The Laya-Gasa Trek traverses the second largest national park in Bhutan, covering a distance of about 200 km or 124 miles.
The first five days of this trek follows the same route as the Jomolhari Trek and offers breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks like Mt. Jomolhari, Jichu Drake, and Tsherimgang. On the sixth day the path splits toward Lingshi via a campsite at Chebisa, a charming village adorned with a beautiful waterfall of crystal clear water.
If you’re lucky you’ll spot some interesting wildlife along the way, including blue sheep and the national animal of Bhutan, Takin. Hiking through this remote mountain region—passing villages inhabited by Layaps, one of the most ethnic of Bhutanese tribes with their own traditional habits, culture and style of dress—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Aside from that, it offers the trail-weary hiker a wonderful reward at its end: a well-deserved soak in the relaxing (and famous) natural hot springs of Gasa.
The terrain is challenging, to say the least; in fact it's among the more difficult treks in Bhutan due to the high altitudes and steep ascents and sharp descents along the route. The best months to take up this challenge are April to June and mid-September to mid-November. For those who persevere, the picturesque views of snow-covered peaks; the clear, star-lit night skies; and the opportunity to commune with nature are ample rewards.
Ten years ago the trek began from Drugyel Dzong in Paro but now a farm road from Drukgyel cuts off the first day of trekking. Today you can drive to what used to be the first night’s campsite near the army outpost of Shana. Ten minutes after leaving the army checkpoint, where trekkers are required to present their permits, you reach a Bailey bridge at Shana where everyone begins their trek. FYI: This is where you hand your bags over to expedition staff. Don’t be alarmed by the large number of camp staff and crew who will join you at this point; in fact, an embarrassingly large number of people and pack animals are required to ensure your safety, comfort, and happiness in the rugged Himalayan outdoors!
The main body of the route for the first couple of days follows the Paro River upstream through forests of cypress, spruce and hemlock. Expect muddy conditions and rough, rocky, trails. When you arrive at camp you will catch a glimpse of the signature snow-cone of Bhutan’s second highest peak, Mt. Jomolhari (7,314m or 24,023 feet) behind the surrounding slopes and ridges.
Campsites can get pretty crowded in the trekking high season so it’s always a good idea to start early and arrive early so you can pick a favorable spot to camp. The Jomolhari basecamp is a beautiful place to rest with the “Mother Goddess Mountain of the World” as your backdrop and the remains of an ancient ruined fortress in the foreground. Most trekkers stop here for a minimum day’s rest before moving on. With good reason too. Without proper acclimation, hikers die each year in the Bhutanese mountains due to altitude-related causes. You can use the “halt day” to relax or complete a ridge hike in the surrounding mountains, or go exploring for scenic photo-ops at the nearby twin lakes area that locals call Tshophu. Keep an eye out for blue sheep on the nearby slopes today, as well as for marmots staring out from their holes with their hands folded in the gesture of prayer (leading locals to coin the term Gomchen Bjeu which means ‘Hermit Cats’.) The lakes at Tshophu are fabled for their Golden Trout.
After leaving basecamp at Jomolhari, Nyile La Pass, at 4,750m (15,583ft), is one of the most challenging climbs. It’s usually very windy at the high passes so be sure to bring layers and a windproof jacket everyday for the remaining portion of the trek. Eventually, a winding downhill brings you to the impressive Lingshi Dzong fortress. This area is noted for its wild medicinal plants, and there’s an important collection area here that supplies the traditional pharmacists in the capital and other parts of the country.
From Lingshi, hike in similar fashion, climbing high during the day and dropping low during the afternoons, for the next five days along the route. There are more passes to cross, with the highest being Sinchula Pass at 4,900m or 16,076ft. Beyond that, you finally arrive in Laya, one of the most beautiful villages in Bhutan with clustered homes surrounded by carved fields on a sharply terraced slope. It’s like finding a hidden Shangri-la within a hidden land. The Layaps, as the local people are called, have a culture and a language all their own. It’s a good idea to stop here as well, if only to explore this intriguing village and meet its colorful residents. If you’re visiting at the end of October, you may be in time for the Highland Festival, which brings in visitors from Bhutan as well as foreign travelers. The festival includes dances from the nearby villages, a contest of yaks, and an annual foot race organized by the government to promote tourism in the region. The final descent down to Gasa is easy and, truth be told, the prospect of a soak in the hot springs at the end of the trail can speed your progress. From there, it’s a three-hour drive down to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan, from where you can explore other parts of the country or continue on to Paro for your return flight home.