More a concept than a tangible trekking trail per se, the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) is a network of existing trekking trails that run through the low, mid, and high Himalayan mountains. While the majority of the trails are in Nepal, they also reach into India and Bhutan. Together, the GHT is the longest, highest trekking trail in the world, spanning at least 1,000 miles. No single operator "runs" the GHT, but various organizations and companies work on the trails and with trekkers wanting to traverse them.
Nepal is well-known for its trekking trails, and its simple but good infrastructure that supports trekkers. Local residents have been cutting paths through the hills and mountains of the Himalaya for centuries. Since the mid-20th century, when Nepal opened up to outside visitors, trekkers have been following these same paths (and forging new ones), while staying in basic lodges (teahouses) or camping along the way.
Travelers needn't trek the whole GHT in one go. In fact, because of the seasonal conditions, altitude, and the fact that trekking in most parts of Nepal is limited to quite short windows in the spring and fall, it's best not to try to do the whole GHT in one go. But like many other long-distance treks throughout the world (New Zealand's Te Araroa, the Pacific Crest Trail), doing sections that add up to the whole over time is encouraged.
The GHT in Nepal has been divided up into 10 more manageable sections that focus on different regions of the Himalaya. These encompass very popular places, such as the Everest and Annapurna regions, as well as lesser-visited ones. These sections are (from west to east):
- Far West Nepal
- Rara and Jumla
- Annapurna and Mustang
- Manaslu and Ganesh Himal
- Langtang and Helambu
- Everest and Rolwaling
- Makalu Barun
There are two main options for completing the GHT: taking the "low route" or the "high route." They're also sometimes referred to as the mountain route and the cultural route, as the lower sections tend to have more villages. If you're doing the GHT in stages, you could even mix and match, which can help avoid the summer heat on the low route, and the winter snow on the high route.
The Low Route
As the name suggests, the GHT low route is a lower-altitude option. These trails mainly pass the pahar, the Nepali foothills of the Himalaya, which in themselves can still be quite high! For instance, Nepal's capital Kathmandu sits at an altitude of 4,593 feet, and the "hills" surrounding the valley reach up to 9,156 feet.
The low route is the more inexpensive of the two routes. This is partly because trekkers don't require pricey permits or mandatory guides anywhere on the low route. But it's also because the trails pass through more villages, and are closer to roads, so food and accommodation are easier to access, and therefore cheaper. It's common wisdom when trekking in Nepal that the higher in altitude you go, the more expensive the food and lodging.
Don't be fooled into thinking the low route is the easier of the two routes, though. Although the altitudes are generally lower than on the high route, there is a lot of up and down. Spending several hours slogging your way uphill just to find that your destination village is beneath you, at the altitude you started from, can be mentally and physically taxing! There are also some high passes to traverse. The lower lands of Nepal can also be very hot and humid at certain times of year, and can be very draining to walk through.
The High Route
While the high route is higher and takes more preparation for the conditions, once acclimatized to the altitudes, many trekkers may not find the walking as challenging as on the low route. Or at least, it's challenging in a different way.
The high route requires more permits than the low route, as it passes through more national park land and restricted territory. It's also essential to trek with a guide through parts of the high route, such as Kanchenjuna, Upper Mustang, and Upper Dolpo. Guides aren't required in the Everest and Annapurna areas, but permits are, and the cost of accommodation and food tends to be higher in these very popular places.
There are two possible routes through Upper Dolpo. The northernmost route requires a permit of $500 per week permit and trekking with a guide. The southernmost route, however, avoids this.
As an international trail, the GHT is more of a concept than a reality. Starting at Nanga Parbat in the western Himalaya in Pakistan and ending at Namche Barwa in the eastern Himalaya in Tibet, it's theoretically possible to traverse this 2,800 miles of mountain terrain.
But despite being close together, traveling between the South Asian countries where the Himalayan mountains lie is not straightforward, on foot or any other way. Due to geopolitical tensions, borders are tightly controlled, with the exception of most of the India-Nepal border. And even though the India-Nepal border is open to its own citizens, there are only several places where non-Indians and non-Nepalis are allowed to cross.
Trekkers on the GHT should not expect to walk right over a border, even (especially!) if that border is an imaginary line through mountainous territory. If you want to do sections of the GHT in different countries, you'll generally need to plan on driving or flying across borders. Some teams have trekked the whole GHT in one continuous go, but these have tended to be high-profile personalities (such as Sir Edmund Hillary's son, Peter Hillary, in 1981), or with international backing and sponsorship.
- Trekking the full GHT can take anywhere between 90 and 150 days.
- Most parts of the GHT can be trekked independently, without a guide or porters. Unless you're very experienced trekking in the Himalaya and speak Nepali (or other local languages), though, the help of a local guide and/or porter is a good idea, at least on some parts of the trail. They can ensure you have the right permits to enter national parks and restricted areas, secure accommodation in the more popular or more remote parts, and generally keep you safe.
- The greatest dangers trekking in the Himalaya are environmental: high altitude, snowfall, monsoon rains, earthquake risk, landslides, and hazardous road travel to reach the trailheads. Serious crime targeting foreigners in the Himalaya is rare. All reasonable precautions should be taken, and it's never advisable to trek alone, but there's no need to be overly concerned about assault or violent crimes.
- While not impossible, trekking the GHT in one go would require walking in the off-seasons. In Nepal, these are the winter (the higher in altitude, the harsher the conditions), and the wet monsoon, when views are obscured by rainclouds and some trails may be washed out. If you're determined to do the GHT in one go, make proper preparations for off-season trekking, and consult a proper tour operator with experience on the GHT.
- Certain parts of the Himalaya are off-limits to foreigners (and sometimes even locals), and/or require an extra permit to travel to. Border areas tend to be most sensitive, particularly at the India-China and India-Pakistan borders. Heavier police and army presence in these areas is usually a good indication that you're nearing a sensitive area. In Nepal, Upper Mustang and Dolpo require extra permits and fees. Some of these places can only be visited with a guide on an organized tour anyway, but are another reason why consulting tour operators is a good idea when planning a trek on the GHT.