If lush Himalayan foliage, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and the opportunity to pet a big, fuzzy yak sound like the perfect vacation, then a trip along Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit should be first on your bucket list. The trail starts in Besisahar and navigates counterclockwise around the Annapurna Massif, a towering behemoth of granite and limestone, with crevasse-lined glaciers stretching between each peak like giant, frigid throw rugs. The trail snakes alongside the Marsyangdi River for dozens of miles before topping out on the Thorong-La Pass, 17,769 feet above sea level. This is not a trip for the faint of heart.
In the United States, we generally get about two weeks of vacation time each year. So, considering that I needed to grab permits in Kathmandu, jump on multiple, long bus rides, and take a Jeep to the trailhead, I was left with about 10 days to actually enjoy the circuit itself. Many hikers in a rush opt to grab a Jeep all the way to Chame or Manang, but I would strongly advise against this. The first bits of the trail are by far the most verdant and scenic, plus you’ll be acclimatizing at a safer pace if you take your time.
One quick note for my dear, intrepid travelers – there is no indoor heating anywhere in Nepal, so be prepared for hostel rooms that are 20 degrees F at night and wind chill temperatures in the single digits on the pass. Our last two guesthouses had ice on the bathroom floors in the middle of the afternoon! Bring plenty of cash for all food and accommodations ($20-30 per day), and if you’re worried at all about your fitness level, hire a guide or a porter so you can truly enjoy this majestic area!
Day 1 – Kathmandu to Ghermu (9km of hiking)
Take the microbus from Kathmandu to Besisahar (about $6 USD). It’s smaller and crowded, but much faster and cheaper than tourist buses, and it should place you in Besisahar by 2pm. From here, take the local bus or a private Jeep transfer to Ngadi. Once your driver leaves you in Ngadi, the civilized world abruptly melts away, and you will suddenly feel adrift in another time, with lush green rice paddies dotting the horizon and playful goats frolicking up and down the stairs as you begin your climb towards Ghermu. The scenery feels incredibly verdant and tropical along these early stretches of trail, with waterfalls and butterflies dotting the path as hikers pass centuries-old farming towns. Once in Ghermu, wander around a bit to find a good place to stay for the night. The Fishtail Hotel has good-sized rooms and excellent desserts!
Day 2 – Ghermu to Karte (16 km of hiking)
After grabbing breakfast at your guesthouse, you’ll begin navigating a trail that winds through dense, green foliage, wildflowers, butterflies, and towering waterfalls cascading from hundreds of feet above the trail. Be sure to look out for little red and white stripes painted on nearby rocks. These designate that you are on the official Annapurna Circuit trail and not a side route. This stretch of trekking features hundreds of stone steps rising high above the Marsyangdi River and then plummeting back down as quickly as you climb. It’s a leg buster, to say the least. Enjoy the tropical, warmer, and more verdant setting for the 2-3 days you have it, for soon enough, you’ll be ascending into a high-elevation tundra where little grows. There are tiny villages with guesthouses and restaurants every 4-5 km along this stretch of the trail, and many hikers opt to stay the night in Tal, which is much larger than the other towns you pass through. If you’re still feeling strong after Tal, trek up the remaining 4 km to Karte and enjoy the peace and quiet of a smaller village for the night, tucked into an overgrown river valley with craggy ribs that plunge for nearly a thousand feet into the water below.
Day 3 – Karte to Chame (18km of hiking)
One of the most visually stunning parts of the Annapurna Circuit is easily the trek up to Chame from Karte. The waterfalls are glorious, the forest is fragrant and ethereal, and the herds of cows, yaks, and horses from neighboring farms will make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the 21st century and right into a time warp to an agrarian society. Plus, this is the day that everyone’s been waiting for! You’ll finally start to get a peek at the high Himalayan Mountains, with sweeping views of Manaslu (8,163m), Lamjung Himal, and Annapurna II beginning to come into view. If you want to take the time to really explore some of the Gurung cultural villages and side treks along this stretch of trail, the day could easily be split up into two lush days of more leisurely hiking, giving tired legs a break from the 1,000 meters of ascent between the two towns.
