National Parks in Uttarakhand: The Pride of India’s Himalayan Wilderness, nestled in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, is one of India’s most beautiful states. Known for its breathtaking natural landscapes, Uttarakhand is home to towering snow-capped peaks, lush green valleys, gushing rivers, endemic flora and fauna, and ancient Hindu pilgrimage sites.
An integral part of Uttarakhand’s natural heritage are its national parks. Covering a wide range of ecosystems from the Gangetic plains to the Greater Himalayas, Uttarakhand boasts of six national parks and seven wildlife sanctuary in uttarakhand that harbor incredibly diverse wildlife. These parks play a vital role in preserving the state’s precious biodiversity and providing refuge to many endangered, rare and endemic species.
Introduction National Parks in Uttarakhand
Uttarakhand lies in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. It was carved out of Uttar Pradesh as a separate state in 2000 due to its unique culture and geography.
The state can be divided into two main regions – the Garhwal region in the northwest which contains the Upper Himalayas, and the Kumaon region in the southeast which mainly covers the middle Himalayan ranges.
Uttarakhand spans both the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Himalayas, resulting in a diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. The state harbors alpine meadows, coniferous forests, subtropical pine forests, riverine grasslands and deciduous forests.
This varied topography supports rich biodiversity. Uttarakhand is home to around 6,000-7,000 plant species, 500 bird species, 40 mammal species and a multitude of butterflies, reptiles and amphibians. Many of these species are endangered and endemic to these mountains.
The region’s unique location at the junction between the Palaearctic and Indo-Malayan zoogeographic realms contributes to this remarkable diversity. Several globally significant ecoregions lie within Uttarakhand, including the Terai-Duar Savanna and Grasslands and the Himalayan Subalpine Conifer Forests.
Protecting Uttarakhand’s fragile ecosystems and rich biodiversity is crucial. National parks in the state play a pivotal role in conservation efforts. They provide safe breeding grounds for endangered species, preserve representative habitats, facilitate scientific research and education, and promote eco-tourism.
Today, Uttarakhand contains six national parks spanning diverse ecosystems across 13 districts. These parks cover 7.12% of the state’s geographical area, indicating their significance for Uttarakhand’s natural heritage.
Major National Parks in Uttarakhand
Uttarakhand’s six national parks can be categorized into the Shivalik regional parks located in the lower Himalayan foothills, and the Greater Himalayan parks situated in the higher mountain ranges. Each park is unique in landscape, biodiversity, visitor experience and conservation efforts.
A. Jim Corbett National Park
Jim Corbett National Park is Uttarakhand’s oldest and most famous national park. Established in 1936, it was India’s first national park and is named after the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. Sprawling over 520 square kilometers in the district of Nainital, Corbett lies in the Shivalik foothills and lower Himalayas.
Corbett is part of the Terai Arc Landscape, a belt of alluvial grasslands and subtropical forests that was once continuous from Nepal to Assam. Corbett represents the Terai-Duar Savanna and Grasslands ecoregion and harbors incredibly diverse wildlife adapted to these grasslands.
The park is divided into five zones – Jhirna, Bijrani, Dhela, Dhikala and Sonanadi. Dhikala at the core of the park is completely inviolate. Only jeep safaris are allowed in some zones while others can be explored by elephant rides, hiking and angling.
Flora: Sal dominates the forests along with Terminalia, Syzygium, Mallotus, bamboo and grasslands. The Ramganga river flowing through Corbett provides valuable aquatic habitat.
Fauna: Corbett is famous as tiger country and has one of the highest tiger densities in India (130 tigers) along with leopards, fishing cats, sloth bears, sambar deer, barking deer, hog deer and monitor lizards. The grasslands teem with elephants and 500 species of resident and migratory birds like the crested serpent eagle, blossom-headed parakeet and red junglefowl.
Activities: Jeep safaris, elephant rides, hiking, river rafting, angling and birdwatching. Excellent tiger spotting opportunities, especially in the Dhikala zone.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-November to Mid-June when the park is open. Avoid monsoons. Ideal months are March – June when animals are drawn to waterholes in the summer heat. Winters are excellent for birdwatching.
Stay: Resorts around Ramnagar and Dhikuli offer luxury stays. More affordable options are available at Khinanauli. Dhikala Forest Lodge offers stays deep inside the park.
