Date of the trip: Nov – Dec 2020
Ranikhet, a small sleepy mountain town in the lower hills of western Himalayas, home and headquarters of Kumaon and Naga regiment – it’s where my parents currently live. When you have a home in one of the most scenic towns in the country, and when (you are) on a break after 7 months of lockdown – there is no point looking anywhere else – just pack your bags and take the flight!
Nainital is the most popular tourist destination in the Kumaon region (undoubtedly!) but having visited both the cities, I feel the ridge town of Ranikhet often gets overshadowed by the valley city of Nainital. Nainital is full of hustle – bustle, glittery market lights and eating places, but nature lovers are in for an overwhelming experience in Ranikhet where you walk on the beautiful forest trails which abound in this fairytale colonial town, while a life goes on in Ranikhet at an unhurried pace. It’s far more peaceful and serene than Nainital, needless to say, Ranikhet is more like a town we would love to visit even when we are on our own.
Ranikhet is a mountain town settled around an army cantonment. This town was a summer establishment for British since the 1870’s before becoming home to Kumaon regiment. Apart from the military, this town is famous for its majestic views of the Himalayas and Nanda Devi range and Jhula devi temple.
Best time to visit Ranikhet:
Every season has its bests in Ranikhet. Specially for birders to note, this town lies en-route the migration channels of Himalayan birds. Although residents are abundant, each season has its own bunch of avian visitors.
For best views of the Himalayas, Mid October to Mid March is the preferred time.
December temperatures starts to drop below zero degrees while January and February can get snowfall. Ranikhet, due to its close proximity to Himalayas has a very localized weather which can change drastically throughout the day. It may rain unexpectedly throughout the morning and clear out into a bright sunny day during noon, just to go back to an overcast evening. Temperatures fluctuate accordingly.
How to reach Ranikhet :
Delhi is the nearest International Airport, while Pantnagar receives flights from Delhi via Dehradoon is 75 km away. Kathgodam is the nearest railhead and is about 50 km from Ranikhet. The New Delhi – Kathgodam Shatabdi is most convenient. Due to the prevailing lockdown we however had to take a taxi and go by road all the way to Ranikhet – which was to be our home base for next two weeks.
We landed at Delhi airport around midnight and by the time we crossed over into Uttarakhand the sun was up. After getting off the highway near Moradabad we stopped at New Shri Sai Dhaba for a cup of tea. Soon we crossed Choti Haldwani (home of the great Jim Corbett) and started our uphill journey. Road between Choti Haldwani and Nainital can be a bit more dizzying as it has continuous sharp curves. Beyond Nainital, up in the higher mountains, it’s a bit better as there are longer straight roads between the bends. We reached Ranikhet by lunch time.
Where to stay in Ranikhet:
Like most hill towns in the country, there are innumerable guest houses and homestays in the city. But to truly enjoy a relaxed holiday amidst the pine forests looking at the beautiful range, absorbing the essence of the place, you must try to stay a couple of days in the old British houses turned into Resorts, like Chevron Rosemount , Holms Farm Heritage, Yak and Yeti or West View etc… Construction of new buildings is not allowed in the town hence unlike other tourist destinations, this town is quiet and does not have mushrooming resorts everywhere. Even if you do decide to stay in one of the local homestays or guest houses, try one meal at these hotels and you will definitely come back with lot of landscape photos and satisfied pallets.
How to travel in and around Ranikhet :
Of course, like any other holiday destination, having your own private/rented car/bike is always a plus (Zoomcar from Delhi, perhaps?). You then have flexibility to move around as well as stop anywhere without any problems. Roads in this patch of the state are in excellent conditions and road trips and biking groups are very popularly seen on them. However, private taxis are readily available from all hotels (private tie ups) as well as the city taxi stand
Before we go ahead, a point about safe wildlife interactions :
Be aware of your surroundings while venturing out at any time of the day or night. People are safe and helpful but being cautious and aware of wild animal’s presence is important. Deer, Macaques and Langurs however cute, can be ferocious. It’s never a good idea to try feeding, cooing at them to attract their attention or trying to touch them. Ignoring them and walking away is the only way to stay away from their business. Photograph the animals, if you need to – from a safe distance so as not to disturb them. Be sure to keep a lookout at the local news on current leopard sightings. Leopards and other animals like foxes and bears are used to human activities so they normally avoid crossing paths. But if caught by surprise, might misinterpret your excited actions as an attack and may retaliate in fear. Understand, no wild animal hunts humans for food unless really necessary, self defense and fear may result in negative interaction.
We are venturing into their home after-all.
