At a distance of 72 km from Abbottabad, Balakot is the gateway of the Kaghan Valley. It takes about one and half hours to reach Balakot from Abbottabad, passing through the busy town of Mansehra. The journey between Mansehra and Balakot is a charming experience. The black top road winds through beautiful green hills and the thick forest of Batrasi. Views from Batrasi towards Kaghan Valley are spectacular.
Balakot is a small town located on the bank of Kunhar River yet has tremendous historical significance. A famous battle was fought here between the Sikh Army and Muslim freedom fighters in 1831. It is here that Hazrat Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Hazrat Shah Ismail Shaheed sacrificed their lives here while fighting for the liberation movement. Balakot has faced more recent turmoil as well, as it was badly hit by the earthquake of 8th October 2005. Almost all the houses, hotels and shops were destroyed in this devastating tragedy, but because of its strategic location, Balakot has once again become a leading trading centre in Kaghan Valley.
Shogran, one of the most beautiful plateaus in the valley, is situated 34 kilometers from Balakot via Kawai. To reach this quaint place, take a side road on the right after passing through Kawai. From here it is a steep 8 kilometers to Shogran. The road is metalled and normal cars and vans can easily make the drive.
Surrounded by thick pine forests and with an altitude of 7747 feet, the summer climate of Shogran is very mild and pleasant. One of the nicer place to visit is Shogran's forest rest house. From the rolling grassy lawns of the rest house, one can become immersed breathtaking panoramic views of snow covered mountains. Kaghan Valley's highest peaks, such as Musa Ka Musalla (4419m), Makra (3885m) and Malika Parbat (5290m), are visible from here. For those wishing to stay the night or have a meal, there are a number of small and medium size hotels in Shogran. For more information on hotels please see annexure-III
A wonderful excursion from Shogran is a visit to Sari and Paya. A rugged eight kilometer road climbs 2300 feet through thick pine forest to the top of Paya ridge, a lush green meadow with spectacular view of Malika Parbat. One can also see varieties of wild alpine flowers on the rolling grassy slopes of Paya. Visitors can then hike up Makra (Spider) Mountain, which is 12743 feet from see level. From Paya, trekkers must climb around 2000 feet to reach the top of Makra, on the border Northwest frontier Provence's Kaghan Valley and Azad Kashmir's Neelum Valley. This mountain climb is recommended only for those who have previous experience in high altitude hiking, are familiar with the mountain wilderness safety rules and are properly equipped.
Sari is a small lake on the way to Paya. One can stop here for a while for rest and refreshment. This place also has a small forest rest house and some tea stalls. Travelers enjoy sipping hot tea from one of the stalls while soaking in the majestic views of snow covered mountains reflected in the lake.
Back on the main road to Naran, 6 kilometers further north of Kawai is the small town of Paras. The main bazaar consists of some shops and road side restaurants and is worth stopping at to have a cup of tea or simple lunch. Public transport usually makes a tea stop here while going to Naran. There are also orchards of apple and apricot in the nearby village.
Paras is the starting point for a detour to Sharan which is at a distance of 16 kilometers from Paras and is accessible only by jeeps. This place is famous for its lush green meadows and thick pine forest. This area is not on the main tourist route but is ideal for nature and adventure lovers. From here one can go on an exciting two to three days trekking and camping trip to the top of Musa Ka Musala Mountain and onwards to the Siran Valley.
There is a forest rest house and a youth hostel at Sharan to provide accommodation facilities to the adventures travelers. To stay at these facilities you need booking in advance from respective departments. This place is also ideal for camping.
A little ahead of Paras, Shinu is a place which has a trout hatchery. This is one of the oldest hatcheries of NWFP Fisheries Department. It is from this hatchery that brown trout and rainbow trout are stocked in the upper Kunhar River, Lake Saiful Muluk, Lulusar and Dudupat Sar. If you want to have a closer look at this beautiful fish you can make a short stop at Shinu hatchery which is located right on the road along the river bank.
Jared and Mahandari
The next two settlements on the main road to Naran are Jared and Mahandari. Jared used to be famous because of its furniture and handicrafts of walnut wood. The NWFP government operates a handicrafts development centre here. Some private shops also sell traditional style carved furniture and handmade decoration items.
Mahandri is 46 kilometers from Balakot. The Manoer Nala joins river Kunhar at this place. It is a starting point for trekking route to Kuch Gali and Manoor Peak. (See Trekking section for more details in Annexure-IV) Mahandari has a small bazaar with shops selling items of daily use, in addition to some restaurants and two budget hotels.
Khanian is a small but attractive, peaceful village on the right bank of the Kunhar. It is the starting point for a trip to Kamal Ban Forest and Dana Meadows. A ten kilometer jeep track winds up the hillside to picturesque Dana Meadows which are located at an altitude of 10,000 feet with a view of a number of snow covered peaks over 15,000 feet. It takes an hour to reach here by jeep, and about three hours on foot.
Another jeep track to the south from Khanian climbs up the ridge to the Kamal Ban Forest. The forest rest house at Kamal Ban is at an altitude of 6500 feet and was built in 1924, being one of the oldest in the area. It also offers a beautiful view of surrounding mountains.
The Pine Park Hotel chain operates a small but comfortable hotel at Khanian. Some other budget hotels are also located on the main road.