Day 4 – Chame to Upper Pisang (15km of hiking)
Around this point of the trek, most hikers have to start seriously considering their mileage and elevation each day. It’s important not to ascend more than 500 meters per day so that one can sleep at a safe elevation and properly acclimatize for the extreme altitude that still lies ahead. After crossing a hair-raising metal suspension bridge out of Chame that’s covered in hundreds of rainbow prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, the trail begins climbing along the dirt road as the first magnificent, dead-on views of Annapurna II come into view. You’ll feel like you are REALLY in the Himalayas now. It’s hard to describe the feeling of staring down a mountain nearly twice as tall as Mt. Whitney or Mt. Rainier, but it’s truly a once in a lifetime experience. After a lunch in Dhukur Pokhari, the trail flattens out a bit and starts becoming more of an arid, high-elevation landscape similar to the Sierra Nevada. The river valley widens as the trail climbs towards Upper Pisang, and jaw-dropping views of Annapurna II are sure to greet you from outside your guesthouse window for the night. If you get to Upper Pisang with time to spare, don’t miss a sunset romp up through the old village to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery that sits at the top of the hill!
Day 5 – Upper Pisang to Manang (16km of hiking)
Bundle up for an extremely chilly breakfast in the common area of your guesthouse, and then begin the hike down towards Lower Pisang. Here, you can pick up the trail off the dirt road that stretches all the way to Manang. Along the way, incredible views of Pisang Peak and Annapurna IV tower over the landscape, impossibly huge against the small villages that dot the horizon. The trail here is not steep, but it ascends gently and climbs about 300 meters over the course of the day. About halfway through the hike is a humility-inducing, dead-on view of Annapurna IV and her colossal glacier. If you have a bit of extra time in the afternoon, a trip up the stone steps to the 500-year-old Buddhist temple in Bhraga is well worth the effort, and you might be lucky enough to sneak a peak at the antique temple guardian statues that ward off evil spirits. Grazing yaks and horses meander through grassy fields, and the higher you climb, the more stunning the view of Annapurna III and her tremendous glacier becomes. When the sun starts to get low, hike the remaining 2km to Manang, check into a nice hotel, and enjoy what will likely be your last hot shower of the trek.
Day 6 – Manang Acclimatization Day (Rest or side trek)
Nearly everyone hiking the circuit will take a rest day in Manang – and it’s easy to see why! Manang is one of the largest villages along the trail, and it marks the end of the dirt road that allows hikers to skip the trail by Jeep. It’s also a town designed specifically for rest, with scrumptious bakeries as far as the eye can see, coffee shops, and even a tiny movie theater with yak fur-lined seats showing adventure films (is it embarrassing that this was my absolute favorite?). Sitting right at the foot of the Gangapurna glacier, Manang is host to lots of little day hikes, including a 2-3 day excursion up to Tilicho Lake and many opportunities to hike up to Buddhist stupas hidden in the nearby hills. I opted for the hike up to Milarepa’s Cave, which was full of solitude and magical scenery. This trail brings trekkers deep into the foothills of Annapurna III and leaves you face to face with her massive traffic jam of a glacier, sharp crevasses lining the icy white spectacle that goes on for miles. It’s a lesser-visited side trail and a great opportunity to escape the crowds, acclimatize, and meditate in a historic and culturally significant place that is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. With a bit of luck, you might even spot a Musk Deer or a Himalayan Blue Sheep. Find the trail near the bridge just outside of Bhraga for a 9km hike up to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level that carries with it the best views of the trip!
Day 7 – Manang to Yak Karta (9km of hiking)
At this point in the trek, you will really begin to feel the altitude, and it’s crucial to take it easy over the next few days if you want to safely make it over the pass without horrible headaches, nausea, or worse. Enjoy the freedom of shorter hiking days by sleeping in a bit, lounging over a leisurely breakfast, and hiking a bit later in the day when the temperatures are warmer. Or, if you’re hiking in high season and worried about guesthouses filling up, start early and nap in the afternoon or devour your next novel! As you leave Manang, the trail winds through centuries old stone buildings and past magical views of Gangapurna. Yaks can be heard bellowing triumphantly in the nearby hills, which is a pretty hilarious salute to anyone in earshot. Climb the 500 meters to Yak Karta slowly and take in arid mountain views of the river valley and craggy outcroppings that surround the trail as you pass local Gurung riders on horseback. Enjoy a higher vantage point view of Gangapurna at sunset and warm your hands and toes at night over what is sure to be your first yak-dung fire of the trip. Grab a Dal Bhat set for dinner and be grateful that the fires don’t smell.
