Annapurna Circuit is a long-distance trek through the mountain ranges of Central Nepal.
Annapurna Circuit has often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world, crossing two different river valleys and encircles the Annapurna Massif.
Annapurna is a massif (a compact group of mountains) in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal that is one of the most impressive in the world with one peak over 8,000 metres, thirteen peaks over 7,000 metres, and sixteen more over 6,000 metres.
Needless to say, it offers stunning scenery that people are drawn towards year-on-year. The Annapurna area was opened to foreign trekkers in 1977 after disputes between CIA backed Khampa guerrillas in Tibet and the Nepalese army were settled.
The mountain scenery that is seen from the circuit close quarters includes the Annapurna Massif, Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchhre, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Pisang Peak.
Various other peaks of 6000 metres rise from the Annapurna range and can also be seen en route.
The path reaches its highest point at the infamous Thorung La pass, lying at 5416 metres above sea level and touching the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
Most trekkers hike the route anticlockwise, so as to gain altitude more slowly over the period of a few days, acclimatising as they go and making the crossing of high points like Thorong La pass easier and safer.
The trek usually takes about 15 to 20 days, leaving from Kathmandu with a stopover in Pokhara before returning to the capital. Obviously it can be done faster or slower than this, depending on how long you want to spend at each top,
In October 2014, Seth Wolpin achieved the fastest known time in 72 hours and 4 minutes. The trail is a moderate to challenging difficulty level and makes numerous river crossings over steel and wooden suspension bridges.
Like many treks in the mountains and hills, the real danger on Annapurna Circuit and Nepalese mountains more generally is the onset of altitude mountain sickness (AMS).
Persons exposed to a low amount of oxygen at high altitude are prone to experience symptoms of AMS such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath. It is impossible to predict how your body will react in higher elevation but is usually self-diagnosable.
Mild cases are usually resolved in one to three days but severe cases can require oxygen, medication and moving to a lower altitude. However, much of the Circuit is at a lower level, so many trekkers can continue on without any issue.
Doing the Annapurna Circuit with a trekking company usually costs around £700-£850, depending on the who you choose to go with and considerably less if you’re brave enough to go it alone.
- Variety of climate zones – from tropics at 600 metres in altitude to the icy evironment at 5416 metres at the Thorong La pass.
- Trail passes along paddy fields and into subtropical forests, several waterfalls and gigantic cliffs.
- Trekkers will experience cultural variety from Hindu villages in the low foothills to the Tibetan culture of Manang Valley.
The grand loop runs from Besishar to Pokhara but organised treks and tours typically start and finish in Kathmandu. Tribhuvan International Airport has numerous weekly flights from Europe and there is plenty to see and do in Kathmandu at the start and finish of your trip, or you can head elsewhere to explore nearby cities or Nepalese countryside.
Tours will usually collect you from your accommodation in Kathmandu, but if you are trekking Annapurna Circuit without a guide then you can take public transport and private transfer or a car to the starting point(s).
The total length of the Circuit route varies massively between 160 and 293 kilometres, depending on the start and end point, which varies dependent on where motor transportation is used. The abbreviated version can now be completed 8 to 17 days and the grand loop from Besishar to Pokhara takes approximately 17 to 21 days.
The Annapurna Circuit is long, tiring and physically and mentally tough. Regardless of which route you take you’re likely to be hiking for 13 or so days.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
On the whole, the majority of the days trekking the Circuit are manageable for anyone that is relatively fit and has done some long-distance trekking. Most days involved five or six hours walking, covering around 10 to 15 kilometres.
If you’re doing it with a tour group they will factor in plenty of rest, long lunch breaks and a few rest days scattered throughout. However, just as with any major trek, some days are much more testing.
A handful of days involve up to 16 hours walking at high altitudes, starting at 4am and others cross rolling hills (ironically known as the “Nepalese flats” in snowy conditions.
The 5416 metre Thorung La is one of Nepal’s highest passes and crossing is tough and can be potentially dangerous. In terms of altitude acclimatisation it is safest to cross it from east to west as mentioned above.
