Oh my god, I want to pinch myself.
I’m in Bhutan. And I’m about to hike to Tiger’s Nest, a Buddhist monastery that clings to a cliff 10,240 feet above sea level in the Himalayan mountains. I had stared at pictures of this place back home in California, and I was mind boggled at how unreal it seemed. And now I’m here, and I’m about to experience one of National Geographic’s Secret Journeys of A Lifetime in person!
So what is the story behind Tiger’s Nest?
Guru Padmasambhava, also know as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have flown to this spot from Tibet on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon. Afterwards, he meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in one of the nearby caves. Then in 1692, a temple was built around the cave by Guru Padmasambhava’s reincarnated form.
The morning of the hike, my excitement was palpable. I think I said “I’m so excited” about five hundred times at breakfast, and it only got worse as our car approached the trailhead. We stopped for our first glimpse of the monastery, just a speck in the rock impossibly high up. EEEEK!
Thank goodness our guide was a really good sport. If I were him, I’d want to switch the “off” button on me, especially so early in the morning.
At the trailhead, there were vendors selling prayer flags to hang along the trail, along with jewelry and other handicrafts. There were also horses for hire, for those who didn’t think they could make it to the top on their own.
The morning was sunny, but with a crisp chill in the air, so we started the hike in warm layers. Thankfully I had used the Outbound app to connect with a woman who had completed the hike just a few days before me, and she gave me tips about the current weather and what gear I should pack. The beginning of the trail was mellow and flat, and the terrain reminded me of Yosemite, with its pine trees and pine needles littering the ground. We passed a series of stone structures that housed water prayer wheels, and a lovely little bridge.
Then we started ascending, and it got steep quickly. I’m in fairly decent shape, but with the thinner air at that altitude, I found myself breathing hard and slowing down. It was humbling, but the slower pace allowed for better enjoyment of the scenery along the way.
Halfway into the hike, I reached a flattened out area with a series of prayer wheels, vistas of snow-capped mountains, and the first official viewpoint of my final destination.
Just around the bend, you can rest your weary feet at the cafeteria. So when my friend and our guide caught up, we stopped for tea and biscuits with a fantastic view of Tiger’s Nest. We heard that many people end their journey here, which is a shame since the second part of the hike and the monastery itself is so incredible.
My friend was feeling sick from the altitude at the halfway mark and worried she wouldn’t make it all the way to the top, so luckily there was a horse for her to rent for the second half of the hike.
I struck out first after our tea-break and passed many elderly folks with walking sticks. The monastery teased me as I saw glimpses of it through the trees. Sometimes it appeared close, and then very far away again.
I passed by a small shrine and other “retreat” structures, where visiting lamas can meditate, just like Guru Padmasambhava did.
Finally, I reached the second viewpoint, which was stunning.
From here, I saw a series of zig-zagging stone steps going down, down, down. I was confused and asked a guide if this was another route up. NOPE. Although I could see Tiger’s Nest just across the way (and it seemed so close!), I had to go down these steps before going back up to reach it.
So down I went.
Where it bottoms out, I was treated to a nice surprise of a waterfall, bridge, and overlapping strings of fluttering prayer flags.
From here, it was just a short set of stairs up to the temple entrance. I was greeted by local volunteers offering free hot tea (very sweet and yum!) and more biscuits. It was apparently an “auspicious” day of the calendar, so they were offering snacks out of pure kindness.
Unfortunately, you have to store your bags, camera and phone in a locker at this point, as no pictures are allowed in the temple itself. So while I cannot share photos of inside Tiger’s Nest, know that inside is breathtaking. There are actually multiple temples inside, as well as outdoor “balcony” areas. These have the best views of the entire hike, as you are surrounded by the temple with the cliffs towering on both sides and views of the Himalayan mountains and Paro Valley below.
When my guide nudged me that it was time to go, I was sad to leave. I could have stayed staring at that view all day. It had just topped as my all-time favorite hike, and my all-time favorite travel experience. Luckily, I still had the hike back down — which was much easier and much faster — to soak in every last scent of pine and view of mountain.
If you make the journey to Tiger’s Nest, it will not disappoint. But please don’t stop and turn around at the cafeteria! Trust me, you want to make it all the way to the top, even if you need to go slow or hire a horse for the rest of the journey up.
ABOUT: Nikki Near and Far is an outdoorsy adventurer who marvels at natural wonders, world cultures, and really old stuff. She’s talented at eating cheese and chocolate, making crafts, and climbing mountains. When she’s not off exploring the world, she’s uncovering off-the-beaten path adventures in California. What to read more from Nikki? Visit her website here: www.NikkiNearAndFar.com