Nepal is famous for its hiking trails, and for good reasons: the mountain and hill scenery is unparalleled, as Nepal is home to eight of the fourteen highest mountains in the world. The infrastructure varies but is generally sound, and Nepali culture is a fascinating mix of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Many would-be travelers to Nepal have heard of the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna Circuit. These classic, popular treks are certainly worthwhile; they also tend to get crowded in the peak seasons. You don't have to go very far of the main circuits to find much more peaceful valleys and vistas that have been less touched by tourism.
Despite some misconceptions, you don't have to be a super-athlete to embark on a trek or hike in Nepal. There's a huge difference between mountain climbing and hiking. Moderate fitness and mobility are required because most Nepali trails are uneven and uphill. Still, anyone who regularly exercises should manage a hike in Nepal without too much trouble. Here are some of the best routes.
The Langtang Valley is about a day's drive north-east of Kathmandu, and the Langtang National Park touches the border with Tibet. It's quite a popular trekking area because it's accessible from Kathmandu, not requiring a flight to the trailhead or days spent traveling overland before you even start walking. The village of Langtang, deep in the valley, was destroyed by a landslide caused by the earthquake in April 2015 but is recovering.
A common route is to start in Syabrubesi, near Dhunche, and trek for two to three days up the river valley to the head of the valley at Kyanjin Gompa Langtang Lirung and Langtang Ri rise more than 23,000 feet. From Kyanjin Gompa, you can take side trips to the lookout above the village and a glacier a bit further up the valley. Kyanjin Gompa is at 12,467 feet. The Langtang Valley Trek is an in-and-out route, meaning you return via the same path. Budget seven days return from Kathmandu, minimum.
Other great hikes can be done in the Langtang area. The Tamang Heritage Trail follows a different path from Syabrubesi, doesn't rise too high in altitude, and focuses specifically on the culture of the ethnically Tibetan Tamang people of the area. The Gosainkunda trek also diverges from the main Langtang Valley path, leading toward the sacred, bright blue, high altitude Lake Gosainkunda.
Upper Mustang lies in the Himalaya's rainshadow, on the "other side," at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. This means that the landscape and climate are very different from much of the rest of Nepal, which lies on the southern side of the Himalayas. The culture is distinctly Tibetan, too. As it does not experience the monsoon, which is blocked from traveling north and reaching Mustang by the mountains, it's possible to trek here when other parts of Nepal are a washout.
Trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit pass through Lower Mustang after crossing the Thorung La. But, Upper Mustang lies further beyond. Kagbeni marks the border, and after this settlement, foreign travelers must hold a special (costly) permit to trek in Upper Mustang and be accompanied by a guide.
After flying from Pokhara to Jomsom (or taking the uncomfortable overland route), it typically takes five days to trek the 30 miles to Lo Manthang, the ancient walled capital of the Kingdom of Lo, and then back again. Lo Manthang is at 12,589 feet. The landscape is unlike anything most travelers will have seen before, with wide river valleys, barren mountains, and old hermit caves hewn into the cliffs.
Another area in the Himalayan rainshadow, Upper Dolpo is even more of an adventure to get to than Upper Mustang and requires a special permit and a guide. Few trekkers make it out here to Nepal's west, but those who do are rewarded with untouched mountain landscapes, empty trails, and Tibetan-derived culture. Book lovers may know of Dolpo from Peter Matthiessen's classic travelogue, "The Snow Leopard."
Tourist infrastructure is sparse in Upper Dolpo, so it's necessary to trek on an organized tour and take tents and food supplies. Trekking in Upper Dolpo requires traveling from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Pokhara to Nepalgunj, Nepalgunj to Juphal (a small mountain air strip), and then trekking for several days through Lower Dolpo and the Shey Phoksundo National Park first. Highlights of this long but rewarding journey include Lake Phoksundo, Shey Gompa, and high mountain passes.
If you don't have the time, stamina, or budget for the full Upper Dolpo trek, sticking to Lower Dolpo is also worthwhile.
The Manaslu Circuit trek offers many of the rewards of the busier trails but without the crowds. At 26,781 feet, Manaslu is the eighth-highest mountain in the world, and this trek encircles it. It starts by following the Budhi Gandaki River and rises through fertile farmland and forest to high-altitude passes, glaciers, and lakes. It can be completed in around 12 days, and teahouses line the route. Permits are required to trek here, as it is a restricted area, and you'll need a guide.
