How to: Independently trek Nepal’s Annapurna sanctuary
After a year of penny-pinching, my partner and I launched a year-long travel sabbatical. First stop — Nepal. We’d been talking about trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary for months, and we planned to do it alone, with no guide or porter.
What follows is the route we took, where we slept and ate along the way, the items we packed, and some general tips for taking on one of the world’s best treks.
October – November is supposedly the best time to trek — post-monsoon with few clouds and clear views. And this is when everyone hits the trail.
Through chance, we arrived in Pokhara — the jumping off point for the trek — a little early, in mid-September. It rained for several days. Then, for 8 days and 9 nights (9/24-10/2), we got sunny weather and unbelievable views.
There was the occasional early evening shower, but I would highly recommend taking a late-monsoon-season gamble to avoid the crowds.
The Annapurna Wilderness is connected by an expansive network of trails that link the Circuit and Sanctuary treks. The Sanctuary is the shorter of the two, with the finish line of Annapurna Base Camp (A.B.C.) at 13,550ft and a 360-degree view of the range.
Only one trail leads up to A.B.C., but there are a couple ways to get to that single route (see below). Buy a map once you’re in-country, do a little research, and talk to locals and you’ll easily determine what works best for you. This is what we did:
Day 1: Phedi to Pothana
Hike time: 4hrs
Our 30min cab ride from Pokhara to the trailhead at Phedi cost 600Rs (Dhampus, where the trail winds through the village to meet a dirt road. After Dhampus it veers off again — this was the first and last road we came across.
Another 3.5-4mi from Dhampus is the village of Pothana (6,200ft). There are 5-6 guesthouses lining the trail that cuts through the middle of town. We stayed at Fishtail Lodge — great patio with a view of the peak of Machapuchare.
Day 2: Pothana to Jhinudana
Hike time: 8hrs
We gained and lost over 1,800ft multiple times throughout the day.
The morning was a quick 700ft climb to Bichok Duerali, where we were greeted by the impressive Annapurna South peak. Then began a slippery descent down hundreds of steep rock steps to the village of Tolka.
It had rained heavily the night before, so we had to take extra care with what was like stepping down giant ice cubes. Only one day in and you’re far from medical care. We ice skated down unscathed, entering Tolka (5,575ft), which wasn’t the best resting place so we breezed through.
The path levels out on the way to Landruk (5,135ft) and opens up to great views of the adjacent river canyon as you pass through terraced fields. Landruk is a big village and would be good for an overnight stay.
Dropping even more dramatically on the way down to New Bridge, you can hear the rush of the Modi Khola (khola = “river”) as you descend further into the canyon. Sections of trail were washed out here, and there were epic wooden suspension bridge crossings and waterfalls — we couldn’t help but stop and take pictures every 20yds.
We’d planned to stay in New Bridge (4,400ft), but accommodations looked less than stellar. Beat from 6hrs of up-and-down trail, we made one last push to Jhinudana (5,840ft), where the natural hot springs are. Jhinu has four lodges and we collapsed at the first one — Hotel Namaste. With good food and lots of rooms, it was a popular spot.
Day 3: Jhinudana to Bamboo
Hike time: 6hrs
We slept in, left gear in the room, and took the 15min stroll down to the hot springs for a morning soak. There are two big stone baths along the river, and we were the only ones there.
Leaving camp in the heat of mid-morning, we trudged up one of the steepest parts of the trek — the Chomrong stairs. It took about 1.5hrs to reach the village at the top — Chomrong (7,120ft).
I recommend a stay here for at least one night, either on the way to A.B.C. or back, as you have to come through it twice. The place has small billiard bars, stores, and nice lodging. Look for The Chomrong Cottage, which you’ll hit by heading downhill out of town. They were written up in Time magazine for their chocolate cake (seriously).
Descending out off Chomrong, we were on the only path that leads to and from A.B.C., and it’s another steep ascent to Sinuwa (7,745ft).
When you hit the first lodge, it’s not the ‘real’ Sinuwa, which is actually another 30min uphill. But the Sherpa Guest House has great food and nice innkeepers.
The trail steadily climbs over a 8,335ft pass, and then it’s downhill to Bamboo (7,578ft). This was an impressive stretch as the mountain fog rolled through the dense bamboo forests. In the afternoon we had to break out our raingear for the last hour of trail, which filled with water so quickly it was like walking down a creek bed.
Bamboo is a mellow little village. It’s close to the river, so in addition to the rainfall, everything feels a little damp and soaks into your gear. The only way to get warm and dry was crawling into sleeping bags.
Day 4: Bamboo to Duerali
Hike time: 4.5hrs
With an easy 1hr hike from Bamboo, we hit Dobhan (8,530ft), then kept on the muddy trail to Himalaya (9,580ft), which took another 2hrs. Both seemed good for a stayover, with plenty of lodging options…pre-peak season, at least.
An hour after Himalaya, you start to break out of the forest and transition into alpine meadows. It’s here we finally realized how high we were getting. The trail climbs into Duerali over large rocks and boulders. No more clear-cut stepping stones.
There are 3-4 lodges in Duerali, and we stayed at Panorama Lodge — great dahl baht and a friendly staff. We took a rest/dry/acclimatization day here.
Day 5: Duerali to A.B.C, via Machapuchre Base Camp (M.B.C.)
Hike time: 3.5hrs
Though A.B.C. is only at 13,550ft, it carries the mental weight of a 20,000ft summit day because of the distance you’ve traveled to get there and the height of the surrounding mountains. At 26,545ft, Annapurna I is the 10th-tallest mountain in the world. It’s summit success rate is much lower than that of Everest, and sadly the death rate is higher.
Machapuchare has never been summitted. It’s “only” 23,000ft, but its sheer peak faces obviously aren’t climber friendly. Moreover, Nepali lore has it that Machapuchare is the home of Shiva, who came to an ancient Nepali queen in a dream and forbade anyone from climbing it. After a British team came close in the late ’50s, the government declared the peak off limits. Many renegade climbers still try, but conditions always force them down.
In respect to the gods and our physical limits, A.B.C. was our aim. We left Deurali at 7:30am, getting us ahead of the crowds, and arrived at M.B.C. in less than 2hrs.
Here, the peaks really come alive. With tons of lodging at M.B.C., many people wake up early, hit A.B.C. for sunrise, and return. But I recommend staying the night at A.B.C. It’s a quick, beautiful 1.5hr hike up, and you’re fully submerged in 360 degrees of the Annapurna himals.
Arrive at A.B.C. before noon to get the view before the early afternoon clouds roll in. We stayed at Paradise Lodge. The sunset burned through to reveal a few late peak shots before dark, and we retired to get warm and rest for the sunrise show.