How the Opening of Atal Tunnel Impacts Trekking in India

Most trekkers are oblivious to the impact of Atal Tunnel on trekking in India.

This historic tunnel, which was inaugurated on October 3, starts from Solang Valley near Manali and ends near the grand Sissu waterfall in Lahaul. Till now, not many travellers knew about the Sissu waterfall. But now, Atal Tunnel puts it on the popular map. Similarly, it brings the spotlight on Lahaul and underlines how little information is available about this region.

“You have not seen a setting as beautiful as Lahaul. It is very different from the stark beauty of Spiti. Lahaul is colourful, stark, yet differently beautiful. Even the villages are very interesting in the way they are laid out. They are steeped in culture,” says Arjun Majumdar, CEO and founder of Indiahikes, who explored these remote regions a few times, once as a young boy with his father and once with Indiahikes on an exploration.

This piqued my curiosity. At Indiahikes, we run treks in some of the most picturesque parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. But now, here is a region that’s different from all these, and we haven’t talked about it yet. Why?

In response, Arjun Majumdar and Sandhya UC, the co-founder of Indiahikes, pull out the Leomann maps. Animated conversations about Lahaul and Spiti follow. They talk extensively about the treks, the people and the culture. They also talk about the arduous journeys, the challenges and road-blocks in that region. 

What’s the Significance of Atal Tunnel on Trekking in India

Here, a few facts are necessary to bring perspective to the gravity of Atal Tunnel.

The project of Atal Tunnel was first announced by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on June 3, 2000. Its construction began only a decade later in June 2010 and it took a decade more to complete.

Finally, on October 3, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Atal Tunnel. It drills a hole into the eastern Pir Panjal range making it possible to travel from the Manali side to Lahaul in 20 minutes!

Atal Tunnel - Indiahikes
The Atal tunnel is going to change how we look at trekking in Himachal. Picture by Karan Lakhmani

This is a mind-boggling shift. Ask anyone who has taken the famous Manali-Leh route via Rohtang Pass and braved the 14 bone-crunching hairpin bends of Marhi, crossed the Rohtang pass and descended down to Lahaul. On a good day, with little traffic, it would take 4 hours. But Rohtang pass is infamous for its traffic and terrible roads. It would take 5 hours to do the crossover.

Atal Tunnel Indiahikes

Now with the Atal Tunnel, we may be in Lahaul in 40 minutes and in 2 hours at Keylong (originally Kyelang), the biggest town in Lahaul and Spiti and also its administrative capital.

It’s no wonder that locals from Manali and Lahaul are rejoicing at the opening of the tunnel. They’re ecstatic at the possibilities of agriculture, horticulture and winter tourism in Lahaul. Medical facilities to the tribal areas of Lahaul, that remained cut off from the mainland for most part of the year, will now become accessible.

A Big Impact: Opening up of new areas of trekking

The opening of Atal Tunnel will finally allow trekkers to venture into the uncharted terrain of Lahaul. Earlier, bad roads and long travel time prevented trekkers from exploring this scenic region.

There were two main reasons for this. First, travel to Lahaul cost an extra day. Second, it was difficult and expensive to find guides and porters for a trek in Lahaul because of its remoteness.

Sandhya Chandrasekharayya throws some perspective by taking us back to the time when she did a high altitude crossover trek in Lahaul.  She says, “for the Kugti Pass trek, it is easy to get to the Chamba side, where the trek begins. But when you finish the trek, you are deep inside the Lahaul valley. Though the distance is very short, I had to do a stopover at Kyelang and then find another transport to Manali. I had to spend an extra day at Keylong.

Kugti Pass - Indiahikes
Kugti Pass is a high altitude pass in the Chamba region. Picture from the Indiahikes archives

“The roads too were not very great. There was a lot of uncertainty attached to the road journey, which had two back-to-back long drives. It was extremely tiring.

“With the Atal Tunnel, I can be in Manali the same day I complete the trek. That’s a very big relief!