A worthwhile side-trip is to the Tsum Valley. Highlights include the working monastery of Mu Gompa, views of Ganesh Himal (24,000 feet), and the nerve-wracking cantilevered bridge bolted to the side of a cliff (where you may meet donkeys carrying goods), which was just completed in 2018.
North of Pokhara and beneath the higher, more distinctive Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) peak, Mardi Himal is a relatively easy trek by Himalayan standards. It's particularly suitable for older travelers and active kids and can be done in just four days. Views of Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Machhapuchhre are visible from Mardi Himal Basecamp; Mardi Himal itself is 18,330 feet high. Like other routes in the Annapurna Himalaya, the Mardi Himal trek is increasingly popular, meaning there are more accommodation and food options en route than ever before. However, it's still not as busy as the Annapurna Circuit.
If you want to enjoy the best of the Everest region and Sagarmatha National Park without the human traffic jams of the Everest Base Camp trek, the Gokyo Lakes Trek is a great alternative. The first few days follow the same trail to EBC, but then it diverges after Namche Bazaar. A major highlight is the view from Gokyo Ri (17,575 feet), across the turquoise Gokyo Lakes and across to Everest. Some people say that the Everest views from here are better than those from the EBC trek. It can be done in around 14 days.
Another way of experiencing the Everest region with a difference is to approach it via the Arun Valley. This is east of the Khumbu Valley (which leads to Everest) and between the Sagarmatha and Makalu-Barun National Parks. Starting with a short flight from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar, the first week of the trek passes through hill country inhabited by Sherpa, Rai, Chhetri, and Bahun people. It then joins the main EBC trek at Namche Bazaar, taking around 25 days.
In far-eastern Nepal, straddling the border with India, Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet) is the third-highest mountain globally and the second-highest in Nepal. Aside from hardcore mountain climbers, the Kanchenjunga area doesn't get so many visitors because it's a long way from Kathmandu and, until recently, there were no teahouses here.
The most popular trail takes 24 days and visits both the north and south base camps of Kanchenjunga. Shorter 18 or 15-day versions can be done, too. Starting in low-altitude sub-tropical valleys, the trail passes through rhododendron forests (colorful in spring), rises to high alpine pastures and the glaciers at the foot of the mountain, and you may even see eastern Nepal's best-loved animal, the red panda.
Panauti to Namo Buddha
Travelers seeking a short but challenging and rewarding day hike have many options around Kathmandu. The trail between Panauti and Namo Buddha begins just a couple of hours' drive from central Kathmandu. Starting in the ethnically Newar town of Panauti, with its well-preserved temples and townhouses, the trail climbs through the hills to Namo Buddha, a Buddhist pilgrimage spot with sweeping views north across the snow-capped Himalaya. Sections are steep, but the walk can easily be done in a day, and Namo Buddha is at just 5,741 feet.
Somewhat less busy than the Annapurna Circuit is the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. Instead of encircling the Annapurna range, this trail takes you to the foot of them, to Annapurna Base Camp (13,550 feet). It's named because the region is sacred to local Hindus, who believe this is the home of Lord Shiva. It's among the shortest of Nepal's major mountain treks, at 8-12 days, and easily accessible from Pokhara.
Nar Phu Valley
Another small area in the Himalayan rainshadow, the Nar-Phu Valley (actually two valleys) is between the Annapurna and Manaslu regions. Treks here can be done in under two weeks. The region was closed to visitors until 2002, and still few people come here. Like other areas in the rainshadow and on the Tibetan Plateau's edge, the culture here is Tibetan Buddhist. While parts of the landscape are barren, it's also significantly different from Upper Mustang, with forests, river valleys, and narrow canyons. Trekkers can also visit small monasteries and villages. Teahouse and homestay accommodation are very basic here, and the trail connects to the main Annapurna Circuit trek.
Often called the most challenging trek in Nepal because of the number of nights where it's necessary to sleep above 16,000 feet, the Dhaulagiri Circuit is one for very experienced, very fit, and very well-prepared trekkers. If you tick those boxes, the expedition-style Dhaulagiri Circuit could be highly rewarding.
Dhaulagiri (26,795 feet) is the seventh-highest mountain globally and presents a dramatic, somewhat pyramidal shape from some angles. The Dhaulagiri Circuit is a camping trek, and it is sometimes necessary to camp in the snow. As it is not within a restricted area, you aren't required to trek with a guide, but it's strongly recommended that you do so because of its difficulty.