The Annapurna Circuit is one of the great walks of the world, and it’s easy to see why. Starting in Besisahar or Pokhara, deep in the Himalayan region of Nepal, the trail winds its way around the Annapurna massif for 131 miles (211 km), crossing countless dizzying suspension bridges, threading its way through herds of yaks, and paralleling the lapis ribbon of the Marsyangdi River as it climbs towards the trek’s high point, Thorong La Pass (17,769 ft). The hike boasts some of the most stunning views of the high Himalayas, and jaw-dropping vistas of Annapurna, Manaslu, Gangapurna, and Lamjung Himal greet travelers day after day as they cut through a landscape dotted with craggy outcroppings, Buddhist shrines, and crevasse-lined glaciers.
One of the best things about this backpacking trip is the abundance of resources along the way. Because Nepal is a developing country, your plane ticket to Kathmandu will likely be the most expensive part of the entire journey. Guides and porters can easily be hired at more than reasonable rates, and guesthouse boarding can often be negotiated for free if you eat and pay for your dinner and breakfast meals there. There are no ATMs along the route after Besisahar until you hit Jomsom, so plan on bringing at least $20 USD cash per day (or $30 if you want to splurge on private bathrooms and yummy desserts!).
A word of warning—there is no indoor heating anywhere in Nepal, so be sure to pack at least a 20-degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag, a heavy down jacket, thick wool socks, and really sturdy winter gloves. On the last few days of the trek, daytime temperatures are often in the 30s, with nighttime temps dropping into the high teens. You will likely be sleeping with a jacket on and huddling around the one fire in each guesthouse’s dining area to stay warm, reading your book or playing cards! It’s all part of the adventure, but extreme weather often graces this area, so be prepared!
If you are self-guiding, you will need to get a TIMS Card and Annapurna Conservation Area Permit from the tourist bureau in Kathmandu. Most taxis know how to take you there for only a few dollars USD. When you’re ready to hit the trail, grab a tourist bus (about USD $15) or a minibus (about USD $6) from Kathmandu to Besisahar. Trekking counter-clockwise is far more beautiful and better for acclimatization rather than starting in Pokhara, which also makes the pass day more of a beast than it is already.
Once in Besisahar, you can locate the trail and begin hiking to the next village or you can take a local bus to Ngadi. Jeeps run as far up the Circuit as Manang, but the lower part of the trek is the most beautiful, so try to take a few days to acclimatize on your way up to Manang instead of hiring someone to drive straight to 11,600 feet!
There are dozens of small villages to stay in along the trek, but this itinerary is an excellent one for experienced hikers who want to see the best of the circuit in 10 days.
Take the microbus from Kathmandu to Ghermu. It’s a bit crowded, but it’s much faster than the tourist buses leaving from Thamel, and they arrive in Besisahar by 2:00 p.m. with plenty of time to start trekking. Once arrived, check in with credentials (the TIMS card and permit) at the checkpoint and negotiate a Jeep transfer to Ngadi if the local bus isn’t running.
Once in Ngadi, the civilized world abruptly melts away; in this place, adrift in another time, lush green rice paddies dot the horizon and playful goats frolic up and down the stairs on the ascent toward 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!
After grabbing breakfast at the guesthouse, 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 the official Annapurna Circuit and not a side route.
This day of trekking features hundreds of stone steps rising high above the Marsyangdi River that plummet as abruptly as they climb. It's a leg buster, to say the least. Enjoy the tropical, warmer, and more verdant setting for the 2 to 3 days that it lasts; soon enough, you'll ascending into high-elevation tundra where little grows, where thermal base layers become best friends.
Tiny villages with guesthouses and restaurants appear every 4 to 5 kilometers along this stretch of the trail, and many hikers opt to stay the night in Tal, which is much larger than other towns. The good news: the Nepali government has worked hard to standardize the menus at every little trekker restaurant, so rest assured that any stop for lunch will have bountiful options to cure ravenous hiker hunger.
If you're still feeling strong after Tal, trek up the remaining 4 kilometers 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.
Easily one of the most visually stunning parts of the Annapurna Circuit is the trek 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 feel like a step out of the 21st century into to an agrarian society. Plus, this is the day that everyone’s been waiting for! The first peek at the high Himalayan Mountains, with sweeping views of Manaslu, Lamjung Himal, and Annapurna II, come into view.
It is possible to take the time to really explore some of the Gurung cultural villages and side treks along this stretch of trail. One 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 elevation gain between the two towns.
At this point of the trek, most hikers should seriously consider their mileage and elevation gain each day. Do not ascend more than 500 meters per day in order to 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 covered in hundreds of rainbow prayer flags, the trail begins to climb along the dirt road as the first magnificent, dead-on views of Annapurna II come into view. These are the real Himalayas. It’s hard to describe the feeling of a mountain nearly twice as tall as Mount Whitney or Mount Rainier, but it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After another adventurous suspension bridge, the trail ducks into a steep and winding path through a dense, moss-covered forest, passing a rickety old tea stand with what may be the best samosas in the world. After a lunch in Dhukur Pokhari, the trail flattens out a bit into an arid, high-elevation landscape similar to the Sierra Nevada. The river valley widens as the trail climbs toward Upper Pisang, where jaw-dropping views of Annapurna II greet you in your guesthouse window. If arriving in Upper Pisang with time to spare, don’t miss a sunset romp to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery that sits at the top of the hill.
