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Annapurna trekking: overrated routes & hidden gems

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

For lots of visitors, trekking in Nepal = trekking in Annapurna, in particular either the Annapurna Sanctuary or the Annapurna Circuit trek. They’re both spectacular and more than deserve their hype but, in my opinion, they’ve been let down by the tourism industry’s tendency to over-market the already popular highlights at the expense of any hidden gems.

What's more, the Annapurna Circuit trek – for many years described as the single best trek on earth – has suffered so much encroachment from road construction that I’m not sure I could even recommend doing the original route anymore.

Fortunately there is much more to trekking in Annapurna than these two blockbuster routes. From simple walks in the flowery foothills, to hidden valleys that feel like Tibet and require special permits to visit, there's a huge variety of Annapurna treks that don't make it into the mainstream tourism marketing.

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 Tilicho Lake will probably be the best mountain scenery you’ll ever lay eyes on

There’s the added advantage that most treks are simple to organise, trailheads easy to reach on 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!

Ready to go? Here's our expert guide to Annapurna trekking.

Annapurna-view

The classic view of Annapurna I

The best Annapurna treks

The most famous routes and some hidden gems

  • Annapurna North Base Camp

    Annapurna North Base Camp

  • Annapurna Circuit trek

    Annapurna Circuit trek

  • Annapurna Sanctuary trek

    Annapurna Sanctuary trek

  • Poon Hill trek

    Poon Hill trek

  • Nar-Phu trek

    Nar-Phu trek

  • Khopra Ridge trek

    Khopra Ridge trek

  • Mardi Himal trek

    Mardi Himal trek

  • Tilicho Lake trek

    Tilicho Lake trek

  • Annapurna luxury lodge trek

    Annapurna luxury lodge trek

Annapurna trekking: Need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

Stuart Butler

Get the digested read

Where to begin? When to go? How to plan? So many questions, so little time. That's why we've asked leading Nepal trekking expert Stuart Butler to answer your most frequently asked questions in this handy four-part email series.

Think twice about the Annapurna Circuit
Annapurna Region

Think twice about the Annapurna Circuit

Bradley Mayhew
By Bradley Mayhew

The Annapurna Circuit consistently tops lists of the world’s best treks – and rightly so. Or rather, it used to be rightly so.

The problem is that these lists are often written by desk-bound editors who’ve never been out there and are rehashing info that's over a decade old. The sad reality today is that road construction has eaten up three quarters of the old Annapurna Circuit trail. The sublime cliff-side paths and mule tracks that I and many others hiked two decades ago are now cloaked in jeep fumes and dust.

My enduring memory of a recent trip to the circuit was seeing a long line of grim-faced trekkers trudging along a dirt road through clouds of jeep dust. It didn’t look like fun, let alone the world’s best trek.

So is the Annapurna Circuit dead? Well, no, not exactly. By choosing smart ending and starting points and following a series of side trails called the New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT; with markers painted in blue and white, instead of the red and white of the main trail) you can avoid most of the roads, while soaking up the same astonishing Himalayan views, high-altitude lakes and traditional trading villages that have drawn trekkers here for half a century now.

There’s no denying that the nature of the walk has changed. I still rank the lodges and food along this route as some of the best in Nepal, but many of these are now on the road, and so cater to a different clientele. And while the NATT trails are infinitely better than hiking on the road, they aren’t perfect; you still have to walk some sections on the new road and other dirt roads are eating away even at these detours.

Do your research, stick to side trails and you’ll be a much happier trekker.

Forget about Poon Hill
Annapurna Region

Forget about Poon Hill

Bradley Mayhew
By Bradley Mayhew

I’d argue that Poon Hill is the most overrated viewpoint in the Himalaya.

Pokhara trekking agencies and guides love it because it’s relatively quick, easy and cheap to get to, but it’s just way too busy a spot to provide the ‘sunrise over the Himalaya’ spiritual epiphany you were hoping for. Get better and quieter views of the Annapurna range at Mohare Danda on the Khopra Ridge trek or from Mardi Himal Base Camp, or opt for equally dramatic views of 8,167m Dhaulagiri from the east bank of the Kali Gandaki valley.

