Bhutan offers a dizzying dose of precipitous adventure pursuits. The country's policy of Gross Domestic Happiness, a principle officially regarded as more important than measures like Gross Domestic Product, may be the reason Bhutanese collectively sport a permanent smile (or maybe they just have an inside line on what a well-kept secret the nation represents for adventurers seeking raw and undeveloped experiences).
Trekking & trail running
Incredibly, two-thirds of the country still sits out of reach of any road. These craggy Himalayan summits, lofty passes, untouched forests, turquoise lakes and undulating yak pastures are there for exploring. You’ll not only experience traditional villages, but also have the chance to encounter exotic wildlife such as the snow leopard.
There is a wide range of treks, from difficult high-altitude expeditions between snowcapped giants in the Himalayas to more relaxed community-based village trails connected by subtropical forest. And with possible durations ranging from a month down to just two days, there's a journey for everyone.
The remote Snowman Trek is high on most trekkers’ (and runners’) wish lists. The 300km route snakes up gigantic valleys, climbing high over more than a dozen passes punching past 5000m, with the second half all completed above 4000m. You’ll need to book through a trekking agency for a traditional trek package supported by a team of donkeys. Be prepared for long days on trail and the possibility of passes being snowed in.
Another alluring option is the Druk Path, which connects the dry Paro valley to the forests above Thimphu. The main attractions along this route are the remote monasteries and the mountain scenery. It's a convenient option as you're able to start trekking from your point of arrival in Bhutan (no loss of time driving to trailheads).
Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek
If the idea of walking for five days and encountering few trekkers en route, look no further than the Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek. This circuit south of Thimphu isn't particularly demanding (though there are a few steep climbs), and most trekking days are short.
With less time to play with, the overnight Bumdrak Trek is a good pick. It offers incredible views of the Paro Valley, gorgeous sunsets over the mountainous landscapes of Haa, an intriguing cliff-face pilgrimage site, little-known chapels above Taktshang Goemba and the spectacular Tiger's Nest itself. Although short, this trek is not an easy stroll; the first day is all uphill, while the second is all downhill, and you'll ascend up to almost 4000m.
There are some formidable slopes that you'll need to steer clear from, however. Namely, Gangkhar Puensum (7570m) – it is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. There have been historical attempts, but in 1994 the Bhutanese government closed peaks higher than 6000m to climbers, out of respect for local spiritual beliefs, so its virginity remains sacrosanct.
Mountain biking has been popularised by Bhutan’s King Wangchuck, an ardent fan, and with trails linking many villages, routes are opening up. While most of Bhutan’s cycling adventures are routed along dirt roads, there are some established singletracks, including fast and flowy Jiligang, in Punakha Valley; the 13km Tharpaling trail, beginning near a monastery and descending 1000m; and the 14km Pho Chhu trail, also in Punakha, which crosses one of the country’s longest suspension bridges.
There are also bike trails around Phobjikha, which are part of a local ecotourism initiative. There are also graded logging roads to ride to Tsele La (you can overnight to Tikke Zampa). If downhill is your thing, arrange to be dropped off at Cheli La Pass. From there you can bomb down some 35km along the main road (or take on the logging roads via Gorina).
Want to mix in a mountain bike race with your stay in Bhutan? Then there is no better event than the tortuous Tour of the Dragon, which covers 268km between Bumthang and Thimphu in a single day. The route rises a total of 3790m and descends 3950m while crossing four mountain passes on winding roads. A little less challenging is the 60km-long Dragon's Fury; be warned that it still includes 1740m of ascent between Metshina and Dochu La before rolling down to Thimphu.
Whitewater rafting & kayaking
With major glacial rivers shooting off the steep flanks of the Himalayas, it’s no wonder Bhutan excites kayakers and rafters. To date paddlers have been exploring 22 different runs over no less than 14 rivers, though the scene is still developing and those who’ve scouted the country’s waterways believe that there is even greater potential for the future.
The Paro Chhu in Paro Valley and the Upper Pho Chhu in Punakha Valley both feature Class III–IV rapids, the latter pumping at 85 cubic metres per second. For experts, the Mo Chuu, also in Punakha, pushes the extreme of Class V and is for kayaks only, as it’s too steep for rafts.