15 things to do in Ranikhet, when you don’t feel like doing anything:
Ranikhet is mainly a leisure holiday town. A heaven for people like us who want to unwind after a hectic office schedule. Slow traveling and pausing at each turn to appreciate the peaking mountains and forest sounds. Some days when I got up too early, amidst pin drop silence – I could hear the breeze blowing through the pine leaves and reminding me of the ocean waves in a distance. The freshness and purity of the air rejuvenated all my senses. Its a feeling that needs to be experienced and expressing in words is impossible.
Other than rolling on a rug, catching up on some reading and sketching (see photo above) we spent our time in the town doing these 15 things and found ourselves in complete peace of mind and relaxed – all lockdown blues washed away!
01. Watch the rising sun.
Sun rises behind the Ranikhet ridge and there is no easy way to see the sun rising directly. The whole Nanda Devi range is clearly visible from most view points and the golden snow peaks gleam majestically when you see the range, getting its first beam of light in the morning, golden hour and it gets more and more magical with each passing moment. 🙂 . It is truly enchanting. No amount of photographs or any kind of lens can do justice to what we saw that day. During our stay we tried and tested a lot of view points for the best sunrise and sunset photos. Finally figured that the best spot to enjoy sunrise is – a viewing platform ahead of the Narsing Stadium, just above Pathak Bakers. In addition to this, the view of the sun rise from Haida khan temple is equally (if not more!) rewarding.
02. Enjoy a cool evening and a fabulous sunset.
For sunsets, there are innumerable places and all top each other. The complex cloud formations, endless valleys to the horizon, multitude of hues and the glowing orange ball of setting sun behind the false horizon – nothing can beat the romance of this moment.
To make a great evening of it we headed to the sunset point on Chaubatia road, Foresta Cafe – near Seven Stones viewpoint. The chilled industrial vibe and soothing ambience of this eatery is great for some instagramable pictures!
03. Watch the Trishul rise above the clouds (and go back!)
Winter and spring months are the best time to watch the Nanda Devi range. The cycle of the range hiding and revealing behind the clouds is what holds the magic of this town.
04. Visit local old temple and churches.
Like all high altitude villages, endless faith and hope is needed to keep the people going, face the hardships due to remoteness and tough weather conditions. Ranikhet being a British stronghold has a big bunch of old churches too, most of them in ruins. Some old unused churches have been converted into army veer-nari (war widows) welfare institutions. Each of these temples and churches have interesting history and stories about them.
Jhula devi was built 700 years ago to save the villagers of surrounding valleys from man eating leopards and tigers. It’s a popular temple to make wishes and promises. The perimeter around the temple is full of hanging bells, devotees offer bells as a mark of respect once their wishes are fulfilled by the Goddess. Its a popular pilgrimage spot for locals.
A visit to St Bonaventure Catholic Church, is a sweet reminder of colonial architecture. The original interiors and wood work is preserved carefully including. Although now removed, one of the rifle rack locks are still attached to one of the benches, it is a reminder of a bloody episode in the churchs past which had forced Britishers to carry weapons into the church during an uprising by freedom fighters.
05. Admire the vistas and the peace of Haidakhan temple.
Drive to the neighboring village of Chiliyanaula and visit the peaceful Haidakhan Babaji Temple in the early hours. Its a place of spiritual devotion, and is surrounded by fruit trees with a majestic view of the valley flanked by 180 degree view of mighty Himalayas. It’s a great place to practice some meditation. The empty compound and melodious hymns playing continuously inspire to introspect and admire the complete Nanda Devi range in silence. It’s sure to make you feel saintly.
06. Follow the hiking trails and go or long walks.
Every morning we would pick one of the trails before or after Ranikhet club and do leisure birding while enjoying the pine and oak forests. No guide is required if you have you have presence of mind or a general idea of the place. Check the landmarks on google maps before hand. Benches provided en-route for resting let you absorb it all in. Don’t try to finish the hike quickly, take your time and let the moments fly by with cool breeze. If you can, take a rug and have a picnic on the way. Always remember to cleanup afterwards!
Our favorite was the route from Jhula devi temple to West view hotel via forest route opposite the temple. From West view we again took the forest route towards Ranikhet club via Chevron Rosemount hotel and Army holiday home.
07. Visit the Kumaon Woolen Center.
The Kumaon Regiment is the most decorated unit of Indian army but it comes at a great price. Many courageous soldiers have sacrificed their lives for our country, and after them The Regiment has taken the responsibility to rehabilitate their families/wives and children. This particular center sells woolens, clothing and handicrafts hand woven by war widows with traditional Kumauni designs. A must shop stop! Shop with a cause.
08. Buy, use and consume products made by the local community.
Kumauni valleys are full of fruit and flower orchards. A couple of NGOs/ Govt organizations and Kumaon regiment center encourages the locals to collect the produce and make preserves/jams/pickles/honey etc.. They are delicious and we bagged a whole lot of them from wherever we could find them on the shelves. It encourages the local economy and helps each household through hardships.
