The Annapurna Circuit

Nepal’s longest trekking route is its most varied and arguably its most beautiful, taking you from hillside paddy fields, over swaying suspension bridges, through prayer wheel-lined Tibetan village streets into the high-altitude moonscapes of the world’s highest mountain pass. All in the snow-capped shadow of the world’s 7th and 10th highest peaks.
It is little wonder that the mountains here have been named after the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment – hiking the Annapurna Circuit is certainly nourishment for the soul.
Culturally this trek is as varied as the scenery – and with the full circuit taking around 18 days you’ll have plenty of opportunity to enjoy exploring the lowland Hindu farming communities, the remote Tibetan-influenced villages and brightly-painted Buddhist temples. And while challenging, if you are of reasonable fitness, have had some previous trekking experience and three weeks to spare, completing the Annapurna Circuit should be well within your grasp.

What does hiking the Annapurna Circuit entail?

Don’t be fooled by the Annapurna Circuit’s reputation as a gentler introduction to high-altitude trekking in Nepal – this is still no walk in the park. You don’t need to be superhuman to be sure, but you do need a good level of fitness and a healthy respect for the power of the mountain environment. Stamina is key – completing the full circuit involves 18 days of walking, or more if you want to add in extra days to hike to Tilicho Lake. Although it is possible to book to do a shorter route – flying back to Pokhara from Jomsom rather than continuing down the Kali Gandaki Gorge on foot. Porters will usually carry your main luggage, leaving you to manage only a small daypack with snacks, water, camera, waterproofs and anything else you might need on the trail. You can expect to be walking for around 5 to 7 hours each day with leisurely stops for snacks and lunch. The exception is one long nine to 12-hour toughie as you head up and over the Thorong La pass.

You can find out more about the trek in our detailed Annapurna Circuit travel guide, or read on for a summary of what to expect from this legendary trek.

Crossing the Thorong La pass

The World’s highest mountain pass separates the Annapurna Himal from the Dhaulagiri mountains – home to the 10th and 7th highest peaks in the world. It’s not surprising that this literal, and figurative, high point of the Annapurna Circuit evokes no small amount of excitement, anticipation and trepidation in hikers. While there’s no denying it’s a long slog uphill (followed by a steep, tough downhill) how difficult you find it will ultimately depend on how well you adapt to the altitude. Thankfully, you’ll have plenty of time to acclimatise before you reach the pass – climbing slowly from the lush, lowland start point of the trail at Besisahar for around 8 to 15 days to Thorung Phedi. An acclimatisation and rest day is also usually built in at the busy, yet remote village of Manang (3,500m), from where you can enjoy short day hikes to glorious viewpoints, pick up trekking supplies or wander its dusty, narrow streets.

Where do I stay?

Many of our Annapurna Circuit hiking vacations will make use of the extensive network of teahouses which dot the route as it weaves through the Marsyangdi Valley and Kali Gandaki Gorge. Tucked away in remote local communities these basic lodges offer a colourful, warm welcome to trekkers who can expect to find decent, if somewhat repetitive food, comfortable beds and a convivial, communal atmosphere. Don’t expect luxury – although more and more teahouses are offering western-style toilets (some even en suite) and solar-powered showers, many are still very basic – with Asian style squat toilets (often outside) and small, unheated twin-share or dormitory-style rooms.

If you prefer to be wilder, and more removed from your fellow trekkers then consider camping. Some small group Annapurna trekking tours will use their own designated campsites – chosen for their particularly scenic locations, close to the region’s remote villages but away from other hikers on the route. Generally, trek staff will have walked ahead to prepare your tent for you when you arrive – so no need to worry about pitching it yourself – and will cook a wholesome hearty meal in your communal mess tent each evening. You’ll need a decent four-season sleeping bag and warm layers to keep you toasty at night.

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Annapurna Circuit highlights

Kali Gandaki Gorge

Overshadowed by the 8,091m high Annapurna and 8,167m Dhaulagiri (the worlds 10th and 7th highest mountains respectively) the Kali Gandaki Gorge is a dramatic hiking backdrop. The Annapurna Circuit trail descends the gorge for several days, criss-crossing the Gandaki river on swaying suspension bridges and taking in a succession of prayer wheel-lined Tibetan villages like Marpha, with its whitewashed streets and apple orchards, as the landscape becomes lusher.

