Treks In The Annapurna Region

Exploring Nepal's classic trekking region

From the lakeside resort town of Pokhara a great wall of white fills the northern horizon. This is the Annapurna range, which tops out with the 8,091m Annapurna I.

There’s a huge variety of treks here from simple walks in the flowery foothills, to legendary hidden valleys that feel like Tibet and require special permits to visit. But whatever trek you choose, one thing is for sure: the mountain scenery will blow you away. Standing in the heart of the cirque at the end of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek could move you to tears, and the wilderness around Tilcho Lake will probably be the best mountain scenery you’ll ever lay eyes on. And then there’s the Annapurna Circuit, the classic walk of Nepal, and one that for many years was hyped as quite simply the single best trek on the planet.

The scenery here is second to none, and there’s the added advantage that most treks are simple to organise, trailheads easy to get to by public transport, and accommodation and facilities abundant and of a very high quality. So forget the glory of Everest. Annapurna is where it’s at!

Annapurna trekking highlights

Thorung La Pass

The high point and highlight of the legendary Annapurna Circuit trek. You crest the brow of the Thorung La Pass (5,416m) to be greeted by a panorama of prayer flags and mighty mountain peaks stretched across the horizon. Drop down its far side and you enter a drier world that feels more like Tibet.

Mountain views

Sit among flowering rhododendrons and watch the first rays of sunrise turn the Annapurna range pink and orange. Be overawed by the splendour as you stand, surrounded by some of the highest peaks on the planet, in the mountain amphitheatre of the Annapurna Sanctuary. In the Annapurna region the mountain views come in all forms: From huge and daunting, to distant and inviting.

Tilcho Lake

Your knees will wobble with fear as you tip-toe carefully across avalanche-prone sheer shale slopes and your lungs will burn with the effort required to get there, but when you  eventually reach the often frozen Tilcho Lake you’ll gasp in amazement at the kind of view normally reserved for mountaineers.

Nar-Phu

Sheltered from mainstream Nepali life by deep, dark gorges and still fairly rarely visited by trekkers, the valleys of Nar and Phu are a hidden world (indeed in Tibetan Buddhist scriptures these valleys have long been considered a baeyul, or hidden paradise land) of medieval villages populated by a yak herding and strongly Buddhist people.

Side trips

It’s worth building in some spare days to any Annapurna hiking itinerary. Chances are though, these won’t be spent lazing about – not when there are remote passes, silent high altitude lakes, Himalayan basecamps and gorgeous villages to explore just off the main trails.

Muktinath and Kagbeni

Put the trekking poles down for a day and follow the Hindu pilgrims to the holy town of Muktinath. They’ve come from across the Indian sub-continent to bathe in the freezing spring waters and pray at the eternal flame which lies at the heart of the temple complex. A day’s walk further downhill is Kagbei, a quiet desert oasis village that’s a slice of Upper Mustang life that you can visit without an expensive permit.

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The top Annapurna treks

1.Annapurna Sanctuary trek

Probably just beating Everest basecamp for the title of most popular trek in Nepal, the Annapurna Sanctuary trek is a 10-day extravaganza of non-stop mountain vistas culminating in a great cirque of massive mountain peaks seven to eight kilometres high.

If you’re looking for a short, relatively easy and simple to organise trek, one that doesn’t venture too high (4,130m), and with unusually comfortable accommodation, then the Annapurna Sanctuary ticks all the boxes. The straight there and back route starts in the lush sub-tropical hills just to the north of Pokhara and, takes you through oak, birch, rhododendron and bamboo forests before hitting the Alpine zone on day five around Machapuchare basecamp (which is actually a collection of trekking lodges – for religious reasons it’s forbidden to climb Machapuchare).