09. Visit the local Ranikhet bazar.
Check out the colorful vegetables imported from the plains and local grown fruits and veggies all out on display in the main bazaar. Its just along one main road, but houses all possible stores with local and otherwise products. Try the freshly cooked local cuisines here wherever you see most locals flock!
Due to COVID restrictions, we did not venture into the market, walking around clicking pictures and experiencing the local colour. Driving through does not justify the experience, but here we are – the new normal!
10. Walk along the golf course.
The Golf course is closed to tourists. However, the road which passes through the two part golf course is accessible to everyone and can be used for walking and enjoying the sunset and wide open spaces of one of the highest, most beautiful golf courses of the country. (Watch out for flying balls!)
11. Visit Holm farm heritage stay.
This Heritage homestay was constructed around 1870 for a high ranking British officer with a view of the whole a Nanda Devi range with a private apple and other fruit orchards. Post-Independence it was used by the by our first Prime Minister late Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and his family as a holiday home and a socializing venue. Other than him, this guest house as hosted Viceroy Mountbatten and many other celebrities and personalities. It is now maintained by the same family which took over it from the Britishers as its caretaker. The architecture of the main building is old worldly but it has some modern cottages now around it. The main hall is adorned with hand painted rose bush wall paper and old photographs of dignitaries and antique piano now decorates the dining hall. The host, Mr. Himanshu Upadhyay is a very warm person and full of stories. Food is delicious and homemade. It’s a must visit, try booking a cottage for stay here or at-least come for a meal. Personal vehicle/taxi is recommended as the route is through the forest, up a hill and the farm house is invisible from the streets.
12. Visit Kumaon Regimental Museum.
Kumaon Regimental Centre (KRC) Museum was established in the 1970s and is maintained by the Kumaon and Naga Regiment of the Indian Army. The KRC Museum has an excellent collection of memorabilia from past wars and campaigns, and a display of the different weapons used by soldiers along with their achievements and mission success stories.
It was very interesting to see photographs and read about the missions and names of the people involved. Many of these stories of battle and courage were very relatable as I had read them or heard about them in the past (or seen in some movie!).
PS: Don’t miss staff of Jhasi ki rani on display inside!
13. Birding! Birding!
Although I have covered birdwatching earlier with hiking. I think it deserves its own place in this list, I cannot emphasize enough on how delightful birdwatching in this region is. Birds are not shy at all and for an unassuming birder, coming across a huge mixed hunting party while on a hiking trails is no less than a maddening paradise, at one such instance we ended up listing 20 – 25 different species on a single thicket of trees on one of the road bends!! While visiting or staying at Chevron Rosemount, the best part is the birdwatching opportunities from the comfort of the garden (…sometimes an odd barking deer grazing peacefully too) while enjoying some mixed pakode and coffee/tea. The forest maintained around the hotel is a sort after feeding ground for birds. The rare Himalayan birds do their hunting rounds twice or thrice a day, keep the binoculars always ready.
Even if you have never done birding but like to observe new species, these walks through the forests will certainly be joyful!
For more excellent wildlife pictures from this trip, you must visit Sunny’s Instagram account!
14. Try your hand at recording the star trail.
Ranikhet being on the ridge and away from any big town or factory enjoys clear skies most of the year giving the visitors from metros (like us) a memorable view of the night sky. This opportunity should not be missed. Star gazing, milky-way photography, star trail photography is a great way to spend some quiet time under the blanket of a million stars. Some cool places to enjoy this hobby is Holm farm, road going across the golf ground, Seven stones viewing point.
15. Visit Choti Haldwani and other neighboring towns.
A visit to Choti haldwani is easier to undertake on your way to Nainital/Ranikhet or while returning back. This small village at the junction from when Himalayan roads leave the plains and start going up. It was home to legendry Jim Corbett. His life achievements and artifacts are neatly curated in his family home – turned museum which is a must visit. Most notable are the his letters to his friends and family and journals.
Nainital being the judicial capital of Uttarakhand is a transport hub and one big city of Kumaon making it base for most visitors as it has easiest transport solutions to all surrounding destinations. On the other hand Ranikhet is closer to the Nanda devi range so it is closer to towns which are in direct shadows of the Himalayas. Both cities have their pros and cons. As we were already based in Ranikhet for the fortnight, we decided to visit these towns from there. As we had enough time on our hands we spaced out each out station trip. Typically, to absorb Ranikhet’s true essence, you need to stay here atleast 3 to 4 days then check out the surrounding towns.
These are some other towns we visited during our stay at Ranikhet:
I hope Ranikhet has now made it to your list of places to go ‘When (you are) on a Break!‘
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