NEPAL TREKKING GUIDES
WHY GO? World-class trekking, stunning mountain views, tea houses, diverse landscapes, and rich culture.
BEST TIME TO GO: October – November is the peak trekking season. Beginning in December it will get colder and some of the passes may not be accessible. March – April is the end of the dry season and is the second best time to trek. This is when the rhododendrons are in bloom. It gets increasingly hotter in May and June – September is the monsoon season.
OVERVIEW: The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s premiere treks. It officially begins in Besisahar and ends in the lakeside city of Pokhara. You will trek through deep, jungled valleys with plunging waterfalls and terraced hills full of rice paddies, crisp alpine forests, rocky, moon-like mountain sides, and the unique highland desert of Upper Mustang. One of the many highlights of this trek is crossing Thorong La pass (5,416 m) beneath permanently snow-capped Himalayan peaks. You will have views of three different 8,000+ meter peaks and many “lesser” 7,000 and 6,000 meter peaks and will have an option to visit the highest lake in the world. Other highlights include the abundant wildlife and staying in the Himalayan teahouses in unique and beautiful villages with colorful religions (Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism) and cultures that vary by region. Read a more detailed description of this trek along with my pictures and descriptions of my favorite places here.
LENGTH: It can be done in as little as 10 or as many as 30 days depending on your route and the side treks you want to do. You could end up on the trail even longer if you chose to stay in the villages for a while (which would be easy to do!). I spent 26 days on the circuit and would recommend budgeting a month for the trek and some R&R after in the Lakeside district of Pokhara if you’re able.
THINGS TO KNOW:
2015 Earthquake – In April 2015 Nepal experienced a devastating earthquake from which it is still recovering. The Annapurna Circuit seems to have more or less survived the earthquake with minimal damage.
Road Construction – In 2008 Nepal began constructing a road to connect the major regions along the Annapurna Circuit. This road goes as far as Manang on the east side of the circuit and begins in Jomsom on the other side of Thorong La. Besides it being an eye sore, hiking along the road means an en endless progression of honking cars and clouds of stifling dust. Luckily New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT) have been developed (with more on the way) that allow you to avoid the road in many places and offer great trekking and views. While there is no doubt that the road has modernized the villages to some extent and is a nuisance in certain areas I found the trek extremely worthwhile and the road’s impact on my experience to be minor.
RESOURCES – Being such a popular trek, there’s a ton of resources and anecdotes you can find with a quick Google search. I read none of these. Besides word of mouth and asking locals and trekkers along the way here are the only two resources I referenced:
- Trekking the Annapurna Circuit (3rd Edition March 2016), Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai – I Although the authors have posted a free PDF version of their original guide here (which is definitely worth skimming through before you arrive) I’d strongly recommend picking up the newest edition (cost me $10) in a bookstore in either Pokhara or Kathmandu for four reasons: 1) It has up to date information and suggestions on newer trails and side treks, 2) it is easy to reference (whereas your phone might be dead or not working properly high up), 3) it gives you time estimates that are very helpful for planning during the trek and 4) it only takes one good recommendation to absolutely pay for itself (I counted at least five however). I was surprised to see as few people carrying it as I did and many people referenced my book along the way. Don’t trek without it!
- Map. If you have the guidebook you don’t need this. The map in the guidebook was good enough. I only referenced my larger map a couple times and could have easily made do without it.
COST: Once you are there you can hike it for less than $20/day, I wrote about how here. This doesn’t include getting to Nepal, your visa and trekking permits, or gear. It’s a good idea to bring all the cash you need for the entire trek with you. Credit cards are not accepted most places and there are no atms before Jomsom (and from what I heard these charged quite a bit in fees and limited the amount of cash you could withdraw).
VISA: As an American in 2016 I qualified for a visa on arrival for up to 120 consecutive days. My 1 month visa cost around $40. Things will go much more smoothly if you have cash to pay for your visa upon arrival. Make sure you check Nepal’s current visa requirements before going.
