5 off-the-beaten-path treks in Nepal

There’s no doubt about it, Nepal is opening up, with new areas being explored by trekking agencies every season as the government makes more permits available to encourage tourist income into poorer regions of the country. While the busy Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks still feature highly on the so-called ‘bucket lists’ of unimaginative backpackers (ie. things to do before they ‘kick the bucket’), more adventurous trekkers are finding quieter places to explore where the scenery is every bit as breathtaking.

Here are five such places I’ve been lucky enough to find over the last few years.

Naar and Phu

Buddhist stupa, juniper bushes and Pisang Peak in the land of Naar and Phu
Buddhist stupa, juniper bushes and Pisang Peak in the land of Naar and Phu

At the village of Koto, four days into the Annapurna Circuit trail, a river branches north through an amazing narrow, wooded gorge squeezing between sheer cliffs on a path which at times is hewn deeply into the rock. One part of the trail even passes underneath a waterfall. A day of walking through this magnificent corridor brings you out onto the desert landscape of the Tibetan plateau at the foot of Kangguru, a 7000m dome of snow, and it feels like you’ve crossed the Himalayan divide. This is the restricted area of Naar and Phu, close to Nepal’s northern border with Tibet, speckled with abandoned Khampa settlements. Two mediaeval villages can be found here, and walking through them feels like stepping back in time. North is Phu, with its peaceful monastery sitting on a hill above the village, and west is Naar, nestling underneath the north face of Pisang Peak. Three or four days of exploring in this remote region are guaranteed to relax the mind, and to cap it all off you can cross the 5322m Kang La pass back onto the Annapurna Circuit, and see the entire northern sweep of the Annapurnas, arguably the finest view in the Himalayas.

The Hongu Valley

Crossing a beach in the Hongu Valley, with the south face of Lhotse rising up behind
Crossing a beach in the Hongu Valley, with the south face of Lhotse rising up behind

Between the popular Khumbu trekking peaks of Mera Peak and Island Peak is one of the loveliest valleys in Nepal, the Hongu. In three amazing days of walking you can hike through rhododendron clad high altitude hillsides, pass a lake with a large sandy beach, wander through snow-laden Scottish moorland, pass a wide pebble-dashed plain formed by the Hongu river, admire the white walls of Kali Himal and Baruntse across the valley, look up at the black cliffs and icy summit of hemispherical Chamlang thousands of metres above, be awestruck by the massive black rock wall of Lhotse at the top end of the valley, with Everest peeping out behind it, and arrive at the glacier lakes of Panch Pokhari underneath the Amphu Labtse pass. The pass itself is one for climbers, involving ice climbing, rock scrambling and an abseil down the other side. What a fantastic place, and if you’re lucky you may not see a single other trekker.

You can read more about trekking in this region in my ebook Islands in the Snow.

Tamang Heritage Trail

Colourful stone house in Gatlang on the Tamang Heritage Trail
Colourful stone house in Gatlang on the Tamang Heritage Trail

An easy day’s bus drive north of Kathmandu is a quiet corner of the Himalayas involving a week’s worth of easy, relatively low altitude trekking among lush green valleys and hillsides. The Tamang Heritage Trail is beginning to develop as a tourist trek with a difference. Instead of tea house accommodation, like on the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp treks, this one specialises in homestay accommodation, an opportunity to stay with a family in a typical stone and wood carved cottage with communal kitchen, dining room and sleeping areas. Other highlights are the peaceful Hindu lake of Parvati Kund, the elaborately carved and painted houses of Gatlang, hot springs in Tatopani, and the viewpoint at Nagthali, looking out across the mountains of Langtang. If you want to extend your trek you can even walk back to Kathmandu via the sacred lakes of Gosainkund and terraced hillsides of Helambu.

You can read the story of my own journey to this area carrying out a reconnaissance trek for an adventure travel company in 2007.

