Representing the east side of Gilgit-Baltistan, Skardu is a frontier town unlike any other. Raw, dusty, ever-expanding, and with some of the craziest scenery you’ve ever seen
If Gilgit and Hunza are where all the first-timers go to in Pakistan, then Skardu and Baltistan are where all the hardcore travelers head to.
Not surprisingly it can be hard to reach Skardu and finding how what to do there can also be a challenge. The region still lacks a lot of tourist infrastructure despite being considered the “Trekking Capital of the North”.
This guide is an exhibition of all the best things to do in Skardu, as well as its surroundings. Beneath the dust-covered surface of this town lies some truly amazing treasures and I’m going to show all the ones I know about right now.
So let’s get to it: here are the most interesting activities and best places to visit around Skardu!
Things to Do Around Skardu
Despite being an outpost town in the middle of proverbial nowhere, Skardu does offer several things to do in the immediate area. You’ll find plenty of action in the main bazaar, lots of gorgeous nature outside, and a few hidden gems in between.
All and all, Skardu is a good introduction to Gilgit-Baltistan.
The bazaar is the main anchor of Skardu and is the center of activity. As you travel further from the bazaar, the neighborhoods become more local, less developed, and feature fewer points of interest. By the time you reach the Shigar junction, you will be leaving Skardu behind.
Below are the best things to do in and around Skardu. Note that a few of these are technically outside of the city, but are still close enough to be short day trips.
Check out the view at Marsur Rock
The Marsur Rock is a relatively new hike that has recently taken the town by storm. On almost every poster, you’ll this precariously perched rock overlooking Skardu and the valley. By now, it’s considered one of the best day hikes in Skardu.
For experienced hikers, the walk up to Marsur Rock should take around a half-day. The elevation gain is around 600 meters. You should definitely start in the morning hours as the trail offers no shade and it can get real hot in the valley. Bring plenty of water, snacks, and a good pair of boots.
Make sure to check in beforehand about the status of the trail. The “new” trail is unsafe to walk on when damaged, in which case you’ll need to take the much longer “old” trail used mostly by shepherds.
Once you arrive at the Marsur Rock, you’ll understand why people often compare it to Norway’s Trolltunga. It’s a spitting image of the Nordic icon albeit slightly smaller; just swap the fjords for sand dunes.
It is possible to sleep at the Marsur Rock as well. Lots of people choose to sleep here overnight, rather than hiking back on the same day. You will need to bring your own tent though or hire a porter.
Go sandboarding in the Safaranga Desert
There are two noteworthy deserts located very close to Skardu: the Katpana and Safaranga. Both are well-known for being among the highest deserts in the world, so much so that they actually receive snow in the winter. Thus, their unofficial nicknames: the Cold Deserts.
The Katpana Desert is located closer to Skardu near the airport. Although it receives more visitors, I find it to be slightly less impressive of the two. If you’re short on time and are looking for convenience, choose the Katpana.
If, on the other hand, you want to get a “proper” desert experience, head to Safaranga instead. The dunes here are higher, the scenery is better, and the silence is more noticeable.
Although you may be hard-pressed to find a board, the dunes are also the perfect shape for sandboarding! If you can’t score a real board, you might to try find an inflatable floaty in the Skardu bazaar and try your luck with one of those.
It is possible to drive off-road to the dunes, just make sure you have a good Jeep that can handle the sandbanks!
Relax in the Organic Forest
Located on the other side of the huge rock that holds up Kharpocho Fort is a tranquil slice of woods that locals have started calling The Organic Forest. So peaceful is this place in comparison to constantly cacophonous Skardu that’ll forget the city is even there at all.
The trail to the Organic Forest starts at the beginning of the climb up to the fort. Rather than going up though, just follow the trail around the mountain. You’ll walk maybe 15-20 minutes along the edge of a cliff before turning a corner and reaching a sandy, wooded area on the banks of the Indus. The Organic Forest is just ahead another 15-20 minutes.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Organic Forest once you see the large sign overhead. Feel free to wander around a bit and enjoy the serenity. There are several spots along the man-made canals that make for great stopping points. Consider packing a bit of food so you can have a picnic once you’re there.
To return to Skardu, walk back the way you came. You could conceivably keep walking forward and circumnavigate the entire rock, but this would take an extra hour or two to complete.
