Manali is 280km (174 miles) N of Shimla
Central Himachal's fertile valleys -- centered around the towns of Mandi, Kullu, and Manali -- are watered by the Beas River, and are famous for a variety of fruits, excellent treks, and what is considered -- by the stoned hippies of Manali, at least -- the finest marijuana in the world. Fear not: Narcotics and stoners have little to do with the region's wide renown as the undisputed "Valley of the Gods."
The drive from Shimla to Manali -- starting point for the spectacular road journey to Leh and a number of adventure activities -- is around 280km (174 miles) and can be done in a day. The route is scenic, especially in July and August, when the heavy monsoon rains cause the river to swell and waterfalls to cascade spectacularly. Time allowing, it's a good idea to spend the night en route in the scruffy town of Mandi, where you can use the atmospheric Raj Mahal palace hotel as a base for a visit to the nearby hill hamlet of Rewalsar. A fascinating confluence of Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu spirituality, the village is centered around a small black lake that teems with fish (supposedly holy) and beautifully reflects the soaring mountain ranges above. Sacred to all three religions, the lake's banks sport lively Buddhist gompas, an important Sikh gurudwara (place of worship), and a Hindu temple.
Farther north (about 70km/43 miles), in the heart of the Valley of the Gods, is the unattractive town of Kullu, famous for its sheer volume of Hindu temples and the Dussehra Festival (usually in Oct), which attracts substantial crowds and hundreds of valley gods to take part in the annual festivities: 7 days of jubilant processions, music, dancing, and markets. Unless you stop specifically to catch any festival action or want to visit the "first and biggest angora farm in Asia," there's no real reason to linger in Kullu.
Bhuntar, not too far south of Kullu, is the turnoff point for drives to Jari, Kasol, and the therapeutic hot springs of Manikaran, which is the main jumping-off point for a variety of treks to less-visited villages. Khirganga, farther east, is the site of even more thermal water springs, while isolated Malana, to the north, is an anthropologist's dream and -- if the experts in Amsterdam are to be believed -- home of the world's top-rated ganja, the infamous Malana Gold. Adventures to any of these remote areas should not be undertaken without the help of a recognized guide -- not only is getting lost a strong possibility, but there have been reports of what are believed to be drug-related crimes, including the assault and "disappearance'" of travelers (some 250 tourists have mysteriously vanished over the years).