Goechala: a romantic high altitude trek in the Himalayas
Trekking in Sikkim is very different from trekking in any other part of the Indian Himalayas. The mountains, the trails, the people and the culture is in such sharp contrast to the rest of the country that for any trekker the Goechala trail is a must-do.
The Goechala trek in Sikkim is also one of the most romantic trails the Indian Himalayas has to offer — the enchanting walk through the Tshoka Rhododenderon forests, the vast Dzongri and Thansing meadows, the startling blue waters of Samiti lake, the looming presence of Kanchejunga and Pandim, the icy trail to Goechala make lots about the trek very romantic.
Goecha la trek : Yuksom, where your trek starts
Day 1: Getting to Yuksom, drive from NJP to Yuksom (6 hrs)
The Goechala trek starts at Yuksom, a fairly large settlement in West Sikkim. It was once the capital of Sikkim, so the culture in the town shows. It is also a nice quaint hill station and for those who want to avoid the hustle bustle of Darjeeling, Yuksom is a nice gateway. There are plenty of hotels in various budgets so staying is not a problem. A decent room with a shared bath works out to about Rs 300. The costlier rooms are around Rs 1,500.
If you are on the Goechala trek there are two important things to do at Yuksom. One, make an entry at the police station. For this you need a photo identity proof with three photo copies. Two, you need to pay the permit fees at the forest check post (usually trekkers do this in the morning when they are starting the trek). The fee to be paid is broken down into small elements like tent, porter, yak and other charges. It can get somewhat confusing, but the net amount will boil down to about Rs 700 per person.
Foreigners have it slightly more difficult. First, foreigners cannot trek alone; they need at least a partner. Two, they need to get a trekking permit from Gangtok (which usually their trekking agency will organize). Three, foreigners have to do the trek with a trekking agency – they cannot trek on the trail by themselves. Finally, once they enter Sikkim from any highway, their papers are going to be checked at the border.
Yuksom is also the last place to buy provisions for the trek. So stock up well before you start the trek. You get almost everything at Yuksom so there really isn’t any need to buy things at Siliguri, Kolkata or Gangtok.
Day 2: Yuksom (5,700 feet) to Sachen (7,200 feet). 4 – 4 ½ hours.
Note: Most trekkers like to trek from Yuksom to Tshoka in a day. This makes the trek very long and the altitude gain too much. A sensible way to trek is to break the trek at Sachen as described here.
Goecha la trek: The trek starts just behind the houses at Yuksom
From Yuksom, the Goechala trail starts just behind the houses after the forest check post. Cross the last few huts of Yuksom and skirt around the fields of Yuksom to enter the V shaped valley of the Rathong river (many mistake it for the Prek – earlier Prek and Pha Khola merge to form the Rathong).
The trail, though passing through the fringes of the forest is exposed for about half hour. Midway through the exposed trail, look for a shelter on your right. From here onwards it is half hour to the first bridge over the Pha Khola.
By the time the trail gets to Pha Khola, you are well into the thick of the forest and the coolness envelopes you at all times. The gently undulating trail climbs gradually.
Goecha la trek: The trail through thick forests
The next hour and half is a pleasant walk through the moist jungle until suddenly on your left the Tshushay Khola falls in a series of mini waterfalls joining the Prek below. 50 meters later a large iron bridge spans the Tshushay Khola. After the bridge the trail begins to climb more noticeably.
An hour later watch for another small cement bridge over the Mentogang Khola (you won’t find a board telling you the name). You are already at 7,100 feet and it is only twenty minutes from here to the log hut of Sachen.
Goecha la trek: Sachen – if you are a big team, make the flat ground to the right of the trail your campsite. The loghut area to the left may run out of space.
Sachen at 7,200 feet is a small clearing where a single log hut and a shelter on the trail exist. The log hut a few meters below the trail. The hut has room enough for about 6-7 and a small area to cook. For a larger team look for the clearing just above the trail opposite the shelter. The Prek, is many feet below Sachen and not visible to the eye, though you can hear it faintly rushing below.
Day 3: Sachen (7,200 feet) – Tshoka (9,650 feet). 3 ½ – 4 hours
This is a short trek, but the altitude gain is considerable. Trekkers love the initial amble through the forest – it gives them a chance to loosen up before the stiff climb to Bakhim from the bridge over Prek.
The trail out of Sachen undulates but maintains an even altitude, in fact gaining a few feet until 45 minutes and 2 kms later you drop down to the bridge over Prek. The clear water of the Prek is worth savoring. You don’t meet the river until three days later at Kockchurang.