“On the other hand, treks that start and end in Lahaul valley will now become easily accessible,” she smiles.

This brings me to the next, and the most important point for trekkers. 

What New Zones of Trekking are We Looking at

Until now, trekkers who crossed the famous Hampta Pass and descended into the Lahaul valley, drove to Chandratal and quickly returned to Manali. This journey would be through Rohtang Pass, a 5-6 hour long journey on stomach-twisting hairpin turns and bad roads. Trekkers would just want to get it over with and reach Manali.

Exploring Lahaul wasn’t even a thought. The lack of roads and extreme weather in the mountains always played spoilsport.

Due to this, Lahaul remained hazy in most of our minds. It conjured blurred visions of a remote, beautiful region, but meant to be explored at leisure.

Now, however, trekkers can keep aside an extra day or two to explore Lahaul. This will add so much to the post-trek experience.

Set on the left side of the Atal Tunnel, Lahaul is distinct from Spiti or Pangi regions. Unlike the stark beauty of Spiti, Lahaul is very colourful, dotted with very pretty settlements. It has lovely trails to do, most of them rarely trodden on.

Take for example the Miyar Valley trek that we explored a few years ago. It starts from the quaint village of Urgose. The trail takes you to medieval Buddhist monasteries and has flower beds dominated by Himalayan orchids. Our team who explored the trek couldn’t stop raving about it.

Miyar Valley - Indiahikes
Miyar Valley, also known as the Valley of Flowers of Lahaul is a less trodden trail

Unfortunately, we could never open this trek because of its remoteness. Now with the opening of the Atal Tunnel, we are filled with hope.

I anticipate a shift in how most treks are going to be conducted in these regions. And this shift would begin with base camps.

How Base Camps Will Shift as a Consequence

Until now, Manali was the most accessible base camp in Himachal Pradesh. Naturally, treks that began from around Manali — like Hampta Pass, Bhrigu Lake, Beas Kund — gained prominence.

But now it’s highly probable that places like Kyelang that are on the other side of Atal Tunnel — will become the next Manali.

Also, trekkers will no longer halt at Manali, but move directly to their base camps in the Lahaul region (even if it is not Kyelang). This will save them a lot of time and money.

How Opening of Atal Tunnel Impacts Your Travel Plans

Till now only private vehicles have started plying through the Atal Tunnel. But visionary plans are sprouting in the background.

In a recent interview, Kumud Singh, Managing Director at HP Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) was quoted outlining the idea of glass-roofed electric buses that will run through the tunnel. Plans of landscaping areas around the tunnel to bring out the culture and ethnicity of Lahaul are also underway.

Unlike Rohtang Pass, this 9.02 km long tunnel will remain functional for most part of the year. But travellers take note that every day it will be shut from 9:00 – 10:00 am and 4:00 – 5:00 pm for maintenance. 

Conclusion

In the end, it’s evident that Atal Tunnel will bring out some unprecedented changes to the economy and tourism of Lahaul. Now, Lahaul holds great promise for explorers and trekkers. It surely looks like we’re on the eve of an exciting phase.

If you think some great treks can be explored in the Lahaul, Spiti or Pangi regions, let us know in the comments below. Our exploration team would be delighted to read about some good treks. Who knows they may even invite you on their expedition!

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45 thoughts on “How the Opening of Atal Tunnel Impacts Trekking in India

    1. It also open to new gateways for the landscape to the mountaineers, places which are unexplored and I really love those remote places of the mother earth… rather than selecting any well known place.. I am looking forward for indiahikes if they can open new hiking treks.

    2. Very nice, the Atal tunnel will open new landscape & treks for mountain lovers. Last year only I have done Hampta pass trek & I know how painful the travel was. I would love to visit the valley with new equations.