Don't neglect the side trips
Annapurna Region

Don't neglect the side trips

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

The Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary treks are undeniably busy, so I highly advise building in some spare days to your itinerary. 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 Kagbeni, a quiet desert oasis village that you can visit without an expensive permit.

Combine the Manaslu and Annapurna Circuits for a beyond epic trek
Annapurna Region

Combine the Manaslu and Annapurna Circuits for a beyond epic trek

Bradley Mayhew
By Bradley Mayhew

It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular trek than combining the best week of the Annapurna Circuit onto the end of the already fabulous Manaslu Circuit. You’ll cross two passes over 5,000m, visit three of Nepal’s most picturesque villages (Sama, Bragha and Kagbeni) and get a taste of traditional Tibetan-influenced culture in the valleys of Nupri, Manang and lower Mustang. This is 18 days of the best teahouse trekking you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Don’t skip acclimatisation days
Annapurna Region

Don’t skip acclimatisation days

Bradley Mayhew
By Bradley Mayhew

Given the pressures of time and budget, I understand it can be tempting to skip those dull acclimatisation days, especially when you arrive at your destination at lunchtime and the itch to push on seems almost irresistible. Skip an acclimatisation day, however, and you’ll almost certainly create problems for yourself later on; you might even have to abandon your entire trek due to altitude sickness. I try to take advantage of acclimatisation days by exploring side trails or hiking higher than the overnight stop, before returning for the night, thus supercharging my acclimatisation by ‘climbing high and sleeping low’.

Don’t buy bottled water
Nepal

Don’t buy bottled water

Bradley Mayhew
By Bradley Mayhew

Don't contribute to Nepal's huge trash problem by buying bottled water while trekking. Not only are these bottles ridiculously expensive but the non-recyclable plastic ends up strewn across teahouses, villages and trekking trails, giving mountain tourism a bad name. Invest in a water filter like a Lifestraw, UV-light sterilisation like a Steripen, or just pack some good old fashioned chlorine tablets and purify your own water. You’ll save a small mountain of plastic and you’ll have some extra money in your pocket for that extra slice of apple pie.

Classic view of Annapurna range from Poon Hill

The stunning Annapurna range from Poon Hill

Annapurna trekking FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers

Question

Is there still an option for independent trekking in the Annapurna area or do you have to have a licensed guide?

M
Asked by Marcia
Answer

Aside from the Everest region then yes, officially, you do now need an officially recognised guide to hike inside any national park/protected area in Nepal. This would include most of the main Annapurna trails.

However, enforcement of the rule in the Annapurna region has been spotty so far. There are plans (in theory at least) to start enforcing the new rule in 2024.

I would say though that a guide is just a good idea anyway because a good guide (and getting a good one is key) will enhance your trek by giving background information, offering up interesting side routes, translating when required, opening cultural doors and, of course, providing a bit more safety. Not to mention that it gives much needed jobs to local people and in the big picture it costs very little.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What permits are required to trek in the Annapurna region?

Answer

All these treks require a TIMS permit (Trekkers’ Information Management System) and an Annapurna Conservation Area Permit. At the time of writing, individual permits cost R 2,000 per trekking route per entry, while group trekkers pay R 1,000 per person. Check the latest prices on the official Nepal tourism board website.

The Nar-Phu trek also needs a restricted area permit (seven days Sept-Nov/Dec-Aug US $90/75, additional days, US $10). You must be in a party of at least two trekkers and be accompanied by a guide.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

When is the best time to trek in the Annapurna region?

Answer

The best time to trek in the Annapurna region (except for Nar-Phu) is between October and November, and from late February to April. Between late November and early February, it’s very cold at high altitude and the Thorung La Pass will probably be impassable due to snow. The routes to Tilicho 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 Tilicho 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-May and September-October are great times for Nar-Phu.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

What are the Annapurna trekking accommodations like?

Answer

The Annapurna Sanctuary and Circuit, the two main Annapurna treks, have numerous trekking lodges of a very high standard., some bordering on luxurious. Hot showers, wi-fi, and international menus 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.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

How easy are the trailheads to access?

