During the yatra, stages of the walk are carefully
controlled by the Indian authorities. The first stage of the trek is to
Chandanwadi, the second to Sheshnag and the third over the Mahagunas Pass
to Panchtami. Many pilgrims visit the cave from Panchtami and return to
Sheshnag the same day, walking back to Pahalgam on the fifth day.
Stage 1: Pahalgam To Chandanwadi
(Average walking time 4 hours)
The trail leaves Pahalgam on a bitumen road, past the Shankar temple and along the east Liddar valley. The trail is easy to follow indeed it is suitable for jeeps as far as Chandanwadi (2,900m). There are many obvious short cuts on the route, and a number of tea stalls, as this first stage always seems to be quite hot. The campsite is in a pleasant glade just before the main line of tea stalls.
Stage 2: Chandanwadi To Sheshnag
(Average walking time 5 to 6 hours)
From Chandanwadi the trail winds steeply for 500m to the summit of ridge known as Pisu Top (3,390m). From here, there are commanding views back down the valley to the mountains beyond Pahalgam. During the main pilgrimage, the tea stall owners do a thriving business, which keeps the pilgrims going on the long incline to the next main resting area at Wawajana (3,550m). From here it is two to three km further to Sheshnag (3,720m). The glacial lake is set in remarkable surroundings, its waters reflecting the snow capped peaks of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Rumour among pilgrims has it that the lake is inhabited by a serpent of Loch Ness monster proportions, so it's advisable not to camp too close to the water's edge.
Stage 3: Sheshnag To Panchtarni
(Average walking time 6 hours)
The trail gradually ascends from Sheshnag with magnificent views of the mountains immediately above. The ascent towards the Mahagunas Pass winds up to a grassy plateau, and from there on to the pass it is a further hour's climb. The sign at the top of the pass states the height as 4,270m. It is not a dramatic pass, but it is still no mean achievement for the pilgrims, many of whom have never been beyond the Indian plains before.
The descent to Panchtarni (3,450m) is quite long and tiring, but there are frequent flowered meadows to rest in and admire. The campsite can be seen from afar; and behind, on a further ridge, the bare, treeless mountainscape resembles the terrain on the far side of the Himalayas. There are more spacious campsites upstream from the main camping area, and these are also a little cleaner.
Stage 4: Panchtarni To Amarnath Cave & Return
(Average walking time 5 hours return)
The actual time to the cave will depend on whether one's trek coincides with the main pilgrimage. During the pilgrimage an early start is essential, with many of the pilgrims move more steadily and slowly than on the rest of the trek, as if in awe of their surroundings.
The climb to the Singh Pass (3,850m) is gradual before the trail enters the Amarnath valley. It descends to a permanently blackened snow bridge, which fords the Amarvati stream before ascending the true right back to the base of the mountain. From here the final ascent is up a series of concrete steps to the entrance to the Amarnath Cave (4,050m). The J&K police manning the entrance to the cave only permit a limited number of pilgrims inside at any one time.
Stage 5: Panchtarni To Chandanwadi
(Average walking time 8 hours)
Many pilgrims return from Panchtarni to Chandanwadi in one day. After completing their pilgrimage to the cave most are happy to trek as far as they can the following stage.
Stage 6: Chandanwadi To Pahalgam
(Average walking time 4 hours)
On the final stage most pilgrims arrive back in the Pahalgam bazaar with enough time to complete the drive to Srinagar or Jammu the same day.
Although the traditional yatra trek to the Amarnath cave is from Pahalgam one can also go there from Sonamarg.
Stage 1: Sonamarg-Baltal
This 15-km trek takes about five hours and it's an easy walk since there is little altitude change between Sonamarag and Baltal. One should be able to get a lift on a truck to the roadblock, from there on it is better to walk. The roadblock is closed until noon or later, waiting for traffic to come across the Zoji la from Ladakh. From the roadblock one can walk along the river valley track, which is very pleasant. The river valley track is also 2 to 3-km shorter than the vehicle road. A military camp is the first sign of Baltal, which can be reached in a day from Srinagar.
Day 2: Baltal-Amarnath
The 15-km trek to Amarnath climbs over a thousand metres from Baltal at 2,743 metres to the cave at 4,175 metres and the walk takes about nine to 10 hours. The route crosses one major snow bridge over a river and climbs steadily up, crossing the Satsing pass, 3 ½-km before Amarnath, at 4,115 metres dropping down and then climbing up again to the cave at 4,175 metres. There are some tea stalls along the way, even at the river, and after the junction with the main trail there are even more.
From Amarnath one can follow the traditional yatra trail down to Pahalgam.
Option: Amarnath to Baltal & Sonamarg from the Amarnath cave return along the pilgrim trail as far as the junction of the Panchtarni and Amarvati rivers. Here the trails divert, with the track to Baltal heading down the true right of the valley. The trail is prone to rock avalanches where it traverses large scree slopes and one should be wary of descending without first checking its condition. If there are no problems, the trek to Baltal can be completed in about four hours.
Road: From Baltal there is a regular bus service during the pilgrimage period, getting back to Srinagar that night. At other times, camp at Baltal and continue to Sonamarg at a more leisurely pace the following morning. From Sonamarg there are three buses a day to Srinagar and the drive takes around five hours.