PERMITS: You need both the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) permit and a TIMS card which is Nepal’s system for tracking trekkers. Each cost 2,000 rupees at the time of my visit and check posts along the trail will ask you for both frequently along the trail. You can get both of these at the tourist center in Kathmandu or Pokhara.
SAFETY: The major safety concern on the trail is acute mountain sickness (AMS) and it’s deadly cousins HACE and HAPE. Read on both and know the symptoms before you start. It effects everyone differently. You can pick up Dexamethasone & Nifedifin which can be used for emergencies at any pharmacy in Kathmandu or Pokhara. It will only cost you a couple bucks and could save your life. I didn’t use it, but you can also pick up Diamox, which won’t help you in an emergency but can help you acclimatize faster. As a general rule, after 3,000 m you should never sleep more than 500 m higher than the night before. You can climb higher than that but it’s important to make sure you come back down before sleeping.
GETTING THERE: The trek starts in Besisahar which can be reached directly by bus from Kathmandu. Alternatively you can take a bus to Pokhara first which I’d recommend if you need to leave gear behind at your guest house because it will mean you will be reunited with it sooner than if you leave it back in Kathmandu (I ended up staying in Pokhara for two extra weeks!).
You can start in Besisahar which is what I did or you can take a jeep as far as Temang if you are short on time. I really enjoyed the lush lower valleys and would recommend you start in Besisahar if you have the time. If you start higher up be extremely mindful of your altitude and make sure you give yourself enough time to acclimatize.
ACCOMMODATION, FOOD & WATER: Every night you will stay at a tea houses along the trail which provide hot drinks and a decent variety of warm meals. Dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, curry, papad, and pickles or vegetables) is the national dish which is great for trekkers because it’s endless —you will be served more until you are full! Seasonal fruit and a limited variety of snacks are available at shops along the way. You do not need to carry your food or a tent or camping gear —don’t punish yourself by carrying these things!
The water is not safe to drink but water is always available if you have a way of treating it. There are also safe drinking water stations along the trail but these are not frequent enough to rely on them only. Please do not buy plastic water bottles as the villages have no way of dealing with plastic. The villagers’ only real option is to burn most their trash and for this reason it’s a good idea to be mindful of your consumption of anything that comes in a wrapper, can or bottle which will contribute to the villages’ trash problem.
CRITICAL GEAR: You will find all sorts of cheap knockoff trekking gear in Thamel (Kathmandu) and Lakeside (Pokhara) so don’t sweat it if you show up without something. Not long before setting off for this trek I posted my complete packing list here. I added some things since and have listed the gear I found most critical for this particular trek below.
- Some way for filtering water (I used the Steripen Ultra and have used the Sawer Mini-filter in the past)
- Sleeping bag – Here’s the one I used which was light and plenty warm. Blankets were not always provided and without a sleeping bag at higher altitudes you’d need more than one. A few people didn’t bring bags but I would not want to rely on a teahouse having enough extra blankets above 3,000m (especially if you are going during peak season). If bringing a sleeping bag is inconvenient you can rent one for cheap in Pokhara or Kathmandu.
- Long underwear
- Gloves, neck warmer and beanie (all three are easy to get along the trail)
- Warm layers. I used this thermal, this fleece and this synthetic jacket which did the job well. At Tilicho Lake and Thorong La I also wore a light rain jacket as a shell to stop the wind.
- UV sunglasses (it’s bright at the top and snow reflects sunlight)
- A steel framed backpack.
- Swim suit – there’s hot springs!
- Emergency medication (Dexamethasone & Nifedifin) for treating severe altitude sickness
I would recommend leaving anything that isn’t critical to your trek (including tent and camping gear) at your guest house in Kathmandu or Pokhara prior.
MY EXPERIENCE: I spent 26 days on the Annapurna Circuit in November 2016 and absolutely fell in love with the Himalayas and Nepal. For many I met it’s a place they return to every chance they get and I now understand why. It’s such a rich experience for so many reasons it’s hard to adequately sum it all up. Out of all the trekking I’ve done, the Annapurna Circuit offered the most epic views. However because of the sheer scale of the Himalayas much of it is at a distance and I did not get the same sense of being on the mountain top as I often did during my ridge walks in Romania.
