Hiking the Poon Hill Circuit, in Nepal, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
I never miss an opportunity to hike. It is a fantastic way to get close to nature, to learn more about the history, culture and way of life of a country, and even to meet other travelers. I have spent most of the first half of 2017 hiking. More than that, I have done several multi-day hikes.
Then, I walked the Jesus Trail in Israel, an experience I got to share with my friend Eyal. It was a great adventure, despite the fact that we kept getting lost – but that’s part of the experience, right?
Finally, I went to Luxembourg to walk and bike the Mullerthal trail, and realized that this country has a lot more to offer than what most people might think.
And when I was not traveling, I was doing day hikes around Sardinia, where I live, to get spectacular views over beaches that couldn’t otherwise be reached.
Anybody else would have been quite happy with this amount of hiking, but I am always looking for more. So when I was given the chance to go hike in Nepal last May, I didn’t think about it twice and next thing I knew I was boarding a flight to Kathmandu. After all, everyone kept telling me that 2017 is the year to travel to Nepal.
The Poon Hill Circuit
Nepal is hiking paradise. Anybody who loves hiking as much as I do will end up going to Nepal at some point. The Annapurna Base Camp and the Everest Base Camp are the most popular hikes, for obvious reasons, but they to require a high level of fitness (which I may have) and a long time to be walked. I am dreaming of walking them, but I didn’t have much time to do so this time around.
I was glad to walk the Poon Hill Circuit, an incredibly scenic and somewhat challenging multi-day hike that starts in Nayapul and goes through the tiny mountain villages of Tirkhedunga, Ghorepani, Tadapani, to eventually reach the lovely Ghandruk and then lead back to Nayapul.
The Poon Hill Circuit hike goes through a variety of climates and landscapes (from temperate forest to rice terraces and alpine region), and it gives the opportunity to encounter different cultures and ethnicities. More importantly so, throughout the hike the views of the Annapurna South are spectacular.
It is a challenging yet rewarding hike. On some days, the hike is almost completely uphill, which is hard on the lungs and on the quadriceps. On others, there are a lot of downhills, which on the other hand is hard on the knees. Add to this that it may (and will) rain and the trail becomes incredibly muddy, and it’s easy to imagine how hard it is.
In a way, the experience reminded me of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in terms of climate variations and walking, although the sleeping and eating arrangements on the Poon Hill Circuit hike are ten times better (more on that later). Even the companionship that was quickly created among the members of the group was similar to that experienced on the Inca Trail.
To find out more about the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, check my post “Inca Trail Dos and Donts.”
Hiking the Poon Hill Circuit was a fantastic experience. I am glad I’ve done it and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody who enjoys hiking. The following is a report of my experience. There also are some tips for those who are planning to go.
Hiking the Poon Hill Circuit
Day 0: from Kathmandu to Pokhara
Pokhara is the typical starting point of hiking and adventure expeditions in Nepal. It can be reached by bus from Kathmandu, on a ride that can take anything between 5 and 9 hours; or by plane, on a flight that lasts no more than 30 minutes and that offers spectacular views of the Himalayas.
Pokhara is thought to be the adventure and tourism capital of Nepal. It is located at around 900 meters above sea level, and with a population of roughly 450000 people.
Unless catching a flight, the best way to travel from Kathmandu to Pokhara is by breaking the trip to do some fun activities along the way. I went rafting in the Trishuli river, starting in Charaudi (about 3 hours drive from Kathmandu). Between the actual rafting and the jumping in the river, I had a real blast.
Pokhara is a pleasant place where to spend a few days in preparation for the hike (there’s many shops to stock on gear for the hike) – or to go back to afterwards. It’s main attractions are a beautiful lake, that offers splendid sunset views and where it is pleasant to walk around; the International Mountain Museum, which has a great exhibit that takes visitors through the most famous expeditions on the Himalayas, as well as the flora, fauna and cultures of Nepal; and the World Peace Pagoda.