B. Valley of Flowers National Park
Nestled high up in the Himalayas in Chamoli district, Valley of Flowers National Park is a protected area spanning 87 square kilometers. Declared a national park in 1982, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
The Valley lies in the transition zone between the Zanskar and Great Himalayan ranges in the upper Garhwal region. It covers areas of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. The park encompasses the valley of the Bhuyandar river, a tributary of the Alaknanda.
This valley lies between 3,000-3,600 meters above sea level and displays a unique alpine ecology. The rugged mountains surrounding it render the Valley inaccessible for most of the year, helping preserve its pristine state. 300 species of wildflowers bloom here between June to October in a stunning display of vivid colors earning it the moniker “Garden of the Gods”.
Flora: Dense temperate forests of birch, rhododendrons cover lower slopes. Higher areas burst into flower-filled meadows with endemic, rare species like Saussurea obvallata (brahma kamal), Saussurea simpsoniana, Corydalis govaniana, Pedicularis bicornuta, Potentilla and several poppy species.
Fauna: The snow leopard, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan tahr, monal pheasant and various deer inhabit the park. Brown bear and blue sheep are also spotted occasionally.
Activities: Trekking along mountain trails that require moderate to advanced fitness levels. Photography of unique Himalayan flowers and landscapes. Best experienced in July-August during full bloom.
Stay: No accommodation available inside the park. Nearby towns of Govindghat and Badrinath offer guesthouses and ashrams for pilgrims. Joshimath has several hotels.
C. Nanda Devi National Park
Forming part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Nanda Devi National Park is located around Nanda Devi – India’s second highest peak and the highest mountain located entirely within the country. The 717 square kilometer park lies in Chamoli district and was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
The park encompasses the inner catchment of the Rishi Ganga river along with the famous Valley of Flowers. It covers areas between 3,500-6,315 meters and includes the Zanskar and Great Himalayan ranges. Diverse alpine ecology, glaciers and challenging mountain terrain make this a unique wilderness.
Flora: Temperate and alpine forests, rhododendron thickets, meadows with Himalayan flowers. Medicinal plants like Aconitum heterophyllum (Atis) and Picrorhiza kurroa (Kutki) found here are threatened due to over-harvesting.
Fauna: Endangered species like the snow leopard and Himalayan musk deer. Other mammals are Himalayan tahr, serow and brown bear. Over 200 bird species
C. Nanda Devi National Park (continued)
Activities: Trekking along extremely difficult mountain trails that require high fitness levels and acclimatization to altitude. Limited to research activities and expeditions due to the fragile environment.
Stay: No accommodation available. Camping only allowed for expeditions with permits. Local villages of Lata, Tolma provide basic lodging.
Challenges: Extremely rugged terrain limits accessibility. Sensitive alpine ecology prone to disturbance. Strict regulations hence permit trekking only along certain routes like Rishi Ganga.
D. Rajaji National Park
Straddling Haridwar, Dehradun and Pauri districts, Rajaji National Park spans over 820 square kilometers in the Shivaliks. It is an amalgamation of three erstwhile wildlife sanctuaries – Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla.
The park extends from the hills to the floodplains along the Ganges and Song rivers. It covers a diverse range of ecosystems including subtropical pine forests, deciduous forests, grasslands, streams and rivers. The steep Shivalik ridges alternate with narrow valleys and ravines.
Flora: Sal, sheesham, Rohini, khair, Bel, jamun, dhak, semal, kachnar, bamboo, chir pine, figs, mulberry.
Fauna: Asian elephants, tigers, leopards, Himalayan black bears, chitals, sambar, wild boars, rhesus macaques and langurs. Over 500 bird species including the endangered great hornbill and blossom headed parakeet.
Activities: Jeep safaris, elephant rides, hiking, river rafting, bird watching and angling for mahseer in rivers.
Stay: Forest rest houses at Chilla; hotels and resorts in Haridwar.
Conservation issues: Managing wild elephants, human-animal conflict, pressures of tourism, mining.
E. Gangotri National Park
Covering 2390 square kilometers, Gangotri National Park is located in Uttarkashi district. The Gangotri glacier that feeds the Ganges river lies within the park, giving it tremendous religious significance for Hindus. Gangotri town near the glacier is an important pilgrimage site.
The park falls in the Greater Himalayan zone and ranges between 1800-7000 meters in altitude. Diverse flora and fauna adapt to the varying elevations and aspects. Valleys have alpine meadows and coniferous forests. Higher granite and gneiss peaks harbor rare species.
Flora: Fir, birch, rhododendrons, willows and maples. Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata), blue poppy (Mecanopsis aculeata) and many medicinal plants.
