Crowded around a deep, green volcanic lake, Nainital is Kumaon’s largest town and favourite hill resort. It occupies a steep forested valley around the namesake lake Naini and was founded by homesick Brits reminded of the Cumbrian Lake District. Plenty of hotels are set in the forested hills around the lake.
Perched on a ridge 2km high, the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ vies with Nainital as Uttarakhand’s favourite holiday destination. When the mist clears, views of the green Doon Valley and the distant white-capped Himalayan peaks are superb, and in the hot months the cooler temperatures and fresh mountain air make a welcome break from the plains below.
Perhaps best known for the institutions the British left behind – the huge Forest Research Institute Museum, the Indian Military Academy, the Wildlife Institute of India and the Survey of India – the capital of Uttarakhand is a hectic, congested city sprawling in the Doon Valley between the Himalayan foothills and the Siwalik Range.
Propitiously located at the point where the Ganges emerges from the Himalaya, Haridwar (also called Hardwar) is Uttarakhand’s holiest Hindu city, and pilgrims arrive here in droves to bathe in the fast-flowing Ganges. The sheer number of people gathering around Har-ki-Pairi Ghat give Haridwar a chaotic but reverent feel.
Clinging to a steep-sided valley, Almora is the regional capital of Kumaon, first established as a summer capital by the Chand rajas of Kumaon in 1560. These days you'll find some colonial-era buildings, reliable trekking outfits and a couple of community-based weaving enterprises.
Perched high on a forest-covered ridge, this tiny village has lovely panoramic views of distant snowcapped peaks, fresh air and a relaxed atmosphere. Mahatma Gandhi found Kausani an inspirational place to write his Bhagavad Gita treatise Anasakti Yoga in 1929, and there is still an ashram devoted to him here.
Badrinath & Mana Village
Basking in a superb setting in the shadow of snow-topped Nilkantha, Badrinath Temple appears almost lost in the tatty village that surrounds it. Sacred to Lord Vishnu, this vividly painted temple is the most easily accessible and popular of the char dham temples. It was founded by Guru Shankara in the 8th century, but the current structure is much more recent.
Ranikhet, home to the Kumaon Regiment and bristling with good old-fashioned military atmosphere, spreads over rolling green hills with some lovely views over the distant Himalaya. The focus of the town is a busy bazaar area, but you don’t have to walk far along the winding Mall Rd to be immersed in forest and tall English trees.
Hindu pilgrims visit Bageshwar, at the confluence of the Gomti and Sarju Rivers, for its ancient stone Bagnath Temple. For travellers, it’s more important as a transit town to or from the Milam or Pindari Glacier trailheads. There are a couple of internet cafes around, and there’s a State Bank of India ATM in the main bazaar.
Rajaji National Park
Unspoilt Rajaji National Park, covering 820 sq km in the forested foothills near Haridwar, is best known for its wild elephants, numbering around 600 at last count. As well as elephants, the park contains some 250 leopards and 11 tigers, and at the time of writing, Rajaji was under consideration for being declared an official tiger reserve.