Trekking Annapurna is one of the most immersive ways to experience the mountains in Nepal. If you’re planning a trip to the region for just that, then this is where you should start…
From the Annapurna Circuit to Annapurna Base Camp, those who can tear themselves away from the world of Wi-Fi long enough to commit to a long-distance trek are rewarded with remarkable routes packed with teahouses, Tibetan temples, subtropical lowlands and big, spiky mountain highs.
The legendary Annapurna Circuit, which circles the entirety of the Annapurna Massif, is often considered in 10 best treks on the planet lists, and can often feel a bit like hiking through a Himalayan highlights reel.
The elevation gain along the 190km grand loop of the circuit is huge and starts in a little town called Besisahar at 760m (about two and a half Eiffel Towers high) and peaks at 5,416m on Thorong La Pass (roughly 18 finely-balanced Eiffel Towers above sea level).
The first thing you’re probably thinking is that at those heights, there’s a good chance that the altitude is going to have some effect while you’re hiking, and you’d be right. That’s probably why, amongst various other reasons, nobody has ever stuck 18 Eiffel Towers on top of one another and opened it up to the public. But more to the point, it’s that same elevation gain that gives the Annapurna Circuit, and all trekking in Annapurna, its calling card – that huge array of views and climates which means you’ll be hiking in tropic warmths one day and layering up for snow the next.
There are plenty other treks in the Annapurna Conservation Area too, of course. In Nepal, you’re never too far from a trail which is truly off the beaten path, even if you’re halfway through one of the best-known treks in the world. We’ll delve into a few of those a little later, but first, let’s cover the basics.
About the Annapurna Massif
The Annapurna Massif is named after Annapurna, the goddess of food and nourishment. It was said that Annapurna was the daughter of Himavat, king of the mountains, hence why she ended up lending her name to the mountains.
The fact that ‘Annapurna’ is one word here is pretty crucial. Annapurna, one word, is a Hindu goddess and a remarkable massif in Nepal. Anna Purna, two words, is probably the manager of a financial firm, or your mate’s cousin who runs ultra marathons on her lunch break. So Annapurna. One word.
The Annapurna Massif consists of one peak over 8,000m – the 8,091m, inventively-named Annapurna I – as well as 13 peaks over 7,000m and 16 more over 6,000m, which is, as you’ll have worked out if you have a calculator to hand, quite a lot of very tall mountains.
The massif is 55km long and met by the Kali Gandaki Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world, on the west. That gorge separates the Annapurna from the Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, and the Marshyangdi River meets the Annapurna Massif on the north and east, with the Pokhara Valley to the south.
Annapurna I is actually the tenth highest mountain in the world and is in the history books as the first mountain ever summited over 8000m, thanks to the efforts of French mountaineer Maurice Herzog and his team in 1950. On a grimmer note, Annapurna I also has the greatest fatality rate of all 14 eight-thousander mountains, with a ratio of 34 deaths per 100 safe returns. Hence why most people go around it, rather than up it.
The Annapurna Circuit is the most popular way to trek Annapurna, though other hiking routes are also pretty sensational, including the shorter Jomson route (which is also part of the Annapurna Circuit), and the Annapurna Sanctuary route, which leads to a high glacial basin and acts as Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) for those heading to the massif’s peaks. The ABC is offered as a side-trek for those taking on the main circuit and looking to maximise their time in the mountains, though is typically taken on as a challenging multi-day trek in its own right. Of course, if you get guides who know their stuff the trip can be a lot more off the beaten track than it might otherwise be.
The crowds on the Annapurna Circuit increase each year, and at peak times, the circuit can get quite busy. Approximately two-thirds of all people who come to trek in Nepal visit the Annapurna massif, with Lukla Airport being another popular destination, with its access to the famous Everest region.
So what exactly is the Annapurna Circuit?
