The Annapurna Circuit is renowned as one of the world’s greatest treks. While most trekkers follow the standard route there are a number of interesting side trips that can be added or alternate shorter treks if one lacks time to complete the entire circuit. Here we give a brief summary of the Annapurna Circuit as well as the possible side trips and alternate routes.
The Annapurna Circuit
The Annapurna Circuit is the classic trekking route which encircles the entire Annapurna Massif. The trek typically takes 15 to 20 days and is approximately 160 to 230 km in length depending on the exact drop-off and pick up point. Most trekkers travel in a counterclockwise direction which provides a more gradual gain in altitude to cross over Thorung La Pass which at 5416m is the highest on the trek. The mountain scenery is fantastic with close-up views of some of the world’s tallest mountains – Annapurna Massif (Annapurna I-IV), Dhaulagiri ,Machhapuchhre, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peak. The higher elevations regions of the trek which include Manang and Mustang are primarily Tibetan cultures while Lamjung and Myagdi which compromise the lower elevations of the trek are typically Hindu. The trek passes through a variety of landscapes ranging from rich farming valleys to the stark high altitude desert region of Mustang. Tea houses and lodges are available throughout the entire length of the trek and offer comfortable accommodation and tasty local meals. The trek is generally possible throughout the year but heavy snowfall can block the Thorung La Pass at times in January and February.
Annapurna Base Camp
This trek takes you directly to the base of the peaks for fantastic views of Annapurna I (the 10th tallest peak in the world) and Machhapuchhre or Fish Tail which has been referred to as the Matterhorn of Asia. The trek is a shorter option then the full circuit and is very popular due to the close up views of the tall peaks (most over 7000 meters) in the Annapurna Sanctuary. It’s usually done in 10 days and also includes a visit to Poon Hill (Next Section) on either the way up or the return. The trek follows the steep walled canyon of the Modi River which has its headwaters in the Annapurna Sanctuary. After taking in the views at Poon Hill it takes about 4 days travel up the canyon from Tadapani to reach the Annapurna Base Camp.
If your short on time this is one of the best treks in the entire Himalaya for a great trekking experience and views of awesome peaks. The trek can be done in as little as 3 days although 4 is more comfortable. The trek starts about an hour’s drive from Pokhara in Nayapul. The high point of the trek is Poon Hill (3200m) where one has fantastic views of 3 of the 10 tallest mountains in the world which include Dhaulagiri I (8,167m / 7th highest), Annapurna I (8,091m / 10th highest) and Manaslu (8,156 m / 8th highest). Even the views from Ghorepani where one typically stays the night before reaching Poon Hill are excellent and if you’re a rushed traveler you will probably appreciate finding internet in the small cafes of this mountain village.
The Naar-Pho Valley trek adds something out of the ordinary to the Annapurna Circuit while adding about 7 days to the total. It is in a restricted area so a trekking permit and guide must be arranged for in advance. The area receives relatively few visitors and should be arranged as a camping trek. Besides passing over one of the highest passes in the region the trek takes you past ancient villages and steep walled canyons. It’s a remote and isolated part of Nepal and is a real contrast to the experience of the Annapurna Circuit. The start of the trek is at Koto just before Chame on the Annapurna Circuit and the exit is via Ngawal and going over Kang La pass at 5300m.
The side trip to Tilicho Lake adds about 3 days to the Annapurna Circuit but it’s well worth it to be able to see one of the world’s highest lakes at 4920m. One climbs a narrow, steep trail with lots of loose rock up to the Tilicho Base Camp Hotel at 4100m. The second day is another day of climbing up to Tilicho Lake. The lake itself sits at the end of an extensive glaciers tumbling down from Tilicho Peak and is often frozen. Adjacent to Tlicho peak is the “Grande barriere” an extensive steep ice covered ridge. Camping at the lake is a good option if it can be arranged. Its possible but difficult to trek west from the lake over Meso Kanto La (5130m) and continue a trek to Jomsom. It is possible to get this idea from many of the published maps which commonly show this trekking route but its imperative to find a guide with local knowledge. Tilicho Lake is a difficult but rewarding side trip.
Muktinath is a sacred temple and place of religious pilgrimage for both Buddhist and Hindus lying near the base of the Thorung La Pass. If you have very little time and or don’t want to trek it’s a great option to see a remote part of Nepal and a fabulous and almost surreal desert landscape. Great views are had of Nilgiri (7061m) from along the river canyon on the way to Muktinath. The temple is a best done as an overnight trek from Jomsom or alternately a jeep can be arranged. Flights and ground transport are available between Jomsom to Pokhara.
Ghyaru and Ngawal
This route basically parallels the main circuit trail to the north but on the other side of the valley between Pisang and Manang. It is possible to spend the night in Ngawal but the accommodation is more basic then on the circuit proper. The highlights of this side trip are getting away from the crowds, a chance to see more traditional life in Nepal in the small villages, the great views from Ghyaru and an option to make a dayhike up to Kang La Pass from Ngawal. The best approach would be to leave the main trail at Pisang and hike to Ngawal before spending the night. The following day one could hike to Kang La Pass before spending another night and returning to the trail near Manang.
A great side trip to get away from the crowds and some fantastic views of Dhaulagiri as well as North and South Nilgiri. It’s a tough and steep hike but even if you don’t make it all the way to the icefalls the views are still rewarding. Its best to start the trek from Larjung which is between Kobang and Kokhethanti. The trail does not go all the way to icefall and its best to have your guide take you or get some directions from the local lodge owner. Plan on an all day excursion and pack food and water accordingly.
Kang La Pass
This pass is the end of the Narr-Pho Valley trek mentioned earlier but it can be done as a stand alone day trip from Ngawal. Its more of challenge then Thorung La Pass so be prepared but the views from the top are well worth it. The last 30 minutes up to the pass are quite steep and the lots of scree and loose rocks. The trail is not well used and is therefore not as established as the main trail. On the plus you are rewarded with isolation and a fantastic day trip off the main circuit. You will surely ensure if you’re a fit trekker who likes a challenging hike. It’s a 1700m climb from Ngawal to the top of the pass.
Annapurna North Base Camp
This is the most difficult and least visited of the side trips mentioned. You might have noticed it on some of the trekking maps but its a steep route with a poorly defined and even nonexistent trail. The route was first explored by a French team lead by Maurice Herzong in 1950. The first few days go from Pokhara to Lete (part of the Annapurna Circuit) before heading steeply into the mountains. Its about a 5 day trek to the base camp from Lete and the route goes from Lete to Choya Deurali (2630mt) to Misisti Khola to Annapurna North Base Camp. It may require a fixed rope to get to Misisti Khola. Make sure you are going with a guide who knows the route!