Where to sleep and eat in Pokhara
Being such a major tourist hub, there’s a great selection of places to stay and eat in Pokhara. I slept at Swapna Bagh Hotel, which has good sized rooms with comfortable beds and powerful showers, a small but nice pool, and a good onsite restaurant. Moondance is one of the best restaurants in town, with a great selection of local and international dishes (think burgers, steaks and fabulous desserts).
Day 1: from Pokhara to Tirkhedunga
The first two hours of the day 1 of the Poon Hill Circuit hike are spent driving from Pokhara to Nayapul, the actual starting point of the hike, which is located at around 1000 meters above sea level. Nayapul if where everyone stops to get the permits to hike.
Once past the bridge, the real walking starts, first to Birethanti, which is at 1065 meters above sea level; and then all the way to Tirkhedunga, which is at over 1500 meters above sea level. The hike around around 4 to 5 and it is a combination of flat and slight to steep uphill walk.
The views on the first day of the Poon Hill Circuit are lovely, though by far not nearly as spectacular as those of the other days. The mighty peaks of the Himalayas make a couple of appearances, but they look like a far away dream.
The trail initially follows a dirt road, so it is not uncommon to cross paths with motorbikes, jeeps, trucks and local people on their daily errands. It then goes through beautiful bamboo forests and pasture land (cows and buffaloes are a common sight). For a while, it follows the banks of Bhurungdi Khola river, which is quite a sight with lovely natural pools where kids jump to cool down.
Eventually, the trail goes past a beautiful large waterfall and it finally reaches the tiny Tirkhedunga, a lovely village to rest after a hard day of walking.
What to expect
As I have said before, the sights on the first day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike are pretty, but not nearly as spectacular as they get the following days.
During my hike, there weren’t many people on the trail. My group and I occasionally met a local going to the opposite direction, and very few tourists along the trail. This may well be due to the season – I walked the Poon Hill Circuit at the very end of May, which is supposed to be the start of the monsoon season and hence low season for tourism.
The first day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is supposed to be the shortest and easiest, yet it was the hardest one for me. While the climb and the walk were technically easy, the heat was almost unbearable. I am not sure it is like that the rest of the year – it may well be a seasonal thing. Either way, be prepared with lots of sunblock, a hat, and lots of water.
Where to sleep and eat
Ramghai Evergreen Hotel is a good place for lunch. It has a lovely terrace overlooking the river, and while waiting for lunch to be ready, it is possible to relax in the beautiful garden or to walk all the way to the river to soak the feet in the incredibly clear water. Food is plain, but good – expect a selection of international dishes such as fried rice, and local ones such as the unmissable dahl baht.
Laxmi is a good tea house to sleep and eat in Tirkhedunga. It is very basic – as the rest of the tea houses along the way. There’s various very basic twin rooms, with electricity (but no sockets, so batteries have to be charged at reception); a toilet on the upper floor, and one on the ground floor, where there’s also a shower with hot water.
Day 2: from Tirkhedunga to Ghorepani
The second day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is spent climbing all the way to Ghorepani, going from an elevation of 1500 meters above sea level to one of almost 2900 meters above sea level. That should already explain a lot about the difficulty of the day. It takes about 7 hours to hike the entire way, including the breaks.
Leaving bright and early from Tirkhedunga, the first 10 minutes of the hike are spent walking downhill. Then, past a bridge and having crossed the Bhurungdi Khola river, begins the climb uphill to the Magar village of Ulleri, where groups generally stop for a well deserved break.
The next break is for lunch, and after that, it is once again uphill walking all the way to Ghorepani.
Descriptions of the second day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike talk of around 3800 steps uphill. Someone in my group decided to count them, and by the time we reached Ghorepani she had reached well over 5000.
Finally, on day 2 of the Poon Hill Circuit hike, the views open up to reveal the peaks of the Annapurna South. The pastures and cultivated fields I saw the day before soon give way to an incredibly thick forest of oaks and rhododendrons.
The area seems to be too steep for villages to be built, but there are a few houses spread here and there – proof is that there’s a few locals that go up and down the stairs, carrying weights or leading a bunch of mules. There must be a school too, for in the early morning children are running all over in what seem to be school uniforms.