When it comes to trekking Annapurna, the Annapurna Circuit is the first thing most people think of. In a nutshell, the Annapurna Circuit is a long-distance trekking route that circles the Annapurna massif. Depending on what route you choose and whether you decide to supplement your leg work with the occasional use of a motorised vehicle, or on the contrary, do some side-hikes along the way, it can take anywhere from 12-22 days, and span from 160km-230km.
For example, you can take a detour to the Annapurna Sanctuary and then rejoin the circuit, but it’ll add around five days to your journey. You can also go a good deal quicker by sticking to the dirt roads that the government have been installing (somewhat controversially, and in many people’s views, to the trail’s detriment) rather than taking the more scenic, tougher high mountain trails. For many, though, this kind of defies the point. The high trails boast the best views and best-preserved examples of Tibetan and mountain villages.
The scenery on the circuit includes stunning views of each of the Annapurna mountains – predictably named Annapurna I, Annapurna II, Annapurna III and, no prizes for guessing this last one, Annapurna 75 (joking, it’s Annapurna IV) – as well as views of the 8,167m Dhaulagiri, the never-summited Machhapuchhre, a mountain with weighty religious significance, and many other peaks over 6000m.
Along the way, there’s lowland villages, ferocious mountains, paddy fields, suspension bridge crossings, subtropical forests, and plenty of tea houses where you can rest your head at night. Rooms at the tea houses are normally twin-share rooms, with decent space and a common area with a fire, where you’ll meet plenty other trekkers eating, chatting, playing cards and pining over the dog/cat/significant other they left back in their homeland. The food is delicious too. Dal Bhat, a traditional dish consisting of rice and lentils, is often offered on an all you can eat basis.
Annapurna Circuit: The route
What’s particularly awesome about the Annapurna Circuit trail is that, since it’s a loop (we all know how those work, right?), you won’t be seeing the same views twice.
The trek typically starts in the sub-tropical municipality of Besisahar and finishes up in Pokhara. The Annapurna Circuit is almost always hiked anticlockwise, as this means that the altitude gain day by day is a lot slower and that for this reason, and others, crossing Thorong La Pass is a lot safer.
As mentioned, many trips on the Annapurna Circuit will be different to one another, and will take detours or shortcuts. Some people take longer to acclimatise. Some take a day out to rest and recover. So every journey is different, but here’s an example of a fairly traditional route plan for the Annapurna Circuit:
Day 1: Kathmandu to Besisahar (drive)
Day 2: Besisahar to Bulbule
Day 3: Bulbule to Jagat
Day 4: Jagat to Dharapani
Day 5: Dharapani to Chame
Day 6: Chame to Pisang
Day 7: Pisang to Manang
Day 8: Acclimatisation and Exploration at Manang
Day 9: Manang to Yak Kharka
Day 10: Trek from Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi Base Camp
Day 11: Throng Phedi Base Camp to Muktinath via Throng-la Pass (5416m)
Day 12: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Day 13: Kagbeni to Marpha
Day 14: Marpha to Larjung
Day 15: Larjung to Ghasa
Day 16: Ghasa to Tatopani
Day 17: Tatopani to Ghorepani
Day 18: Ghorepani to Tikhedhunga
Day 19: Tikhedhunga to Nayapul and drive to Pokhara
How do you get to the Annapurna Circuit?
From Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, most people’s next step for the Annapurna Circuit is making the 200km journey to Pokhara, a city on Phewa Lake in Central Nepal and a gateway to the Annapurnas. If you were looking to head to trek to Everest Base Camp from Kathmandu, you’d fly to Lukla from here, at the other end of the country.
It only takes 25 minutes to fly to Pokhara from Kathmandu, so don’t get too comfy in your plane seat, and try to sit on the left if possible for great views of the Annapurna, Manaslu, Ganesh and Langtang Himals.
If you’re feeling a bit more environmentally friendly, looking to save your cash for the adventures or meet some like-minded people, you can grab a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, which will take roughly seven hours, normally leaving at 7:00 am and arriving around 2 pm in the afternoon. The winding bus route is beautiful, too, passing through small bazaars, plenty of rural Nepalese landscapes and following the Trishuli River for large parts – but don’t expect it to be a particularly smooth journey. These roads can get bumpy.
