The cloud-draped forts, foggy pinnacles, and Buddhist caves that dot the Sahyadris provide perfect hiking trails. Add to this, the charms of hot cups of chai, batata vadas, pakoras, and roasted corn on the cob, and you have a perfect getaway in one of the best seasons to be outdoors. Reaching the starting point of these do-it-yourself hikes is relatively easy. Trains, buses, and auto rickshaws can take you to the starting points ensuring access to the wilderness, even if you don’t have a car.
Note Any classification is relative and what some find easy others may find hard. Our classification—Easy, Moderate, or Demanding—assumes a basic level of fitness taking into account the time, difficulty of the terrain, and stamina required. You do not need to be a seasoned trekker to tackle these trails, but be prepared to walk and climb for several hours. No technical gear or equipment is required.
The Karla and Bhaja Caves, both accessible from Malavli, are protected monuments with inscriptions that are over 2,200 years old. Photo: André Morris
Grade: Easy | Duration: 3 to 6 hours round trip.
Lohagad, or the iron fort (loha is iron and gad is a fort) sits just outside the hill station of Lonavla. The structure was considered a stronghold because there is only one point of access to it. The rest of the fort’s perimeter has sheer vertical cliffs and rocky outcrops, one of which is called vinchu kanta or the scorpion’s sting. Lohagad was held at different times by the Mughals, Marathas, and finally the British, and offers views of Lonavla, Tung and Tikona forts, Pawna and Valvan lakes, and Karla and Bhaja caves.
From the top you can also see the ramparts of Visapur Fort, the larger of the two citadels. Set amidst 3.5 sq km of forest and flatland, and encompassing two small hillocks, Visapur holds remarkably well-maintained water tanks and some rock-cut caves. The ramparts are so well preserved, you can still walk along them. Visapur offers amazing views in all directions. To the south lies Pawna Lake and to the north, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway snakes its way through the countryside.
Route The starting point for a hike to these forts is Malavli, 20 km from Lonavla (towards Pune). There are two possible routes. The easier one goes from Malavli station to Bhaja village and then uphill to Bhaja Caves. Start by visiting these first- and second-century rock-cut caves, which have sculptures, inscriptions, and a large monsoon waterfall at the south end. From Bhaja village, a jeep track leads across fields (motorable till the base of the hill) and climbs up a gentle spur to the col between Lohagad and Visapur. From here, turning right takes you to Lohagad village and fort, and the left turn follows a dirt road and then a faint trail up to Visapur Fort.
The second option (a little more demanding) is to cross the Expressway at Malavli Station, and take a sharp left to Patan village. A fairly well-used trail leads uphill to the base of Visapur Fort, where there is a small settlement. Go right (when facing the fort) across the plateau, along the base of the fort, and through thick undergrowth to the re-entrant (low ground between two spurs), which is marked with large boulders and stones and a flowing stream in the monsoon. Almost near the top are two rock-cut caves that offer shelter. From here, a series of rock steps (that are slippery when wet) lead into the fort.
The ramparts of Lohagad Fort are still in great condition and easy to explore while taking in panoramic views. Photo: André Morris
Favour the second option to explore both forts. From Visapur, you can cut across a small pass between the two hillocks and follow a trail leading out of the fort and down another steeper re-entrant. Just before the forest, there is a water tank on the right. Past the tank, a trail leads through the jungle and then down to a dirt road to Lohagad. For the return, instead of going back to Malavli, it is possible to get public transport from Lohagad village to Lonavla.
Tougher Option Start at Bedsa Caves (via Kamshet station), hike across Bedsa hill to Visapur Fort and end at Lohagad. This trail is not for novices and should only be attempted with a guide.
Grade: Easy | Duration: 2-4 hours round trip.
Once the site of Buddhist rock-cut caves that were used for meditation, Karnala Fort later played an active role in guarding the coast under Kanoji Angre and the Marathas. The dense forests around the fort were a favourite haunt of the late Salim Ali—an ornithologist often called the Birdman of India—who helped establish the Karnala Bird Sanctuary. Today it’s a popular getaway for birdwatchers, nature lovers, and hikers.
Route Karnala is about 15 km from Panvel on the Mumbai-Goa highway. It is a short auto rickshaw ride from Panvel railway station. The trail veers left, just as you enter the sanctuary, and climbs gently to the top, flattening out on a ridge where the wind blows at a steady roar and swathes of clouds wash over you. Catch your breath here before the final climb to the fort (do not attempt to climb the pinnacle during the monsoon), where there are a series of rock-cut caves, water tanks, and moss-covered ramparts.
Caution Often there are bee hives above the caves and around the pinnacle. Do not do anything to disturb the bees, including smoking, peeling an orange, cutting onions, or throwing stones.
OTHER EASY HIKES Duke’s Nose (Lonavla); Peth Kotligad (Karjat); Sinhagad Fort (Pune); Purandar Fort (Pune); Katraj Ghat (Pune); and Shivneri Fort and caves (Pune-Junnar).
