The Annapurna Circuit is one of the three most popular trekking and mountain biking trails in Nepal, and provides breathtaking views of the Annapurnas, Nilgiri Himal, Dhaulagiri Himal, Tilicho Peak, Upper Mustang and the Tibetan plateau at various points along the epic loop.
The literal high point of the circuit is the Thorung-La, which at 5,416 meters requires a steep uphill switchback climb. One drawback is that the ascent to the pass at times may become a bottleneck, especially in peak season, which is extra challenging if you are carrying a mountain bike. Other narrow sections of the trail can be difficult to negotiate during peak trekking traffic.
Luckily, there are a variety of lesser-known trekking and mountain biking opportunities that split off the Annapurna Circuit trail for the intrepid adventurer willing to escape from the crowds. For trekkers or visitors to Lower Mustang who flew or drove in to Jomsom, a number of day trips and multi-day trips also await cyclists at all levels.
Tilicho Tal trail from Manang
This epic challenge is suitable for experienced and acclimatized mountain cyclists. A day trip to the breathtaking Tilicho Tal (Lake) from Manang makes for an unforgettable side trip, and a break from the beaten path. At 4,920 meters, Tilicho is the highest lake of its size in the world, though there are numerous smaller but higher tarns (high altitude glacial lakes) in the Himalayas.
After reaching Manang from Besisahar by trekking or a combination of trekking and biking, most trekkers and bikers continue north from Manang to ascend the Thorung La (pass) and on to Muktinath. However, from Manang the western trail through Khangsar leads to Tilicho, and can be done in one long day or two days if staying near the lake at Tilicho Base Camp.
From Tilicho, it is possible to bike back to Manang to rejoin the traditional Annapurna Circuit toward Thorung La, or to continue west to Jomsom. Be advised that the trail down from Tilicho to Jomsom requires carrying the bike through a few rocky sections and stone steps before reaching Kalsang Army Camp and biking on the way down.
Tilicho Tal trail from Jomsom
An excellent day trip for those who wish for a taste of high altitude cycling starts and ends in Jomsom. Make an early start and climb east toward Tilicho Lake past Kalsang Army Camp in the morning, and bike down in the afternoon. Cyclists have to carry the bike on some of the steep sections on the way down. This can be a good, hard challenge for more experienced technical riders and adventure seekers, but there are multiple ways down on the motor road that are more suitable for less experienced cyclists.
Jomsom day loop through Dhakardzong
This day trip is a moderate challenge for intermediate and experienced mountain cyclists, as it has some difficult stretches, and is 90% cycling. From Jomsom, bike along the road to Kagbeni, but before reaching Ekle Bhatti, turn left after the bridge that crosses Pang Khola. Take the track that follows the Pang Khola up through Phakling to Phalyak, and then ascend toward the south through Dhakardzong. After climbing up the ridge about 150 meters from Dhakardzong to about 3500m, take in the view and enjoy the fun ride down back to Jomsom.
Day trip to Titi Tal from Jomsom or Marpha
There are alternate routes on this day trip for both beginners and experienced riders. From Jomsom, cross the river and head south past Chairo Tibetan Camp, where you can get a plate of momos or butter tea from the Chairo Tibetan Camp Community Cafe. After Kokhethanti, head left on the dirt road up to the east, toward Titi Tal (Lake). From the lake at Titi village, enjoy an incredible view of Dhaulagiri Himal, have lunch at one of the local tea shops, and make your way back to Jomsom or Marpha.
Marpha to Tatopani Bazaar
Some operators provide a great cycling alternative to trekking or taking the bus down from Marpha to Tatopani Bazaar. Tatopani offers a special treat to visitors: wonderful healing natural Himalayan hot springs. In one long day it is possible to ride all the way down to Tatopani Bazaar from Marpha, switching between the motor road and foot trails, passing between a number of charming villages and towns along the way. Enjoy a fantastic local Thakali Daal Bhat lunch in Lete or Ghasa on the way.
Multi-day cycling in Lower Mustang
This route is excellent for people coming in to Lower Mustang by road or the Jomsom flight from Pokhara, and includes a visit to the famous sacred temple of Muktinath. From Jomsom, bike to Kagbeni (at 2800m) to acclimatize and enjoy the ancient rammed earth and stone structures of the old town. The next day, ride to Muktinath (at 3710m), visit the holy shrines and bathe in the blessed waters of the temple grounds. The following day, take the path less traveled by riding over Lupra Pass (at 4000m) and down to Marpha, or return directly back to Jomsom. The final day of the tour may be spent enjoying Marpha (2600m), and heading back to Jomsom or down to Tatopani Bazaar the following day.
There are many other possible cycling routes for the creative adventurer, and more keep opening up as roads and local trails are improved.
It is strongly recommended to cycle with an experienced local guide, especially when taking lesser-known routes. Mountain bikes may be rented in Jomson, Muktinath, and Marpha. Enjoy cycling the road less traveled!
Article by Michael D. Smith and Pasang Tashi.
If this interests you, you might like to have a look at some of the other treks Royal Mountain Travel can offer in the area:
Inspired to learn more about this area? Have a look at Inside Himalayas:
10 Frequently Asked Questions about the Annapurna Circuit Trek; Tips for Photographing the Annapurna Circuit; Respecting Annapurna and its History; Manang the Jewel of the Annapurna Circuit; Lower Mustang, A Land of Lamas and Buddhism; The Road to Jomsom; 9 Reasons to Travel to Lower Mustang This Season; Upper Mustang: Travel to the Hidden Kingdom; Exploring Lo Manthang, Capital of Upper Mustang; Ice Climbing and Winter Adventures in the Annapurnas; Alone But Never Lonely: The Annapurna Circuit in Winter; The Road to Jomsom