One of the perks of travelling in Sikkim in the spring is to find the hillsides covered in a profusion of rhododendrons. Although dependent on the weather, usually the flowers start blooming in March, and reach their peak in April and early May. This is also the best time to visit the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary tucked inside the southwest corner of the hill state. The 104 square km sanctuary lies in the Singalila range.
There are three entry points for the sanctuary, of which Hilley is the most popular. The other two are Dentam and Soreng. From Hilley (where you have to pay for the entry fees, etc. at the forest check post), at the end of a motorable road, the trail continues to Barsey, located inside the forest. The 4km-long trail is easy to moderately difficult and the services of a guide is recommended. It is said that when the red rhododendrons are in full bloom, it seems like the forest is on fire. The sanctuary is said to be home to a large variety of birds, including Crimson Horned Pheasant, Monal Pheasant, Kaleej Pheasant, etc, and some small animals, including the Leopard Cat, Himalayan Yellow Throated Marten, and Himalayan Palm Civet. The sanctuary usually remains open between 8am and 4pm (but check for latest timing).
Barsey has very limited accommodation, which can be booked months in advance. So many visitors prefer to have lunch at Barsey and return to Hilley the same day. Hardy trekkers, equipped with camping gear and availing the services of guide and porters, may ascend to the higher reaches of the sanctuary.
Okhrey, a tiny village, about 45 km from Jorethang, the nearest transport hub, serves as a base to the sanctuary. From here, Hilley is about a 30-minute drive. The road winds through the forest on the lower slopes. There are several homestays in Okhrey who can arrange for a car from the drive to and from Hilley. In peak season, you will also find the rhododendron flowers covering the hillsides around here.
From Okhrey, with a couple of days to spare, you may visit some of the lesser known destinations such as Dentam, Kaluk, Hee Bermiok, Chhaya Tal and Uttarey or continue to Pelling, which serves as the base for visiting the old Pemayangste and other monasteries, the Rabdantse ruins, and more.
Getting there: Jorethang, about 85 km from Siliguri (the town that links the hills with the plains) and around 90km from Bagdogra (the nearest airport), is the transport hub. Unless you are driving up directly on your own, you have to reach Jorethang from where shared jeeps are available for Okhrey (takes around one hour). The hill roads wind up the slopes, sometimes quite sharply. Take necessary precautions if you suffer from motion sickness.