Grade: Medium | Duration: 5 to 7 hours round trip.
Mahuli Fort attracts its fair share of hikers all year round but is most attractive during the monsoons. At this time, its many pinnacles play hide-and-seek in the clouds while waterfalls and streams gush over boulders as they flow down the mountain, creating many picture-perfect picnic spots. The surrounding forests are a sanctuary for birds, animals, and insects. Historically the fort was held by the Nizam Shahi rulers of the Deccan. Shivaji’s mother Jijabai is known to have escaped from here to Shivneri in Junnar, where the Maratha ruler was born. Later, the fort kept changing hands between the Marathas and Mughals, until it finally fell to the British (who abandoned it quickly, but not before they blasted access to it to prevent the Marathas from re-garrisoning it). You can choose to skip the hike up to the fort, and spend time by one of the many brooks and tranquil pools instead.
Route Mahuli can be reached via Vasind, near Kalyan but that is a tricky, demanding trail. The easier route is via Asangaon. Cross the highway at Asangaon, just before the flyover over the railway line. A tarred road on the left leads to Mahuli village 5 km away; it continues past the village, crossing a stream and ending at a Shiva temple, where the trail begins (vehicles can drive up to this point). The last places to buy tea, snacks, or simple meals are the village and temple. From the village the trail crosses the river over a bridge and follows its left bank for 1 km. At this point, there is a stream to be crossed, which can pose a challenge during heavy rain. Past the stream, the trail starts climbing a spur and is an enjoyable though tiring walk. The final approach to the fort is via an iron ladder. On a clear day, there are great views of Tansa Lake. A local guide will also be able to point out the hills of Alang, Kulang, Kalsubai, Matheran, and other forts including Harishchandragad that dot the Sahyadris. Return the way you went up. There are a couple of other trails to Mahuli but these are only for seasoned trekkers.
While breathtaking views form a large part of Matheran’s allure, the hill station is also dotted with a number of pretty colonial-era bungalows. Photo: André Morris
Grade: Medium | Duration 2 to 3 hours one way; the return journey can be a two-hour walk (from Dasturi Naka) down the road to Neral or a 20-minute taxi ride.
In Marathi, mathe is head and raan is forest. The British developed Matheran as an escape from the summer heat. The hill station is a popular spot during the monsoon when the top is enveloped in clouds that shed their load in short but intense showers. There are several routes up to Matheran besides the motorable road and the railway line. Here, we look at the One Tree Hill route.
Route If you’re driving, park the car at Neral and take the train to Karjat, so you have the option of returning to Neral by taxi or train on the way back. From Karjat, take an auto rickshaw to Bhorgaon (via Vaverle village) on the Karjat Chowk road. From Bhorgaon, a trail leads west for the village of Ambewadi at the foot of Chowk Point. The trail continues uphill from Ambewadi, first gently up a spur, then easing out through thick jungle, and finally climbing steeply up a boulder-strewn re-entrant. Matheran market is a 30-minute walk from the top.
On your way back, you can either ride the train, walk to Dasturi Naka and take a seat in a taxi to Neral, or walk along the road down to Neral Station.
A small detour from Kondivade on the way to Rajmachi, leads to Kondana Caves and a waterfall that’s a popular halt. Photo: André Morris
Grade: Medium | Duration: 7 to 8 hours round trip.
The duration of this trip can be reduced by taking a jeep from Lonavla till Phanasrai. The twin forts of Rajmachi have stood as silent sentinels guarding the Bhor ghat pass for centuries. Buddhist monks first carved out water tanks and caves where they could stay. Then, the Maratha warlords and the Mughals took over, followed by Shivaji and other Maratha kings. The two forts, Shrivardhan and Manoranjan, together make up Rajmachi, which means “King’s terrace”. Interestingly, Shrivardhan falls in Pune District and Manoranjan in Raigad.
Route There are two possible routes to reach Rajmachi. To take the popular and easier one from Lonavla, head toward Tungarli Lake (left after the second petrol pump on the main road, when coming from Mumbai). Vehicles only go up to the base of Tungarli hill. From there, start walking on the dirt road to Tungarli Dam and village. The trail goes left just past Captan’s Resort and gently descends to a plateau. Near the bottom, there is a small lake on the left, and sheer cliffs on the right that were once nesting sites for hundreds of vultures. The trail to Rajmachi is the one on the right and is fairly straightforward for the next 4-5 km. (Caution: The twin peaks are visible throughout but there are no shortcuts, so stay on the trail.) The trail climbs gently through a forested patch until a fork in the trail, where signboards clearly indicate that the left route goes to Rajmachi. The trail then descends for about 2 km to a river where a new bridge now makes crossing over easy. If you’d like to be adventurous carefully ford the river and follow the trail to a small Maruti temple. This marks the first defensive walls of the fort and indicates you’re an hour away from the fort. Before you climb to the forts, the trail ends at Udhewadi (or Rajmachi village), which abuts a thick forest that has a well and the remains of stone structures. There is also a pond, close to which the villagers excavated an ancient stone temple about ten years ago. Get a cup of hot tea and something to eat before heading out to explore the forts. You can also hire a village resident to take you to both forts. In the col between the forts, there is a rustic temple dedicated to Kalbhairavnath, with stone idols of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. Walk up to Shrivardhan first (behind you when you are facing the temple) for stunning views of the region, if the clouds open up you’ll see a spectacular waterfall cascading over the sheer cliffs (and you’ll understand why there are no shortcuts). Return to the col, and follow the trail to Manoranjan, which is immediately behind the temple, through the forest. Just out of the forest, take the trail veering left (tread with caution, rocks can be slippery).
