Playground Outdoors

Manali to Leh XC Cycle Tour

Truly the epitome of cycling expeditions - this 560km, trans-Himalayan journey over six high-altitude mountain passes from Manali to Leh takes guts and endurance, but gives you an unforgettable story worth telling for the rest of your life. Between the thriving, green forests of Himachal Pradesh and alien-like landscape of Ladakh’s high-altitude desert, the route crosses the incredibly vast More Plains, famed Gata Loops curving into the side of mountain 21 times, massive saline lakes historically used for the salt trade with Tibet, secluded villages, crumbling Buddhist shrines, cliffside monasteries and the six prayer flag-adorned mountain passes of Rohtang, Baralacha La, Nakee La, Lachung La, Tanglang La and finally the 17,600 foot Khardung La.

Difficulty

Gradient Average 4.7% Maximum 25.5%

Route at altitudes between 1800 m / 5900 ft and 5390 m / 17680 ft. Six high-altitude pass climbs. Long days between 5 and 8 hours. Entire route in remote and inaccesible mountain region.

Duration

13 days

Delhi to Delhi
3 days travel & rest
10 days cycling & camping

Distance

520 km / 325 mi

Maximum Altitude

5390 m / 17680 ft

Price

₹215,000 $3000

Itinerary


Fly and/or drive from Delhi to Manali. Mode of transport is subject to weather conditions and availability of flights.

You’ve had a long night’s journey to Manali, so use today to rest up and prepare for your adventure ahead. Your home for the night will be our Playground headquarters, Playground Adventure Hostel - Manali, where we will meet for the first time as a team, and receive a briefing on what the upcoming journey has in store for us! For the day, take a trip into town or enjoy the hostel culture we have right here among fellow travelers. We often host cozy movie marathons, cake & coffee tastings from our cafe on the terrace, bonfires out back, game nights (we challenge you to a game of Exploding Kittens), tetherball tournaments, local Himachali cooking/handicraft classes - you name it. Tomorrow, your adventure begins.

Our first day gives us a taste of the stamina needed throughout this route as we begin to ascend the winding roads of the Manali-Leh Highway up and out of town towards Rohtang Pass. The first few hours will bring us through several villages, until we enter a dense forest. We will eat lunch under the shade of pine and deodar trees before passing the checkpoint at Gulaba. After this point, the treeline drops below us, and the switchbacks we now climb reveal more and more of the open valley view and the surrounding mountains. Finally, we seem to turn right into a gap between the mountains, meeting up with the river, and after crossing a bridge make a final short climb up to the campsite of Marhi. Weather permitting, the bare surroundings will give us a panoramic view of the route we took earlier today. A small temple sits next door, and locals set up seasonal tent restaurants here for us to grab a hot snack before sundown.

Time to cross our first pass today! The zigzagging road can be seen from our Marhi campsite, and we begin the 18km climb, which eventually flattened out from switchbacks into a more gradual traverse across the snowy top of the pass. As we reach the top, the full extent of the Pir Panjal mountain range sprawling across the region of Lahaul now comes into view, with the pass marker and prayer flags in the foreground. After some celebration, our real reward is coasting down the other side of the pass, wind blasting in our faces as we descend switchbacks toward the valley floor. After passing the checkpoint at Koksar, it’s a pleasant, almost level ride along the riverbank until we reach Sissu campsite, set in a riverside forest in front of a raging waterfall.

After a mild ascent through the agricultural outskirts of Sissu village up to Gondla, we take the winding descent down the looping road to cross the bridge at Tandi - the starting point of the Chandra-Bhaga River. A little dhaba (roadside eatery) stands by the banks, selling bananas, prayer flags and whatever else you may be looking for. From here, we begin cycling back up the valley between the thinning forest until reaching the ornately decorated red gate of Keylong - the administrative headquarters of this region. Time permitting, there are beautiful Buddhist prayer wheels in the village below, considered to be auspicious if you spin them clockwise, and a dhaba serving the delicious traditional Tibetan cuisine of Thukpa and momos. The road to Jispa winds on a little further up, the valley dropping sharply to the right of us, until a final coast down into our riverside Jispa camp.

Today we leave vegetation and the treeline behind for the rest of the trip as we climb into arid, higher altitudes. We pass Darcha, the northernmost village of Himachal Pradesh perched beside the Bhaga River, and continue the ascent around the rocky curves until reaching Zing Zing Bar, our launching point for crossing Baralacha La tomorrow morning.

Crossing our highest point so far today, we have a hearty breakfast before setting off and up to cross Baralacha La, a 16,000 foot pass rising 18 kilometers via switchbacks above us. The climb is steep and arduous, sometimes requiring us to dismount and cross rocky streams that flow across the road’s surface. A few kilometers from the top rests Deepak Tal and then again Suraj Tal, a glacial-fed lake translating to “Lake of the Sun God.” On sunny days, it shines a brilliant blue-green color. Three kilometers further, and we reach the pass, marked by colorful prayer flags and a Border Roads Organization roadsign, and begin the quick descent to the small seasonally-tented teahouse settlement of Bharatpur. After hot chai and some lunch here, we continue on the wide, sandy plains toward Sarchu, the border between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, for our night’s stay.