Answer

Access to trailheads for most Annapurna treks is fairly simple and all but Nar-Phu and Tilicho 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.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Can you recommend quieter alternatives to Everest or Annapurna?

Answer

Everest, Annapurna and to some extent Langtang are the favourites for first-timers. These three regions are convenient with easy access, plenty of lodges and good facilities. However, during the 'peak seasons' of mid-March to mid-May & October to November, these regions get very busy indeed.

My personal advice for someone looking for a quieter experience is to look at either the Manaslu or Kanchenjunga regions. The Manaslu Circuit trek has been hailed the "new Annapurna Circuit" and Kanchenjunga North offers some of the best views you'll get without straying into actual mountaineering. Until a decade ago trekking here used to be a full scale, high-cost camping expedition. These days there are some lodges on the routes but still far fewer trekkers, which makes them attractive if you're looking for true wilderness, unspoiled culture and quiet views.

Nothing takes away from the beauty of Everest or Annapurna, but for a different experience, Manaslu or Kanchenjunga get my vote.

Abhi Shrestha
Answered by Abhi Shrestha
Question

What should I pack for a Nepal trek?

Answer

My most important advice is – keep things light and minimal. When you’re slogging your way up to a mountain pass you will regret every extra kilo you’re carrying. The following is a list of recommended items, some of which are more essential than others.

Hiking boots

You’ll need boots. Not shoes or trail running shoes. Make sure they’re waterproof, very sturdy and above all, comfortable. Don’t buy a cheap pair. Make sure you break them in before leaving for Nepal. Whatever you do, don’t hire boots in Nepal as they probably won’t be up to scratch and will give you blisters. Nothing will ruin your trek more than blisters.

Winter jacket

A thick, warm, waterproof and breathable but lightweight jacket is another must. It needs to keep you warm as toast in sub-zero temperatures. These can be rented in Nepal but most are inferior knock-offs of respected brands. They’re okay for a one-off trip but if you’re likely to go mountain trekking again, it’s worth buying your own jacket.

Sleeping bag

It gets bitterly cold at night, even at comparatively low altitudes in winter, and the thin, gap-riddled walls of trekking lodge bedrooms provide little protection. Get the warmest yet lightest one you can afford. When a manufacturer says a sleeping bag can be used down to minus-10 degrees the reality is you won’t be comfortable in it below about plus-five. Aim for one that says it will keep you warm down to minus-20 or lower. A really good sleeping bag is expensive. Bags can be rented in Nepal but as with jackets, they’re very rarely of good quality.

Trekking Poles

If you’ve never trekked before then you might consider trekking poles as something that just old people use. Well trust us, if you don’t use them after a few days clambering up and down steep Himalayan slopes you’ll forever walk like an old person… Poles help save energy going up and take the strain off your legs on the way down. They also stop you falling and twisting ankles as much.

Water bottle

Take two of at least a litre each and refill whenever possible. Don’t rely on bottled mineral water. It’s often not available and it’s environmentally unfriendly, particularly up in the mountains where there’s little chance of recycling.

Water purification pills

Get enough to treat at least three litres of water a day. On more popular trekking routes some lodges provide pre-treated water but don’t rely on this always being available.

Thermals

Two or three thermal tops of different thickness and even a pair of thermal under-trousers are worth their weight in gold.

Fleeces

Two fleeces, one thin and one thick, are vital.

Walking trousers

Don’t try to skip around the Annapurna Circuit in a pair of jeans (yes, we’ve seen people try. And fail). Get some comfortable walking trousers. Two pairs should be sufficient for the longest treks.

T-shirts/shirts

Many people recommend specialist quick-dry shirts designed for trekking. However, we’ve used a combination of these and normal shirts and T-shirts and never noticed much difference. Don’t over pack. You probably won’t change your shirt more than once in a two-week trek!

Socks

Specialist hiking socks are supposed to reduce blisters and are worth buying. However, changing your socks frequently seems to reduce blisters as much as any clever equipment. Take at least three pairs for a two-week trek. Also pack a thick, warm pair of ski socks to keep warm when you arrive at camp.

Sandals

Most people appreciate being able to remove their boots at the end of the day and don some sandals (with or without thick ski socks, depending on how cold it is).

