines that have been installed to improve snow cover. However, the ability to make snow is dependent on weather conditions, and unfortunately unseasonably high winter temperatures have had a negative impact on this.
If you don't care about snow and simply want to enjoy the outdoors, glamping is a fabulous way to do so. Auli Woods is the first luxury campsite in Auli, with just six fully-equipped premium tents nestled into the mountainside. It was set up by mountaineer and skiing champion Ajay Bhatt, who also has a popular luxury homestay (Himalayan Abode) in nearby Joshimath, in addition to founding Auli Ski and Snowboard School and Himalayan Snow Runner adventure trekking company. (Yes, he's done a lot to promote tourism in the area!). Auli Woods is open from April to January, although the weather is best from May to June and September to October. The cost is 7,500 rupees per night for a double, including breakfast and dinner. Plenty of activities are offered including village visits, jungle walks, night trails, day hikes, horse riding, and photography.
Go Bird Watching
In April and May, after the snow has cleared, birds start venturing to the higher regions of Uttarakhand. Birding enthusiasts will be delighted with the unusual Himalayan species that can be spotted around Auli, such as the Himalayan Monal (a type of pheasant) and Himalayan Griffon vulture. The forests are also home to doves, eagles, tits, jays, woodpeckers, spotted nutcrackers, and sunbirds. Serious birders should consider staying at Devi Darshan Lodge, run by community-owned ecotourism company Mountain Shepherds. Their local staff are qualified mountaineers and conduct outstanding bird watching hikes. They can take you completely off-the-beaten-track to places tourists don't visit.