The landscapes are diverse and ever-changing and that was one of the things I loved about this trek. It’s quite an experience to journey through jungle, alpine forest, rocky mountain peaks and the Mars-like, high plateau terrain of Upper Mustang on the other side of Thorong La. This, combined with the challenge of crossing the 5,416 m peak of Thorong La gave me an at times, euphoric sense of adventure and accomplishment.
The tea houses along the route make this trek a very comfortable one, which is in part why it’s so popular. You will rarely have to walk more than an hour to find a place to stop for tea or for the day. I am partial to village life and enjoyed spending time in the villages, many of them unique and extraordinary. I found the Nepalese truly unmatched in their hospitality and friendliness along the trail and always felt welcomed and comfortable (or as comfortable as one can be at 4,000 meters!) The trek crosses through Hindu and Buddhist regions and I found the wide array of cultures and customs mind-boggling and absolutely fascinating.
Despite it being a fairly popular trek I found ample time on the trek to hike in relative solitude —always having the option to join friends or other trekkers when ever I chose to. I came across a wide range of wildlife some of the more notable being snakes, lizards, eagles, vultures and other large birds of prey, the Himalayan tahr, monkeys and pikas. I also saw a wide range of domestic animals as well including yaks, goats, mules, and mountain sheep.
HIGHLIGHTS: Below is a list of places around the circuit I loved.
If you want to get a taste of authentic village life and don’t mind forgoing some of the comforts of the more modern teahouses I would strongly urge you hike up to the hilltop village of Odar for a homestay. There is an obvious turn off just beyond Dharapani and from there it’s a 200m (30 – 60 minutes) climb up to the village. Odar is a more traditional village, meaning there is little tourist-related activity. There are a handful of families who host visitors and they are easy to find from the map in the center of the village. We were invited to stay with a family in their home and it was easily one of the highlights of my trek. The less-visited village is beautiful and fascinating to explore (while exploring I was recruited to help an old lady catch her chicken). Don’t miss the sunrise from the hill that overlooks the town (you will find a steep ladder that takes you up to the top).
HIGH TRAIL FROM NGAWAL TO JULU AND HIGH TRAIL FROM JULU TO BRAKA
After a challenging climb up to Ngawal you may be tempted to take the road to Braka but if you have energy left you’d be seriously shortchanging yourself. These trails are much less traveled and are absolutely beautiful. The trail to Julu takes you up on a plateau over looking the valley with amazing views of Annapurna II and Annapurna IV. You’ll walk past the amazingly situated Lophelling monastery before descending to Julu. I had hoped to stay in Julu but the village was like a ghost town when I was there. There was one restaurant but no one was there. From here you can choose to join the lower trail to Braka if you are tired or running out of daylight but if you are willing to do one more climb you will be rewarded handsomely. The second plateau is higher up and lightly forested. The mountain views only get better and you’ll likely have them all to yourself. As you descend you will have breathtaking views of Braka and Manang valley beyond. I took me about 4 hours at a brisk pace to cover both trails and the climbs are challenging.
I have a love/hate relationship with Tilicho Lake which at 4,919 m, is claimed to be the highest lake in the world. This is partly because I began from Shree Kharka on the day I climbed the lake and also because I got altitude sickness (be careful not to stay at the top too long). It’s also a hellish 900 m ascent from base camp on a trail that never seems to end. At the top though you will have a front row seat to the Grand Barrier which is truly massive (I saw an avalanche while up there) You’ll add 3-4 days onto your trek but it’s a beautiful side trip and you will be very well acclimatized for Thorong La. If you have limited time I’d recommend considering this trek and taking a bus from Marpha on the other side of the pass. It’s doable in three days but four will make it more comfortable.
TRAIL FROM SHREE KHARKA TO YAKKHARKA
If you go to Tilicho Lake this is the route you will take to rejoin the main trail to Thorong La. If you start from Manang I would recommend going out of your way to take this trail for the magnificent view point from the top. You will be in the sun most the day so it’s likely to be delightfully warm. The view from the top was one of the best views I’ve witnessed in my life. We were accompanied by a handful of eagles with incredible wingspans who gracefully glided along the air currents just above us which was an experience I will never forget.