What to expect
The second day of the Poon Hill Circuit is hard – to many, it is painfully difficult. But I actually think it is totally doable – and it is not nearly as hot as on the first day. I always say that if I could do it, anybody can. It does take a decent level of fitness, but more importantly what is needed is will power. In other words: I am stubborn and there was no way I would not make it to the top.
The good thing of hiking the Poon Hill Circuit in a group and with a guide is that members of the group support each other, and the guide is always ready to help, and to give information on what to expect next. I was really lucky with my group: we were all exhausted, but we joked about it, we cheered each other up, we shared snacks and stories that made us forget the pain of walking over 5000 steps uphill.
I walked the last bit of the trail on my second day under the rain, and made it to my tea house just in time before a storm raged and it started pouring. At the end of May, rain can be expected at any time, every day.
Because of the increase in the altitude (almost 1400 meters difference from the starting point), altitude sickness symptoms may occur once in Ghorepani. I was lucky enough to only experience a bit of lack of appetite, and I didn’t sleep too well that night. Others in my group experienced nausea and headaches.
Where to sleep and eat
Green View Lodge in the village of Banthati is a good spot for lunch. They have a nice terrace with tables outside, as well as seatings inside in case of rain. The food is ok – pretty much the same variety and standard as throughout the rest of the hike.
In Ghorepani, Hotel See You is a good tea house with comfortable large rooms – mine had a huge double bed and windows on two sides, so I had an incredible view of the mountains. Rooms even have sockets to charge batteries. The toilets are on the upper floor (there’s both regular ones and squat toilets) and hot showers are downstairs.
Hotel See You has a fantastic common room, incredibly cozy and with large windows for great views. There’s also nice stove that heats around which guests can sit, and a couple of cats that roam around, much to my entertainment (I love cats!). There is a good menu (which includes pancakes for breakfast).
Day 3: from Ghorepani to Tadapani
The third day of the Poon Hill Circuit is the best one in terms of sights. On this day, I had to wake up at 3:30 am and set to walk at 4:00 am, for a steady uphill hike of one hour to finally reach Poon Hill.
Once at the top, at an elevation of 3200 meters above sea level, it is possible to admire a fantastic sunrise over the Annapurna South range. There’s even a kiosk that serves tea, coffee and masala chai – which will be needed, to warm up against the bitter cold.
After about an hour at the viewpoint, the walk back to Ghorepani begins (around 45 minutes downhill), in order to have breakfast, pack the bags and start walking to Tadapani, which is at about 2650 meters above sea level.
Although the difference in elevation between Ghorepani and Tadapani is minimal, the first part of the day is spent walking uphill, and after lunch begins a steady downhill walk. The walk from Ghorepani to Tadapani takes around 6 hours.
The sights on the third day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike are simply spectacular, and had me going “wow” several times. This is when I finally got to admire the entire Annapurna South Range, from various points of view – first and foremost that of Poon Hill.
Poon Hill was actually completely covered in haze when I arrived, and the view completely blocked. Apparently, it is like that most of the time, and on certain occasions it rains too. I know that a friend that started her hike just a day after I did, did not even walk uo as it was pouring rain.
My guide Sanjaya actually explained that there are only 25% chances for the haze to clear. I guess I was lucky, the haze quickly dispersed to reveal the most incredible mountains.
The view remained beautiful for the rest of the morning – I continued to admire the mountains until I walked through the forest to reach the tiny village where I had lunch. By the time I got there, however, it was pouring. It kept raining until I made it to Tadapani.
Once in Tadapani, the rain continued for a good while, until it cleared for a couple of hours and I went out to admire the incredible view once again.
What to expect
The third day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is hard due to the incredibly early wake up call (after an almost sleepless night due to the altitude), the steady uphill walk for the first part of the day and the incessant rain that makes it almost impossible to recognize the trail – at times I felt like I was actually walking on a creek.
After lunch, begins a steep downhill walk which is made all the more difficult under the heavy rain. Despite wearing appropriate gear (hiking boots, rain proof jacket, etc) by the time I made it to Tadapani I was completely soaked.
The third day is also the one during which I met more people: there was quite a crowd (not even remotely overwhelming) in Poon Hill, and I met a few people hiking in the opposite direction – they must have made Ghandruk their first stop on the hike.
