Trans Bhutan Trail

You’ll be among the first tourists to tread this once vital (and still spectacularly beautiful) trade, pilgrimage and communication route.
When the Trans Bhutan Trail reopened in March 2022, it was the first time anyone had hiked this epic 403km cross-country route in 60 years.

Considered one of the world’s greatest long-distance paths, there are plenty of stories to be found on the trail – it rolls through the capital city Thimphu, valley villages, mountain temples and tiger forests, after all. But this most recent chapter in the trail’s history is one of the most exciting.

The Trans Bhutan Trail is a newly restored footpath linking Haa in the west of Bhutan with Trashigang in the east. But it’s also a social enterprise that works with local people to recover and restore the way. Our vacations here range from epic end-to-end treks to eastern cultural explorations.

Stephen Couchman is a programme director of the rebuilding of the Trans Bhutan Trail. Helping with the first survey of the trail in 2020 remains one of his lasting memories.

“I was part of one of two teams that traversed Bhutan from opposite ends of the country,” Stephen recalls. “We spent 14 days hacking our way through the old route. It was hard going, with long days often finishing well after dark.

“On the afternoon of the final day, both teams arrived in the courtyard of the Trongsa Dzong – a massive fortress strategically perched on a ridge commanding major routes... It has great historic significance in Bhutan’s history. The steps leading to the east and west gates are worn smooth by centuries of travelers – monks, armies, messengers and traders – who passed through the massive doors. It was humbling to be part of such a historic ceremony as the first trekkers to meet at this point in over 60 years.”

A brief history of the Trans Bhutan Trail

Records for the Trans Bhutan Trail date back to the 16th century, but it is in fact much older. And it’s not just one trail. Like other legendary paths, it’s actually a network of trails that connect the entire country from east to west. It was used for trade and pilgrimage, but above all it was a means of communication.

Garps would run this trail taking information: educational information, royal information, religious information,” says Mark Renshaw, sales manager at Trans Bhutan Trail. “They would travel from fortress to fortress, helping the country function by running these messages across Bhutan. They were basically the forerunners of ultra-marathon runners.”

When the national highways started springing up in the 1960s, people swapped carts for cars and the trail fell into disuse. At points, it disappeared completely. Fifty years later, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck began toying with the idea of resurrecting the trail as part of a “national unity” and sustainable tourism project.

And so the Trans Bhutan Trail social enterprise was born to help get it up and running again. It was no mean feat, involving clearing paths, creating 12,000 steps, restoring bridges, sprucing up signs and recording cultural sites along the 400km-plus route.

“The restoration is happening at a critical moment in the history of Bhutan, when the time before the national highway is still in living memory,” says Stephen. “Most people have parents or grandparents who have stories of traveling the trail and who still have knowledge of spirits, legendary events and songs along the path.”

He also believes that this is a great chance to open up the countryside for younger generations.

“After completing the trail near Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, we took a group of about 30 high school students on a 15km day hike from the city to Dochula Pass,” says Stephen. “It has a stunning view of the Eastern Himalaya range. Being city kids, most had never hiked before. They laughed and sang for most of the trek. It felt like it brought life to the newly refurbished trail.”

Hiking the cities, mountain valleys & wilderness of Bhutan

You’ll meet little communities, you’ll meet larger communities – and you’ll see utter wilderness.
Trongsa Dzong – the largest fortress in Bhutan – is one of more than 200 sacred and historic sites along the Trans Bhutan Trail. They’re spread over an amazing array of backdrops too: jungle, forest, mountains, valley meadows, cities and villages. The highest point of the trail is just under 4,000m, but you’ll pass between mountains approaching twice that height.

“Every valley in Bhutan is slightly different, which I think makes it one of the most incredible countries,” says Mark. “Rice cultivation in one; growing oranges and lemons in the next.”

The ecological zones along the trail range from alpine tundra to subtropical forest – from which spring up to 200 species of mammals, including the one-horned rhino, red pandas and Bhutan’s national animal: the delightfully shaggy-haired, goat-like takin.

At times, rediscovering the trail was like finding buried treasure. Sixty years of disuse was more than enough time for some of the forests to gobble it back up.

“The trail had just gone in Phrumsengla National Park,” says Mark. “Nobody knew about it.”

But it’s not all wilderness trekking. The Trans Bhutan Trail also goes through the towns of Paro and Punakha, and the capital city Thimphu.

“It’s very much a connection trail,” says Mark. “You’re not just going through wilderness and national parks – you are going through the central hubs in Bhutan.”

Trans Bhutan Trail map

So what is the Trans Bhutan Trail? In its simplest form: a 403km footpath stretching right across Bhutan, from Haa in the west to Trashigang in the east. Vitally, the Trans Bhutan Trail heads east of the Bumthang district – a swathe of Bhutan that is virtually unvisited by tourists.

The Trans Bhutan Trail is split into 28 sections, so the fleet of foot can walk it in one fell swoop on a month-long end-to-end trek. Most likely, though, you’ll tackle a few sections that match your interests – perhaps trekking East Bhutan, exploring Bhutan’s spiritual side or heading out on a women-only tour of Bhutan that supports female-owned businesses and guides. Mountain biking is practically the national sport in Bhutan, so there’s also the option of swapping boots for bike.
It’s not just about wilderness; it’s about finding cultural touchpoints wherever you can.

How difficult is the Trans Bhutan Trail?