      Balaram Patil

    3. Very nice, the Atal tunnel will open new landscape & treks for mountain lovers. Last year only I have done Hampta pass trek & I know how painful the travel was. I would love to visit the valley with new equations. Hope they allow cyclists also through the tunnel

      Balaram Patil

  1. We all were eagerly looking forward to the opening of this tunnel and the treks that open up on account of this.. It paves way not only trekking destinations but also economic and more tourism activity in the region. Super effort ! India deserves this and HImalayas deserve it ..

    1. That’s exactly my biggest worry. Will the unconcerned and greedy Indian tourist create another Manali and permanently affect the beautiful Lahaul valleys

  2. Trekked in lahaul and spiti in 1984 as a student of DU.Pristine.Remote.British time dilapidated rest houses with no visitorrs for more a year came along the way.
    One came across forest dept people who would be delighted to see fellow humans.Or GREF soldiers labouring for constructing roads.
    I treasure those memories

  3. A big exciting news folks .. looking forward to the new treks ..
    & high five Latika for the article, it really put’s some much needed hype & light into “Atal Tunnel” .

  4. I can think of one lake on the side of Sissu – Geepang Gath Glacial Lake. With this Atal Tunnel, I believe this lake can be added as 2-3 days of trek in this region

  5. Yes…truly exciting possibilities ahead.
    Have had a back breaking experience travelling back to Manali from Kaza after a trek in Spiti! And had to do it on the floor bed of a pick up truck since the local mini bus we got on to broke down just short of Kunzum La!! Quite an unforgettable journey that was :-0
    The Atal tunnel is sure to be gamechanger for the trekking community. Lahaul just opens up and Spiti will benefit too.

  6. This is very interesting. I’d be happy to join in on exploratory hikes in this unexplored region. I’m 56 but reasonably fit and have done trekking over last two decades, most of them in Himalayas.

  7. Lahaul has it’s own rustic charm and it is a world by itself. I had my first sightings of Snow Leopards in that area just above a small village not very far from Keylong. Jispa was another small little sleeepy place where I have spent weeks on together just doing nothing. But those were the days when thank fully development had not come in. I fondly remember the traffic jams on Rohtang, to the point of having it enough and then deciding to walk few kms and take another vehicle. The route towards Udaipur is beautiful and so is the route beyond Darcha towards Lama Yuru.

    I have personally done the trek starting from Chandrataal to Baralacha La twice via Topko Yongma and Topko Gongma and have rode on a bike extensively in that area. I hope Rohtang still remains open for perons like me.

    On a clear day one will be able to get a very good view of Hanuman Tibba on the left from where the tunnel begins.

  8. Encouraging news and info for enthusiast trekkers. The uncertainty and trouble at Rohatang is a history now.

  9. As much as it is a welcome development for locals and trekkers, one hopes the authorities will take steps to ensure responsible tourism. Trekkers and travellers usually are careful about their impact on the region, but it’s the uncontrolled hordes of tourists who are the worry. Hopefully, there won’t be a repeat of Manali.

    1. Hi Samir, we pray for the same too! Hopefully, we will be able to collaborate with the authorities to put the right regulations in place. The good part is that we can be a part of this from scratch — it’s a lot easier than correcting a well-developed system!

  10. Kyaking and rafting can be wonderful event on this chenab basin. April to june and september to November. Reason is during this season this river flows with cristal clear water without any obstacles with miles of happyness.
    There are other things as well to be explored as an experts on climate and geography.
    -Vikas

  11. So the Atal tunnel is finally opened. This new infrastructure will undoubtably change the charming remoteness of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys.

    I guess this is progress, but I am Not sure the impact on these unique and fragile ecosystems is wholly welcome.

    My personal experience of the tunnel..

    Following the completion of an India Hikes trek across the Pin Bhaba Pass, I travelled though the tunnel, from Khoksar to Solang. It was in September 2018, we said our goodbyes to our companions in Mudh, and Chris headed off to Kaza, to enable us to catch the early morning bus from Kaza to Manali.