Day 8 – Yak Karta to Thorong Phedi (6km of hiking)
Hopefully you were able to get a good night’s sleep during your first night above 13,000 feet, and if not, be happy that you have a short day of hiking ahead and plenty of time to rest before the big trek over the pass. The trail from Yak Karta to Thorong Pedi is similar to the previous day, an arid, high-elevation tundra with sweeping views of the high Himalayan peaks surrounding the now narrow river canyon. The Marsyangdi River is smaller here and glows a surreal glacial blue in color. Tread lightly on the final 2km towards Thorong Phedi, as many landslides occur on the steep gravel slopes of this section of the trail. You’ll see warning signs before the areas that are particularly dangerous, and it’s important to take care when passing fellow travelers on this delicate pathway. When you reach Thorong Phedi (4450m), find a guesthouse to stay at before they fill up for the night, or dare to climb another 400 meters up to High Camp if you’re feeling strong and want a shorter hike going over Thorong-La Pass the next day. The Thorong View Lodge and Windhorse Restaurant is graced with amazing views and great food if you’re looking for a comfortable option in Thorong Phedi. Try to go to bed early for a good amount of rest before waking up at 4am to begin ascending towards the pass.
Day 9 – Thorong Phedi to Muktinath (16km of hiking)
After a very early breakfast in the dark, it’s time to don your headlamp and begin the steep, rocky ascent towards High Camp, 400 meters above Thorong Phedi. Here, it’s possible to stop for a snack or a cup of tea before continuing onward to cross over the Thorong La Pass. It’s important to have at least 3 liters of water with you on this next section of the trail, as teahouses are sparse, and there aren’t any options to stop until well after the pass itself. Be kind to your body and ascend slowly, careful not to get too out of breath or too dizzy in the extreme altitude. Take breaks when you need them, eat snacks when you need them, communicate with your teammates, and enjoy the sunlight while it lasts. You will likely be moving in literal slow motion for about 4 hours as you climb towards Thorong-La Pass. This area can get very windy later in the day, so be prepared for icy wind stinging your face as you traverse the final 2-3km across the barren glacial moraine before the pass itself. Once you reach the top of Thorong-La Pass, smile! The hardest part of the trek is behind you. Descend carefully and perhaps elect to stop for lunch in Charabu. Continue onward to Muktinath, which is another relatively large town along the circuit, complete with banks, a money exchange (but no ATM!), and plentiful guesthouses. There’s a famous Hindu temple to the god Vishnu on the outskirts of the city that’s worth a visit if you elect to take another rest day here to celebrate. Buy yourself a congratulatory beer or Masala tea and enjoy the sunset views of Dhaulagiri (8,167m), or if you’re dying to get out of the mountains, take a Jeep or the evening, cliff’s edge bus ride to Jomsom (it’s terrifying).
Day 10 – Muktinath to Jomsom or Pokhara
If you wake up really early, you could hop on a Jeep to Jomsom in time to make one of the morning flights back to Pokhara, which is a quick and adventurous way to avoid what is probably the most harrowing bus ride I’ve ever taken (winding roads on the edges of cliffs, driving through road washouts, and careening through a dry riverbed in a bus with an engine that barely started). However, if you’d like to extend your trek another day, the hike from Muktinath to Jomsom is about 19km and full of gorgeous scenery much different from what you just hiked. It’s almost entirely downhill, and it meanders past the famous Mustang Valley of Nepal inside the “rain shadow” of the Annapurna Massif, a dry zone that stretches for miles across the north side of the mountain towards the Tibetan Plateau. Because of the lack of moisture found on this side of the Himalayas, this is an excellent way to spend at least one day of your journey in a completely different climate. Plus, the ancient fortified city of Kagbeni is rich with culture and a great place to stop for lunch as you ramble down to Jomsom. Choosing to fly from Jomsom to Pokhara is absolutely worth the extra cash, if you have it. It will spare your body and your nerves from another 8 hours of anxiety-inducing bus insanity and get you back to Pokhara in time for a luxurious lunch and well-deserved massage at the end of the arduous journey.
A note to people who have the time and would like to extend their trip even further – many people opt to take a Jeep to Tatopani to add on the famous side trip up to Poon Hill, which most hikers rave about as the best view of Annapurna I (8,091m). There is also the option of hiking the “full circuit,” which would entail following the trail and dirt road from Jomsom south towards Tatopani and stopping in little guesthouses along the way. The possibilities are endless!
If you love backpacking and adventure travel, then the Annapurna Circuit is truly the best way to experience the scenery, culture, and sheer magic of Nepal. You’ll fall in love with the boundless generosity and smiles of the Nepali people and emerge from the wilderness reborn. Any vacation can be beautiful, but only the truly special ones are transformational. Nepal is both, and so much more.