The Trans Bhutan Trail goes through just about every landscape that exists in Bhutan, so it can be as difficult or as easy as you want it to be. That’s all down to its roots as a communication link between towns. There are isolated sections where you can trek for several days, but there are also plenty of access points from towns that allow for an aimless afternoon ramble.

“It’s not just about wilderness,” says Mark. “It’s about finding cultural touchpoints wherever you can.”

That means that, particularly in the more populated west, you can hop off the trail up to five times a day to try other activities – including simply kicking back with a glass of peach wine and a Himalayan panorama. There are small group tours with fixed dates and itineraries, as well as tailor made trips that can be tweaked to your energy levels and interests.

Plus, this is no Nepal. Although you might be looking up at 8,000m goliaths, the highest point of the Trans Bhutan Trail is just under 4,000m – and you’ll get plenty of time to take it slow and acclimatise.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Bhutan or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Wildlife on the Trans Bhutan Trail

“I wish I could say that I have seen a red panda, Bengal tiger, golden mahseer or a white-bellied heron on the Trans Bhutan Trail,” says Stephen. “I haven’t – but I know they are there. I have had the pleasure of walking through a forest canopy of 42 varieties of rhododendron flowers, listening to the unfamiliar songs of birds and watching monkeys swing through the trees ahead of me.”

When trekking the Trans Bhutan Trail, you’ll be hiking through one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, with the National Biodiversity Centre recording over 560 new species of flora and fauna since 2009. It’s even in the country’s constitution that over 60 percent of the country must be always covered in forest.

Your vacation will help that green ambition – the Trans Bhutan Trail and Forestry Commission will plant a tree for every person who uses the trail, helping to recover woodland lost to logging and boost Bhutan’s mission to be the only carbon negative country in the world.

“We think a lot of countries should look at Bhutan as a blueprint for environmental responsibility,” says Mark. “It’s not just greenwashing; they actually do it.”

What are Trans Bhutan Trail vacations like?

Bhutanese guides who know the trail

Bhutan treads very, very carefully when it comes to tourism, with strict visa numbers and daily tourist fees making sure that numbers don’t change communities and landscapes for the worse. That extends to guides – all tourists must travel with a Bhutanese guide and driver.

Our Trans Bhutan Trail vacations go one step further. You’ll travel with one guide who’ll stay with you the whole trip – but you’ll also be joined by guides from the region you trek through.

“They know how to get the best out of the trail you’re walking on, they know where the toilets are, they’ll invite you into their aunt’s house for a cup of yak butter tea,” says Mark. “It’s really, really important that we employ people from the communities that the trail goes through – and that you don’t feel like you’re just on another circuit.”

Another perk of using local guides: they help navigate the different languages and dialects in Bhutan. Dzongkha, the national language, is only spoken by about 30 percent of the population – and even then, its dialects can change from valley to valley.

“There are about 20 different languages in Bhutan,” says Mark. “We found that when the main guide got east while clearing the trail, they didn’t actually speak the local language.”

Accommodation on the Trans Bhutan Trail

There’s a huge range of accommodation on the Trans Bhutan Trail, from basic lodges to Six Senses-style luxury. Most vacations include a blend of boutique hotels, homestays and three-star “government hotels” with lots of character – and perhaps a luxury city hotel as the grand finale. (Jacuzzi bath for weary legs, anyone?)

Camping on the Trans Bhutan Trail also ranges from budget to luxury. “Signature camping” is a happy median – campsites lay out soothing hot stone baths, showers with hot water and tents with beds.

Food-wise, we recommend trying everything you can along the way – dried yak, cardamom-laden curries, cheesy veg-loaded dishes like kewa datshi and momo dumplings, all washed down with tea, red wine, a Dragon stout or ara rice wine. Most dietary needs are covered.

Activities along the Trans Bhutan Trail

Archery, hot stone baths, stargazing, temple tours, textile workshops… there’s loads to do if you fancy a break from the trail. But perhaps the most memorable thing you’ll do along the way is simply meet people.

Take our women only vacation in Bhutan – it gives you the chance to dine with retired Lt. Colonel Kesang Choedon, one of the first female police officers in Bhutan and a well-known restauranteur. Then there’s Aum Karma Yangchen, a farmer and award-winning designer who’ll get you stuck into the traditional methods for textile dying using organic dyes created on her 21-acre farm.

When to go on the Trans Bhutan Trail

The Trans Bhutan Trail is open all year long, with the first organised treks for international visitors launching in September 2022. Most people arrive in Bhutan in spring (March-May, when the rhododendrons are in full bloom) and September-November (for the clearer, less rainy skies of autumn). That said, the climate is as changeable as the terrain, varying between valleys and altitudes, so any month can be a good month to be on the Trans Bhutan Trail. It all depends on which section of the trail you’d like to explore.

The future of the Trans Bhutan Trail

The Trans Bhutan Trail is a not-for-profit organisation, with money made through tourism going back into the footpath and communities along the way.

“We really want it to be a massive success over time,” says Mark, “to give back to all the communities who do so much for tourism in Bhutan, and increase sustainable tourism in the east.”

“I’m excited about the Gyalsung national youth service, which will be launched in 2024,” adds Stephen. “As part of the programme, young people will walk the Trans Bhutan Trail and take on service projects across the country. My big wish for the future of the trail is that it is embraced and enjoyed by Bhutanese youth as a connection to their ancestors, and an opportunity to learn about and appreciate their country, including its extraordinary biodiversity.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Raimond Klavins] [Intro: Christopher Michel ] [Hiking: Trans Bhutan Trail] [What's it like?: Prateek Katyal]