Trekking north of Kathmandu is curiously underrated and relatively uncrowded. The most accessible of all the trekking regions, it’s well suited to one- or two-week itineraries. What it lacks in superlatives – there are no 8000m peaks in the vicinity (unless you count Shisha Pangma, across the border in Tibet) – it makes up for in base-to-peak rises that are as dramatic as anywhere. Langtang, in particular, delivers more amazing views in a short time than any other walk-in trek in Nepal, with the possible exception of the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Two distinct basins and an intervening lek (ridge) lend their names to the major treks here; each stands on its own, but given enough time and good weather you can mix-and-match them. Helambu is closest to Kathmandu, comprising the rugged north–south valleys and ridges that lie just beyond the northeast rim of the Kathmandu Valley. North of Helambu, running east–west and tantalizingly close to the Tibet border, lies the high, alpine Langtang Valley, which in its upper reaches burrows spectacularly between the Langtang and Jugal Himals. Gosainkund comprises a chain of sacred lakes nestled in a rugged intermediate range northwest of Helambu. One practical inconvenience is that the connections between these three treks aren’t reliable – winter snow may block the passes between Helambu and the other two – and done on their own, the Langtang and Gosainkund treks require you to retrace your steps for much of the return journey.
Food and lodging here are less luxurious than in the Annapurna and Everest regions, but lodges are mostly perfectly comfortable. All these routes take you into Langtang National Park, for which there’s a Rs1000 entry fee.
The LANGTANG TREK can be done in as little as a week, but day hikes in the upper valley should detain you for at least another two or three days, and given more time you’ll want to add Gosainkund to the itinerary. Most people start at Syaphru Besi (1400m), a very “local”, bumpy (and, at points, vertiginous) 8–9hr bus ride from Macha Pokhari, near Kathmandu’s Gongabu Bus Park.
The first two days of the trek are spent climbing briskly up the gorge-like lower Langtang valley, probably overnighting at Lama Hotel (2470m) or Ghoratabela (2970m). Oaks and rhododendron give way to peaceful hemlock and larch forest; after ascending an old moraine, snowy peaks suddenly loom ahead and the gorge opens into a U-shaped glacial valley – prime yak pasture. Springtime is excellent for flowers here, and in autumn the berberis bushes turn a deep rust colour. Two Bhotiya villages occupy the upper valley: Langtang (3300m), the bigger of the two, makes a good place to spend an extra night and acclimatize, while Kyanjin Gompa (3750m) boasts a small monastery, a cheese “factory” (fabulous yoghurt) and a cluster of chalet-lodges which fill up early in high season.
The Langtang Glacier is further up the valley – a long day’s round-trip, as there are no lodges, though you may be able to hire a tent at Kyanjin Gompa if you want to overnight. From the rocky viewpoint of Langshisha Kharka (4100m), a little beyond the yak pasture at Numthang, you can see ice and moraine spreading up the high valleys, hemmed in by snowy peaks. Equally tempting are the ascents of either Tsergo Ri (4984m), a challenging, 6hr or 7hr round trip that offers an awesome white wilderness of peaks or Kyanjin Ri (4773m), which stands a mere two hours or so above Kyanjin Gompa.
You can return by crossing into Helambu over the Kangja La, but most people go back down the valley, perhaps varying the last leg by turning off to Thulo Syaphru (where the trail to Gosainkund branches off) and down to Dhunche.
GOSAINKUND can be trekked on its own in as little as four days, but because of the rapid ascent to high elevation – 4610m – it’s best done after acclimatizing in Langtang or Helambu. Combined with either of these, it adds three or four days; a grand tour of all three areas takes sixteen or more days.
From either Dhunche (served by three buses daily from Kathmandu’s Gongabu Bus Park, leaving in the early morning) or Thulo Syaphru (on the Langtang trek), trails ascend steeply through mossy rhododendron forest to the monastery and cheese factory of Sing Gompa at 3250m. The climb from Dhunche is particularly brutal. Above Sing Gompa, the trail ascends through tall fir stands before emerging above the tree line for increasingly panoramic views of the high peaks. Laurebinayak is a beautiful place to stop, before you enter the barren upper reaches of the Trisuli River, where glacial moraines and rockslides have left a string of some half-dozen lakes (kund). Several lodges sit by the shore of Gosainkund, the most sacred of the lakes and renowned among Nepali Hindus. A famous legend recounts how Shiva, having saved the world by drinking a dangerous poison, struck this mountainside with his trisul to create the lake and cool his burning throat. During the full moon of July–August, Janai Purnima, a massive Hindu pilgrimage is held at Gosainkund.