Where to sleep and eat
I had lunch at the Tranquility Hotel in Naghethati. The menu was no different from that offered in other tea houses, and the service too (painfully slow when hungry). The place is actually very cozy, and the food good.
In Tadapani, I stayed at Fishtail View Top Lodge, a plain tea house with simple twin rooms set around a nice courtyard, and toilets and showers (actually piping hot) outside. The dining room at Fishtail View is nice and cozy, with a stove against which everyone hangs their wet clothes. There’s also a cat that roams the area and that enjoys a bit of attention.
Food at Fishtail View is good – the menu is the same one of other tea houses on the Poon Hill Circuit. The good news, however, is that real filter organic coffee is available here – as opposed to all other tea houses which only offer instant coffee. To a coffee lover like me, it was a real treat.
Day 4: from Tadapani to Ghandruk
The fourth day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is an easy one compared to the others. Walking time is about 3 hours, and most of the walk is downhill. After an initial short climb through the thick forest, the trail pushes along to offer more incredible views and it eventually reaches Ghandruk, which is at 1950 meters above sea level.
Ghandruk is generally reached by lunch time. Once there, it is necessary to walk through the village and eventually hike all the way up to where most of the tea houses are located. The bonus is the possibility of actually visiting a village (one of the largest in the area).
The day starts with the incredible view of the Annapurna South from Tadapani. The day I was there, it rained throughout the night so I didn’t get to see the sunrise – which would have required to literally just walk out the door to the terrace.
The trail moves along beautiful flatlands, forests inhabited by monkeys (keep quiet and look up so as to spot them) and agricultural fields (I spotted some rice patties and some cabbage patches). It then crosses a suspension bridge over Khumnu Khola, and there are beautiful views of the creek. It also goes through an incredibly scenic tea plantation.
Yet the most interesting part of day 4 of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is the possibility of visiting Ghandruk and getting to know more about its people, its tradition and its culture. Ghandruk is a Gurung village famous for the leading role of women. These assumed leading positions in the every day life and in the political and social aspects of the village once the village men had joined the British army.
In the village, there is a lovely small museum and a nice temple.
What to expect
The fourth day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike is an easy one. It is mostly downhill (save for the bits inside the village). Personally, I prefer to hike uphill as I find it much easier on my legs and once I get into the rhythm of it I can keep a steady pace. But at least it is a short hike (only 3 hours) after which the rest of the day is spent chilling in the tea house admiring the view of the mountains, reading, chatting, eating, sipping tea and eventually stepping out to visit Ghandruk.
Where to sleep and eat
In Ghandruk, I ate all my meals and slept at Snowland Lodge. The place actually is a gorgeous traditional building and the views from the garden are just unreal.
I had a small basic twin room with electricity located on the first floor, which I could reach via a narrow, rickety wooden staircase. There also are larger rooms that fit up to 5 people. Toilets (only squat) and showers with hot water are outside.
There also is a nice dining room, with meals cooked to order. The menu is similar to those offered by other places along the hike.
What makes Snowland Lodge an incredible place to stay, aside from the spectacular views over the Annapurna South, is the incredibly kind staff. Everyone there is most welcoming, to the point that they organized a small party for my group, where we were all invited to dance and sing. It was actually quite fun to dance to traditional and international tunes, in the middle of the mountains of Nepal – an experience I will never forget.
Day 5: from Ghandruk to Kimche
On the last day of the Poon Hill Circuit hike I walked from Ghandruk to Kimche. Officially, the trail goes all the way back to Nayapul but the company that organized my hike had everything arranged so that a jeep would meet me and the rest of the group in Kimche and drive us all the way back to Pokhara.
After 4 full days of hiking, the one hour walk to Kimche literally felt like a walk in the park. The views were still very pretty, needless to say. The jeep ride afterwards may well be the bumpiest one I have ever taken.