To reduce walking time, hire a local jeep from Lonavla to Phanasrai (₹1,000 to ₹1,200). Rajmachi is a 2-hour walk from there. You can arrange for the jeep to pick you up on your return. Post-October, these jeeps go all the way up to Rajmachi (charging ₹1,500 to ₹1,800 one-way). It is not advisable to take your own vehicle on this road or to leave it parked in the wild.
OTHER MODERATE HIKES Matheran-Garbet Point route (Bhivpuri Road); Torna Fort (Pune); Rajgad Fort (Pune); Prabalgad (Chowk-Karjat)
The monsoons are a great time to take children hiking in the hills. Photo: André Morris
Grade: Demanding | Duration: 6 to 8 hours round trip.
At 5,400 ft, Kalsubai is the highest peak in Maharashtra. The climb to the summit is not too difficult, but it is long and has several “false summits”. There is a small temple at the summit dedicated to Devi Kalsubai. The view, if the clouds part, is truly awesome and worth every bead of sweat it takes to reach the top. The temple has many coins, old and new, nailed to it by pious pilgrims.
Route Just past Igatpuri on the Mumbai-Nasik Highway, a road branches right (due southeast) to Bhandardhara via Ghoti. Bari village, which is the base for the hike, is about 10 km before Bhandardhara. From the bus stop at Bari, a path goes past the school and through the village, across paddy fields and a stream, to a temple. It quickly gets steep and there are iron ladders fixed into the rock at some spots to help hikers. The trail is tricky. Every time you feel you’re near the top, another ridge appears. You’ll know you’re close to the summit when you reach a well that has cool, potable water all year round. The final ascent is up a long iron ladder, but the more adventurous can try ascending with the help of the thick iron chains that are affixed left of the rock massif near the ladder.
The total climb to the summit takes three hours, and the descent even longer, especially if the rains have made the trail slippery. Retrace your steps for the return. An enterprising villager now runs a tea shop (on weekends) and makes some very welcome hot bhajiyas. Besides this there is no shelter or food is available on top. If you have the time, visit Bhandardhara Lake and Randha Falls.
Along with being a challenge for the novice hiker, Bhimashankar is one of the 12 jyotirlingas, and a popular pilgrimage spot. Photo: Dinodia
Grade: Demanding | Duration: 5 to 7 hours one-way.
Bhimashankar is one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Shiva, a shrine where the fierce god is worshipped as a lingam of light. The popular religious site has a huge brass bell that was a gift from the Portuguese. The thick forest around is teeming with wildlife and Nag Phani (cobra’s hood), the highest point in the area, commands a fantastic view of the hills. The area is a wildlife sanctuary and home of the giant Indian squirrel or shekru, besides leopards, deer, and wild boar. The canopy of trees is also home to birdlife, many species of butterflies, and insects.
Route The most popular trail up to Bhimashankar is via Khandas (40 km from Karjat station; public transport easily available). From Khandas, follow the road for about 2 km till you cross a bridge. Two trails lead up to Bhimashankar from there. On the left is the steeper, shorter route called sidhi or ladder route, because of a series of ladders fixed at the steepest sections. This route is not advisable in the monsoon, especially for inexperienced hikers. On the right is the Ganesh ghat route, which is longer but easier. The first section of the trail tops out on a plateau along the base of Padar Killa, a big square rocky massif (do not attempt going up to Padar Killa from here without a local guide; even then it is fraught with danger). About an hour or so along this trail there is a Ganesh temple and a Koli village, where tea and snacks are available. The two trails meet here. After this begins a steep, three-hour climb to reach the dense jungles of Bhimashankar, and then it’s another 4-5 km to the temple. It is possible to get public transport from Bhimashankar to Pune (2hrs) or Kalyan (4 hrs) on the way back.
OTHER DEMANDING HIKES AND TREKS Harishchandragad (Kalyan-Malshej Ghat); Ratangad, Ajoba, and Ghanchakkar (Igatpuri-Bhandardhara).
Appeared in the August 2013 issue as “Walking in the Rain”.
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