Goecha la trek: The wooden bridge over Prekchu adorned with Prayer flags
The wooden bridge over Prek sways when you walk over it. Adorned with multitude of prayer flags wishing success to the expedition — it signals the start of the real climbs of the Goechala trail – climbs that stay with you until you get to Goechala.
Take the trail that begins to climb to the left of the bridge. The trail climbs sharp through a mixed oak forest until the wide switchbacks level somewhat half hour later at the sight of the first Rhododendrons. The altitude gain is rapid and the air gets cooler perceptively. Soon the trail climbs to the ridge and stays there until you get to Bakhim another half hour later. From the Prek it takes an hour to get to Bakhim (the total distance is only a kilometer but feels a lot longer).
Goechala trek: The cafe a Bhakim. A perfect place for a short break. Lovely views and you get almost all mobile signals!
Bakhim has a Forest Rest House and some trekkers like staying at Bakhim – simply for its view of the Yuksom valley. Finding the caretaker is a struggle and most trekkers move on to Tshoka which is another hour away.
Bakhim has a lovely tea stall where the owner dishes out some snacks as well. With a well deserved rest start your climb to Tshoka. Follow the trail just behind the Forest Rest House. The trail again climbs in a series of long switchbacks, overlooking Bakhim until forty minutes later it dives around a ridge to move to the other side of the hill.
Goecha la trek: The trail from Bhakim to Tsoka. Rhododendrons start appearing. The mix of forests and clearings make the trails enjoyable.
At over 9,000 feet high, Rhododenderon trees abound everywhere. The trail gets dark from the overhanging trees and meanders for another ten minutes. It suddenly pops out to a plateau and the trekkers hut of Tshoka. There’s also a flat camping area to the left of the trekkers hut. The trekker’s hut is a pretty long wooden building that has four rooms – enough space to house more than 20 trekkers. Alternatively, trekkers can stay at the Forest Rest House slightly uphill.
Spend some time exploring Tshoka. Slightly uphill are the cafes where trekkers can try the local malt beer Tumba. The local Yak cheese is another delicacy but it takes time to get used to the taste. It is rock hard too! Ask the café owners for the keys to the monastery.
Goecha la trek: Tshoka monastry and the serene pond in front
Follow the trail as it leads out of Tshoka, cross the small wooden bridge over the pond and head to the monastery. It is a quiet place worthy of a quick visit. But what will take your breath away is the view of the snow clad peaks of the Kanchenjunga range stretching right behind you – with Mt Pandim dominating the skyline. For most trekkers this is the view of the day.
Day 4: Tshoka (9,650 feet) – Dzongri (12,980 feet) via Phedang (12,050 feet). 5 – 6 hours.
For most trekkers this day is perhaps the highlight of the Goechala trail. Everyone looks forward to the trek this day. For one, they trek through some of the densest Rhododendron forest India has to offer, and second, on the trail, suddenly the views open up to showcase the might of the highest mountains in Himalayas.
Goecha la trek:The trail from Tshoka to Phedang -Its an out of the world experience – walking through a forest with only Rhododendrons
Like yesterday, climb up to the little pond leading to the monastery, and then follow the trail that runs to its right. The trail begins to climb sharply and within minutes Tshoka is a tiny hamlet below you. Red Rhododendron trees spring up everywhere. If you are in season when the flowers bloom (May 1st/2nd week), then the entire slope lights up with a fiery red colour.
Goecha la trek: The wood paved trail through thick Rohododendron forest
After a stiff climb for about 30 minutes, the trail evens out to a gradual climb. The trail changes to one paved over wooden logs. It is a delight with Rhododendrons fanning the path. Little wooden benches line on either side of the trail – which makes the trail look like it is in a park. Sometimes mist filter in surreally through the Rhododendron trees – but even in the magical setting the trail climbs throughout and trekkers feel the altitude. The log path gives way to a regular stony trail that climbs quickly to Phedang in 20 minutes.
Phedang at 12,000 feet is a large clearing with superb views of the snow clad mountains. A log hut and a few wooden benches dot the landscape. Stop here for lunch and a well deserved rest. The trail forks at Phedang with one that goes right, leading to Kockchurang. Water is available from a spring slightly lower on the trail to Kockchurang.