You can do this trek separately or add it on to the Annapurna Circuit. Many people, after the grueling days leading to Thorong La and the thrill of having crossed the pass behind them will jump on a bus from Jomsom back to Pokhara. If you do that not only will you miss out on my favorite village on the circuit (Marpha, see below) but you will be forgoing one of the absolute jewels of the region which None other than Edmund Hillary described as one of the best mountain sites in the world. In my opinion this trek provided the best mountain views by far along the whole trail. Worth keeping in mind after you’ve crossed Thorong La that the best in this case, may actually be save for last! You can see more photos and details on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek here.
Karintag village lies on the far side of the valley from Muktinath. The trek there is worth it on it’s own and was described to me as similar to the Tibetan plateau from a traveler I met who had spent considerable time trekking in Tibet. With it’s terraced fields and narrow alleys I really enjoyed exploring this village. You will also come across a very impressive (for more than one reason) statue that guards the village.
Nestled in the valley just beyond Jomsom with views of Nilgiri, Marpha was a place I easily could have stayed for weeks and I seriously considered going back after. Walking through the wind blown apple orchards at sunset captivated my soul. The village is known for it’s apples and apple cider is plentiful. You can see ruins built into the cliff that towers over the village and the monastery that looks out over the village and orchards is an absolutely beautiful place to watch the last slivers of light acquiesce to the oncoming shadow that engulfs the apple orchards below before slowly climbing up to the mountain tops. The village is charming in itself and the shops line the main street selling beautiful, handmade tibetan crafts. From here you can catch a morning bus at the end of town to Tatopani which is what I did to skip a fairly uniteresting section of the trail that parallels the road though the valley.
Jhinu became my jungle oasis for three glorious days recuperation after I completed my final trek up to Annapurna base camp. It’s a sleepy little village with not much going on but has a very nice set of three hot spring pools down by the river. It’s a twenty minute stroll down a small jungle path to get there. It’s perfectly situated on your way to the main road where you can catch the daily bus back to Pokhara. It’s a great place to post up with a book and get some much needed R&R before leaving the tranquility of the mountains.
Not officially part of the Annapurna Circuit but this backpacker town deserves a mention as a great place to relax post trek. Lakeside cafes, movies, spas, paragliding —there’s something for everyone. I preferred North Lakeside which is more low key and has some good food spots (try Juice Cafe and Organic Cafe just across from it and Umbrella Cafe a little further south). OR2K in the center has great food, decent internet and a cool vibe. I stayed at Vienna Lodge at the very north end of North Lakeside which was a quiet, no frills place run by a really nice Nepalese/Austrian couple and suited me perfectly.
For more general information about trekking in Nepal and the Annapurna region see my Annapurna Circuit guide here.
WHY GO? Because Edmund Hillary described it as one of the best mountain sites in the world.
OVERVIEW: It’s a long climb up the valley into the Annapurna Sanctuary and is fairly challenging (unless you’ve recently crossed Thorong La). From the ridge above Annapurna base camp (ABC) you will have awesome, up close view of the glacier flowing down the basin and the peaks of Machapuchare (Fishtail), Tharpa Chuli, Singu Chuli, Annapurna South, and Annapurna I (8,091 m). To watch the sun rise over the peaks of the Annapurna Sanctuary from a distance head to Ghorepani before or after your trek and make the chilly climb up to Poon Hill before dawn.
LENGTH: 3 – 5 days from Chomrong and back down depending on your pace. From Chomrong you can trek out and take a bus back to Pokhara in two days.
GETTING THERE: Chomrong is the official starting point and there are several ways to get there. You can either add this on to your Annapurna Circuit trek (in which case you will already be acclimatized) or do it as a separate trek from Pokhara. I stayed at Machapuchare base camp and trekked up early next morning to make the most of the clear morning sky on the way up. Another option if you are properly acclimatized is to stay at ABC so you have the whole day up there.