Kaghan is the town which gives the valley its name. It is a permanent settlement and is located at a distance of 61 kilometers from Balakot. Kaghan has a hospital, post office, police station and a small bazaar where items of daily use are available in the shops. There are a few budget hotels and restaurants which provide accommodation and meals to visitors passing through, on their way to Naran. Especially, during the early tourist season, when reaching Naran on normal vehicles is not possible, visitors leave their cars in Kaghan and hire jeeps for the onward journey to Naran. Local hotels offer parking facility to tourists.
There is also a hydro power station and a potato research station. Kaghan offers several short hikes for those who have some time to spend here.
At 7,888 feet above sea level, Naran is the main centre of tourism in the Kaghan Valley. It is located 82 kilometers from Balakot. The town is situated on the bank of the Kunhar River at a point where the valley widens. The river is also quite smooth here and ideal for trout fishing and easy grade river rafting.
With more than 100 hotels, Naran is without doubt the main base for most tourists. There is one simple bazaar where all the shops, restaurants and hotels are situated. Naran becomes alive only in summer starting in late May, when the snow melts and the road to Naran become passable. In winter, a majority of the population descends to the warmer climates of Balakot and Mansehra. Most visitors stay in Naran for a few days while enjoying the various day excursions to Lake Saiful Muluk, Lalazar, Lake Lulusar and Babusar Pass. There are also several short walks and treks around Naran.
Lake Saiful Muluk
No trip to Kaghan Valley is complete without a visit to the legendary Lake Saiful Muluk. The lake is named after prince Sauful Muluk, who fell in love with a fairy from the mountains.
At 10,500 feet, Lake Saiful Muluk is surrounded by impressive snow clad mountains and crowned by the summit of Malika Parbat (Queen of the Mountains). The highest peak in Kaghan Valley, the majestic Malika Parbat has a height of 5291 meters. Words cannot describe the beauty and serenity of the setting and picture postcards do no justice. The crystalline waters of Lake Saiful Muluk reflecting the surrounding snow peaked mountains is an image that must be seen in person.
There are several ways to reach the lake. Along the side of the valley to the east of Naran, a 10 kilometer track leads through a picturesque valley. A jeep can be rented in the bazaar and driven up in one hour, or the more adventurous can walk to a small glacier about 3 km up and hire a pony for about Rs.200/- one way. Walking the entire way is also an option, and takes about three hours for the 8 km trek. This option is only for those who are fit enough to climb about 3000 feet in eight kilometers.
There are several good trekking opportunities from Lake Saiful Muluk. See trekking section for more details.
Lalazar is an extremely picturesque pasture at an elevation of 3200m. It is linked to Naran by a 21 kilometers jeep track via Batakundi. Lalazar is a scenic spot with thick forests of pine and fir. The grassy mountain slopes are full of wild flowers.
A rest house and two very basic hotels provide food and drinks to day visitors from Naran. Limited accommodation facilities are also available here. Adventurers may prefer to camp at Lalazar as a base to ready themselves for the trek to Lake Saiful Muluk via Hans Gali.
Naran to Babusar Pass
For the thrilling experience of Babusar Pass, one must wait until mid July, when the road from Jalkhad onward become accessible. With a height of 13,687 feet (4,173 meters) Babusar Pass creates the border between the Kaghan Valley and the Chilas regions. From the top of Babusar Pass one may behold a panoramic view of snow-covered peaks and sweeping valleys.
The British built a pony track across the Babusar in 1892 to give access to Gilgit. Before this, the only route to Gilgit was from Srinagar across the Burzil Pass; until the building of Karakuram Highway, the track was the main route to Chilas and Gilgit. Today, jeeps to Babusar can be hired from Naran. For those who want to make it a day excursion from Naran, it is advisable to leave early morning. The best option, however, is to enjoy an overnight stay at Basil or Burawai.
The first village on the road to Babusar is Batakundi, 16 kilometers beyond Naran. Nestled at the confluence of Siran Nala and Kunhar River, Batakundi offers travelers a rest house and two small hotels. Batakundi is a fertile area and is famous for the cultivation of good quality seeds of potato and peas which are distributed across Pakistan. A jeep track from here leads right up to the Lalazar pasture.
Continuing on the main road, one will reach Burawai after 13 kilometers. Situated at the confluence of Joar Nala and the River Kunhar, Burawai has PWD rest house and a small road side hotel. From here Besal, a nomad settlement, is 18 km. A road side restaurant offers tea and simple food to travelers who wish to observe nomad life at the conjunction of Purbi Nar, Saeedullah Nar and Kunhar River. From Besal, one can deviate 15 km east to another beautiful area, Lake Dudupat Sar, famous for its lush green surroundings and good trout fishing. This lake is accessible by foot or hired pony.
For those interested in the main source of Kunhar River and a pleasant spot of picnic, a three kilometer journey beyond Basal will take you to the beautiful deep blue Lake Lulusar. The largest of the Kaghan Valley lakes, Lulusar is surrounded in color by many varieties of wild flowers. A sense of culture can also be observed through the summer encampments of the Gujar nomads.
Passing through the last summer settlement of Kaghan Valley at Gittidas, Babusar Pass is the next stop. Along the way, Gujar nomads spend the summer months on this high pasture with their herds of sheep and goats. The last 7 kilometers to the top is a steep climb. A stone cairn marks the highest point of the pass. From the stone cairn marking the highest point of the pass, many take the time to enjoy the gorgeous vistas surroundings Kaghan and Babsar Valleys and the white topped snowy mountains in the backdrop. Chilas town is 50 kilometers from here.