The valley of Kashmir enjoys a heavenly status on the trekking map of India. All trekkers, who have seen breathtaking pictures of the valley, have at least one Kashmir trek on their bucket list. However, two treks that compete in the hearts and minds of trekking enthusiasts are the Kashmir Great Lakes trek and the Tarsar Marsar trek. It’s not an easy choice to make.
Every year, I see a rush of trekkers looking for Kashmir Treks with the frequently asked question of whether they must do the KGL trek or the Tarsar Marsar trek. I want to address this question. I’ll throw in a few suggestions that may help you make your choice easier.
First, let me start with the brief highlights of both treks and then compare the two.
Highlights of Kashmir Great Lakes
We rediscovered this Kashmir lake trek back in 2011. Until then it was perhaps only a few Israeli trekkers who had ventured on this trail. It did not even have its current name Kashmir Great Lakes. Before exploring it, we called it the Greatest Alpine Lakes exploration. It was during the exploration that we re-christened it the Kashmir Great Lakes. We also reworked the campsites. We added a camp at Nichnai and another at the Gadsar pass.
In those days, most would do the trek in parts — some would trek to Vishnusar/Kishansar from Sonamarg and return. Some others would trek to Gangabal/Nandkhol from Naranag and return. The Gangabal/Nandkhol route was more popular (as it involved only a day’s climb).
Once we explored and documented this trek, Kashmir Great Lakes became a rage. Suddenly, the entire Indian trekking community woke up to the possibility of trekking in Kashmir. It became a sensation. Within a few years, it became one of the most popular treks in India, even overtaking treks like Roopkund.
Also Read: The impact of Kashmir Great Lakes on trekking
Highlights of the Tarsar Marsar Trek
After being on a KGL high for almost two years, we wanted more of Kashmir. We decided to explore another alluring Kashmir trek, the Tarsar Marsar trek, which lies deep inside the mountains of Pahalgam. Our Kashmiri staff told us that the trek beats KGL in beauty. We were a little sceptical, but we scheduled an exploration. And in September 2015, we discovered another spectacle in Kashmir.
The Tarsar Marsar trek shows a different side of trekking in Kashmir. From Aru, the idyllic village where you start, to the glades of Lidderwat. From the rolling green mountains of Shekhawas to the massive Tarsar lake. From the flower-laden amphitheatre-like meadows of Jagmargi to the elusive Marsar lake. The trek takes you away from civilization but brings you intimately close to the heart of Kashmir.
If my highlights make it tough to choose one place for trekking in Jammu and Kashmir, let me get into some contrasts that these two treks offer.
Kashmir Trek Comparison: Differences in the two Kashmir Treks
While both treks are easy on the eye, there are a few factors that allow us to draw a comparison. While the Great Lakes of Kashmir trek is high in altitude, rockier and more vibrant, the Tarsar Marsar is a lot more greener and secluded.
Popular Kashmir trek vs true wilderness experience
I hate to say this, but like most other popular trekking trails in our country, the Great Lakes in Kashmir are crowded. On any day when you trek on KGL, you have 2-3 trekking groups going along with you. While the trekkers are spread out on the trail, the campsites are the same for all groups. You will see many sets of tents at every campsite.
Also Read: 8 Surprising Eye-Openers About Kashmir Great Lakes Trek
Tarsar Marsar has retained its wilderness. Thanks to its relative unpopularity. On most days, you are likely to be the only group on the trek. Some local groups trek on this trail, but they all go to Tarsar and return. They don’t go as far to Sundersar or Marsar as we do.
If you are planning a Kashmir trek with Indiahikes, three of the five campsites on the trail are very private to us. Nobody else camps there but Indiahikes. They are private to us because, logistically, they are not the easiest of campsites. Logistically easier campsites exist nearby. Most organisers choose them. But these campsites make for a better, more secluded experience. For a trekker, a secluded campsite is a godsend. Being the only one at your campsite is precious in today’s trekking rush.
Beautiful sights vs ethereal experiences
The KGL gets its name from the seven turquoise alpine lakes in Kashmir. We trek through most of the lakes but get to camp only next to one lake — the Nandkhol lake on the last day. Unfortunately, Nandkhol also happens to be a destination for camping and fishing with weekend trippers. This invariably leads to a lot of remnants of human activities all around the lake. It leaves the lake littered. Everytime I have been there, the place has been breathtakingly beautiful from a distance. But when I went close, my feelings changed to angst and helplessness at seeing the extensively littered lake.