From here to the Annapurna Sanctuary the views get more stupendous with every corner passed. Once you reach the Annapurna Sanctuary there are a few viewpoints above the lodges which reward with views over glaciers, moraine fields and an amphitheatre of peaks including Machapuchare (6,993m), Annapurna South (7,219m), Annapurna III (7,555m), Gangapurna (7,454m) and, just poking up behind the others, Annapurna I (8,091m), the first 8,000m mountain ever climbed (in 1950 by legendary French climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal).

The facilities for trekkers on this trek are as good as anywhere in the Nepalese mountains. Most lodges have varied menus, some form of heating, separate rooms, electricity, hot showers and even wi-fi. However, this combination of unsurpassed mountain scenery, great facilities and easy access means that tens of thousands of trekkers can walk this trail each year and sometimes local culture can be overwhelmed by international trekking culture. Lodges can be booked out in high season. Try to get to the night stop early, or join an organised camping trek and avoid the worry of finding a bed.

If you’ve got the time, to avoid this being a straight there and back trek, it’s easy, and highly rewarding, to do the Poon Hill trek first and then on day four, to link on to this walk. That would give a total of about 12 comfortable days of walking.

Annapurna Sanctuary trek

  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
  • Trek Duration: 10 days
  • Max. Elevation: 4,130m
  • Accommodation: Trekking lodges. 
  • Start/End Point: Naya Pul or Dhampus

2. Annapurna Circuit trek

This, one of the world’s classic treks, takes you through virtually the whole range of Nepalese landscapes: From sub-tropical valleys where banana plants and gushing, murky jungle rivers are the defining features, through gorgeous woodlands, and across Alpine meadows and conifer forests, to the rock and ice wastes higher up.

The high point is the often snow-covered Thorung La Pass (5,416m) with its utterly sensational mountain views. From here you drop rapidly down towards the fascinating Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage site of Muktinath and then into a drier, region of eroded river gorges, lush oases and castle-like monasteries around Kagbeni and Jomsom (look out for ammonite fossils in the Kali Gandaki river bed – evidence that the top of the world was once at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean). Many people finish the trek at Jomsom (there are jeeps and buses to Pokhara or scheduled daily flights), but for the devoted the trail winds slowly downhill into warmer, greener and lusher countryside. The sense of satisfaction of walking the entire circuit is second to none.

Facilities along the Annapurna Circuit are excellent with comfortable trekking lodges and good, varied food. Many lodges have hot showers and wi-fi. In high season it’s busy and the demand for beds can exceed supply. You can avoid the problem by joining an organised camping trip, and miss the crowds by overnighting at midway points between the major stops.  

In the past few years road construction has eaten into parts of the original Annapurna Circuit route, but the effects of this construction has been mitigated through the creation of new trails away from the roads. In many cases these new trails offer even more impressive scenery than the original routes.

Most people walk the Annapurna Circuit anti-clockwise, starting from Besi Sahar or Bhulebule and finishing in either Jomsom or, for the more committed, Naya Pul. Going this way round allows more time for acclimatisation and the approach to the Thorung La Pass (5,416m) is a little less steep. Fitter trekkers going clockwise will be facing into the best scenery during the descent from the Thorung La. However, if you do go this way, it’s wise to be a part of an organised trek so that you can spend one night camped at the grassy clearing halfway between the lodges of Chabarbu and the Thorung La which is better for acclimatisation.

Annapurna Circuit trek

  • Difficulty: Moderate-hard
  • Trek Duration: 12-18 days
  • Max. Elevation: 5,416m
  • Accommodation: Trekking lodges. 
  • Start/End Point: Besi Sahar or Bhulebule/Jomsom or Naya Pul

3. Poon Hill trek

Mixing heart-stirring mountain views with enchanting villages and beautiful forests with a thousand blooming rhododendrons, this is a fabulous introduction to trekking in Nepal.  

The highlight is Poon Hill itself, an hour’s walk above the village of Ghorepani. Watching the sunrise from here is an almost obligatory Nepal experience. As the first beams of light shine across a panorama that includes Dhaulagiri I (8,167m), South Annapurna (8,091m) and Nilgri (6,940m) it rarely disappoints.