Climb up to Kharpocho Fort
Visiting Kharpocho Fort is arguably the most popular thing to do in Skardu due to its central location, prominence, and expansive views. One can see the fort perched up above from almost every angle of the city center so it’s easy to imagine why people want to check it out!
The walk up to Kharpocho is pretty easy. Simply walk down the alleyway next to the Bank Alfalah in the middle of the bazaar and proceed directly ahead. You’ll eventually come to the mountain itself, at which point the path starts to switch back. It’s a 15-20 minute climb up from there.
At the fort, you will have unbeatable views of the surrounding mountains and Indus River Valley. The original builders used this fort as a watchtower in case of invaders and as a defense against attackers, two things that make total sense once you’re there. This is one of the best views in Skardu so enjoy it.
Visit the K2 Museum
Aspiring mountaineers interested in learning more about “The Savage Mountain” should drop by the Italian K2 Museum near the bazaar.
The museum, designed as a large pyramidal tent, is full of interesting photographs and maps pertaining to the first expeditions to K2. For those who aren’t aware: K2 was first climbed by a team of Italian climbers in 1954 and the story behind their ascent is actually quite juicy. Drama aside this museum is partly dedicated to them.
The museum is technically located on the grounds of the PTDC Motel, about 5-10 minutes’ walk from the middle of Skardu. Entry is totally free.
Chill out at Kachura Lake
The Upper and Lower Kachura Lakes are one the most famous places to visit in Skardu. Partly because of the presence of the luxurious (I say overrated) Shangri-La Resort but mostly because it is simply a beautiful spot. Both the Kachura Lakes make for an excellent day trip from Skardu.
The Kachura Lakes are located about 45 minutes away from Skardu by car. Once you arrive, both lakes are within walking distance of one another.
Most people just chill the f’ out while at the lakes. This could mean fishing, a lazy boat ride, or just laying on the shores. Photographers will probably go nuts taking photos here as it’s certainly one of the most photogenic locations around Skardu. Go in the morning for the best light.
There are several guesthouses around serving up grilled trout and other local dishes. I’d avoid eating at the previously mentioned Shangri-La and opt for one of the smaller joints. The food is just as good and half the price.
Make a day trip to Shigar
Aside from being known as the gateway to one of the world’s most epic treks, K2 Base Camp, Shigar is also a great place to go on a mini road trip. The scenery is slightly better and the landscape is just a bit harsher than Skardu. Visiting here makes for a great change of pace from the hectic city.
The trip to Shigar starts at the junction leading to the Ghanche district, the same one you use to reach the Safaranga Desert. Rather than turning off to the desert, keep going straight ahead.
NOTE that there is (sometimes) a military checkpoint set up before you cross into Shigar. Make sure you have your passport on you just in case they stop you.
Once you’ve entered the valley, the views open up. The braided Shigar River, fed by the Baltoro Glacier, winds its way through the valley, sustaining several small communities and irrigating the land.
Keep driving ahead. After 30-45 minutes, you’ll reach a turnoff for Shigar Fort – an old palace that was restored as a hotel/museum. Spending the night here would be a very unique thing to do, albeit an expensive one. But even if you don’t you can still tour the grounds.
This is also a good place to turn around and head back to Skardu. The road gets worse the further up you go.
Shop for jewels in the bazaar
Gilgit-Baltistan is famous for its mineral deposits and abundance of precious stones. One of the greatest souvenirs that you can buy in Skardu is a gem for your loved one (or maybe just yourself).
There are several gem dealers and craft souvenir stores in Skardu that sell local stones. North Handicraft and the shop next to it are both good places to start looking.
Baltistan’s claim to fame is aquamarine, garnet, and mountain jade. You will also find plenty of rubies from neighboring Hunza.
As is always the case when traveling in Pakistan, you need to barter; and barter HARD. Whatever price they tell you, counter with a third of the offer. The dealer will seem incredulous at first but this is all a part of the game. Keep insisting on bartering and they will eventually play ball. Bartering takes skill and with practice, you’ll get it.
Explore the Basho Valley
A little bit farther down the road from Kachura is the picturesque Basho Valley, famed for its bucolic meadows. It’s a lovely, languid place that exists in stark contrast to the dusty, often barren Indus Valley. If you’re in need of a bit of greenery, this is the best thing near Skardu to do.