You can get a standard tourist bus from as little as 700 Nepalese Rupees (under £5) whereas £75-80, or more depending on time and provider, is often the going rate for flights.
From Pokhara, it’s only a few hours drive to Besisahar, where the trail starts, but you can also get a bus from Kathmandu directly to Besisahar. The direct bus ride from Kathmandu to Besisahar is actually a slightly shorter bus ride, at approximately six and a half hours.
A lot of people tend to hang out in Pokhara after completing the circuit too, as that’s where the trek ends for a lot of hikers. It’s a cool little place with great restaurants, coffee shops, yoga aplenty, views to spare and a laid back atmosphere. Trekkers everywhere, too.
Annapurna Circuit trek difficulty: Altitude sickness and cold
How hard is the Annapurna Circuit? How long is a piece of string? Why didn’t Santa bring us that pink bike with the basket and the tassels we asked for when we were six years old? Who’s to say. In terms of the difficulty of the Annapurna Circuit, it as much depends on your fitness, mentality and route as it does your trekking experience.
With the addition of the roads around much of the circuit now, more people are starting to cut days off their trek from the get-go. There are now options to jump in a jeep and ride to a point on the circuit that it would’ve taken days to hike to before (cheating?). There are also options to follow quicker dirt roads (and still get stunning views) instead of taking the full mountain trail on a lot of the routes. Pick the right guides and they’ll make sure you see all the scenery you’re after on the trips rather than sticking to the dirt roads as default.
A full trekking expedition around the Annapurna Circuit is always going to be demanding. Any hike that lasts double-digit days is going to require a certain level of fitness, but largely, you do get the chance to go slow and enjoy yourself and to relax in the evenings by the fire. Days tend to have early starts and afternoon finishes, with a lot of days involving hikes of around five to seven hours.
Many people hire a porter to carry their luggage for them, too, which takes away a bit of the burden. Choosing the right local guide is important in this regard though, ensuring that the porters you use will be paid and looked after fairly and that they’ll have proper training and limits to the amount of weight they can carry.
Two things a lot of people do struggle with, however, are the cold and the altitude.
When you’re up high in the mountains in Nepal, temperatures can get into the deep minuses, especially at night, making it difficult to sleep or keep warm. This is why it’s absolutely imperative that you’ve brought the appropriate kit with you. A fake-brand sleeping bag picked up on a backpacking route won’t cut the mustard in the Himalayas.
It’s also worth bringing a metal flask for water if you can. If you have a plastic water bottle, and the water isn’t heated, there’s a good chance it’ll freeze when you get into particularly cold terrain. If you can bring something to purify water then even better – bottled water gets expensive the higher you get, and the same goes for food. Dinner may be four times as expensive up the mountain, once the roads have ended, as you would have paid in Kathmandu, and there are no cash machines until Jomson – so come prepared! It’ll still only be about £5 in UK terms for dinner, but just make sure you’ve got enough cash to last.
In terms of altitude, no level of typical city trekking preparation can really help you out here. Once you’re over 2500m or so you’re likely to start feeling the lack of oxygen. It’s well worth taking this into consideration in your day-by-day planning for the trek and leaving a day or so during your hike to acclimatise to the altitude. It affects everyone in different ways. For perspective, at the highest point on the Annapurna Trail (Thorong La Pass, 5416m), there’s only half the oxygen that you get at sea level. Properly-trained and experienced guides are invaluable on this front, being able to pace you properly up the mountain and get you to safety if the worst happens and you do need to turn back.
Acclimatisation is, unfortunately, as important as all those annoying internet articles say it is. This is why it’s important not to rush your journey.
The fitness aspect shouldn’t put you off doing the Annapurna Circuit, though. If you’ve got the mental strength to throw yourself into a lengthy hike like this, and you’re fit, then you should be able to manage even if you’ve not been on a multi-day trek before. It’s not particularly technical trekking terrain, and if you plan it out properly, there’s room to take your time.