The trailheads are only about an hour’s drive out of Pokhara and there are excellent trekking lodges along the route plus some luxury hotels. The trek can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise and it makes a good add-on to the more challenging Annapurna Sanctuary trek. It’s also an ideal first time trek and good for families and those who don’t want to go too high. But do keep in mind that there’s a lot of steep up and down.

Poon Hill trek

  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
  • Trek Duration: 5-6 days
  • Max. Elevation: 3,210m
  • Accommodation: Trekking lodges. 
  • Start/End Point: Naya Puk/Phedi

4. Khopra Ridge trek

Also known as the Khopra Danda trek, this is well off the standard Annapurna trekking routes and offers a low-key, peaceful trek to lofty viewpoints on the flanks of Annapurna South. There are a number of different route variations.

The trails pass through charming villages with simple private and community lodges and lots of pretty forests. Khopra Ridge itself is an impressive dome with an exposed trail running along it that feels much higher than it really is (especially when covered in snow). The views across to Dhaulagiri I (8,167m) are unforgettable. From the ridge it’s possible to make a very long and challenging 10-hour day trip to the high altitude Khayer Lake (4,600m). Given the 1,000-metre height gain in a day, plus the beauty of the lake it’s much more advisable to go on an organised camping trek and to sleep on the lake shore.

Khopra Ridge trek

  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Trek Duration: 5-6 days. 
  • Max. Elevation: 3,660m
  • Accommodation: Camping and limited trekking lodges. 
  • Start/End Point: Ghorepani/Tadapani

5. Tilcho Lake trek

The short, but challenging hike to Tilcho Lake, one of the highest large lakes in the world, is one of the most impressive walks in the Annapurna range. It’s a four or five-day round trip detour off the main Annapurna Circuit trail starting from Manang and heading rapidly upward, firstly through pine forest and then across scree slopes before a final climb to a pass (5,005m) overlooking the lake. Pushed right up against the great wall of the Annapurna range, and with glaciers crashing down into it, the lake is frozen over for months on end and can be a bleak and scary place. When it is ice-free (normally June to early November), the astonishing turquoise colours of the water clash with the dark rock and white glaciers behind it. For sheer high mountain drama it’s hard to beat. However, the route up to the lake is not for the faint-hearted.

The path rises very steeply from Manang and altitude-related problems are very common. Also, a large part of the trail is high up on an almost sheer shale slope where rock falls and avalanches are almost daily occurrences. Needless to say it can be very dangerous, especially after rain. People suffering from vertigo will probably not enjoy this trek. Although there are a number of decent trekking lodges along the trail to the lake there’s nowhere reliable to stay on the lake shore. By coming on an organised camping trek you can spend a magical night camping along the lake’s northern edge with only snow leopards for company.

After reaching the lake it’s best to turn back the way you came rather than going all the way back to Manang though you can take a small shortcut that will get you directly to the lodges at Yak Kharka and save a few hours of walking.

Note that many maps and some trekking agencies talk about a route directly from Tilcho Lake to Jomsom via the Mesokanto pass. No matter what any map, sign or trekking agency tells you, this is not a route to be taken lightly. It involves ice-climbing down two huge, vertical glacier walls followed by a hair-raising and utterly exhausting climb up a loose scree slope which makes those you crossed on the way up to Tilcho seem like child’s play. Do not attempt this route without mountaineering experience, ropes, ice-axes and crampons as well as a guide who knows the route – very few do.