Take the trail to Dzongri that starts across the clearing. The trail starts to climb immediately along the dwarf rhododendrons that line the slope. The views start getting better with every step, but watch for a few muddy patches on the trail. After a bout of rain you need to skip your way around them. It is a ridge climb, so the trail switches between the alternating sides of the hill. Watch for the view change between the Pandim ranges and the Kabru. An hour later the climb tops at a shrine with multitude of prayer flags. This is the highest point of the days trek at 13,080 feet.
Goecha la trek: The climb after Phedang. Watch out for colourful birds in the Rhododendrons.
Take a brief rest at the shrine and follow the trail that gently descends towards Dzongri. For most parts the trail undulates with the first patches of snow lining the roots of the dwarf rhododendrons around you.
The Dzongri trekkers hut appears suddenly at the bend in the trail. A gentle clear stream runs by the side of the hut. There are plenty of camping grounds around Dzongri but the hut itself can take in 30 trekkers at a time.
Goecha la trek: An aerial view of Dzongri trekker huts
Dzongri is a welcome sight for trekkers after the hard climb from Tshoka. At 12,980 feet trekkers feel the affect of altitude at the Dzongri meadows. Dzongri is a large cauldron, mostly meadows, surrounded in all directions by the mighty peaks of the Kanchenjunga range. In every direction is a snow peak to be looked at and admired. For most trekkers Dzongri is a reward on its own. Many finish their trek at Dzongri and head back the way they came.
Day 5: Dzongri (12980ft) to Dzongri top (13681ft)
Sunrise from Dzongri top on the Goechala trek
Dzongri top is the highest point from where you get the 180 degree panaromic view of the mighty peaks of the Singalila and Kanchenjunga ranges. Dzongri top is a two hill climb from the Dzongri trekkers hut. The trek from Dzongri to Dzongri top takes about 45 mins. The sun rises at 5 a.m and you don’t want to miss seeing the first rays of sun hitting Kanchanjunga. Start your trek at 4.00 a.m with torch lights and you reach the top just as the dawn breaks. As you climb up, the peaks of the Singalila range begin to open up and just at the bend before the top, the Kanchenjunga and its neighbours make their appearance. Witness an inspiring sunrise and spend time watching the mountains changing colours in the sun rays. Spot Thansing, the destination for the day, Lamuney and Goechala peaks below you. On the other side, the green Rhododendron slopes extend for miles. Retracing your path to Dzongri takes 20 mins.
The view from Dzongri top on the Goechala trek
Dzongri (12980ft) to Thansing (12894ft) via Kockchurang (12096ft). 5 – 6 hours
Thansing is a meadow at the same altitude as Dzongri. The trail from Dzongri to Thansing descends a 1000ft to Kockchurang and then climbs a 1000ft to Thansing.
Take the trail heading right from the Dzongri trekkers hut and go to the top of the ridge.It is a kilometer and 20 mins to the ridge top. From the ridge top you get to see Kanchenjunga, Pandim and the other peaks to the right towering over the meadows. Descend through the Rhododendron shrubs to the meadows. The meadow gently slopes down. The walk through the Dzongri meadows in the lap of the mighty mountains is as breathtaking as the view from Dzongri top.
Dzongri meadows on the Goechala trek
In half an hour Rhododendron shrubs occupy the slopes again. The gentle to medium descent continues over 2 hours. The Rhododendron shrubs suddenly give way to Rhododendron forest. The descent becomes steep and you lose more than 500ft. The forest is a good place to spot birds. Walk through silently and spot birds camouflaged in the browns and greens of the forest.
Kockchurang springs up at the end of the descent. Just there find a route through the forest going right. It goes to Phedang. Kokchurang has a trekker hut but no real place to pitch tents. The Prekchu river flows next to the trekker hut 50 meters away. By the banks of the river, amidst the rocks 4-5 tents can be pitched. The small camp site though feels lovely. In the evening expect mist hanging over the river and the tents enveloped in the mist with the sound of the fast river below makes it a great camping experience.
The trekker hut at Kokchurang has two big halls on the sides capable of handling 10-12 trekkers each and a central hall which can serve as the cooking area.
Prekchu flowing at Kockchurang on the Goechala trek
From Kokchurang, walk down to the bridge across Prekchu. Spend some time on the bridge experiencing the cool breeze of the river. The water below looks icy blue. On the other bank you have the Rhododendron forest again. They flower in June but at any time, the moss lined trees with their branches spreading out in all directions make it a fairy tale walk. There is a trekking trail but no lined path. The gradient increases and its an ascent through out. The distance between the bridge and Thansing is 2kms. By mid way forests end and the landscape becomes rocky and barren. At the end of the climb is Thansing a big meadow. There is a dilapidated trekker hut at the entrance of the flat meadow. The hut can be used as a kitchen but tents would be needed to stay. The open meadow can host any number of tents. You are right in front of Pandim and the left wall of Kanchanjunga here. Thansing can be cold in the night.