    All went well, we got on the bus which left at 5.30. An hour into the journey the drizzle turned to sleet, after 2 1/2 hours the sleet had worsened to heavy snow. We were 6km before the accent up to the Kunzum La passwhen the bus slithered to a halt. After a hair raising hour trying to get the bus moving, the driver decided to return to Kaza.

    On safety grounds, this was undoubtedly the right decision, however Chris and I had a plane to catch in Delhi. So, we elected to hike the 18km over the pass, in the hope to pick up some transport on the other side.

    At the pass, the snow was +30cm deep and it now blizzard conditions.

    Anyway we managed to find the only jeep heading out, which we shared with 9 other stranded folk.

    We reached the base of the Hapta Pass at About 18.00, it was clear the route was completed snowed in so the journey end In Kohksar. We ended up being completely cut off and stranded for 4 days. The snow continued, and there was talk of the pass being closed for weeks (or perhaps until next spring). After much lobbying to the police and authorities, permission was finally obtained to be evacuated through the ‘still under construction’ Atal Tunnel.

    It was a nightmare.. As 50 plus of us scrambled under the tarpaulin of an old cement truck, and in no time we were bouncing over the base rock of the unventilated tunnel. 10 mins in and the combination of bouncing around and heavy weight of snow on the tarpaulin was too much. The support structure partially collapsed to the horror of all on board.

    Despite screaming and banging on the cab, the driver was not stopping in the tunnel – we finally emerged after nearly an hour – completely covered in cement dust and coughing for England..

    Clearly we missed our flight home, but it was a privilege to experience this new link road before any other tourists..

    Steve

    1. Whoa, Steve! What an adventure! Thank you for sharing this 🙂 And yes, I too feel this is progress. A great start, I would say. One that comes with great responsibility. And like Swathi replied in her comment, it’s time to create a sustainable, ecologically sensitive system of travel. And this is an opportunity to build it from scratch!

      Again, thank you for sharing the lovely account. It painted a vivid picture and brought some ground realities to the forefront.

  12. Basically, You are just trying show possibility of opening of new treks by India Hikes.
    Even when Atal Tunnel was not there Trekkers used to take long route from Rohtang to visit , the area you have mentioned. Due to the Atal Tunnel they will cut shot time.
    Every good opening has bad opening also. Sorry to say Organisation like India Hikes, using -ve opening.

  13. Thank you for very knowledgeable information regarding Atal Tunnel. Looking forward for Miyar Valley trek in future. please inform me for the same

  14. Already getting goosebumps after reading this article. I am eagerly waiting for the trek industry to start again.

  15. I wish the Atal Tunnel has constructed 25 yrs back when I was commanding the Air Force Jungle & Snow Survival School (shifted to HO from Srinagar after the militancy). The nightmare of driving the vehicles on Rohthang to Lahaul , esp for the winter courses, on the hairpins of Marhi, are still fresh in my mind. Worst was starting vehicles in the early morn as the diesel used to freeze in the night.
    The 9 Km Atal tunnel would be a blessing for the fauzies as well as for the trekkers, as the trekkers can move directly to Lahaul than wasting a day in dirty Manali as a Transit stop. The shortcut, saving 4-5 hrs would open flood gates to so far illusive Lahaul sector. The biggest benefited would be the Manali Inst(erstwhile WHMI).
    Let the IMF take a lead and explore new routes for the winter trtekkin in this pandemic,when the trekkers are itching to be in the hills.
    But I only hope the unscrupulous Hoteliers and Trvel agents don’t turn this unique and fragile eco system to another manali.

  16. I always wanted to visit keylong but just would not. After a long trek, you want a nice bed and good food so used to rush to manali. Crossing Rotang pass was a dreaded idea and hated it though it is very scenic.
    Also with this tunnel opening, traffic will be split and people can enjoy the rotang pass better.

