The Great Himalaya Trail has two recommended routes, the high route and the low route. Locals often refer to them as the mountain route and cultural route. Hikers might choose to do one or the other, but I did a combination of both.
The high route and low route are more like guidelines than official routes. There are hundreds of paths throughout the Himalaya. As the maps state, “Every trail is the trail.”
What’s the difference between the high route and low route?
Great Himalaya Trail High Route
The high route seems to be the path most Great Himalaya Trail hikers plan to walk. The main appeal to the high route is the incredible scenery. Views of snow-capped mountains regularly dominate the horizon. You take on passes that are upwards of 18,000 feet. Some sections of the trail are barren and remote, with hardly any people for miles. The high route also takes you through some awesome sections of trail, like Makalu Base Camp, the Everest region, the Annapurna Circuit, and Dolpa.
Every now and then I’ll come across a blog or social media post by a hiker declaring, “I’m going to take on the Great Himalaya Trail high route solo, no guides.” Well, no you’re not. Not exactly.
There are a few sections of the high route where guides are mandatory. These sections are Kanchenjunga, Manaslu, and Upper Dolpa. Guides are also required for the three technical passes that connect the Makalu and Everest regions. I don’t think anyone’s checking on the latter, but the technical passes are dangerous and it would be a terrible idea to go guide-less if you’re inexperienced.
Sometimes hikers hire a guide to come meet them at the check posts, then part ways once they have entered the restricted areas. These sections of trail are far from Kathmandu, and you still have to pay for the guide’s transportation and a few days of services to get through the check posts.
Furthermore, I’ve been told that trekking agencies can get black listed and lose their license for doing this. It doesn’t promote sustainable and responsible tourism. I think this practice will probably be shut down as the Great Himalaya Trail picks up in popularity.
The high route requires lots of different permits. Almost every region has it’s own national park or conservation area permit, and they typically cost $20-30 per person. Expect to spend at least $270 on permits for the high route.
A note about Upper Dolpa: There are technically two high routes though Upper Dolpa. The northern most route comes with a $500 per week permit fee per person and a mandatory guide. The southern high route through Upper Dolpa does not require a guide, and the permit is $10 a week.
The high route will be more costly to hike than the low route. This is mainly because of costs for hiring guides, and there are more permits to pay for.
Sometimes you will be camping and sometimes you will be staying in guest houses. Expect to pay about $20 to stay at a guest house on the high route. This includes breakfast and dinner. If there is a road close by, the price per night will be about $15. Porters, yaks, and mules carry supplies in. This is a factor in determining prices.
Great Himalaya Trail Low Route
The low route is a cultural experience, to say the least. We were the spectacle of every village we passed through for much of our time on the low route. People would run out of their homes to see us. If we spent the night in a village, it seemed like every local would stop by at some point to have a look and greet us with a smile. This would be a great route for extroverts and those looking to dive into a different culture. I got overwhelmed at times because I generally dislike being the center of attention.
I initially assumed the low route would be the easier of the two, but I could not have been more wrong.
The elevation changes on the low route are drastic and relentless. Plan on gaining or losing 3,000-5,000 feet of elevation a day, everyday. Passes on the low route can be as high as 14,000 feet, so it’s not really that “low”.
Much of this route goes through jungles, and the heat and humidity is unbearable at times. When I started my hike in late-March, the weather was already hot on the low route. I imagine the low route could be hiked any time of year, although I would not recommend doing it in summer.
Guides and Permits
I’m not aware of any sections of the low route where guides are mandatory. It can be hiked entirely independently, as far as I know. The permit costs are also low. There are a few conservation areas where you pay upon entry, and you will need a GHT TIMS permit (about $20).
The low route is inexpensive. Literally in our first two weeks in Eastern Nepal, Buckey and I spent $100 total. There are lots of guest houses around because locals stay there too when traveling. Usually on the low route, there are dirt roads close by. This keeps the cost of supplies and food down. Prices have not been inflated due to tourism because foreigners rarely trek along the low route.
Plan on spending about $10 a night for accommodation and meals. Sometimes it will be much less. Our cheapest guest house stay came to $3 for both of us.
Buckey and I did a combination of the two routes. Essentially, we stuck to the low route during spring and the high route during summer.
We started our trek in mid-March on the low route. As much as I wanted to go to Kanchenjunga, we didn’t want to pay for a guide for our first three weeks and we had heard there was lots of snow in the region anyway.
From far east in Nepal to the town of Khadbari (south of Makalu-Barun National Park), we followed the low route. From Khadbari, we made a two week side trip to Makalu Base Camp.
Afterwards, we continued along the low route through the Solokhumbu region until reaching the village of Jiri (south of Sagarmatha National Park). From Jiri, we made our first trip back to Kathmandu via the local bus so we could resupply and take some rest days.
From Jiri, we hiked to the Last Resort to link up with the high route. Our intention was to take the high route into the Lang Tang region. However, we reached Panch Pokhari and the weather was too bad to hike over Tilman’s Pass. We hiked into a village called Bhotang and caught a bus back to Kathmandu.
We skipped the Lang Tang section. It would have been logistically difficult to backtrack and hike it, and we really needed to be making forward progress. Instead, we moved our resupply bags to Pokhara.
We hired a guide for the Manaslu Circuit. The Manaslu and Annapurna regions are entirely guest house treks. We stored our camping gear in Pokhara at our hotel so we could carry lighter packs.
After trekking across Manaslu and the Annapurnas, we took a bus from Jomsom back to Pokhara. Dolpa would be our last section, and we would need to lots of food supplies to get through. We hiked the southern high route from Jomsom to Phoksundo Lake via Dho Tarap. From Phoksundo, we took the low route to Jumla in order to avoid the $500 permit zone in Dolpa.
Jumla was the end point for our trek. You can also keep going into the Far West.
I’m happy with the Great Himalaya Trail route we chose to take. It allowed us to get both the cultural and mountain experience. We got to avoid some of the springtime snow and the summertime heat. It was also good as far as sticking to a budget went because we opted to only hike in one of the mandatory guide regions.
Is the Great Himalaya Trail high route or low route most appealing to you? Would you pick one or the other or do a combination?