10 Amazing Indian Safaris
Hemis National Park
Best for: Snow leopards, Tibetan argali sheep, Ibex, Urial (a wild mountain goat), Blue sheep, chukhar, snow cocks, golden eagles
Logistics: In order to popularize the plight of the snow leopard and show travelers what’s at stake, researchers from the U.S.-based Snow Leopard Conservancy have teamed up with tour operators to organize winter treks through in park. It’s located in Ladakh, a trans-Himalayan region within the state of Jammu-Kashmir in northwestern India; the nearest airport is 30 mountainous miles away in the city of Leh. The Conservancy’s award-winning research program (recognized by T+L in 2005) relies on home stays and encourages cultural immersion. As many as 100 mysterious, endangered snow leopards call this park home, and the greatest chances to see them are in February, when they descend to lower elevations. The reward for enduring freezing temps at altitudes of up to 13,000 feet on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau is a glimpse of one of India’s most mystical beasts.
Accommodations: KarmaQuest Ecotourism and Adventure Travel offers specialized camping and home stay programs in Ladakh. These 16-day snow-leopard journeys include round-trip flights from Delhi to Leh; worthy local villages receive a portion of your fee, which they invest in conservation activities and better education for their children (from $4,450 per person, including a $1,000 tax-deductible donation to support the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s work; www.karmaquests.com and www.snowleopardconservancy.org).
Tip: If cold-weather camping isn’t your style, try a summer ramble through Hemis Park—named for a 15th-century Buddhist monastery within its
Sasan-Gir Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for: Asiatic Lions, leopards, hyenas, pythons, jackals
Logistics: Located on Western India’s Gujarat Peninsula, across the Bay of Cambay from Mumbai on the Arabian Sea, this park’s rugged scrubland and forests are most effectively explored on a Jeep safari. India’s lions don’t sport massive manes like those in Africa, but they’re just as imposing (and this is the only place in the world where you can see Asiatic lions). Occasionally, these consummate hunters wander beyond the sanctuary to prey on livestock. Peak wildlife viewing is from December to April; the park closes mid-June through monsoon season in mid-September.
Accommodations: Sasan Gir hasn’t felt the commercial pressure of more popular national parks: It has fewer resorts and is less crowded (even during high season), resulting in a relaxing experience. The peaceful Taj Hotel Gir Lodge (which was temporarily closed at press time) has 29 spacious, river-view rooms with private baths, TVs, and refrigerators, plus its own safari guides and drivers (doubles from $80; www.tajhotels.com).
Tip: Marvel at dozens of dinosaur-like crocodiles awaiting release into the wild at the crocodile-breeding center next door to the park permit office.
Ranthambore National Park
Best for: Tigers, spotted deer, wild boar, jackals, painted storks (300 bird species overall), plus impressive ruins, forts, and temples
Logistics: A former royal hunting preserve, Ranthambore lies 111 miles south of Jaipur and 285 miles southwest of New Delhi. Access to the park is strictly limited to just 15 government-operated safari Jeeps per day, and you must make reservations two months in advance directly through the park (which can be a hassle). But if you do show up without a booking, most local concierges can find an available Jeep without much lead time. Tiger Tours, an outfitter in the nearby town of Sawai Madhopur, is another alternative if you must gain last-minute park entrance (07462-222251; www.tigertoursindia.net). May is when to see cats; the park closes from June to October.
Accommodations: The Oberoi Vanyavilas sets the standard for opulence, with teak-floored tents, four-poster beds, and on-site Ayurvedic treatments. Contact the Oberoi in advance to arrange park tours; the hotel has its own fleet of safari vehicles (doubles from $850; www.oberoivanyavilas.com).
Tip: Hold out for a government-run six-seat Jeep rather than a 20-seat canter. These noisy, open-air, bus-like vehicles leave twice a day from the state’s Vinayak Tourist Complex on the road to Castle Jhoomar Baori; seats are first-come, first-serve and cost $8-$47. Jeeps pick up the guests directly from The Oberoi Vanyavilas, while canters leaves twice a day from the Vinayak Tourist Complex.