General tips and information for hiking the Poon Hill Circuit
When to hike the Poon Hill Circuit
I hiked the Poon Hill Circuit at the very end of May, which is the beginning of the monsoon season and probably not the smartest time to hike. I kept getting wet in the rain and at times the clouds obstructed the view – though to be fair, every time they cleared the view was spectacular. The other side of the coin, however, was that it was never too cold, even at night, and that there weren’t many people on the trail as it was the end of shoulder season.
Having said so, March and April in the spring, and September, October and November in the fall are probably the best months to hike the Poon Hill Circuit, as the chances of rain are much less – however, especially in November and in March, it may get really cold (below zero) especially at night.
How to organize the Poon Hill Circuit hike
Those who wish to walk the Poon Hill Circuit independently may be glad to know that it is completely doable, and relatively easy to walk. Of course, it is necessary to arrange transportation from Pokhara to the starting point in Nayapul and back; arrange the hiking permits (two passport size photos are required for this, and depending on the season there may be a line at the office); and if walking in peak season it may be hard to find a place to sleep (the tea houses can’t be booked in advance, as they don’t appear in any booking engine).
The trail is mostly well marked, but there are some spots where one may get confused, take the wrong turn and ending up being lost. Which is why I wholeheartedly recommend not to hike the Poon Hill Circuit alone.
For the costs, these are some rough calculations:
- around 300 to 600 Rupees per night for a bed (on the basis of shared or private room);
- 100 Rupees for a hot shower;
- 100 Rupees to charge the phone and batteries;
- 100 Rupees for wifi (though it hardly ever works);
- between 200 and 400 Rupees for each meal
- between 50 and 100 Rupees for a liter of water (the costs increase with the altitude);
- between 400 and 500 Rupees for a half liter bottle of beer
Considering that the exchange rate is around 100 Rupees to $1 USD, the estimated daily cost of the Poon Hill Circuit hike can be anywhere between $15 USD and $30 USD per day, and of anything between $75 USD and $150 USD for the hike, to which the transportation and permit costs, as well as those of accommodation and food in Pokhara should be added.
On an organized hiking expedition
For the sake of making things easy, I would recommend walking the Poon Hill Circuit on a guided expedition. I did it with a company called Royal Mountain, with a lovely group of a total of 9 tourists (including myself), 2 English speaking guides (one of them always walked at the front of the group, and the other at the back), and three lovely, funny and incredibly helpful porters.
The entire trip costed $600 USD, which may seem a lot compared to the minimal costs of doing the hike independently. But keep in mind that these $600 include airport transfers, accommodation in Kathmandu and Pokhara, transportation to and from the starting point of the hike, meals, guides and porters.
I only had to add some extra money for water and whatever other drinks I may want along the hike.
I never had to worry about where I’d spend the night, and I had the comfort of two competent guides who can communicate with the locals (extremely important for me, with all my food allergies); of porters who carried my stuff (no more than 10 kg per person) – because trust me, the hike is hard enough without weight on the back; and the company of an incredibly fun and supportive group.
What to pack for the Poon Hill Circuit hike
My advice to anybody embarking on the Poon Hill Circuit hike is to pack as little as possible. This is not an occasion to show off any cool outfit, but to rejoice with nature and take a break from the stresses of daily life. And even when getting a porter, it is simply considerate to take as little as possible and making his life easier.
Having said so, spread between the daypack that I carried, and the duffel bag the porters carried, my packing list was as follows:
- A pair of really good hiking boots: I saw people walking in running shoes, but it does get slippery when it rains and having the extra ankle support helps.
- A pair of flip flops: they were essential to rest my feet after the hike, and to shower.
- Two pair of hiking pants: one of them was a pair of Kuhl quick dry pants; the other a plain pair of comfortable Kuhl pants.
- A pair of leggins I could change into at night. They were ok to go to dinner, and to sleep in.
- Three or four t-shirts: I had two colorful Kuhl cotton t-shirts as well as a couple in more technical material that dried quickly.
- A long sleeves t-shirt I used at night.
- Socks: I mostly carried cotton socks and I was ok since it wasn’t cold, but I also added a pair of hiking socks that had extra padding.
- A light sweater: I wore it at night, and when I walked to Poon Hill at sunrise.
