Treks In Kanchenjunga

Dense mountain vistas in Nepal's east around the third highest mountain on Earth

Way out in the east of Nepal a wall of rock and ice rises up over eight and half kilometres into the sky. This is Kanchenjunga and at 8,586m it’s the third highest mountain on Earth. The hike to the basecamp of this daunting peak is one of the most exciting treks in Nepal. Over a couple of weeks you pass through pretty farming villages with terraced hillsides, through sub-tropical river valleys and misty, old-growth coniferous forests, and then across Alpine tundra until you come face to face with the glaciers and fluted peaks of the Kanchenjunga massif.

This is a scenically wild trek, but it’s also culturally diverse. You will find yourself settling down in pretty villages to drink tea with a heady mix of Limbu, Rais, Sherpa and Gurung peoples.

The distance from Kathmandu and the unrelenting up and down terrain mean that very few people trek out here, although it is becoming more popular. Between October and November and March to April very basic herders’ teahouses and village homestays are available along most of the route. At other times most tend to be closed and you will need to be fully self-sufficient with camping gear and food.

Kanchenjunga Trekking Highlights

Off the beaten track

As a trekking destination Kanchenjunga is little known and the number of visitors tiny compared to the numbers who pace the Everest and Annapurna trails. It’s this peace and quiet that is perhaps its biggest draw.  

Mountain vistas

Whether you choose to head to Kanchenjunga North or South basecamp, when you tilt your head back to stare up in awe at the sheer rock and ice wall rising thousands of metres above you, one thing is for certain. This is one of the best mountain vistas in the Himalayas.

Pristine forests

The Kanchenjunga region is a botanist’s dream. In spring the slopes are ablaze with the purples of budding rhododendrons and at any time of year the steamy valley floors are a tangled web of tropical forest plants. This is one of the few places in Nepal where you might find the elusive Himalayan blue poppy. And the old forests beyond the last villages are soaked in mist, mysterious and utterly beautiful. They’re some of the most pristine forests in the Himalayas.

Local life

The lower slopes of eastern Nepal’s mountains are densely populated. The hills are a tapestry of terraced fields and the villages are made up of blue and white wooden houses with walls and timber balconies covered in maize drying in the sun. With tourists so few and far between, the people will welcome you into their houses and teashops and sit you down to talk.

Wildlife

With this trek covering such a diverse range of habitats, climates and altitudes you’ll see plenty of wildlife – or at least, clues to their existence. The forests are filled with pheasants, the scree slopes clatter with the hooves of blue sheep and the occasional snow leopard slips like a shadow over the high passes. Lower down, where the air is hot and humid, the forest sings to the sound of insects, colourful birds and crashing langur monkeys.

Exploration

Any trek in the Kanchenjunga region is something of an adventure, but for something really challenging try the epic high altitude, three to four-week-long trail that links both north and south base camps via the Mirgin La (4,663m) or the even wilder Lapsang La (5,160m). You’ll need to be well equipped and totally self-sufficient. Not enough of a rush? In recent years a few groups have launched expedition-style treks that link Kanchenjunga North with Makalu via the 5,160m Sumba Lumba pass. It takes four weeks and a lot of determination.

Top Treks In Kanchenjunga

1. Kanchenjunga North

There are two main Kanchenjunga treks and the three-week trek to the Kanchenjunga North basecamp is the longest, hardest and by far the most spectacular. The trail drops down into forested valleys and climbs again over ever higher and steeper hills. In the earlier stages it’s a rural village to village affair with lots of cultural interaction, but eventually the path clears the last village, crosses the tree line and wends its way across Alpine pastures to the basecamp at Pang Pema (5,140m), which is set among fields of scree at the foot of the soaring north face of Kanchenjunga. From the basecamp an exhilarating day walk can be made up to the summit of Drohmo Ri (5,915m). The views are as good as you’ll get without venturing into the realms of mountaineering, but the risk of altitude sickness is high.

The one drawback with the trail is that once you’ve made it to basecamp there’s nothing more to do but spin round and return the way you came.

Kanchenjunga North

  • Difficulty: Hard. Lots of steep up and down.
  • Trek Duration: 18 days
  • Max Altitude: 5,140m
  • Accommodation: Camping is best; some very basic herders’ lodges.
  • Start/End point: Taplejung

2. Kanchenjunga South

The shorter, and slightly lower of the two trails takes you straight to the belly of the mountain and the south basecamp at Oktang. In many ways this is a similar walk to the northern basecamp – lots of diverse scenery, interesting villages and ever-changing vegetation. Although you don’t go as high on this walk (maximum altitude is 4,800m), there is a huge amount of very steep up and down, which makes it exhausting. The route gives you a day or so less in the high mountains than the northern route, but the scenery, with giant peaks reflected in frozen lakes and shimmering glaciers all around is mesmerising. Again, at basecamp, most people retrace the same route back down again.

Kanchenjunga South

  • Difficulty: Hard. Lots of steep up and down.
  • Trek Duration: 14 days
  • Max Altitude: 4,800m
  • Accommodation: Camping best; some very basic herders’ lodges.
  • Start/End point: Taplejung

3. Kanchenjunga North to Kanchenjunga South

A round trip taking in both north and south basecamps is possible. You won’t have to retrace your steps and you’ll have around five days in the high mountains sleeping well above 4,000m. It involves crossing either the Mirgin La (4,663m) or the Lapsang La (5,160m). Neither route should be taken lightly; snow is common late into the trekking seasons.

Kanchenjunga North to Kanchenjunga South

  • Difficulty: Strenuous. Lots of steep up and down and several nights camping at high altitude far from any facilities.
  • Trek Duration: 24 days
  • Max Altitude: 5,160m
  • Accommodation: Camping best; some very basic herders’ lodges.
  • Start/End point: Taplejung

Kanchenjunga Trekking Information

TIMS card required. Kanchenjunga trekking permit US $10 per person per seven days; Kanchenjunga Conservation fee Rs 3000. Permits only issued to groups of at least two people on an organised trekking tour.

Best between October to mid-November and March to April. Between late November and late February the air is clear and it’s possible to trek, but it’s very cold at high altitude and all accommodation beyond the last villages will probably be closed.

It’s commonly said that Kanchenjunga is an organised, camping-only trek, but this isn’t completely true. Almost all villages along the route have very simple accommodation available (normally a room in a private house). Beyond the last villages there are a few basic teahouses with dorm-style rooms, but these close during the colder months.

In all cases accommodation is aimed more at porters and herders than trekkers, but you’ll certainly be welcome to stay. It would however be silly to base everything on the hope of finding a bed for the night so, for the moment at least, it’s sensible to come on an organised camping trek. Bring porters from Kathmandu as there aren’t many available near trailheads.

To get to and from Taplejung, fly or take a very long bus ride from Kathmandu to either Biratnagar or the border city of Bhadrapur. Both have frequent transport links to the tea producing town of Ilam, and from there less frequent transport to Taplejung. Allow a full 24 hours to travel to the trailhead from Kathmandu using a combination of plane and bus/private vehicle. There’s also an airstrip at Suketar, but at the time of research it was closed for renovations.

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