Thansing on the Goechala trek
Day 6: Thansing (12894ft) to Lamuney (13,693ft). 4.2 kms 2 hours
The trek from Thansing to Lamuney is an easy one. Walk through the meadows heading closer to Goechala. The trek is inspiring because the mountains come closer and closer. The meadows tend to get rockier as you move ahead. The flat gradient suddenly gives way to an ascending trail and that’s the farthest you can camp. The ascending trail heads to Samiti lake where camping is no longer allowed.
Excursion to Samiti lake 14100ft 45 mins moderate climb and back to Lamuney
Blue waters of the Samiti lake
You may choose to trek further to Samiti lake and spend an hour there. The trail ascends from Lamuney and it is a 45 minute stiff climb to the Samiti lake. Notice the terrain being rocky all through the ascent. The climb suddenly flattens out and the deep blue waters of the lake come into the picture. Move closer to the shore of the lake and the blue does not change. If it is windy, the lake has waves too. Take a walk around the lake and sit besides its serene waters. The Samiti lake shores are home to mountain goats and blue birds which you are most likely to spot.
Samiti lake at 14,100ft
Day 7: Lamuney (13,693ft) to Goechala (16,000 ft) and back to Kockchurang. 10 – 12 hours
This is the longest day of the trek and so start your day really early at 3 a.m to give you multiple advantages.
- A 3 a.m start ensures that you reach the first view point or the sunrise point right in time to see the first run rays hitting Kanchenjunga.
- It also makes it easier to walk on the morains that you find after the sunrise point as the snow is still hard.
– The probability of getting good views are higher in the mornings.
- Lastly gives you enough time to go all the way to Goechala and return to Kockchurang.
Do not plan to leave earlier than 3 a.m as it is mostly not required and the lack of sleep can tend to tire out people unnecessarily.
A lot of people would misguide you saying it is impossible to go further if you are late but these are not really true. Even a 5 a.m start from Lamuney can take you all the way to Goechala but you will miss out on the sunrise.
Goechala sunrise point or the first view point at 15100ft
The trail to Goechala goes behind Samiti lake and beyond. Mt. Pandim is always to your right and the left is also lined by huge snow walls. Climb to the ridge on top of Samiti lake and then traverse right on the narrow trail on the flank of the mountain. A bit more of a climb and you reach the sunrise or the first view point of Goechala in less than two hours from Lamuney. Mt. Pandim and to your right and Kanchenjunga raises just in front. Spend a few moments here before starting your descent to Zemathang. Zemathang is a sand bed covered with snow and gravel. From Zemathang Goechala is a climb of about one and a half hours.
Sunrise on the mountains at Goechala
Retrace your path to Lamuney, and then head to Kockchurang with your belongings. Stay at the trekker hut or pitch tents by the river at Kockchurang.
Day 8: Kokchurang to Tshoka via Phedang. 6-7 hours
The days trek can be divided into two phases. The first from Kockchurang to Phedang – a direct trail by passing Dzongri and second, the Rhododendron forest trail from Phedang to Tshoka.
The trail to Phedang at Kockchurang on the Goechala trek
The first phase is new and interesting. The trail goes on the flank on the mountain all along and you move from one mountain to another to another maintaining a constant altitude of 12,000ft all along. Kokchurang, Phedang and most of the trail, are all at 12,000ft!
Take the diversion to the left inside the forest instead of climbing up to Dzongri. The trail remains mostly flat with small descents and ascents only to switch between mountains. Rhododendron trees line your way all along and the Prekchu flows below. Look left and at a number of places you get lovely views of Mt. Pandim and its neighbours. Phedang is 10 kms away and this is one of the longest trails between two known campsites. It takes about 4 hours to reach Phedang.
From Phedang you retrace the descending trail to Tshoka. The days trek takes about 6-7 hours on an average.
Day 9 : Tshoka to Yuksom via Bhakim and Sachen. 6 hours
Retrace your way from Tshoka to Yuksom. Its much faster and easier than your trek up. Sachen comes up quickly being a pure descent. From Sachen the trail goes up and down generally losing altitude. The last stretch has a few climbs which makes you wonder but its soon over and you find yourself back in the friendly Yuksom neighbourhood.
Day 10 :
Leave Yuksom early morning and reach NJP by 4.00 – 5.00 pm