Manaslu Circuit

Trekkers climb a precipitous rock staircase on the Manaslu Circuit trek
Trekkers climb a precipitous rock staircase on the Manaslu Circuit trek

Running parallel to the Annapurna Circuit’s Marsyangdi valley, the Manaslu Circuit’s Budhi Gandaki gorge is a far more narrow and dramatic river valley, at times converging to just a few metres wide as steep wooded cliffs rise up on either side. Many parts of the trail are hewn into cliff faces and climb high above the valley floor on remarkable rock staircases. It starts off at low altitude, 600m in Arughat, and rises through different climate zones to a high pass, the Larkye La at 5160m, before dropping back down again as it circles 8163m Manaslu through Buddhist country of stupas, gompas and prayer walls.

Much quieter and less developed than its famous neighbour, I wrote about it in more depth in my post Is the Manaslu Circuit the new Annapurna Circuit?

Makalu Base Camp trek

The awe-inspiring Makalu towers above the trail near Makalu Base Camp
The awe-inspiring Makalu towers above the trail near Makalu Base Camp

Another trek which begins almost at sea level before rising through climate zones until you stand right underneath one of the highest mountains on earth, the Makalu Base Camp trek is a tough one, but thoroughly rewarding, and Makalu is a staggering, terrifying mountain to gaze up and contemplate if you’re a mountaineer. The trail begins at Tumlingtar at 400m, rises up through a ridge of rice terraces, drops again to cross the warm and humid Arun valley, then passes through bamboo forest, rhododendron forest, juniper clad moorland, and over a couple of high passes before arriving in the very different Barun valley to continue its journey to base camp. The Barun valley part of the trail begins in pleasant green meadows, but quickly rises into an alpine zone of long ridges of lateral moraine.

This is a camping trek, but there are a couple of tea houses at base camp, where you can give yourself neck ache staring up at the black rock of Makalu nearly four vertical kilometres above you. It’s also worth boulder hopping up the Barun Glacier for an extra day beyond base camp to see the eastern side of Everest, a view of the world’s highest mountain that few people get to gaze upon. I passed this way on an expedition to Baruntse a couple of years ago, and wrote about the trek in detail in my diary The Tomb of Chewang Nima.

I’m only scratching the surface here. The desert land of Dolpo, forbidden kingdom of Mustang, the mountains of Rolwaling, Kanchengjunga Base Camps, and the lakes and forests of western Nepal, are all places I’d love to trek in at some point in the future, all of which are starting to gain tourist numbers. It’s one of those countries I go back to again and again, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.

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19 thoughts on “5 off-the-beaten-path treks in Nepal

  • March 1, 2012 at 12:57 am
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    Love this! Nepal is high on my list and I will def keep this post in mind when I plan my trip there

  • March 1, 2012 at 7:00 am
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    Thanks, Jade. Yes, I’d definitely recommend the quieter places over the tourist hot spots!

  • March 2, 2012 at 10:17 pm
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    Found your blog through your YouTube Channel! Just amazing adventures you are having. Envy you.

  • March 2, 2012 at 11:22 pm
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    Thanks, Sunish. The world is full of amazing places – I hope you’re able to see some of them too. 🙂

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  • April 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm
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    wonderful information, trekking in Sikkim this year, looks like i have to return to Nepal next year!!! and see for myself

  • April 6, 2012 at 12:19 am
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    Thanks, David. We should swap places then – I’ve not been to Sikkim, but would very much like to!

  • April 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm
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    These are great suggestions. I am going to put a link in my book, Nepal On A Budget, as a better value and I know the local people who have little contact with westerners are really amazing people. But the ones on the ABC trek are starting to use typical Thamel tricks like charging for hot water and not telling people in advance.

    One question: Are there as many temples and shrines along the way? Anything like festivals, woofing, hot springs, miracle healing lakes, sites of where the gods walked, forgotten craters from meteors, vortexes, etc along any of these routes? Although the book is finished I continue to update it and am always looking for better values for my readers.