Muktinath

Tucked at the bottom of the Thorong La pass in Mustang, the tiny temple at Muktinath is your first stop after the Thorong La pass and a significant pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, who flock to its freezing pools to wash away their cares or run through its 108 holy fountains. Keep an eye out for ammonite fossils in the riverbed as you leave, but don’t take them. These are holy shaligrams revered by Hindus.

Pisang

Two remote Tibetan villages in one, tucked at the base of Annapurna II and IV. Cross the suspension bridge over the Marshyangdi River in Lower Pisang to reach its medieval Upper counterpart (an hour’s optional trek), where brightly coloured prayer flags flutter from tall poles and a long mani – or prayer – wall welcomes you in. Don’t miss the beautiful Tibetan-style monastery – and the even better views.

Poon Hill

If you choose to hike rather than fly the last few days down the Kali Gandaki Gorge then Poon Hill is your reward; one last breathtaking view to end your trek. This optional hour-long side trek up to the top of prayer flag-bedecked Poon Hill from Ghorepani is particularly spectacular at sunrise when towering Annapurnas, Dhaulagiri, Himalchuli, Niligiri and fish-tailed Machhapuchhare all glow pink in the morning sun.

Tatopani Hot Springs

With most hikers tackling the Annapurna Circuit anticlockwise, the hot springs at Tatopani are ideally placed to welcome the weary feet after almost three weeks of trekking. Don’t expect top-notch spa facilities here, but there are few better ways to round off your trip than with a dip in the – purportedly healing – naturally heated waters in the mountain sunshine.

Thorong La pass

The high point of the Annapurna Circuit, the Thorong La pass is the height of achievement for most trekkers. Crossing the world’s highest mountain pass at 5,416m, is a feat of endurance and mental strength. The longest, hardest day of the whole trek, but still manageable, and one that rewards with breathtaking (literally) views of snow-capped Annapurna peaks stretching into Tibet.

Best time to trek the Annapurna Circuit

Three seasons out of four, the best time to trek the Annapurna Circuit is when you’re fit and prepared and have three weeks at leisure to enjoy it. Just avoid the June to August monsoon, when rivers flood and landslides can make some of the trails dangerous. The autumn season (September to November) is perhaps the best – with air and dust cleared by the rains offering excellent visibility – however this is also the Annapurna peak, so don’t expect to have the trails to yourself. Spring (February to mid-April) brings warmer days and blooming rhododendron forests, while the winter months (particularly late November and December and early February) are quiet, with often brilliantly clear skies. However, the pay off is the cold, which can be biting during the day, and below freezing at night. There’s also a higher chance the Thorong La pass will be blocked by snow – necessitating a delay, or a turn around to retrace your steps back down the Marsyangdi Valley.

Responsible trekking

The raw power of the Annapurna mountain scenery belies its fragility. These peaks are not impervious to the footfall of thousands of trekkers each year – and neither are the local people, in general very poor communities who have become highly dependent on tourism to support their families. Thankfully, the mountains and communities here have someone advocating on their behalf – the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), part of Nepal’s National Trust for Nature, who through entry fees and other non-governmental support work closely with local people on conservation, income generation and sustainable tourism management projects. But what can you do to help? A few of our top tips are below:

    Ensure your porters are paid fairly, are provided with suitable clothing and equipment and are insured to trek with you. Here at Responsible Travel we carefully choose the trekking companies we work with based on their exemplary policies around porters’ rights – but we still suggest you ask plenty of questions before you book. Take refillable water bottles and avoid buying plastic bottles en route. ACAP provides safe drinking water stations around the Annapurna Circuit and water purification - tablets, steri-pens and in-bottle filters – are readily available from outdoor stores before you leave. Pack out any rubbish you produce with you – and avoid buying goods in plastic packaging. Safe waste disposal in the mountains is difficult, expensive and often by-passed. Stay on the marked paths to reduce erosion of fragile mountain flora. Show respect and ask permission before taking photos of local people. It might be your vacation but it’s their home.

For more detailed information on the issues facing the Annapurna region, what you can do to help and for advice on trekking responsibly visit our in depth Annapurna Circuit travel guide.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kondephy] [Intro: Greg Willis] [Crossing the Thorong La pass: Sergey Ashmarin] [Kali Gandaki Gorge: Jean-Marie Hullot] [Poon Hill: Faj2323] [Best time to trek the Annapurna Circuit: Sergey Ashmarin]
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