Tilcho Lake trek

  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult. 
  • Trek Duration: 4.5 days 
  • Max. Elevation: 5,005m
  • Accommodation: Trekking lodges.
  • Start/End Point: Manang/Manang or Yak Kharka

6. Nar-Phu trek

Most Annapurna Circuit trekkers heading through the village of Koto won’t know that a trail off to the east leads to a magical, hidden world. The Nar and Phu valleys were closed to tourism until 2002 and when they finally opened up the first trekkers discovered a landscape of narrow gorges, 7km high mountains, timeless stone villages festooned with prayer flags, and a distinct local culture based on yak herding and trade with neighbouring Tibet. The area is slowly being brought into the mainstream but much remains as it did for those first lucky hikers.

Still rarely trekked (a restricted area permit and camping gear is required), the route follows a dark, deep and shady gorge up to the medieval village of Phu, which consists of around 40 or 50 mud and stone houses and red painted monasteries huddled together on the top of a hill. Entry to the village is via a spectacular old gateway.

It’s worth allowing a couple of nights in Phu to explore the upper valley. To leave you have to retrace your steps halfway back down the valley before veering west up the Nar valley, over yak pastures to the large traditional village of Nar where there are four gompas or Buddhist monasteries worth visiting. Independent trekkers relying on trekking lodges will probably have to turn back here and retrace their steps to Koto, but camping groups can make the exciting two-day crossing of the Kang La (5,320m) down to Ngawal back on the Annapurna Circuit.

This trek works well either as an add-on to the Annapurna Circuit or as a short, stand-alone trek in its own right. For adventurous trekkers with all the correct permits on fully-organised camping treks it’s possible to take a wild, difficult and very rarely walked route from the village of Nar into Upper Mustang via the taxing Teri La Pass (5,595m). But as well as a Kathmandu/Pokhara-based support team you will also need a local guide with direct knowledge of the route, and such people can be very hard to find.

Nar-Phu trek

  • Difficulty: Moderate-difficult. 
  • Trek Duration: 7-9 days
  • Max. Elevation: 5,320m
  • Accommodation: Camping and basic trekking lodges.
  • Start/End Point: Koto/Ngawal

Annapurna trekking info

All these treks require a TIMS permit (Trekkers’ Information Management System) and an Annapurna Conservation Area Permit. The Nar-Phu trek also needs a restricted area permit (seven days Sept-Nov/Dec-Aug US $90/75, additional days after first week, US $10). You must be in a party of at least two trekkers and be accompanied by a guide.

All these treks except Nar-Phu are best tackled between in October and November, and from late-February to April. Between late November and late February it’s very cold at high altitude and the Thorung La Pass will probably be snowed in and impassable. The routes to Tilcho Lake will also be snowed in at this time and lodges at higher elevations closed. There’s a real avalanche risk on the Annapurna Sanctuary and Tilcho Lake routes in spring. Avoid trekking most of this area during the monsoon (June-early-Sept)

Nar-Phu is unusual because it lies in the Himalayan rain shadow, and it’s possible to trek here during the monsoon – although you should still expect some rain and obscured mountain views. From November to early March most valley inhabitants leave for lower and warmer climes and trekking lodges will be closed. The Kang La Pass will also be buried under snow and impossible to cross in mid-winter. This pass can also be complicated in spring with late and/or melting snow and ice. April and May and September-October are great times for Nar-Phu.

The main trails here have numerous trekking lodges of a very high standard. Hot showers and wi-fi are common. Nar-Phu and Khopra Ridge are earthier with limited and very basic homestay style lodges which fill up quickly. These areas are best trekked on a fully organised camping expedition.

Access to trail heads for most of these treks is fairly simple and all but Nar-Phu and Tilcho Lake start and end a short bus or taxi ride from Pokhara. An ever-expanding road network is changing routes in this region and many people skip the first couple of days of the Annapurna Circuit by driving up the valley. An equally large number finish the trek at Jomsom from where there are regular buses and jeeps back to Pokhara as well as early morning flights. However, be warned that landslides can block the road for days on end and flights are frequently cancelled due to unfavourable (ie terrifyingly strong!) winds. Allow an extra day or so in your schedule.

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