One thing to note is that whilst the road to the entrance of the Basho Valley is typically fine – being repaved in the last few years – the road up the valley is not so great. Be prepared for lots of mud and potholes. Having a jeep or 4×4 would be best when traveling here.
The inner sanctum of the Basho Valley is pretty idyllic. Wide pastures, isolated communities, and an abundance of waterfalls all make this place feel like a hidden paradise. All this scenery is framed by the towering granite walls of the Karakoram.
Those who want to stay the night will be happy to know that there are a few guesthouses in the area. They are very, very basic though and it is advised that you bring your own bedding, food, and equipment.
Find the Manthal Buddha Rock
Skardu, and all of Baltistan for that matter, were once one of the major cradles of Buddhism. Through this region, the religion flowed from the Asian subcontinent, up through Central Asia, and onwards to China and Japan. Even now whilst Islam is the dominant faith, traces of Buddhism still remain, in the form of old inscriptions, stupas, and relics.
One of the most impressive archeological remains in all of Pakistan is actually in Skardu. Located on the edge of town, the Manthal Buddha Rock has survived for over a thousand years somehow. This large granite boulder depicting the Buddha and his Bodhistavas seems somewhat out of place but is nonetheless very cool to see.
Entry to the Buddha Rock is only 150 rupees and it can be appreciated in less than 15 minutes. Try to visit in the morning as the light is better and the heat is less intense. If you visit at midday, you will have almost no respite from the baking sun.
Things to Do Outside of Skardu
Whilst there is plenty to do inside Skardu, the real adventure is found outside the city in the rest of Baltistan.
Not only does Baltistan host some of the most epic landscapes in the world, but some very unique and special cultures as well. To experience the best of both, you will need to go off the beaten path a bit.
Not including Shigar, which we’ve already covered, there are three important districts bordering Skardu: Ghanche, Kharmang, and Astore. Spread amongst these are some truly epic locations, the best of which we’re going to cover now.
Visit the Palace and Chaqchan Mosque in Khaplu
Khaplu is among the best places to visit near Skardu. It’s green, beautiful, relatively calm, and features some interesting local sites. It’s also the last real piece of civilization you’ll encounter before striking out into the more remote Hushe and Khondus Valleys.
Like Shigar, Khaplu also hosts an old palace that was recently renovated into a museum/hotel. Khaplu Palace is a bit smaller than Shigar’s but is nonetheless still impressive. The Balti architectural style, which you may recognize if you’ve traveled around Tibet at all, is on full display here. The palace’s location is arguably better too as it affords excellent views of the surrounding mountains.
You can stay at Khaplu Palace for sound $200-$250 per night. Rich by Pakistani standards but not that bad by many foreign ones.
Near the palace, you’ll also find the Chaqchan Mosque, one of the oldest in the region. Blending Tibetan, Mughal, and Persian styles, it is a perfect representation of the Balti style, that is, an amalgamation of all the people that have been here before.
The Chaqchan Mosque is still a functioning place of worship though so foreigners may be banned from entry, unfortunately. Women may have a particularly hard time entering as is common with mosques.
Walk amongst the orchards of Barah
Barah is a collection of small villages that is often lumped in geographically with neighboring Khaplu. Whilst Khaplu is absolutely worth visiting and makes for a great place to base yourself in the Ghanche district, Barah should not be overlooked at all. This is a hidden gem and one of the top places to visit in Pakistan that no one knows about.
Barah is an oasis in an otherwise desolate part of Baltistan. Thanks to the enormous amount of water flowing down from the glaciers, there is a ton of irrigated land here. Canals snake through the villages and gardens flourish. In particular, apricot trees grow like weeds here, and line almost every path is lined with them. The locals claim that Barah actually grows the best apricots in the entire country and that there are no fewer than 40 types to be found there.
There is enough to do around Barah to justify staying for a few days. You can hike to the twin waterfalls in the heart of the villages, go on a hike in Barah Broq, or just wander around the fields, which, to me, have almost a Balinese feel to them.
The best thing to do in Barah though is to get in contact with the locals. Although they are not very accustomed to foreigners (this place isn’t visited often) they are still very hospitable.
Having a local guide would open a lot of doors. I suggest reaching out to my friend Zahid Ali (WA: +92 355 5646056) who’s very well connected in the community. He will arrange tea parties, tours, Balti food tastings, anything that you want.