Fauna: Snow leopard, black and brown bears, blue sheep, tahr, monal and other pheasants.
Activities: Trekking, mountaineering, rafting, angling for trout, pilgrimage and meditation. Permits required for mountaineering expeditions.
Stay: Forest rest houses; camping in designated sites. Hotels at Uttarkashi, Harsil village near the park.
F. Govind National Park
At an elevation of 9000-22,000 feet, Govind Pashu Vihar National Park offers spectacular high-altitude wilderness in the Greater Himalayas. Located in Uttarkashi district, it adjoins the Gangotri National Park.
The 485 square kilometer park ranges from glacial areas around Bhagirathi peaks to alpine meadows and rocky cliffs. Valleys have temperate and sub-alpine forests. It provides important habitat for endangered Himalayan wildlife.
The prominent peaks of Shivling, Bhagirathi, Thalay Sagar and Meru Parbat dominate the park’s landscape. The headwaters of river Tons and Mana originate here.
Flora: Silver fir, spruce, Himalayan oak, rhododendron and Himalayan weeping cypress. Alpine flowers during summer.
Fauna: Endangered snow leopard and Himalayan brown bear. Musk deer, bharal, tahr, serow and exotic pheasants like monal, koklass and kalij.
Activities: Trekking, mountaineering (permits required). Wildlife viewing, photography of landscapes and unique fauna like musk deer. Best time is May-October.
Stay: No accommodation in the park. Nearby towns of Gangnani and Bhatwari offer budget hotels.
Other Protected Areas & National Parks
Besides the six major national parks, Uttarakhand has smaller protected areas that also harbor unique and threatened wildlife species:
Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary: At 1500–5000 meters in Pithoragarh district, this 675 square kilometer sanctuary protects the endangered Himalayan musk deer. It lies in the Askot biogeographic zone and has temperate vegetation.
Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary: Covering 47 square kilometers in Almora district, Binsar protects broadleaf temperate forests and himalayan black bear, leopard, pine marten, barking deer. Endemic bird species attract many ornithologists.
Both these parks face tremendous anthropogenic pressures and require improved protection efforts. Other wildlife sanctuaries are Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary and Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary near Jim Corbett National Park.
Challenges in Conservation
While Uttarakhand’s national parks play a crucial role in preserving the state’s natural heritage, many challenges undermine conservation efforts:
- Tourism pressure: Popular parks like Corbett and Valley of Flowers attract huge crowds of tourists and pilgrims. Unregulated mass tourism causes disturbance, littering and infrastructure expansion.
- Habitat loss: Pressures from livestock grazing, roads, dams and developmental projects fragment and degrade habitats. Valuable wildlife corridors are lost.
- Human-wildlife conflicts: Animals like elephants, leopards and bears often venture near settlements causing losses to people. Retaliatory killing and lack of solutions escalate the conflicts.
- Climate change: Erratic rainfall, reduced snowfall, glacial melt, and natural disasters like floods and forest fires disrupt local ecology in these sensitive mountains.
- Poaching and illegal wildlife trade pose constant threats, especially to endangered species like snow leopards, musk deer and pheasants targeted for traditional medicine.
Holistic, multi-pronged approaches are essential to tackle these challenges. Community-oriented conservation models that provide benefits and build tolerance among local people are crucial. Regulating tourism, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, improving park management and building ecological resilience to climate change are other priority areas. The future of Uttarakhand’s incredible biodiversity depends on how successfully these issues are addressed.
Nature Tourism Destinations
As major nature tourism destinations, the parks also significantly support the state’s economy and local communities. Sustainable tourism, when managed responsibly, can play a big role in raising conservation awareness and funding.
The national parks of Uttarakhand represent some of India’s most precious natural assets. These parks encompass the entire range of the Himalayas – from riverine grasslands and Shivalik hills, to temperate coniferous forests, alpine meadows and glacial peaks.
The diverse elevations, geologies, climates and habitats harbour incredible biodiversity, much of it endemic and threatened. From tigers, elephants and snow leopards to countless beautiful birds, plants and butterflies, Uttarakhand’s parks protect the most iconic species of the Indian Himalayas. Equally important are the vital ecosystem services these parks provide – water security, soil conservation, carbon sequestration and climate resilience.
While many threats and challenges exist, innovative conservation models focused on both ecology and community provide hope for the future. The incredible wilderness and natural heritage of Uttarakhand’s national parks must be nurtured for generations to come. As environmentalist John Muir said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”