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The Perfect Circle: Hiking the Annapurna Circuit

Nepal's Annapurna Circuit can't compete with the world's best treks for lavish huts, extreme solitude, and sumptuous cuisine. So why is it still number one? Let us count the reasons.

Going off about how this is the sweetest trek in the world is like naming The Grateful Dead your new favorite band. What a discovery! Such bold taste!

Fact is, the Annapurna Circuit is so well-known it’s as much cliché as trek. The 128-mile horseshoe-shaped route circles Nepal’s heaven-high Annapurna range, and it’s been hailed as the holy grail of trekking since it was first opened to foreigners in the early 1980s. Travel writers and hikers everywhere gush about the trail, even as others discover unknown life-listers elsewhere. There are treks that are more rugged or more remote, huts that are more luxe, pilgrimage sites that are more holy, wildlife that’s more exotic, and even scenery–sacrilege!–that’s more beautiful. Can another trail please step up and swipe Annapurna’s crown?

Afraid not. After hiking the circuit myself last fall, with my wife Emily on our honeymoon, I must join the chorus of Annapurna groupies. It’s simply the best. Here’s why:

It Gets Better Every Day

For instant gratification, go to New Zealand. You’ll be able to snap photos of the postcard-perfect mountains from the trailhead. But compared to such instant-access treks (the bon-bons of the hiking world), the Annapurna Circuit is a 12-course dinner.

It starts with jungle–a monkey-and-banana tree tangle that’s a total shock even if you’ve been forewarned. Sweat pours off us like rain as we climb through terraced rice fields carved out of greenery. Two days later–where are the mountains?–we walk through a canyon so narrow and deep that direct sunshine only penetrates at noon. A day after that, we’re in pines so tall and dense, I think of Oregon.

Finally–slowly–the high Himalaya emerges in sneak peeks and tantalizing vistas. And then the big magic: On our 10th day, as we approach 17,768-foot Thorung La, the highest point of the circuit, suddenly there’s nothing but mountains. We’re alone in a choppy sea of 20,000-foot peaks. Spindrift unfurls off four of the world’s 10 highest summits, which loom on every horizon, their fluted walls reflecting the sun’s rays so brightly that they burn ridgeline silhouettes into our retinas. When Annapurna III and Gangapurna come into view, I have the same feeling in my chest that I had the first time I peered into the Grand Canyon: a light, wide-eyed inhale of surprise. Sounds and smells fade; my vision sharpens. I can see every minute feature on those corrugated ice-and-rock walls. I’m just a pair of eyes, floating amid the peaks like a helium balloon.

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