The trek up to the pass from Manang is not difficult but it is a long way at high elevation, so be prepared to feel pretty breathless.
You don’t need to be a trekking veteran to take on Annapurna Circuit. Anyone that is relatively fit (with a well broken-in pair of boots) can do it.
If you are not sure you’ll be able to carry a heavy backpack every day, or would enjoy the experience more without one weighing you down, it’s worth taking into consideration hiring a porter who will take care of your bag.
It is definitely worth doing some long-distance hiking and maintaining a good fitness level before setting off, but remember that altitude sickness can happen anytime above 2,500 metres. It really doesn’t matter how fit you are, it can affect anyone and does so randomly.
You can stay prepared by taking Diamox, an altitude medication that you can pick up from a pharmacy, but aside from that, trekkers should just take it slow, drink lots of water and listen to your body and any AMS symptoms that may appear.
No matter whether you’re going with a group or where you’re starting, you’ll need to organise both a Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) permit, and an Annapurna National Park Permit (sometimes also known as the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit).
At time of writing, the permits cost around £40 total: the APC Permit is £25 per person, while the TIMS Permit is £15 per person. These will need to be checked at various checkpoints along the trek, so trying to go without is a terrible idea.
If you’re trekking with an organised tour group, the agency or guides will likely manage these for you. If you’re hiking by yourself, you’ll need to organise these at either the Nepal Tourism office based in Kathmandu, or the Pokhara tourist office before you begin the trek.
All foreigners, except Indians, must also have a visa. You can get a visa at one of the automatic registration machines at the airport and pay for it at the counter or organise it in advance.
Guided or Self-Guided
You can do the Annapurna Circuit trek independently or with a tour company. Going self-guided cuts out guide costs and the fee to the trekking company.
However, this means that you are signing up for all the planning and preparation and will need to carry your own backpack and kit and be required to be have thought through evacuation arrangements in case of an emergency like the hurricane Hudhud in October 2014 that took the lives of 32 people on the trekking trail (in a normally clear trekking high season in Nepal).
You can book a guided tour with a travel agency ahead of time and they will take care of everything on your behalf in advance, or you can hire guide and porter on arrival in Kathmandu, Pokhara or at the beginning of the trek.
Another bonus of going with a guide means that a local is always on-hand to share expert knowledge and converse with villagers and hosts along the way.
It’s definitely not rare to see people self-navigating the Annapurna Circuit by themselves, or hiking together in small groups. The trail is well-marked and those who are confident in their ability to carry their own kit at altitude often go without a guide.
It also gives you more freedom over where and when you want to go without being held up by a group. It is worth bearing in mind that in high season, many of the accommodation options will book up ahead of time.
The recommended hiking season starts from September and ends in late November. These months guarantee you three things – some good and some bad: warm weather with clear skies, shorter days, and a large number of hikers.
March and April is the shoulder season with long days and nature in bloom, but it can get hazy in lowlands, impacting on views over the valleys.
December through February are the cold winter months, meaning that at times the path is impassable because of snow or icy conditions, but the tradeoff is that there are far fewer hikers to contend with on the trail.
Some lodges also close down during the winter due to low demand – so this should be factored in during planning.
The trek often begins at Besisahar or Bhulbhule in the Marshyangdi river valley and concludes in the Kali Gandaki Gorge. Besisahar can be reached after a seven-hour drive from Kathmandu. The best direction to trek the Annapurna Circuit trek has always been counter-clockwise to help you gradually acclimatise.
A typical 15-day itinerary is usually along the following lines:
Kathmandu to Bandipur
Bandipur to Bahundanda via Besishahar (or sometimes the car/bus will go directly to Besishahar on day one, then hike to Bahundanda)
Bahundandah to Jagat Lamjung (1290m)
Jagat Lamjung to Dharapani (1920m)
Dharapani to Chame (2630m)
Chame to Lower Pisang (3190m)
Lower Pisang to Manang (3540m)
Acclimatisation day in Manang, including a short hike to higher altitudes
Manang to Yak Kharka (4018m)
Yak Kharka to Phedi (4450m)
Phedi to Muktinath (3800m) via Thorong La Pass summit (5410m)!