Kaziranga National Park
Best for: One-horned rhinoceros, tigers, (wild) elephants, wild buffalo, monitor lizards, and water birds like the bar-headed goose, grey-headed lapwing, and spot-billed pelican
Logistics: The grass literally grows as high as an elephant’s eye at this 106,000-acre park in Assam—the most easily accessible state in India’s far northeast. A five-hour drive from the state capital of Guwahati in east India (670 miles from Calcutta), the park lies northeast of the narrow neck of land between Nepal and Bangladesh along the shores of the Brahmaputra River. A bird census of nearly 500 species makes Kaziranga a must for ornithologists, while February boasts chances of seeing resident mega-fauna (when the tall grass has died or been selectively burned for winter). A local lodge or travel agent can book a private Jeep tour or elephant ride through various parkland habitats. Arrival of monsoon season in April determines park closures.
Accommodations: Wild Grass Resort is a model eco-lodge with 18 airy rooms (plus tents and a cottage). As tireless wildlife advocates, resort owner Manju Barua and his staff facilitate conservation; plus, Barua employs villagers in order to support the local economy. Order an authentic Assamese meal of banana flowers and a mild red curry with fish (doubles from $75; www.oldassam.com). In most cases you’ll rely on a park-assigned vehicle and driver (in accordance with park rules), but Wild Grass will try to pair you with one of its own preferred guides.
Tip: Wear knee-high socks in case you get out of the jeep within safari buffer zones; terrestrial leeches are common pre- and post-monsoon.
Kanha National Park
Best for: Tigers, swamp deer, mongoose, leopards, wild boar, golden jackals, 300 bird species
Logistics: The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling found inspiration in Kanha, and when you need a tiger fix, this park offers as close to a guarantee as you’ll get. Approximately 125 tigers reside in the park, and guides spend considerable amounts of time scouting their locations. More flights to Madhya Pradesh mean better access to central India; Jabalpur’s airport is 75 miles from the park. Good viewing months are from March to June; the park closes from June to September.
Accommodations: Since 1983, the conservation-minded Wright family has run the Kipling Camp on the park’s outskirts. Many cottages were renovated in 2005, and the property features a library and bar area. Plus, the camp has its own safari guides and jeeps (doubles from $190, including meals and safari; www.kiplingcamp.com).
Tip: On busy weekends and school holidays, ask your driver to enter at the less-crowded Mukki Gate on the park’s far side.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for: Giant Malabar squirrels, (wild) elephants, guar (giant bison), bird life
Logistics: Located in the Western Ghat mountain range, this picturesque, 192,000-acre wildlife sanctuary offers a supremely lush habitat in eastern Kerala on India’s southwest coast. (The nearest airport is in Madurai, 90 miles east in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.) Tiger sightings are uncommon, but there’s plenty to see and do. Birders enjoy the park for its tropical species; boaters can watch elephants gather at the water’s edge; and those on foot have a chance to meet the bashful guar up close. An innovative eco-tourism project funded by the World Bank creates unprecedented recreational opportunities, including guided hikes and boat trips around a central reservoir that allow visitors to observe various animals quenching their thirst. You can even ride in an ox-drawn cart to nearby villages. The park is open year-round, but is almost unbearably crowded from September to December.
Accommodations: Spice Village has 52 villas in total, well-tended gardens, its own wildlife interpretation center, and a poolside restaurant. The facility hosts some naturalist events, but its eco-tourism development staff runs most activities (doubles from $250; www.cghearth.com).
Tip: Hike hut-to-hut South Indian-style with a night at the forest cottage at Kokkara within the preserve. Periyar’s staff will arrange the entire trip, which includes an armed guard in case of unwanted animal encounters.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park
Best for: Storks, cranes, eagles, and hawks, pythons, porcupines, wild boar, nilgai (literally 'blue cow'), India’s largest native antelope
Logistics: If there’s one Indian refuge truly for the birds, it’s this one in southern Rajasthan—31 miles from Agra (home to the Taj Mahal) and a three-hour drive from Delhi. Merely 11 square miles, the car-free park is navigable on foot or bicycle; or hire a cycle-rickshaw at the entrance. (You’ll need to negotiate a price.) Don’t worry about getting uncomfortably close to these creatures; snakes generally nap in the sun and the other animals are shy of humans. In the mid-18th century, the maharajah of Bharatpur established this area as private hunting territory. Since then, avian enthusiasts have identified more than 350 species of birds here. Hunting ceased in the early 1970s; in 1985, the park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the winter months—when the reservoirs where the maharajah used to shoot thousands of ducks are full—staggering numbers of birds arrive from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China, and Siberia. You might spot an open-bill stork, Kentish plover, Eurasian curlew, white-necked ibis, white-tail lapwing, red-collard dove, or endangered Sarus crane (the tallest flying bird). Open year round, the best birding is from September to March.