Roads on the Annapurna Circuit and how to avoid them
The Annapurna area was opened to trekkers in 1977, and work on the roads began as early as 1980. There was originally 23 days on the trek, and of those, only five days on the Annapurna Circuit are now completely road-free. The dusty roads are there because of the idea that with easier access comes increased tourism – especially since people can now opt to only do a small section of the circuit rather than to commit to the long slog – and it’s unlikely, for better or worse, that this will prove untrue.
As you’d expect with trekking Annapurna being such a major hotspot entirely because of the local nature, the roads have been controversial, but they aren’t overflowing with traffic. Hikers can maybe expect to see a handful of 4x4s pass each day. They’re certainly not the kind of roads you’d want to drive down in your mate’s 109-year-old Fiat Punto.
In many cases, the roads can be completely avoided by using alternative trails, too. If you see red and white paint striped to look like a Poland flag, and possibly a nearby arrow, that means you’re being directed to a trail that avoids the motor road. There will often be a secondary marker in blue and white. These markers are part of the New Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT) system, created by hikers Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai in collaboration with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) to show visiting trekkers the best ways to follow the trail and access the scenic views without having to meet too many roads.
When to hike the Annapurna Circuit?
Picking the right time of year to trek in Annapurna or hike the Annapurna Circuit is crucial for all sorts of reasons.
The best times to hike the Annapurna Circuit are October-November or April-May. During these seasons everything tends to be pretty dry, the skies are clear, and it won’t be unfathomably cold up high.
Between those two seasons, in the winter, things are often clear and the scenery spectacular, but thick snow can lead to the closure of Thorong La Pass for days on end.
June-September is the rainy season and typically the least crowded time on the circuit. It doesn’t actually get as much rain as you might expect, given that it’s called “the rainy season”. Much of the circuit is in a rain shadow, so the northern parts of the circuit are actually relatively dry, but the southern part of the trail does get quite wet. The benefits of going at this time of year are that there are a lot less people around and the flowers are out in force, but clouds are more likely to obstruct your views of the scenery.
Alternative trekking in Annapurna: Trek to the ice lake at the Annapurna IV Glacier
If you’re looking to get out into the Nepalese wilderness and get truly away from the crowds of the Annapurna Circuit, then have a look at the trek to the ice lake at the foot of the Annapurna IV Glacier. This is an awesome five-day entry-level hike in the Himalayas, and you get truly spectacular views of the Dhaulagiri, Lamjunh Himal and Fish Tail on the route.
Alternative trekking in Annapurna: Hike to Annapurna Sanctuary
We’ve mentioned this a few times but as well as being an add-on for the Annapurna Circuit, a lot of people hike to the Annapurna Base Camp, also known as Annapurna Sanctuary, in its own right. It’s roughly a 10-day return trip through snow-capped mountain faces, rhododendron forests and settlements of Gurung, at a comfortable pace.
Hiking to the Annapurna Sanctuary is a great Himalayan hike for anyone a bit unsure about committing to something as lengthy as the full Annapurna Circuit but super keen to get out to Nepal and experience the Himalayas, or someone who just simply doesn’t have the time to commit to doing the Annapurna Circuit. It’s nowhere near as busy as the circuit, either. Simple as ABC.
Alternative trekking in Annapurna: Trek to Mardi Himal Base Camp
The Mardi Himal trail only opened to hikers in 2011, so if you’re heading to Nepal looking for something way off the beaten track, then this could be the trek for you. As with many Himalayan hikes, you’re going to see four seasons on one day here, with views of not just the 5,587m Mardi Himal on your way up, but of Machhapuchhre, Annapurna I and Hiunchuli.
The hike is located just to the east of the Annapurna Base Camp trek and brings you to the spectacular base of the 5587m Mardi Himal and 6993m Machhapuchhre. It’s a great option for anyone looking to test themselves out for a longer hike at altitude or get maximum views from a shorter time in Nepal.