The Hemis National Park covers around 4,000 square kilometers of the TransHimalayan Range in the eastern Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Hemis National Park, founded in 1981, is now the largest national park in India and the only Indian national park that is north of the Himalayas. Hemis occupies much of the catchment of the lower Zanskar River. The Indus River, India’s namesake, runs along the Hemis National Park’s northern border.
The national park is considered prime snow leopard (Panthera uncial) habitat, and has a breeding population of more than 200 snow leopards. Hemis National Park is also home to four species of wild sheep and goats that form the prey base for this apex predator, including Great Tibetan Sheep, locally called “Nyan” or “Argali”,(Ovis ammon); Himalayan blue sheep, locally called “Bharal” or “Naur”, (Pseudois nayaur); Uriel, locally called “Shapu” (Ovis orientalis) and Asiatic ibex (Capra sibirica).
There are 16 species of mammals and 73 species of birds found in Hemis National Park, including the snow leopard (Panthera uncial), Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus), Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos), red fox (Vulpus vulpus), Dhole (Cuon alpinus) Himalayan marmot, mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), Himalayan mouse hare (Ochotona roylei), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Lammergeier bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) Himalayan griffon vulyure (Gyps himalayensis), brown accentor (Prunella fulvescens), robin accentor (Prunella rubeculoides, Tickell’s leaf warbler (Phylloscopus affinis), streaked rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilloides), Tibetan snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi), chukar(Alectoris chukar), fork-tailed swift (Apus pacificus), red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), Himalayan snow cock (Tetraogallus himalayensis), and fire-fronted serin(Serinus pusillus).
Hemis National Park also contains many Buddhist monasteries, called “gompas”, including the famous 400-year old Hemis Monastery. Each summer, the historic Hemis Monastery hosts ‘Hemis Tsechu”, the two-day Hemis Festival honoring Padmasambhava.
There are also about 1,600 Ladakhi people living in small villages scattered across the three main valleys of the national park, the Sumdah in the north, the Markha in the south, and the Rumbak in the northeast, These people are mostly farmers who grow barley and a few vegetables. Many also own livestock, an estimated 4,000 head of livestock, mostly consisting of sheep, goats, yaks, and cattle.
Hemis is mainly visited by trekkers since there are no motorable roads that traverse Hemis National Park. In winter, temperatures are close to freezing during the day and drop well below freezing at night. Since the winters are very harsh, most park visitors come during the summer. Unfortunately, the best season for spotting a snow leopard is in late winter. March to May and September to December are considered the best seasons for bird-watching. Lodging is also restricted to backcountry camps, villager homestays and accommodation at the monasteries. The tourists who visit Hemis National Park provide an important source of supplementary income to the village people. An estimated 5,000 visitors each year use the Markha Valley circuit, one of the most popular trekking routes running through the Hemis National Park.
There are several ways to get to Hemis National Park. The closest city to the park is Leh, about 40 kilometers away. Indian Airlines has flights to Leh. Once in Leh, bus service is available from Leh to Hemis National Park. Or instead, a private vehicle can be driven from Leh to the national park. If you would like to trek to Hemis National Park, a popular trekking route leaves from the Spituk Gompa just below Leh, and runs through the Jingchen valley onto Gandu La and the Markha valley, and then proceeds to the national park via Kongmaru La.