After a hearty (and likely very chilly) breakfast in the common area of the guesthouse, hike toward Lower Pisang. The trail picks up off the dirt road that stretches all the way to Manang. Pisang Peak and Annapurna IV tower over the landscape along the way, impossibly huge against the small villages that dot the horizon. The trail here is not steep; it ascends gently and climbs about 300 meters over the course of the day, passing a permit checkpoint and many turnoffs that offer a better look at the striking Himalayan scenery.
If there is 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. If the door is unlocked, it may be possible to peek inside. Grazing yaks and horses meander through grassy fields. With each foot of elevation gain, the view of Annapurna III and its tremendous glacier becomes more stunning. When the sun starts to get low, hike the remaining 2 kilometers to Manang, check into a nice hotel, and enjoy what will likely be the last hot shower of the 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 towns along the trail, and it marks the end of the dirt road that crisscrosses the beginning part of the trek. It’s also a village designed 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.
Plus, Manang boasts some of the best scenery the Annapurnas have to offer. At the foot of the Gangapurna glacier, Manang hosts many day hikes, including a 2- to 3-day excursion to Tilicho Lake and many opportunities to hike up to Buddhist stupas hidden in the nearby hills.
The hike to Milarepa’s Cave is well worth the extra effort; it brings trekkers deep into the foothills of Annapurna III and face-to-face with its massive glacier, whose sharp crevasses line the icy white spectacle like cars in a traffic jam. It’s a lesser-visited side trail and a great opportunity to escape the crowds and meditate in a historic and culturally significant place that is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. It's possible to spot a musk deer or a Himalayan blue sheep. Find the trail near the bridge just outside of Bhraga for a 9-kilometer hike to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level that carries with it the best views of the trip.
The effect of altitude is obvious by day 7 of the trek. It’s crucial to take it easy over the next few days in order to summit the pass safely without horrible headaches, nausea, or worse. Enjoy the freedom of shorter hiking days by sleeping in, lounging over a leisurely breakfast, or hiking later in the day, when the temperatures are warmer. Alternatively, get an early start to beat the hiking crowd and book the best guesthouse. Nap in the afternoon or devour the next novel!
As the trail leaves Manang, it will wind 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 within 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 of Gangapurna at sunset and warm hands and toes at night over what is sure to be the first yak-dung fire of the trip. Grab a Dal Bhat set for dinner and be grateful that the fires don’t smell. This is the first night above 13,000 feet; get a good night's sleep.
Before the big trek over Thorong La Pass, it's wise to keep a short day of hiking with plenty of time to rest. 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 narrow river canyon. The Marsyangdi River is small here and glows a surreal glacial blue in color.
Tread lightly on the final 2 kilometers toward Thorong Phedi, as many landslides occur on the steep gravel slopes of this section of the trail. Warning signs present the areas that are particularly dangerous, and it’s important to take care when passing fellow travelers on this delicate pathway.
In Thorong Phedi (4450 m), find a guesthouse to stay at before they fill up for the night, or dare to climb another 400 meters to High Camp for a shorter hike over Thorong La Pass the next day. The Thorong View Lodge and Windhorse Restaurant has amazing views and great food in Thorong Phedi. Go to bed early and set your alarm for a 4 a.m. wakeup for the summit of Thorong La Pass.
After a very early breakfast in the dark, it’s time to don a headlamp and begin the steep, rocky ascent toward 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 Thorong La Pass.
It’s important to have at least 3 liters of water on this section of the trail. Teahouses are sparse, and there aren’t many comfortable 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 toward Thorong La Pass.
This area can get very windy later in the day, so be prepared for icy wind and temperatures as cold as -20 degrees Celsius on the traverse across the final 2 to 3 kilometers of barren glacial moraine before the pass itself. At the top of Thorong La Pass, smile! The hardest part of the trek is behind. Enjoy an overpriced cup of masala tea at the shack on the summit or swiftly begin to move downhill to get out of the wind and into some warmer weather for the first time all day.
Descend carefully and perhaps elect to stop for lunch in Charabu. Continue onward to Muktinath, which is another relatively large town along the Circuit with banks, a money exchange (but no ATM!), and plentiful guesthouses. There’s a famous Hindi temple to the god Vishnu on the outskirts of the city that’s worth a visit, but it requires an extra rest day. Buy a congratulatory beer and enjoy the sunset views of Dhaulagiri (8,167 m), or take a Jeep or the evening cliffside bus ride to Jomsom (it’s terrifying) to escape the mountains for a moment.
The bus back to Pokhara is probably the most harrowing bus ride I've ever taken. Roads wind on the edges of cliffs and through washouts, and a bus that barely started careened through dry riverbed. Those who wake up early enough can 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 the journey.
However, the hike from Muktinath to Jomsom is about 19 kilometers and well worth the effort. 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 toward the Tibetan Plateau. Because there is little moisture on this side of the Himalayas, this is an excellent way to spend at least one day of the 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 during the ramble to Jomsom.
A flight from Jomsom to Pokhara is worth the extra cash. It will spare body and mind from another 8 hours of anxiety-inducing bus insanity, and there is a luxurious lunch and massage at the end of the arduous journey in Pokhara.
A note to those who would like to extend their trip even further: many 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 (8,091 m). There is also an option to hike 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. This lengthens the trip by 19 to 21 days. The possibilities are endless!
The Annapurna Circuit is a bucket-list experience, one of the world's truly great hikes as far away from Western culture as possible. Nepal is a truly special place, unspoiled, preserved 100 years in the past, and its people will warm your heart even more than the copious mugs of ginger tea they brew along the way. It’s the best way to get a feel for the Himalayan landscape and the culture of the people who inhabit it.