The Nepalese Himalayas is one of the world's greatest trekking destinations. It is a land of snow peaks and fluttering prayer flags, yak caravans and epic mountain adventures.
Many of the trekkers that flock to Nepal test themselves on two classic walking expeditions: the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks. But many excellent hikes hide in the shadows of these two treks, promising fewer crowds and greater solitude -- and also the chance to make a positive difference in the poorest areas of the country.
From the rolling country of the Himalayan foothills to seriously high-altitude treks on rock and ice, many of these lesser-known routes have been united under the banner of the Great Himalayan Trail, which officially opened in September 2011 in a bid to encourage tourists to explore more of the country. In the Nepal section alone there is a mind-blowing 1700km of tracks, divided into 10 different sections. Below, ordered from west to east, is a selection of the best of them.
The largest body of water in Nepal, Rara Lake is the sparkling azure centrepiece of Rara Lake National Park, Nepal’s smallest and least visited protected area, in the country’s far west. The few trekkers who make it here fly in to Jumla and then walk this 10-day journey expedition style. You will need to organise tents, supplies and help to carry it all. The park itself is abundant with wildlife, including Himalayan black bears, red pandas, jackals and otters, and magnificent tall Himalayan cedars full of chattering birds.
Dolpa’s desolately beautiful landscapes were first brought to the outside world through Eric Valli’s magical 1999 film Himalaya, and this region is still rarely visited by trekkers – especially in the spring and summer months. This two-week trek climbs through alpine meadows to the harsh, high-altitude deserts of the Tibetan Plateau, taking in jewel-blue Phoksundo Lake, Nepal’s highest waterfall and two strenuous passes more than 5000m high. The people of this remote region live in a world dominated by their Buddhist faith and the pre-Buddhist Bön tradition. Walkers can visit gompas (temples) and can do homestays in villages. Blue sheep and snow leopards are sometimes spotted here.
Jomsom to Mustang
This 12-day trek follows an ancient trade route to the walled city of Lo Manthang. Visitors fly in to Jomsom and follow the route through arid, wind sculpted terrain, past stone villages, Buddhist gompas, stupas and cave temples, and into welcoming guesthouses for steaming cups of Tibetan yak-butter tea. This is an accessible trip for less experienced trekkers as the maximum altitude reached is only 4070m, and parts of the route can be travelled by jeep and on horseback. Coming to this part of Nepal feels like secretly entering Tibet. It is an incredible cultural and historical immersion, with spectacular mountain scenery as the backdrop.
Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Community Trail
On this nine-day route you climb from the deep Khali Gandaki Valley on narrow village pathways used almost only by locals. The track crosses moss-swathed rhododendron forests where tigers and bears still roam, and climbs 3600m to Khopra Ridge for arguably the best view over the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri. You can overnight in village homestays and small community lodges, and profits from visitors’ stays go into improving the local schools.
Kanchenjunga Base Camp trek
In the far eastern corner of Nepal, close to the border with India and Sikkim, part of this strenuous walk can be done as a teahouse trek (sleeping bags essential) or the whole route can be done as a camping expedition. The route, which takes approximately 20 days, crosses forest-shrouded hillsides that are home to the greatest variety of butterflies and birdlife in the Himalaya, and threads through remote, narrow valleys to the foot of 8586m Kanchenjunga (Tibetan for 'five great treasure houses of snow'). The trek is famous for its wild nature and for Sherpa hospitality. You will be offered tongba, a warming mountain pick-me-up of fermented millet and hot water, served in a wooden pot and sipped through a straw.
Numbur Cheese Circuit Trail
This 16-day circuit in the Ramechhap region, only 100km east of Kathmandu, follows part of Sir Edmund Hillary’s approach trail to Everest. The walk is as much a cultural experience as it is a foot journey: the local Sherpas make yak-milk cheese and accommodate visitors with homestays. This trail is truly off-the-beaten-path trekking, as it passes through isolated communities, giant rhododendron forests and alpine wilderness. The highest point of the journey is Gyajo La (4880m) where you might even glimpse an elusive snow leopard.