Kedarnath is one of the 4 Char Dham Hindu pilgrim centers in Uttarakhand, India. The town and the temple are open from May to October only to avoid heavy snowfall in winter. Specific dates are as per the Hindu Calendar and one needs to check for specific dates for each year. One can still visit when the town is shut down but one needs to be prepared for being on own amidst heavy snow fall. Gaurikund also shuts down in winter.
Kedarnath (about 3400 m high) is approachable on foot from Gaurikund (about 2900m high), which is connected by road to Rishikesh, Kotdwar, Dehradun, Haridwar and other important hill stations of Garhwal and Kumaon region. Daily buses/taxis from Hardwar/Rishikesh/Dehradun ply during the pilgrim season (approx May to October) take you to Gauri Kund. The road ends here. Kedarnath is a steep 14 km trek from Gauri Kund (horses and palanquins are available for hire). There is even a helicopter service during peak season, which is run by Pawan Hans Helicopter service.
From Haridwar every day morning buses start to Gaurikund. Advance bookings can be made at GMOA (Garhwal Mandal owners Association) office in front of the railway station. It takes almost one full day journey to reach Gaurikund if there are no Landslides. Bus journey is very beautiful because most of the 240 kms is ghat road journey with many mountains around and river ganga following you through out the way.
If you choose to drive your own vehicle, make sure it has good ground clearance as there are rocks strewn all over the route. A powerful engine will make life much easier. There are two parking lots just before Gaurikund (100m, 500m before Gaurikund). Getting space for private vehicles is tough, but can be managed after polite cajoling discussions with the caretakers. 5 km below Gaurikund, there is SonPrayag. There is fatak (gate) here to make sure vehicles move in one direction only from SonPrayag to Gaurikund. It ensures minimum traffic snarls, but adds 1-1.5 hrs to journey time should you end up on the stationary side. It would be advisable to park your vehicle at SonPrayag and hitch a ride to Gaurikund.
As soon as you reach Gauri kund, the people who own mules will start asking you if you need a mule for trek to kedarnath. Dont commit anything to them. The going rates in 2011 are INR 400-700. Make sure your mule has been adequately rested before you start (it's a very steep climb) and that it has some experience of the route (mules run on auto-pilot if not controlled by the guide or you).
Porters (pitthus in local language) are also available to carry your luggage up to Kedarnath and leave you free to walk up lighter. They can deliver to your hotel directly or walk with you.
At Gaurikund, there are some privates guest houses to stay. GMVN's guest house is usually the best option and bookings can be made online as well. You can also take a dip in the holy water from a hot spring. Its a great relief to take bath in hot water. Some may find it crowded.
Kedarnath is 14kms from Gaurikund and you can choose to walk or take a mule. Older people take the doli, which is carried by 4 hired people. If you can walk half a kilometer towards kedarnath you will find the office of booking mules and dolis. There will be plenty of people on the side ways asking you, if you need a mule. Its always better to book in that office because the mules which they give are good in health and strong.
Once you start from Gaurikund, there is a concrete road to walk on and there is a small shop for every 200 meters where you can get some tea, chocolates, biscuits, maggi noodles etc., After 7kms , you reach a place called Rambara. There are couple of guest houses here to stay including one by GMVN. Most pilgrims take a break here and eat some food and then resume the journey towards kedarnath.
The air gets thinner after Rambara and many people experience breathing trouble between Rambara and Kedarnath. This is particularly acute for people walking up. The ascent flattens out about a KM before Kedarnath. Thus, one climbs up about 1500 m in the 13 KM between Gaurikund and this point.
The view is fantastic while moving towards temple but the dung of mules make you feel uncomfortable because of so many mules. Even though there are some people, who constantly clean the path, it still smells little bad. A good pair of binoculars would make the journey even more breath-taking.
Walking is the only option. Kedarnath is a small hamlet, and much a labyrinth of hotels and guest houses.
The temple itself is quite an exquisite example of stone work. Houses the lingam, a symbol of the Hindu God Shiva. The temple is located among astonishing mountain landscape surrounded by peaks that are over 6000 m in elevation. Behind the shrine lies Adi Shankaracharya's samadhi, where he is believed to have taken rest after establishing the four dhams at an early age of 32 years. At a visible distance from the shrine also lies an ancient Bhairav Temple, beyond which one comes out to green glades and tiny streams, fed by the surrounding (and approachable) glaciers.
Treks leading out from Kedarnath are strenuous. If one arrives here early in the season, glaciers blocking these routes would be a common occurrence - and quite risky since one can never tell the thickness of the ice.
Gandhi Sarovar (lake) - and the Chorabari Glacier that feeds the lake - lie the closest, at a distance of 3.5km, which makes for atleast an hour of trek. Gandhi Sarovar is named after Mahatma Gandhi as his ashes were immersed here. There is a very nice waterfall on the way. The glacier retreats by the end of the season whereas there is snow/ice all over the route early in the season.
Vasuki Tal - which is famous for its blue waters - is at 8km, and involves very difficult climb and crossing glaciers. It generally takes one 4-5 hours to reach there, so set out early.
Puja and aarti at the temple if you are a Hindu. Treks to the adjacent valleys will take you through untouched forests and desolate paths. Some pilgrims even take a dip in the icy waters of Mandakini.
Many ashrams and dharamshalas provide cheap accommodation. There are also many private hotels and restaurants although most have only basic facilities. Also beware that Kedarnath can be extremely crowded during peak pilgrim season. In 2011, the going rates for private guest hotel rooms are in the range of INR 600-1000 for one day stay, with additional charges (INR 20-40) for each bucket of hot water. The state-run guest house is generally booked throughout, so arrive early if you want options. Its fairly empty in Sept - Oct and charges Rs 960 (in 2011) per night. It has provision for central heating and running hot water but neither really work.
Kedarnath is a strictly vegetarian place. There are a couple of hotels (dhabas in local parlance), on the straight path leading up to the holy temple, which run from 4am to midnight and serve basic Indian food. Do not expect express standards of service or hygiene. Always choose cooked food, prefer boiled. An average meal will cost around INR 100, though cheaper options are available. Temple is closed from 3pm to 5 pm so plan to be at temple befoere 3 pm. Before 3 pm visitors can touch idle and do Abhishek with Ghee. After 5 PM no one can touch idle but can get Darshan with a distance. At this time idle is in Emperor costume. But if you get late 5 PM, dont try to get back on same date. Path is very risky and many times light system failed. Weather is also getting change frequently. There are many dharmshala to stay at night. After that you can attend Morning Aarti and particiapte in Abhishek.
Gandhi Sarovar : Its around 3.5 kms from the kedarnath. Its better to start early in the morning because you move close to kedar hills and there would be no clouds. As the day progresses, clouds may spoil the view. There is a beautiful water fall on the way. In July 2009, there was no water in gandhi sarovar, but you wont be disappointed because of its location. Its a nice place to roam around and take photos. There is paved cement road to reach the sarovar and do not take any short routes, stick to the paved road.