Riding gently up the valley along the sandy river gorge, it becomes clear that we have left the terrain of Himachal behind for something very different. We are now in the high-altitude desert of Ladakh, cycling past strangely-shaped rocky pillars jutting out of the earth, massive arid mountains in every direction and reddish-orange sand carpeting the wide valley floor. From here, we begin one of the most famous sections of the journey from Manali to Leh - the 21 Gata loops that switch back and forth up the mountain, with the view from the top looking like a snake’s slither. A few kilometers further, and we arrive at Nakee La, with a view of the mountain range extending in all directions. From here, we have a fun little descent to Whiskey Nala (River) for tonight’s camp.

Today brings with it some of the wildest scenery we’ve experienced thus far on the route, rising again 7km to cross Lachung La, Nakee La’s twin, and descending the bizarre rocky gorges, carved over centuries by the river, until reaching Pang, a military post. From here, a half-hour’s ascent along switchbacks takes us to yet another wonder of Ladakh - the More Plains. Appearing to extend endlessly in every direction, this 40 kilometer-long plateau at 15,750ft is extraordinarily flat considering the constant mountainous contours our journey has led us on so far. In the distance, enormous mountains rising out of these plains flank our path on both sides - riding on this open road in complete isolation is an unforgettable sight. Eventually, the Plains come to an end, and amidst strange standalone mountains that seem to just pop out of the sand - we take a detour to the right, passing under prayer flags to reach the shores of Tso Kar lake. Here, old Buddhist shrines jut out of the Mars-like landscape surrounding the 8km-long salt lake that was historically used as a salt trading route between India and Tibet.

We will reach the second-highest altitude of our entire journey today as we make the long climb up to the 17,480ft Tanglang La Pass. Almost always in view, the magnitude of the surrounding mountains play tricks with your eyes and make you think you’ve almost reached the top, before plunging back into the mountainside. At the top, we’ll celebrate our achievement with chai and lunch - taking everything in. Billowing with prayer flags, an old temple rests atop this sky-high viewpoint of the valley far below on either side and immense, snowcapped mountain ranges. From here, we coast for kilometer after kilometer down the switchbacks that wind their way between snow tunnels until reaching the valley floor once again - and for the first time in days, we see trees again! Hugging closely along the fertile riverbanks, we coast into the small, captivating village of Lato - named after the Buddhist shrines that flank the roadsides and dot the crop fields. A monastery rests on the cliff high above the river, with mantras written in Tibetan carved into the rocks. This will be our last night staying in tents before we enter the city of Leh tomorrow.

A semi-sweet goodbye to the remote wilderness of Ladakh, we follow the river past more Buddhist stupas, increasing signs of civilization, and the purple-green tinted mountains that seem to grow taller by the second. Road conditions improving the closer we get to Leh, we pass the famous 15th Century Thiksey Monastery, towering on a mountain above the neon-green grass of the settlements below. From here, we make our final 20km push into the historic city of Leh and rest early for our final push tomorrow.

Rising bright and early, rejuvenated from our hotel stay, we push off for the rugged 40km climb to the top of one of the world’s tallest motorable mountain passes - Khardung La. Rising above the valley floor, we reach the grand finale of our journey - rewarded with a spectacular view of Ladakh’s finest peaks, a direct line of sight to the Zanskar Range and a snowy celebration for completing one of India’s (and the world’s) most challenging and remarkable cycling routes. We return to Leh via a well-earned jeep ride for a night of storytelling, good food and celebration.

Fly out of Leh for Delhi or elsewhere.

Playground Perks


Handcrafted & Curated

We don’t copy our itineraries off the internet. We scout and design all trip offerings personally. This ensures enough time to acclimatise at high altitude, explore around the campsite, and indulge in authentic local experiences so you don’t miss out on anything.

Everything Included

Honestly, everything. Internal flights, best-in-class travel insurance, personal camping equipment, and all meals - we’ll take care of everything that most travel operators will mark with an asterisk. You pay for nothing except personal purchases from the day your trip starts.

Equipment & Safety

4 season Mountain Hardwear tents and sleeping bags, emergency oxygen reserves & PACs to provide a safety net against AMS, UIAA Safety Label glacier rescue kits for technical trails, WAFA/WFR & CPR certified guides, best-in-class adventure insurance - we’ve always got a plan B.

Personalised & Bespoke

We curate bespoke adventures and trips every day because we recognise that everyone’s travel bug is unique. When it comes to adventure travel, there are different ways to experience the world’s most beautiful places, because every traveler is different - which is why we’ve stepped in to provide a space for environmental advocacy, cross-cultural connections, wellness and adventure to combine - all through travel.

Responsible Travel

Responsible travel starts with acknowledging that travel and tourism often contribute to the global climate crisis. We believe in the positive power of travel to transform mindsets & generate a sense of preservation towards wild spaces. We follow LNT Principles, minimise our carbon footprint, adopt regenerative practices & give back to local communities - from making sure our field staff are well equipped to higher-than-industry-standard compensation.

Self Guided & Operated

We’ll never hand you off to someone else - we run all trips ourselves. We minimise external contracting and only partner with people we know and trust personally. While we employ and collaborate with local guides and support staff for their unparalleled expertise and knowledge of the Himalayan ranges, our trips are led by one of our core team members so you always have a single point of contact.