    Get a peak at three important lists from the book at the following link or follow me on my extremely ‘thrifty’ adventures around the Kathmandu valley on my blog.
    http://www.myebookmaster.com/eng/books/flyer/938
    FrugalTravelsNepal.blogspot.com

  • April 14, 2012 at 5:05 am
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    Most of these things can be found in the remote places described here. For example, the Panch Pokhari sacred lakes can be found at the top end of the Hongu Valley, there are hot springs at Tatopani on the Tamang Heritage Trail, and we witnessed a Buddhist Bon festival at Naar village (described in my ebook The Summit Prince of Braga). I don’t know what woofing is though; I’ve heard of dogging, but I can’t imagine that’s what you mean. 😉

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  • April 12, 2015 at 7:39 am
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    Hi Mark, you might also be interested in this new, undiscovered trekking route that benefits marginalised people, see http://www.offthebeatentreks.org

    At present Duane and Joy have developed one destination , the hidden village of Garja Khani. There are four routes to get there, all equally beautiful.

  • Pingback: Why Nepal is the world’s best destination for solo trekking | Mark Horrell

  • February 24, 2016 at 6:40 am
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    Hi Mark
    You are a very lucky guy. I love Nepal but have only trekked the tourist routes. How difficult was it to climb Meru peak? I don’t have mountaineering skills but have trekked Kilimanjaro.
    How difficult is Makalu base camp relatively speaking.
    Thanks

  • July 15, 2016 at 8:04 am
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    Hi Mark

    Me and my fiance (both 26) are planning on trekking in Nepal next year. We did the Salkantay Trek (5000m) and the Inca trail this year and loved it. We are hoping to find a really quiet trek with plenty of variation and things to see (temples, monasteries, historical buildings, wildlife, glaciers, Everest etc) maybe with a maximum altitude of 6000m. We are hoping for about 8 days trekking and are happy camping. Could you recommend a suitable trek and some local, knowledgeable trekking guides?

    I appreciate your time and will be looking forward to hearing your advice.

    Thanks, Jamie

  • July 15, 2016 at 11:42 am
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    Hi Jamie, there’s not much you can do in Nepal in only 8 days. You’re looking at the Annapurna Sanctuary or Langtang, although I’m not sure about the status of the latter since the earthquake.

    To get all the things you’re looking for, ideally you need to give yourself 3 weeks.

  • July 16, 2016 at 5:52 am
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    Hi Mark

    Thank you for your quick response. If we made more time available, which less known trek would you recommend that best suits our requirements? We are happy with any accommodation option.

    Thanks again, Jamie

  • July 16, 2016 at 10:11 am
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    You could do the Tamang Heritage Trail in that case and try homestay accommodation. You could ask Siling from The Responsible Travellers, who I recce’d it with back in 2007. He will be able to update you on the status of the trail since last year’s earthquake: http://www.theresponsibletravellers.com/

  • August 3, 2016 at 9:01 am
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    do these alternative routes have access for solo trekking? I have done the annapurna circuit 3 times now, sanctuary once…, the fact that they, the authorities, force you to bring a guide along has untill now kept me from moving on to more remote areas. that said, the apc and sanctuary are beautiful places to trek, breathtaking, and you do not need a guide there. been to nepal 2 times a 3 months within the last year, mainly trekking. but let me know! is a guide forced upon you and your budget? I have a trekking guide education, do not want to go along with a nepali guide just because he is born in nepal, I have seen a lot of people bringing a guide on the circuit, they all end up trekkig at the pace the guide wants, they end up in the guides uncles hotel every day, will not stand for that. could my education as a trekking guide free me from the troubles of bringing a guide on the mentioned treks, have myself bought a lot of alternative trekking maps on my last visit, but what does it matter if there is bad energy between you and a guide because of his struggle to keep you on his “route of accomodation” and your own struggle to keep being in charge… SOLO TREKKING PERMITS?

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