Two hours southeast of Gosainkund, you pass over the Laurabina La (4610m), a pass with superb views, though it can be tricky or impassable in winter due to ice and snow. You descend towards a very basic lodge at Bera Goth, and an only slightly better one three hours down from the pass (be sure to follow the low route, not the dangerous upper one) at Phedi (3630m); this is the usual starting point if you’re crossing the pass from the southern side. After Gopte (3530m), a hamlet another three hours on, with yet more basic lodges, you eventually start ascending again, coming out onto the windy and sometimes snowy ridge at the settlement of Therapati (3510m). The trail forks here, and you can follow either side of the Helambu Circuit for two or three days; and the accommodation is relatively superior. The quicker route is to descend fairly rapidly to the east, heading to the roadhead at Thimbu via Melamchigaon and Tarkeghyang. The alternative is to continue south down the ridge for four or five hours, passing through lovely rhododendron then oak forest via Mangengoth (3390m) to Kutumsang (2470m), a Sherpa village where the Langtang National Park headquarters is based. It’s another five switchbacking hours or so on to Chisapani (2251m), a celebrated viewpoint settlement just beyond the northern edge of Shivapuri National Park, and another four or five hours up and over from there through the gorgeously wooded national park to Sundarijal (1460m), from where frequent buses shuttle to Kathmandu’s Ratna Park (1hr–1hr 30min); taxis cost around Rs1000. There are settlements all the way after Kutumsang, so the walk can be broken almost wherever you like.
HELAMBU (or Helmu) is great for short treks: access from Kathmandu is easy, and an extensive trail network enables you to tailor a circuit to your schedule. The area spans a wide elevation range – there’s a lot of up-and-down – but the highest point reached is only 2700–3200m (depending on route), so acclimatization is rarely a problem. Winter treks are particularly feasible. The peaks of Langtang Himal are often visible, but the views aren’t as close-up as in other areas.
Helambu was once considered a hidden, sacred domain, and its misty ridges and fertile valleys are still comparatively isolated; relatively few people trek here, and with so many trails to choose from, those that do tend to spread themselves out. Helambu’s people call themselves Sherpa, although they’re only distant cousins of the Solu-Khumbu stock. Tamangs are also numerous, while the valley bottoms are farmed mainly by caste Hindus.
Sundarijal, a taxi or local bus ride from Kathmandu, is the most common starting point, but alternative trailheads include Sankhu, Kakani and Nagarkot. To get deeper into the hills faster, take the Arniko Highway to Banepa or Dhulikhel, and change to one of the fairly frequent buses for Melamchi Bazaar; rough roads head up from here towards both Thimbu and Sermathang, but are frequently blocked, so transport all the way is not assured.
Most trekkers make a five- to seven-day, typically clockwise loop around two main ridges on either side of the Melamchi Khola, staying high – and avoiding the mega water-diversion Melamchi Project under construction in the valley. The walk in follows the Gosainkund trek, rising and falling from Sundarijal through the Shivapuri National Park to Chisapani, then climbing to Khutumsang and Tharepati. From here, the circuit breaks east, taking in the fine villages of Melamchigaon, Tarkeghyang and Sermathang. The walk between the latter two is somewhat shadowed by a new, rough road, but is otherwise very rewarding, passing picturesque monasteries and contouring through forests of oak, rhododendron and lokta, whose bark is used to make traditional paper. From Sermathang, you can continue down the ridge towards Melamchi Bazaar, though jeeps (and soon, buses) are available. From Tarkheghyang, the faster alternative is to take a side trail down to the Melamchi Khola and Melamchi road at Thimbu (or, failing that, an hour or so below Thimbu) where you can pick up a jeep down to Melamchi Bazaar. Countless other trails strike west and east to villages that see few trekkers.
Gosainkund can be reached from Helambu by a long, high, rugged route from Tharepati, via the Laurabina La. The higher, still tougher alternative route to Langtang heads north from Tarkeghyang over the Kangja La (5130m), a serious three-day traverse for which you’ll need a tent, food, crampons and ice axe (it may be impassable between Dec and March). From Tarkeghyang, lesser trails cut across the Indrawati basin and over to Panch Pokahri (3800m), a set of lakes two or three days to the east, and from there you could continue south to the Chautara road, which joins the Arniko Highway just above Dolalghat.