Climb Moses Peak
Despite its gargantuan size, K2 is not an easy mountain to spot. Few people even knew existed until the British started to thoroughly survey the area in the late 19th-century.
The typical method of seeing K2 is by undergoing a long, arduous trek up the Baltoro Glacier. Those who don’t want to spend several weeks on the glacier are left with only a handful of options to see the mountain.
Machlu La, Burji La, and Humbrok are well-known viewpoints to catch a glimpse of K2. Whilst any view of the savage mountain is worthwhile, there is one vista that absolutely CRUSHES the rest: Moses Peak.
Standing 5300 meters high and located at the top of the Barah Valley, Moses Peak is incredible. It offers a 360-degree view and allows one to see all the surrounding ranges at once, including the Karakoram, Himalaya, and the Hindu Kush. On a clear day, you can see from Nanga Parbat all the way to Siachen. Directly north, in the distance, is K2.
The hike to Moses Peak is not difficult by certain standards. Yes, it takes multiple days to reach and requires a steep 600-meter scramble up a boulder field, but that’s not so bad. It’s quicker than walking all the way to base camp and requires a lot less planning.
If you’d like to attempt Moses Peak, the official name of the trail leading up to it is Barah Broq. Here is a KLM file detailing the route (try uploading it to Google Earth).
Eat fresh fish in Saling
Fish farming is quite common in the Skardu region and just about every town has its own. The farms around Saling are particularly good, so if you’ve made it all the way that far, you should consider dropping by.
All the fish is a type of river trout, which means it has a rich flavor and tastes beautiful when grilled. When seasoned with Pakistani masala, it’s divine.
While at the fish farm, ask if the staff has fishing rods available to use. They’ll let you catch the fish first and then prepare them for you afterward. All-in-all, a very chill thing to do near Skardu.
Traverse the Plains of Deosai
Shadow of the Giants is the local translation for the Deosai Plains. Visit here and you will quickly see why.
Deosai Natural Park is an immense alpine plateau, second only to the Tibetan Plateau in terms of square mileage. Unlike the Karakoram, which is defined by ultra-prominent mountains and narrow valleys, Deosai is wide-open. It’s just vast grasslands below and endless sky above. Only a ring of mountains around the plains links the two.
There are two ways to visit Deosai: either as a multi-day roundtrip from Skardu or as a stopover when traveling between Skardu and Astore. Personally, I prefer the second choice as it makes for a great introduction to Baltistan. Crossing the plains, leaving the Himalayas behind, and descending down into the Indus Valley and the Karakoram is an awesome experience.
Just make sure you have the right kind of transport organized and the proper equipment before heading to Deosai. In fact, there’s quite a bit that you should prepare beforehand – get the lowdown on everything by reading my Ultimate Guide to Visiting Deosai.
Admire the Haldi Cones
Hunza’s Passu Cones usually get all the attention on social media. Pakistani news outlet Dawn called it the most photographed peak in the region.
But did you know that Ghanche has its own set of cones?
Across the valley from Khpalu on the other side of the Hushe River, the Haldi Cones loom in the distance. From the Saling Bridge – the point where you cross from Khaplu to Hushe – you have an almost perfect view of them.
Anyone who has already been to Hunza can attest that these cones bear a striking resemblance to the ones near Passu: they are just as crooked, crumbly, and sinister looking.
You get a closer view of the Haldi Cones as you drive over the bridge and head towards Machlu. But the vista from the bridge should be enough. In fact, there are some ponds nearby that make for great photographic set pieces. On a calm day, you can capture the cones reflected in the still water.
Go on a Superlative Trek in the Hushe Valley
Thanks to close proximity to the Central Karakoram National Park, the Hushe Valley features some of the best treks in all of Baltistan. Between its beginning, at the Saling Bridge, and its end, at the eponymously named village of Hushe, you will find many trails.
Here are some notable ones worth doing:
- Humbrok – 2 days/1 night. A very quick overnight trek to a decent viewpoint. From the top, you can see K2 but only the tip.
- Machlu La – 3 days/2 nights. An alpine meadow that only takes a day or two to reach. Crucially, this hike features damn good views of K2. The hike starts in the village of Machlu about 30-45 minutes drive from Saling Bridge.
