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A summer hike through Sikkim’s Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary

…where birdsong fills the air and colourful blooms line the path with snowy mountain views

Amitabha Gupta | Published 28.04.22, 08:33 PM
The rhododendron trees at the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in west Sikkim are in full bloom from spring to early summer

The rhododendron trees at the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in west Sikkim are in full bloom from spring to early summer

Sikkim Travel Tales/Facebook

Sikkim tops many summer travel itineraries and for good reason. With views of the eastern Himalayan peaks, montane forests and a rich Buddhist history, it is a popular getaway. Pelling, Ravangla, Kaluk and the Silk Route remain tourist favourites, and for those not daunted by rough roads and higher altitudes, north Sikkim also makes the list. 

However, among the lesser-visited parts of Sikkim is the route of Okhrey-Hilley-Barsey (or Varsey). The highlight of the journey along this route is a hike through the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. 

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From spring to early summer — until the first part of May — the rhododendron trees are in full bloom with flowers of various colours. At an altitude of about 10,000 feet, the sanctuary is a protected area between the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve (Khangchendzonga National Park) and the Singalila National Park and spread out over 104 square kilometres on the Singalila range of western Sikkim. On a clear day, visitors can get a spectacular view of the Kanchenjunga peak.

The journey to Barsey

Okhrey is a picturesque hamlet about nine kilometres from the sanctuary in west Sikkim

Okhrey is a picturesque hamlet about nine kilometres from the sanctuary in west Sikkim

Amitabha Gupta

The first stop, usually for lunch, on a drive from Siliguri is the south Sikkim town of Jorethang and the scenery begins to draw you in immediately. About 40 kilometres west of Jorethang is the scenic hamlet of Okhrey. Compared to Hilley, which is closer to the sanctuary, Okhrey has many more options to stay, with spacious rooms and good local food. 

The small monastery at Okhrey village

The small monastery at Okhrey village

Amitabha Gupta

If you reach early, explore the village on foot. There is a small monastery that friendly locals will gladly point you to.

It is advisable to start the journey to Hilley, about nine kilometres away, early after breakfast. The walk from the Hilley entry point to the gates of the sanctuary is a picturesque one and many prefer to begin their journey through the sanctuary here. 

A picture-postcard destination in full bloom

The forest floor of the sanctuary is usually lined with the vibrant petals

The forest floor of the sanctuary is usually lined with the vibrant petals

Amitabha Gupta

The 4.6-km trek through the sanctuary is moderately easy through dense woods of primula, oak, pine and groves of rhododendrons. Getting to witness a riotous bloom of rhododendrons is as much a matter of luck as timing. From mid-April to the first week of May is when the flowers are usually in their full glory. The hike itself is a refreshing travel experience for first-timers and for those looking for a break from the usual hill-station holiday.

From mid-April to the first week of May is when the rhododendron flowers are in full bloom

From mid-April to the first week of May is when the rhododendron flowers are in full bloom

Amitabha Gupta

Among the many attractions at the sanctuary — including the elusive red panda — are the birds. Barsey is a known avian habitat and you can spot various birds including the red-billed leiothrix, grey bush chat, blue whistling thrush, black-breasted parrotbill and various species of flycatchers. Okhrey is also known among birdwatchers' communities and home to species such as rufous sibia, green-backed tit, verditer flycatcher.

A jungle stay

There are options for basic accommodations within the sanctuary including the Guras Kunj Trekkers Hut

There are options for basic accommodations within the sanctuary including the Guras Kunj Trekkers Hut

Amitabha Gupta

Visitors can actually stay inside the Barsey sanctuary. The accommodations are basic and give visitors a chance to experience living in the woods. 

One of the options is the Forest Barrack. The house, usually used by officials from the wildlife department, has three double rooms and a dormitory that can accommodate eight people. One of the rooms has an ensuite and the rest share facilities. 

The other, and more readily available option is the Guras Kunj Trekkers Hut. The two-storied wooden trekker’s lodge has a dormitory-style room with floor mattresses on the first floor that can accommodate 16 people. The ground floor has two double rooms that share facilities with the dormitory and one double room. 

On a clear day, snow-clad peaks including the Kanchenjunga can be viewed from the sanctuary

On a clear day, snow-clad peaks including the Kanchenjunga can be viewed from the sanctuary

Anjan Kumar Kundu

During peak season, travellers can also pitch a tent near the Trekkers Hut. Many who trek further to Dentam or explore the jungles nearby for sightings of red pandas prefer to spend the night in tents, though it is advisable to stay close to the hut at night since the sanctuary is often visited by bears. On a clear day, snow-clad peaks including the Kanchenjunga can be viewed from right in front of Guras Kunj.

Travel details: 

  • Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is in west Sikkim. The  closest airports to gateway village Hilley are Gangtok's Pakyong airport (about 120 km away) and Bagdogra airport (about 140 km away) and the closest railway station is New Jalpaiguri (NJP). All are within six hours driving distance.
The gate of the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary

The gate of the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary

Amitabha Gupta
  • It is advisable to book a car beforehand to drive from NJP to Okhrey. Alternatively, buses and shared vehicles are available from Siliguri to Jorethang. From Jorethang, shared vehicles ply to Okhrey. For the return journey from Barsey, pre-book a car. Overall, the itinerary from Siliguri to Barsey and back is approximately four days. 
  • Carry an original photo ID and two-three photocopies when entering Sikkim – to be shown at the Melli check post. PAN card will not suffice, advisable to carry a voter ID, passport, driver’s licence or Aadhar card 
  • At Okhrey, M. N. Sherpa is the main point of contact for accommodations and owns several lodges. Stay options can also be arranged by contacting M.K. Pradhan and his associates (+91 9002061822/ 9434888473)
Okhrey village in West Sikkim

Okhrey village in West Sikkim

Amitabha Gupta
  • There is a small entry fee to visit the sanctuary. You will also be charged for camera equipment 
  • Guras Kunj Trekker’s Hut at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is managed by Bondhu Sherpa (+91 9474020877). Due to a sketchy network within the sanctuary, he is not always available, but bookings can be arranged via Mr Pradhan at Okhrey. Local food cooked at the stay is served. It is advisable to carry a sleeping bag, though blankets are provided.
Guras Kunj Trekker’s Hut is a two-storied wooden trekker’s lodge

Guras Kunj Trekker’s Hut is a two-storied wooden trekker’s lodge

Amitabha Gupta
  • Tents can be pitched outside Guras Kunj by paying a fee, payable at the sanctuary gate  
  • The Forest Barrack is an alternative option to stay at the sanctuary, but it is primarily for forest department staff and can be booked only in advance depending on availability
  • The weather is usually cool and nights are chilly in the region, so carry warm clothing. Power cuts are common in Barsey so make sure you have battery back-up for your devices and a torch.
Last updated on 28.04.22, 08:35 PM
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