- A rain proof jacket: I was sure that the one I had was water proof, but it wasn’t. It may have protected me against some light rain, but in the thick monsoon rain I ended being soaked to the bone. Make triple sure that the jacket is indeed water proof and carry an extra rain poncho just for good measure.
- My beauty case included the basics, to which I added a good sunblock(which I especially needed on the first day when there wasn’t much shade) and any possible drug I may need (I have asthma) and which I luckily didn’t need at all.
Other items I carried were:
- Toilet paper and wet wipes: it is not available in tea houses.
- A refillable water bottle: in an effort to reduce plastic waste, the Nepalese government encourages everybody to drink water that has been boiled and filtered.
- A sleeping bag: although all tea houses have blankets, they don’t always have clean sheets so a sleeping back, or at least a sleeping sheet, give some extra comfort.
- A quick dry towel
- A power bank
- Snacks: I had some protein bars; others in my group had trail mix or cereal bars.
Also, don’t forget to take some cash. There’s no ATM at all along the trail, and cash will be needed to pay for drinks and, at the end of the hike, to tip the guides and the porters (trust me, they will deserve it!).
Curious to know what I normally pack? Head over to read “My Ultimate Packing List.”
Accommodation and food along the Poon Hill Circuit
Throughout the Poon Hill Circuit hike, trekkers eat and sleep in tea houses – called bhatti in Nepalese. These are very basic guest houses with plain rooms – think two twin beds, and a small bed side table. There’s a light in the room but no socket for electricity. Toilets (usually squat) and showers (with an additional fee for hot water) are usually outside. There’s wifi for an extra fee, but it hardly works so it may be a good time to detox from internet and social media (unless carrying a local SIM card that receives well in the mountains too).
Interestingly, despite being so modest, the tea houses are incredibly cozy. It may be that by the time one reaches the room nothing matters other than having a hot shower and a bed to crash on; it may be the lovely atmosphere with the group – to me, everything was just as good as it could be.
Tea houses also cook meals. I was actually terrified that the food may be gross, too spicy, or that it may cause me some bad stomach infection. None of that happened – in fact, nobody in my group ever got sick.
Food is surprisingly good given the conditions, and there’s actually a really good selection of dishes. I often had the dahl baht; but other things on offer were fried rice, eggs, grilled chicken, soups, mac and cheese, pancakes to name just a few. It was luxury! The only thing that was missing for me was good coffee (I only had it in Tadapani). It may be a good idea to bring some ground coffee from home and just ask for hot water to brew it.
Soon after starting to hike on day 2, someone in my group noticed some weird looking bugs on the ground. We immediately realized they were leeches. We kept seeing them throughout the rest of the hike – it seems they come out more with the rain.
I was lucky none got on me, but following the advice of my guide Sanjaya, I always stayed on the trail and I banged my feet on the ground if I stopped in a place where they may be leeches long enough for them to crawl on me. It’s amazing how those little things can crawl on the legs without being noticed, and once they suck on the blood, they release a substance that doesn’t allow it to coagulate. Wearing hiking boots (rather than shoes), long socks and pants is generally a good idea to protect against them.
Altitude sickness is hardly an issue on the Poon Hill Circuit hike. The elevation never gets extreme. I wasn’t bothered at all. Yet, it is a good idea to drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and to take notice of any issues such as nausea or strong headaches and warn the guides if that is the case.
Final remarks and recommendations
Hiking the Poon Hill Circuit is not a race. It is a great occasion to take in the gorgeous mountain views, the beautiful nature of Nepal, and to get to know the local culture a bit better. It has to be an enjoyable experience, and it surely was to me.
I always recommend people to hike at their own pace, and once they find a suitable rhythm, keep at it. I am generally a fast walker, so I was always at the front of the group. But just as well, I would have not pushed myself to go any faster than I was going just for the sake of “getting there first.”
I enjoyed every minute of my Poon Hill Circuit hike, and I feel extremely lucky to have shared it with an incredible group of people: my experience was made much better by Aleah, Anna, Cathi, Nina, Staci, Charles, Dave and Tim.
Have you hiked the Poon Hill Circuit? What was your experience?
Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Nepal and PATA during my visit to Nepal. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
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