- Thale La – 4 days/3 nights. A traverse that connects the Hushe Valley with Shigar. Up close and personal views of the Karakoram mountains but no K2.
- Nangma Valley – 4 days/3 nights. A granite playground, which is often compared to Yosemite in terms of climbing opportunities. Aminn Braak is the most recognizable peak in the area. You also have a chance to visit the backside of K6 and its base camp.
- Masherbrum Base Camp* – 4 days/3 nights. A long but straightforward approach to the base of 7,800-meter Masherbrum. Starts in the village of Hushe and features some serious glacier trekking. Bring a guide.
- Charakusa Valley* – 6 days/5nights. A legend among the climbing community and a gorgeous place to spend a few days. The Charakusa Valley features every type of climb imaginable, not to mention several virgin peaks. Base camp is also quite nice. Check ahead about the status of the trail – this valley is very prone to rockslides. Starts at Hushe.
*These trails fall within the Karakoram’s “restricted zone”, which means they require permits to visit. The best way to get these is by reaching out to a local operator in Skardu. Ishaq Hushevi (WA: +92 333 5915957) is a reliable choice.
Cool Off at Manthokha Waterfall
Monthokha Waterfall is a popular place to visit near Skardu and is quite a developed tourist attraction by now. Many people go out of their way to visit this waterfall because, hey, who doesn’t like to chase them?
The waterfall itself is quite tall, tumbling 180 feet over a cliff. Surrounding the falls is quintessential Balti landscape i.e. rugged mountains, poplar trees, etc. There are meadows below the falls that make for a good place to have a picnic though you’ll probably be sharing these with other Pakistani tourists (selfie anyone?).
To be fair, Manthokha Waterfall could probably be done as a day trip from Skardu, but it’s still far enough away (3+ hours) to consider staying the night. There are several local hotels (more like guesthouses) along the way plus one across from the falls itself.
Where to Stay in Skardu
Some people prefer to stay in the center of Skardu close to the bazaar and the main restaurants. If you need to be close to the shops, then this is for sure the best part of town to stay in.
That being said, I find this part of town too dusty and chaotic. Rather than staying in the middle of that dustbowl, I’d recommend staying somewhere a little bit outside. Travel just 5-10 minutes away from the bazaar and things suddenly become much quieter.
Below are a few suggestions for hotels and guesthouses. If you’d like to hear more ideas, then be sure to read this larger post on where to stay in Skardu.
- The Garden Villa Resort – A new hotel opened by my good friend Ishaq Hushevi. A very peaceful spot tucked away from the main bazaar. The only thing you can hear at night is the running water and wind blowing the trees. Great rooms too.
- Eat and Read Hotel – This is the best bang for your buck option in town. You can find cheaper options, but if you actually want to enjoy your stay, Eat and Read is a solid choice.
- Serena Shigar Fort – The Serena brand in Pakistan speaks for itself; they are all very nice places to stay! Indulge yourself at this opulent mountain property.
How to Get to Skardu
Skardu is reached either by road or by air.
Flying is without a doubt the MOST convenient way of arriving in Skardu. Thanks to increased tourism development in recent years, there are now several flights a day to Skardu from various Pakistani cities, including Islamabad (45 minutes), Lahore (1 hour), Multan (90 minutes), and Karachi (2 hours). The average ticket price is around $100-$150 one way.
The only problem is that a lot of these flights are canceled due to poor weather conditions. I’d say about 60% of them actually take off. If your flight is canceled it is possible to change your route at the airport or the departure date. Often, the airline will send an extra flight the next day to accommodate the delay but this is not always guaranteed.
If for whatever reason, flying is not an option, you will need to drive to Skardu. There are two routes:
- Via the Gilgit-Skardu road: This is road has been undergoing renovations for the last several years and is meant to be completely paved very soon. Who knows when that might be in fact. It splits off from the KKH just before Gilgit and takes 4-5 hours to drive on a good day. With traffic and landslides though, the journey could be closer 6-8 hours.
- Via Deosai and Astore: This route requires a 4×4 vehicle to finish as the road between Chalham and Sadpara is in terrible shape. It is possible to do this entire stretch via public transport – entailing several changes – but you’re better off going private, either in the form of a tour or rental car. From Astore, it takes about 6-8 hours to cross the entire plains. As mentioned before, Deosai is epic and definitely worth visiting as well.