  17. Thank you indiahikes team. Just waiting for Corona clearance. Yes to vist lahol n spity is Every trekker’s dream.
    We will definitely join you as soon as the hike of Corona goes down ☺️
    Thank you once again.
    Shashank Devdhar

  18. In Oct2017 I went to Udaypur, Dt. Keylong, Lahaul to visit Trilokinath and Mrikula Devi Temples on the day of Diwali, of which I had read in a travel magazine. Obviously the route was through the Rohtang Pass and noted about the Rohtang Tunnel viewing a road notice board while crossing Palchan. I observed the road beyond that Pass was more or less good till Tandi. But when I proceeded along the Tandi-Kishtwar Marg from Tandi upto Udaypur the road condition was horribly bad, though at stretches the widening and repairing jobs of road were at full swing. The journey was long and very tiring though I kept enjoying the picturque beauty of the surroundings. On our way, I met some jentlemen at Jhalma who said they hardly meet any tourist in that region. Only government staffs, defence personnels, businessmen and the outside labourers came to their place. Contrary to my idea I found Udaypur, a Sub-Divisional place of Keylong district, is an important and prosperous area. The Trilokinath and Mrikula Devi temples, on either side of the river Chandrabhaga, are well revered by Lahauli Hindus and Buddhists. On the day of Diwali people from far areas of Lahaul visit these temples to pay their obeisances in these temples. I stayed at Amandeep Guest House, located at the first floor over the Udaypur Branch of Punjab National Bank. The owner of the guest house, Mr. Gour, an ex Marine Engineer, told me, there are some popular trekking routes which are enjoyed by the locals. But those are unknown to the outsiders. He also said the government is keen to promote tourism in Lahaul. The local people there are very warm and still maintain contact with me. They all said the Rohtang Tunnel would be highly beneficial to them as Lahaul is cut off from the rest of the world due to heavy snowing over the Rohtang Pass in the long winter season there. In the last Octbober, one of my acquaintance there, had the smooth experience of using that tunnel while shifting her injured son from a Keylong health facility to Mandi. Since, after opening of the Atal Tunnel, it is now easy to go to Lahaul area, I am thinking of going to Chamba from Manali via Udaypur.

  19. I was trying to take up trek through Lahul Spiti area starting from Kinnaur and ending the other side at Mari/ Manali.
    But due to old age of 70, I resisted myself from such adventure. Ardous and undiluted nature’s attraction calls me even at this age. After the inauguration of Atal Tunnel perhaps my dream may come true.

  20. Great to see you’ve already some treks which can be done, looking forward for them.
    Hope this helps communities around lahul and spiti to develop like leh-ladakh has developed.
    Lahul-spiti has huge tourism potential, govt. should build goods roads around this area to explore it.

    1. It is exiting to know about more details of less known area of country lik lahul Atal tunnel is a gr8 gift to resident of the area and enthusiast of country and importantly defence persons and security of nation
      Will plan to visit

  21. Probably change the title to ‘effects’ rather than ‘affects’?. You wanted to highlight good things but title does not say that

  22. It was Sooper… informative…our plan to visit spiti valley while going to Manali from leh was failed because of these roads condition in 2014.So atal tunnel was a nice project both for travellers and also for defence utilities.But surely will will miss the beauty of pass…
    Thank u…

  23. This is the very hope. The ending of the article is the best thing to read. I am very excited to begin the journey. My Himalayan venture was halted by this pandemic, can’t wait to see new opportunities.

  24. Nice and useful information indeed !
    Manali is overcrowded. It would be better to shift the base camps to Lahaul for some of the treks.
    Let’s plan and be there before Lahaul also gets crowded.
    Travelling through Atal Tunnel itself would be a great experience and a special item to be included in the itinerary.

  25. Was waiting for long for the tunnel to start functioning .
    Now in a single trip both regions manali as well as Lahaul could be explored.
    Visiting Atal tunnel the next week .
    Planning to do Beas Kund this side & Chander tal on the other.

  26. Super excited with the possibility of new treks. Treks in HP region are way different than the ones in Ladakh, I would love to explore the new trails that open up..
    If the base for trekking is shifted away from Manali it’s even better, it had become bit boring and over crowded. That way the tourists can be limited to Manali.