Pahalgam and Aru Valley is one of the most beautiful places to explore in Kashmir. I’d hardly seen anywhere so green in my life, and it appeared like a landscape that belonged more in Switzerland than anywhere in India.
The valley lies east of Srinagar and is accessed by a long winded journey by road to Pahalgam town. From Pahalgam, you can head further into the valley to a village called Aru. Upon arriving, you’ll soon decide that the long trip was worth every second. The towering, snow capped peaks and lush green slopes hug the flowing Lidder River and are a feast for the eyes.
After leaving Srinagar behind, I travelled to Aru Valley with a couple of friends. While we originally thought we’d only stay a night or two, it soon turned into nearly a week, as we explored the incredible scenery and enjoyed the company of the friendly locals.
This guide to Aru Valley will help you reach this spectacular place in Kashmir and explore somewhere completely off the beaten track, rarely mentioned in any guidebook.
When to visit Aru Valley
Travellers to Aru Valley are recommended to visit during the summer months from May until September when the weather is at it’s most pleasant. You’ll find plenty of greenery, clearer skies and warmer weather at this time. Although you should pack winter clothing at any time of the year!
Outside of summer, snow fall is common and in winter the roads can be impassable beyond Pahalgam.
How to get to Pahalgam and Aru Valley
The only way to reach Pahalgam and Aru Valley is by road.
From Srinagar, we took a shared taxi to Anantnag (also referred to as Islamabad), a large town southeast of Srinagar. The two hour trip cost 100 rupees (AUD$2). Then, we changed to another shared taxi to Pahalgam. The one and a half hour trip cost 80 rupees.
Some people choose to stay in Pahalgam, which is the town at the base of Aru Valley. However, I’d recommend taking another shared taxi and heading to the village of Aru at the end of the motorable road.
Shared taxis from Pahalgam to Aru village leave when full from the central taxi stand. The 30 minute trip costs 30 rupees.
Alternatively, you can hire a private taxi from Srinagar to Pahalgam and Aru Valley.
Read next: 10 Best Things to Do in Srinagar
Where to stay in Aru Valley
Pahalgam is the main town in the valley and has plenty of accommodation choices. It’s the best option if you’re looking for more comfort and plenty of facilities. However, I would strongly suggest staying in Aru village for a more authentic experience and even better scenery.
There are around five guesthouses in Aru village itself and we checked out all of them when we were there. By far the friendliest and most homely is Rohella Guesthouse, where we stayed. I paid 400 rupees or AUD$8 for a private room with a bathroom. Prices seem to be the same across the guesthouses and are negotiable. You can contact Rohella on +91 9419483464 or simply turn up like we did.
The village has a couple of dhaba restaurants and snack shops, however, all the guesthouses have a kitchen that can cook all three of your meals as well. The food at Rohella was excellent and the two cooks worked tirelessly to prepare food for everyone all day (I even ended up in the kitchen cutting vegetables to help them!).
We made various trips into Pahalgam town, mostly to access the internet and pick up some snacks, which is easy to do by flagging down shared taxis. There is no phone reception in Aru village.
Things to do in Aru Valley
For outdoor lovers, Aru Valley offers plenty of exciting things to do. From hiking to horse riding, you can easily spend plenty of time exploring the beautiful landscape.
Rohella Guesthouse can arrange multi-day treks, horseback riding and guides for day trips. We hired a local guide through them for two day hikes and we paid 1000 rupees or AUD$20 per day for the guide. Most other guesthouses in Aru village and Pahalgam will be able to do the same.
Green Top hike
Green Top was a steep climb up through the valley to a patch of green on the top of the ranges. Despite my calves screaming at me to stop, the view from the top was worth the effort and the sudden 800m gain in elevation.
The saddle has a 360-degree view of the surrounding area and was nothing short of incredible. We even found a friendly shepherd up the top who was watching over his 500 sheep for the day.
This hike would be difficult to do independently, as there is not really a trail as such and having a guide allowed us to enjoy the scenery and villages as we passed. I would say a decent level of fitness is required with this hike as it is quite steep, particularly closer to the top.
Base camp hike
We also hiked to a place they call Base Camp or otherwise known as Lidderwat. It’s actually just a flat area in the middle of the mountains where multi-day hiking groups usually base themselves for further trips.
The view from Base Camp itself, was nothing particularly special, however, the long 20km hike there and back took us along a major path that is used by local people to connect them to town. Being Friday, many people were heading in for supplies or to attend the mosque in Aru village and so we met many of them along the way.
This was an incredible experience and we were able to meet some of the local nomads who call the region home. There were a couple of teahouses along the way where you can stop for a break and pick up a cup of chai and some snacks.
Technically, this hike could be done independently as the trail is very obvious and frequented by local people. However, there are no signs or markings, so it would be a good idea to at least have Maps.Me or hire a guide for peace of mind.
Meet some of the local nomads
The people that inhabit the slopes around Aru Valley are often referred to as gypsies. They tend to live in mud huts that blend into the environment around Aru during summer and then migrate down south to warmer areas around Jammu in winter with their animals.
They were mostly shy and almost none spoke any English, however, the children would often tentatively approach us unsure of how to greet foreign visitors. There was a real sense that the sighting of white foreigners was uncommon.
The gypsies share a heritage with nomadic tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their piercing green eyes and olive skin were striking. They are visibly tough people, their skin often turned to leather at a young age from prolonged exposure to the elements. They survive the harsh seasons in Kashmir by migrating, completely abandoning their homes for months at a time.
The best way to pass through some of the nomadic communities is on the day hikes described above. Being with a local guide is ideal if you want to learn a bit more about them and their culture.
Multi-day treks from Aru village usually head to Lidderwat or Base Camp, as described above. There is plenty of room there to set up camp and explore the valley further from there.
A popular option is to continue to Tajwas Glacier and various glacial lakes which are east of Lidderwat.
Or, you can also head to Tarsar Lake and various lookouts to the west, which are meant to be spectacular.
Either way, these treks will be around 3-4 days on average but can often be extended further to a week. It’s not recommended to complete these alone as navigation will be difficult and you will need to be completely self-sufficient. Any of the guesthouses in Aru village will be able to help you organise these hikes with camping gear, guides and mules.
Many of the hikes can either be done completely or partly on horseback, if you prefer. Horse riding is a popular local activity and there’s no shortage of horses or guides willing to take you for a trip.
Any of the guesthouses will be able to help you arrange a horse ride either for a couple of hours as a beginner or extended overnight trips for more experienced riders.
Is Aru Valley safe?
Despite it being located around Srinagar in areas that carry a ‘high security risk’ from clashes between Kashmiri militias and Indian military, it was easily the most peaceful place I’d been in a long time. It seems to be a pocket of serenity away from the rest of Kashmir. However, the local people will still let you know that Kashmir is occupied by a foreign force. There is no respite from politics here.
One of the brothers of the family that ran the guesthouse simply said, “We just don’t want army in the streets everywhere.” A statement I can understand having spent time in heavily militarised Srinagar. However, in Aru Valley you won’t find any police or army soldiers, so you’d be mistaken to think that perhaps you weren’t in Kashmir at all.
I can highly recommend a trip to Aru Valley, whether you’re a foreigner, Indian national or solo traveller. The guesthouses in Aru village will happily show off their incredible home to any visitor.