Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh are exceptional destinations for adventurous travelers. The area has a phenomenal array of trekking routes, and numerous tour operators offer anything from gentle strolls to walks lasting several days -- including trips to serious rock faces for seasoned climbers. Besides the scenery, a visit here is an ideal opportunity to meet people more or less untouched by the modern world -- outside of a handful of towns, much of the population in this region is rural and dependent on agriculture. It is also home to some of the world's last nomadic people. Manali is a popular starting point for treks into the lush Kullu and Parvati valleys, while Dharamsala is a good base from which to explore the Dhauladhar mountain range, and the Kangra Valley below is best seen while soaring through the air dangling from a paraglider. In Ladakh, myriad trekking expeditions out of Leh visit the many fascinating Buddhist monasteries along the way to higher altitudes and spectacular valleys, and the Indus and Zanskar rivers are excellent for white-water rafting. Treks in the Spiti Valley, some of which continue on to Ladakh, are among the most rewarding and, because of the altitude in both regions, quite challenging.
Note that most of the companies listed below are happy to arrange a variety of adventure activities almost anywhere in the Himalayas, including Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal.
One of the best all-round companies is Mercury Himalayan Explorations (www.himalayanadventure.com), which does everything from ski trips to Indus and Zanskar river rafting, and works in conjunction with Mercury Travels, a subsidiary of the excellent Oberoi hotel chain. Mercury pioneered many of the adventure routes that are now among the most popular in the Himalayas.
Aquaterra Adventures (tel. 011/2921-2641 or -2760; www.treknraft.com) is another well-established outfit and one of the best Indian adventure operators, specializing in trekking and rafting expeditions, and working with highly experienced and knowledgeable guides who come from the Himalayas and know the region extremely well. Operating since 1995, Aquaterra strives to cover routes that don't see other groups. They also offer climbing trips, and will customize their tours and treks to suit your personal interests and abilities. You can also combine trekking and rafting trips or opt for a unique bicycle camping expedition.
Another highly recommended operator is Project Himalaya (tel. 977/98-0214-9789 in Kathmandu; www.project-himalaya.com; firstname.lastname@example.org), a Kathmandu-based company run by the professional, dynamic trio of Jamie McGuinness, Joel Schone, and Kim Bannister. Joel and Kim lead the Ladakh treks, which run 20 to 24 days; the adventurous should definitely consider taking their exploratory trek to uncommon regions that you won't find on a map. This is an outfit that does things differently, with small groups, highly personalized service, and a real concern for local support staff.
Banjara Camps & Retreats (www.banjaracamps.com) operates a number of Trans-Himalayan jeep safaris, which generally start in Delhi and explore different parts of Himachal and Ladakh. Comfortable accommodations (some in beautifully situated deluxe campsites) and good meals accompany you along the way, and you can even customize your safari. Banjara also gets our thumbs up for their excellent treks throughout this region; they offer a range of experiences, with differing degrees of difficulty and all your basic needs expertly taken care of. Banjara also offers a strenuous 15-day cycling tour in Himachal that covers 803km (498 miles), including the mighty Kunzum Pass (4,590m/15,055 ft.). Accommodations are in a mix of small hotels, guesthouses and camp sites.
You can satisfy your cowboy fantasies on the Himalayan horse trails offered by Dusty Trail Adventures (Basement, Valley View Annexe, below Swatch Showroom, The Mall, Manali; tel. 94-5910-8691; http://dustytrail.in). Nitin Gupta, an inimitable mountain guide and horseman, puts together multiday, high-altitude horse-riding trails through Ladakh, Zanskar, Kullu, and Spiti; day rides are also possible if you're short on time. Everything -- food, camping, and transfers -- can be included in your package (roughly Rs 50,000 per person for a 10-day trail, with return transport to Delhi).
Rimo Expeditions (www.rimoexpeditions.com) are considered to be at the top of their game and offer, among other treks, the famous "Chadar" winter trek, which involves traversing the frozen Zanskar River during the harsh months when it is totally frozen over. They can also lead you over a number of high mountain passes -- a favorite, if you've got the time, is the month-long Zanskar Classic, which goes all the way to the superbly located Lamayuru monastery, passing through myriad medieval villages and incredible scenery along the way.
Shepherds Realms Camps & Adventures (C-8/8115, Shepherd's House, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi; tel. 011/2649-2849 or 98-1871-2970; www.asiasafari.com), run by an ex-army captain, specializes in custom-made motorcycle and 4X4 safaris through Ladakh, as well as Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan, along with other adventure activities in these regions.
Besides organizing trekking in Himachal and Ladakh, Himalayan Journeys The Adventure Company (The Mall, Manali; tel. 01902/25-4397; www.himalayanjourneysindia.com) arranges ski courses, jeep safaris, river-rafting expeditions, mountain-biking tours, and, for well-heeled adventurers, luxury heli-skiing packages.
With 32 years in the business, Naushad Kaludi of Antrek Tour and Travels (1, Rambagh, The Mall, Manali; tel. 01902/25-2292 or 98-1602-2292; www.antrek.co.in) offers a professional and very reliable service and specializes in putting together combination tours that include several days of trekking plus a few days of jeep safari; you can mix and match your journey to suit particular tastes and interest, and ask for a mix of camping and hotels or guesthouses; Antrek will provide dome tents, sleeping bags, a guide, a cook, an assistant, ponies and porters, as well as the vehicle and driver, and all meals and beverages -- on average you'll be looking at spending 50€ to 70€ per person per day for a private two-person trip. Antrek can also provide all the ground services for mountain bike tours, and a range of specialty excursions, from trout fishing to climbing with proper equipment and serious guides.
A highly recommended alternative for exploring Himachal's remote and sensationally beautiful Spiti Valley is Ecosphere (tel. 94-1886-0099 or 98-9949-2417; www.spitiecosphere.com), a social enterprise that has pioneered homestays and community participation in the tourism industry by working at the grassroots level. Led by the dynamic Ishita Khanna, this is responsible tourism at its best and the income generated goes towards various conservation and development projects besides creating employment. Other than the fact that you will be directly interacting and aiding the rural communities, it is a wonderful opportunity to see the spectacular Spiti countryside and experience the perfect blend of jeep safaris and hiking, with the occasional yak to ride as well.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.