Muktinath to Jomsom (2800m)
Jomsom to Pokhara (by plane)
Free day in Pokhara
Travel back to Kathmandu
It is also possible to continue from Ghorepani to Tadapani, Ghandruk, Landruk and then to Phedi, which follows the old Annapurna Circuit from the time when the road was not yet extended to Beni.
When planning your Annapurna Circuit itinerary, or looking at different tours, you will face a tough decision, on whether to undertake the extra few days of trekking to Tilicho Lake, the world’s highest lake of its size – lying at 4919 meters above sea level. If you have three extra days to spare and you feel physically fit, this trek will not only help you with acclimatisation, but you’ll also beat the crowds, and enjoy some unbelievable scenery.
In terms of cost, Nepali government set a price range for all lodges on the trek, so costs are very similar wherever you choose to stay. There is only one rule, the higher you climb, the more expensive service you can expect.
The Annapurna Trek is often referred to as the ‘Apple Pie trek’, and with good reason. Walking from village to village, you’ll spot tea houses and lodges scattered close to each other along the road, offering unexpected comfort and amazing hospitality.
This means you don’t have to worry about carrying food or camping equipment. It is customary to eat dinner and breakfast in the lodge where you sleep, and depending on your bargaining skills, they may even waive the accommodation cost when paying for two meals.
Rooms in the lodges and homestays are basic but clean. Beds have a mattress and pillows but it’s worth bringing your own sleeping bag. Shared washrooms are standard, with the occasional en suite but private rooms are easy to come by. Just be prepared to have a cold shower if the sun hasn’t been out that day!
Wi-Fi is available in almost every lodge except a few just before Thorung La and most places cater to different needs, including vegetarians.
Tap water in Nepal, in general, is not drinkable. You can buy bottled water or use water purifier tablets or drops but the latter is preferable due to the fact that Nepalis, especially in the mountains, have problems with the cumulation of plastic bottles and typically burn or bury it by means of disposal.
It is likely that you will fly into and out of Kathmandu. However, don’t make it a fleeting stop at the end your itinerary. It’s worth tagging on a few days at the end to soak up its atmosphere. Kathmandu encompasses an amazing mix of heritage, architecture, culture, spirituality, and shopping.
Kathmandu’s ancient old city is set around the Durbar Square at Basantapur where the royal family lived until the 19th century and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Walking through the Old City from Durbar Square you can discover shrines and statues hidden away in unlikely places and stumble across mesmerising temples.
Kathmandu’s Thamel tourist district can be busy and an assault on the senses but the streets are lively and lined with shops full of brightly coloured clothing, jewellery, paper lanterns, thangka paintings, carvings, bronze statues, books and more. Try the local cuisine or give it a go with a Nepalese cooking class.
It would be worth avoiding brushing your teeth with any kind of tap water, especially in Kathmandu. Bottled water can be bought in bulk from supermarkets or most mid to high-end accommodation will provide filtered water options.
Pokhara also serves as a base for keen trekkers from all over the world who want to start or end their incredible adventure around Annapurnas. Pokhara is a charming city where you could easily while away the days at the end of your trek on Annapurna Circuit.
Located on the banks of Lake Phewa, the city is surrounded by impressive mountains and peaks, and offers markets, pagodas, cafés and restaurants offering delicious Nepalese food.
Take an evening to walk around the lake and watch the sunset, or head to the World Peace Pagoda, which offers incredible views of the Annapurna range and other nearby mountains.
If you’re looking to end your trip with a final dose of adventure, the adventure capital of Nepal lives up to its name. Pokhara offers paragliding, bungee jumping and even zip-lining. Paragliding is by far the most popular of these options and allows you to fly over the lake with spectacular views of the Himalayas.
|Difficulty||3/5 - 4/5|
|Starts at||Besisahar, Nepal|
|Finishes at||Pokhara, Nepal|
|Length of route||160 - 190Km|
|Average time to complete||17 - 21 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||5416 metres|