Accommodations: The nearby 23-room Bagh heritage hotel sits in a centuries-old (200 year old), 12-acre orchard and hosts a vegetarian restaurant, gym, and massage services. Take advantage of the on-staff naturalist, or rent bicycles (doubles from $100; www.thebagh.com).
Tip: Winged creatures are too numerous and guides too cheap not to hire one.
Bandhavgarh National Park
Best for: Tigers, leopards, nilgai, hog deer, wild boar
Logistics: Set amid the plains of Madhya Pradesh in central India (122 miles from the city of Jabalpur), this is a relatively small preserve—with the country’s highest concentration of tigers. It’s also the site of a novel partnership between the Taj Hotel Group and the high-end Conservation Corporation Africa (CC Africa), which aims to wow guests with an unprecedented level of service and amenities (on safari and back at the resort) that few of its current competitors are able to match. Choose between Jeep and elephant rides, and a CC Africa-trained naturalist will point out wildlife and birds in the tropical woodlands. The park is open October to June; April, May, and June are ideal for tiger sightings. Bandhavgarh is a six-hour drive from Kanha National Park—an excellent twofer if you have time.
Accommodations: Make yourself at home within the Taj Group’s new Mahua Kothi—with 12 relatively luxurious suites or kutiyas (comfy huts) that feature wooden shutters, private baths, yoga classes, and bicycles (doubles from $450, meals and safaris included; www.tajsafaris.com).
Tip: Hire a car for a trip to Bandhavgarh Fort—at 2,500 years old, it’s rumored to be India’s oldest. The ramparts (and a huge statue of Vishnu) sit atop a 2,000-foot cliff overlooking the Vidhyan Mountains and provide awesome views. Just prepare for the challenging half-hour hike to the top.
Manas Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for: Tigers, water buffalo, rhinos, (wild) elephants, golden langur (a rare orange-furred monkey), Bengal florican (an endangered two-foot-tall bird)
Logistics: Situated on the border between Bhutan and Assam, India, this refuge is a four-hour drive from the city of Guwahati (and near Kaziranga park). Divided by the Manas River, this 89,000-acre preserve maintains UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is currently recovering from a decade of tribal and political turmoil. Safari options include Jeep tours and elephant rides, plus outboard raft excursions on the water. The park is open from October to April; January to March is peak period for fine weather and wildlife spotting.
Accommodations: The rustic, 16-room Bansbari Lodge is simple, clean, and convenient, and will arrange boat tours on the Manas Rivers. An on-site camp naturalist will help arrange terrestrial and water-based safaris (doubles from $120; www.assambengalnavigation.com).
Tip: Sip refreshment at a local tea garden like Adabarie Tea Estate—a century-old, 22-acre property an hour by car from the lodge and sanctuary; your hotel will provide directions.
Corbett Tiger Reserve
Best for: Tigers, wild elephants (as opposed to the ones you can ride), crocodiles, 600 species of birds
Logistics: India’s first official national park is in the state of Uttarakhand, some 200 miles north of New Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas. Two main entrances (Ramnagar and Bijrani) welcome guests on the west side of the park. The former is the best route to the park’s central reception center, but you’ll find vehicles for hire and guides at all three gates, including Dhangari—the best route to the park’s central reception center.
Most good hotels are located north of Ramnagar, and the majority will work with you to reserve a Jeep or elephant for touring. Drivers and guides stick to a network of roads, while safaris on elephants penetrate the jungle in search of tigers. Mammal sightings are best from March to June, while birds are best seen from mid-December to March; most of the park is closed June 15-mid-November.
Accommodations: Camp Forktail Creek is a low-key eco jungle camp on the periphery of Corbett Tiger Reserve, seven hours by car from Delhi, that provides tents with finished wood floors, private baths, and verandas; the camp supplies its own drivers and guides, and will also arrange elephant treks, a variety of guided excursions throughout the region of up to eight days, and local river fishing (doubles from $100; www.campforktailcreek.com).
Tip: The golden mahaseer—a large game fish called 'tiger of the water'-is a favorite of anglers in the nearby Ramganga and Kosi Rivers; lodges (including Camp Forktail Creek) can arrange temporary fishing permits and guides.