On the Tarsar trek, we have three big lakes, and we camp right beside two of them. Your tents are right on the grassy banks of the lake. Your tent flaps actually open up to a view of glittering blue water.
The added bonus is that both of these lakes are deep in the middle of the trek. It takes effort to get to them — a bit too much effort for day-trippers and casual campers. Tarsar is not part of many popular Kashmir trek packages and thus, the trail is far less frequented by groups.
I did not realise this earlier but felt it after trekking to Tarsar Marsar the second time. It is one thing to visit an alpine lake and look at it for some time. It is something else to actually spend the whole day next to one. To experience sunsets and sunrises happening over the lake. To see the snow-fed lake change colours with every change in the angle of the sun. To sit beside the lake in silence and see this whole ethereal experience unfold — you don’t get this anywhere else. All these views make your trekking in Kashmir rewarding.
Moderate-difficult vs moderate trek
Kashmir Great Lakes is not a walk in the park. It is far from it. This Kashmir trek is 65 km long. Each day has a gruelling 1500 ft ascent and an equal descent. There is a high pass to cross every day of the trek. Add to this, one has to cover the 10-12 km distance every day. This makes each trekking day stretch to almost 8-9 hours. You need a fit pair of legs and highly efficient lungs to appreciate the beauty of the KGL trek.
At Tarsar Marsar, the good news is that the distances are not too long. Each day involves a trek of just around 6-8 km. The day’s trek usually ends within 5-6 hours. You don’t gain and lose as much altitude every day. The trek gains height, stays there and then descends on the last day.
Also Read: Tarsar Marsar - The Trek That Helped Me Find My Soulmate
Between the two Kashmir Treks, Tarsar Marsar is a grade easier that makes it ideal for prepared first-timers and fit children too.
Final thoughts on the Kashmir trek options
If you take the road from Srinagar to Sonamarg, to your left lies the Kashmir Great Lakes trek and to your right lies Tarsar Marsar. Even from the road, the scenery to your left is very different from the scenery on your right. There are tall rugged cliffs on the left, whereas you see pine-laden mountains to your right. This difference in scenery is an indicator of how different the treks that lie behind them are.
KGL has bigger grasslands and vast campsites, while campsites at Tarsar are in front of lakes or below folds of mountains. People think KGL is prettier. It is not so. Tarsar is equally pretty, with additional sections that are uniquely more beautiful than KGL.
I would put both Tarsar and KGL as the top two most beautiful treks in India. Which is more beautiful, I cannot tell.
Why is it difficult to compare these Kashmir Treks
Though we are drawing comparisons between KGL and Tarsar, both these Kashmir trek options offer distinct matchless beauty. They are incomparable. You get to see two different magnificent sides of the mountains of Kashmir. It’s similar to Deoriatal and Brahmatal treks of Uttarakhand, which are different yet stunning in their own ways.
If you wish to trek in Kashmir, you should consider doing both the treks. You have not seen the true beauty of Kashmir until you have seen both these gems. Apart from these, you can join us us for trekking in Pahalgam, base camp for Kolahoi Glacier Trek and Tulian Lake Trek. It is also the nearest town for the Sheshnag Lake trek. You can even opt for the Gurez Valley trek, which offers an unusually spectacular view of the northernmost part of Kashmir.
To know about our Kashmir trekking packages, short treks in Kashmir and other seasonal treks, visit our upcoming treks page. Happy trekking!
1. Can a beginner do Kashmir Great Lakes trek?
The KGL trek is a moderate-difficult trek, including long trekking days through high passes on each day. It also poses challenges like a few rocky sections that demand adequate physical fitness. Here’s how a trekker named Preeti prepared herself physically and mentally for the challenging KGL trek.
2. Can Kashmir Great Lakes trek be done solo?
It’s not advisable to trek to the Great Lakes of Kashmir without expert guidance. Each day comes with a different challenge and lack of proper assistance can make your trekking experience bitter.. Preeti explained how rain on Day 3 introduced new challenges to the trekkers. “It started raining the moment we left the campsite and didn’t stop until we reached the next camp eight hours later. The trail became slippery, slushy and was not fit for walking in some places which slowed our pace.”
“We had to figure out alternate trails most of the time by either walking on the slope where there was grass, or on the rocks or finding a less walked trail wherever possible. At one point, we were monkey climbing on all fours, grabbing bushes and running uphill,” she added.