Hats

A sun hat is vital for hotter, lower elevations, and a winter hat or balaclava for up high.

Gloves

Take a thick warm pair of skiing gloves and a thin, cotton pair of under gloves. You won’t be able to use your camera or eat properly with thick gloves but you can with the thin ones, and they’ll keep your hands warm for a few minutes.

Sun glasses

An essential bit of kit at all elevations. The sun reflecting off the snow can quickly frazzle your eyes.

Suncream and sunblock

Slap on lots of sun cream no matter what the weather or elevation. Use total sunblock on lips, nose and ears.

Wash kit

Keep this minimal as you won’t get much chance to wash. A small lightweight travel towel isn’t a bad idea.

Torch

A head torch is a must.

Books

The evenings can be long. Bring a good book, not a tablet or Kindle as power sources can be erratic and batteries drain very fast at altitude. Don’t forget a guidebook. We recommend the Rough Guide to Nepal, which covers the country and gives details of the main treks. For specific trekking information try Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya.

Camera

Even non-photographers will want photos of this stunning scenery.

Spare batteries

Bring spare torch, camera and phone batteries. Below a certain temperature and above a certain altitude (which vary from product to product), batteries drain very fast or don’t work at all. Above about 3,000m put the batteries in your sleeping bag at night to keep them warm and reduce drainage.

Snacks

A few biscuits and chocolate bars might give you the energy boost you need to get over that pass.

Backpack

To carry all this you’ll need a decent, comfortable trekking backpack. Don’t consider any other kind of bag. If you’re using a porter you’ll need a small backpack for your day gear and you’ll have to provide a bag for the porter to carry - a holdall is best.

Travel Insurance

You’d be utterly insane to go trekking in the Himalayas without a decent travel insurance policy. Make sure it covers trekking above a certain altitude and helicopter rescue.

Leave the gadgets at home

Don’t bother taking computers, tablets, etc. They get easily broken on the trail and the batteries probably won’t work at altitude. More importantly, most people don’t want to see fellow trekkers glued to their tablets in a lodge at night.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Now it's no longer possible to do the Annapurna Sanctuary trek solo can you recommend any licensed operators in Kathmandu who can help?

S
Asked by Sol
Answer

Although I always recommend using a guide, ending solo trekking is such a big change to the Annapurna trekking scene! I can understand why people are disappointed. I can't recommend any individual operator, but there is a list of licensed Annapurna trekking companies here.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

We have around 8-10 days trekking in the Annapurna region, but want to avoid crowds. Can you recommend any quieter alternatives to the Annapurna Circuit?

C
Asked by Chelsea
Answer

There are lots of alternatives to the Annapurna Circuit in the Annapurna region. With eight to ten days you could combine Nar-Phu and Tilcho Lake. Getting to the Nar-Phu valleys would take about five to six days depending on where you started and how long you stayed in either Nar or Phu village. You could then scoot across to Tilcho Lake (you'd probably need to hop in a car for the short drive toward Manang village where the trail starts) for another four days trekking. This would give a great mix of traditional Tibetan villages in Nar-Phu and spectacular mountain scenery around Tilcho.

Another option is the new Annapurna North. I've not yet had the chance to walk this one myself (it's really only come onto the scene recently) but I have heard good things about it and it's certainly going to be very quiet. I'm not totally sure of the length but I think it fits with your timeframe. I know there are basic teahouses and they have set up an interesting community tourism project to ensure money gets distributed fairly between all villagers.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler

About the authors

Annapurna trekking

Stuart Butler

Stuart is an award-winning travel journalist and guidebook author who has been visiting and trekking in Nepal for over thirty years. One of the world's leading authorities on Nepal trekking, he is the author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China and the Bradt guide to Kashmir & Ladakh. He is also regularly published in The Independent, BBC, Time Out, The Telegraph, among many other UK and international publications.

Annapurna trekking

Bradley Mayhew

Bradley is a travel journalist and guidebook author specialising in trekking in Central Asia, Nepal, Bhutan and elsewhere in Asia. He writes for Lonely Planet, Odyssey Guides, Insight Guides, among others.

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