The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is a stunning route in Nepal, which is often hiked in its own right, but can also be added to the Annapurna Circuit trek. It leads you up to a high glacial basin which also serves as the Annapurna Base Camp (aka the ABC trek) - which is the starting point for those looking to head up to the peaks. The scenery along the way is everything that you dream of seeing when you go trekking in the Himalayas - with remarkable views of some of the highest mountains in the world, namely Annapurna I, Annapurna II, and Machapuchare.
So, what should you expect? Well, you'll arrive in Kathmandu and drive to the lakeside city of Pokhara. It's a gateway to the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas and a place where you'll meet all sorts of experienced trekkers, and from there, it's up into the mountains, staying in teahouses along the way.
The mountains of Nepal are like nothing else in the world. As a result, there are so many epic trekking options in Nepal, and without first-hand knowledge, a lot of the routes can sound similar. So, here we delve into the differences (and similarities) between the Annapurna Sanctuary trek and the Annapurna Circuit.
Quick Facts about Trekking in Annapurna:
Annapurna Sanctuary: 13 nights | Moderate | Tea houses trek | Highest altitude 4130 metres (Annapurna Base Camp) | 4-6 hours per day of walking
Annapurna Circuit: 16 nights | Challenging | Tea houses trek | Highest altitude 5416 metres (Thorong La) | 4-8 hours per day of walking
Please note: On the 1st April 2023, the Nepal Tourist Board (NTB) made changes to the trekking laws for all foreign trekkers, cyclists, and mountain climbers visiting Nepal's mountain regions and national parks. All trekkers (solo or in a group) must now be accompanied by a licensed guide. To learn more about what this means for you, read our update on the Nepal trekking requirements.
The Annapurna Sanctuary Trek
The Annapurna Sanctuary is a high oval-shaped glacial basin surrounded by the Annapurna massif. Please note, that it's also that route that takes you to the base camp for the mountains, so if you're wanting to trek Annapurna Base Camp - the ABC trek - this is the one for you.
The only entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary is between the Hiunchuli and Machapuchare mountains. It’s ecologically important and its remoteness has allowed the plant and animal life here to develop differently from other parts of the Annapurnas. It’s also a sacred place to the local Gurung people, who believe that a number of Buddhist and Hindu deities live here.
Until recent years there were restrictions on who could enter this sacred area and what they could bring with them (no women and no meat, among other things).
The first highlight along the route is Poon Hill, a fantastic spot to watch the sun rise over the Himalaya, where the mountains are exceptionally close. The next highlight is reaching Machapuchare Base Camp, the foot of the distinctive fishtail shaped peak, and then Annapurna Base Camp.
Being ringed by extremely high mountains, the Annapurna Sanctuary doesn’t get much sunlight, so you can look up at impressive ice formations.
Annapurna Sanctuary trek difficulty: Moderate – but don't underestimate the effort it takes to complete.
The Annapurna Circuit Trek
The Annapurna Circuit is one of Nepal’s classic treks, but also one of the most popular. You’ll discover an incredible variety of hill and mountain scenery, as well as friendly local people and interesting cultures. The landscape changes dramatically in a relatively short space of time, from green cultivated land on one side of the Himalaya to the barren rocky landscape of Mustang in its rain-shadow.
A major plus point of trekking the Annapurna Circuit is that because it’s a circuit, every day brings something new and you don’t have to retrace your steps at any point.
The development of roads in the region in recent years has changed the nature of trekking there, but this shouldn’t be seen as an entirely negative thing. While roads have made certain sections of the trail less pleasant to walk along, they have also encouraged the development of other trails away from the road. Plus, the Annapurna Circuit can now be done in fewer days than once possible, as access is faster. Whilst the vast majority of treks now use these roads for certain sections, a select few don’t, so it’s well worth checking the itinerary beforehand.
Annapurna Circuit trek difficulty: Challenging.
The two trails both pass through the Annapurna Ranges, but go in different directions and don’t follow the same path. Spectacular views of the Annapurnas, Hiunchuli and Machapuchare can be seen on both treks, and hikers will meet Gurung people (a Nepali ethnic group descended from Tibet that predominantly live in central/mid-western parts of the country). But, this is where the similarities end, as there are more points of difference between the two trails than similarities.
While the Sanctuary trek starts and ends a short distance from Pokhara, the Annapurna Circuit starts and ends in Taal. Although all travellers will find their own personal highlights, the major highlights of the two treks are quite different. On the Annapurna Circuit, crossing into Mustang is spectacular. The area is more like Tibet than much of the rest of Nepal. A highlight of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek is standing at the bottom of two of the highest mountains in the Himalaya in a sacred place – whether or not you believe that gods live here, it’s not hard to see why locals believe they do.
While the goal of the Annapurna Circuit is to complete a loop, on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek hikers head to the feet of the most impressive mountains in the region. While the Annapurna Sanctuary trek doesn’t totally retrace the in-bound steps on the return trip (it’s not a total out-and-back trek), some of the places do overlap.
On the Annapurna Circuit, the 5416-metre Thorong La (pass) that connects Manang and Mustang is one of the greatest challenges. At that altitude, many trekkers feel the effects and it’s important to cross the pass quickly and descend to a safer altitude. While the Annapurna Sanctuary trek includes plenty of uphill and reaches 4130 metres, it doesn’t require crossing any high passes.
Last, but certainly not least, for trekkers seeking a bit of comfort after slogging their way through the mountain trails: on both treks, there are refreshing hot springs to soak weary (and dirty!) bodies in.
So, Which Trek Should You Do?
There are several things to consider before making a decision:
How much time do you have?
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is shorter.
How experienced are you at trekking?
The Annapurna Circuit is a little more challenging, as it includes a very high pass and some longer days of walking.
What interests you most, a variety of landscapes or seriously impressive mountains?
Both routes deliver on both counts, but the Circuit has more variety, the Sanctuary slightly more wow-factor.
Are you especially interested in ecology and biodiversity?
If so, the Annapurna Sanctuary is, well, a sanctuary.
Do you want to get away from the crowds?
Both treks are popular, but the Annapurna Circuit more so.
Do you mind retracing your steps?
While the Sanctuary trek doesn’t require a total rehash on the way out, there is more repetition.
There is, of course, no right or wrong choice, but these tips should hopefully give you the information needed to decide which route is best for you.