There are a handful of “Holy Grail” hikes around the world, multi-day adventures that attract active travelers seeking maximum beauty and culture in a vacation that doesn’t require a sabbatical. Unlike the ultra-routes (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, etc.) that necessitate wilderness camping and take many months to complete, these are dream hikes that can be done more conveniently and realistically. Like the fabled Tour du Mont Blanc (which I have written about here at Forbes before), Alta Via Uno (high road one) in the Dolomites, or Patagonia’s Torres del Paine Circuit, these are once-in-a-lifetime hikes that can be enjoyed in high style and don’t require backpacking or camping.
Now we can add Bhutan to that Bucket List.
The only Buddhist nation on earth and the only country entirely within the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain range, Bhutan is unique in many compelling ways, and has long been a beacon for the “been there done that” crowd, as one of the least visited touristic destinations in the world. Part of this has been purposeful, as decades ago the government decided to limit tourism and its sometimes destructive impacts, focusing on a “less is more” strategy of welcoming fewer but higher spending travelers. As a result, the lodging infrastructure skews decidedly luxury, with several elite brands operating multiple small hotels around the country. These include Aman, COMO Hotels and Six Senses. India’s acclaimed Taj Hotels is also here, and a new lodge from top tier African safari specialist &Beyond debuts next fall. This unique system has allowed visitors to either pick and choose or stay within a brand while still experiencing multiple regions, but there is no better way to see the whole country than to walk across it. As of September 24, that became possible.
That date marked the grand reopening of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile historic pilgrimage trail traversing Bhutan. The trail existed in an earlier form, but only for residents, as it has been closed for the entire time Bhutan has welcomed outside visitors, which has occurred just in the last half century. In 2018, His Majesty, The Fifth King led an initiative to restore the Trail and once again make it accessible again for locals, pilgrims, and travelers. This included rebuilding 18 major bridges, 10,000 stairs, and 250 miles of trails, and today, for the first time in over 60 years, it is possible to walk across the country from Haa in the west to Trashigang in the east.
After this extensive restoration, the Trail now welcomes walkers and mountain bikers, giving international hikers and cyclists the chance to explore and connect with the remotest parts of the country, deep in the Eastern Himalayas. This is a new opportunity to see the country while exploring Bhutan’s rich culture and heritage in an immersive and sustainable way.
The revamped trail crosses nine dzongkhags (districts), 27 gewogs (local governments), one municipality and two national parks, meandering through virgin forests, offering vistas of Himalayan peaks and accessing to parts of Bhutan seldom visited by foreigners. The Trans Bhutan Trail is a path through Bhutan’s history, and more than 500 years ago it connected fortresses called Dzongs and served as the pilgrimage route for Buddhists travelling to sacred sites in western Bhutan and Tibet. Today there are 400 historic and cultural sites identified along the way.
Bhutan was already a hotbed of active travel, and just about all of the hotels and lodges offer half or full day hikes and bike rides as popular outings, but now it is possible to do a more dedicated hiking trip. For the most avid hikers, the entire trail can be completed in about a month, but there are many one-to-two-week hiking tours to visit key sections. In between are everything from half and full-day treks to three, four, or seven-day section hikes. The trail is a community-based tourism initiative that will create new socio-economic opportunities for local communities and facilitate sustainable development in Bhutan’s rural areas. As such, the trail organization offers its own bookable slate of guided trips, with lodging in campsites, hotels or homestays with local residents.
In addition, a number of high-end tour operators and active travel specialty companies have attractive and turnkey deluxe Bhutan packages. For the ultimate deep-pocketed indulgence, consider Gray & Co., a 100% bespoke and private-only cycling and hiking company that is generally considered the world’s most luxurious active travel specialist and has won World’s Best Tour Operator from Travel + Leisure. Red Savannah, a luxury travel company specializing in tailor-made trips around the world, just added three new Trans Bhutan Trail itineraries (8,10 and 12 days). Butterfield & Robinson, creator of the guided active travel category and generally considered the most luxurious of the companies offering groups trips (as well as custom privates), has a 10-day fully supported hiking trip staying at top properties including multiple Aman and Six Senses hotels. Backroads, the world’s largest luxury active travel company, also has a couple of trips, with both multi-sport (bike, hike, raft) and hiking. They use a slightly less opulent but still impressive collection of hotels, including Le Meridien and Taj. There are a number of other specialty active travel companies that operate in Bhutan and with the new trail just opened, more itineraries will be forthcoming. You can follow Bhutan’s tourist board and updates here.