This is the Himalayas- the highest mountain range in the world. Ten of the fourteen highest peaks (above 8000 m) are located here. And there is a river that comes from the Himalayan interior, called Kali Gandaki. It flows between two of the 8000-ers- Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, before descending to the valley or Ganges. But before that, between these two giants, it cuts the deepest canyon on the Earth- Kali Gandaki Gorge. Let’s go and explore it, getting the best impression of it!
Table of Contents
Basic facts about Kali Gandaki Gorge
Everything starts from a majestic snowcapped mountain, called Manshail (6235 m). A massive glacier called Nhubine Himal descends from its peak down to around 5750 m. From this point, a small stream proceeds downwards, gathering the waters of other neighboring streams. It flows through a deep mountain valley that gets deeper and deeper. But it is not the main canyon yet.
After the town of Chele, the stream, now called Kali Gandaki River cuts the mighty Himalaya Range through its highest parts. Here, the river already descends below 3000 m altitude while the Himalayas rises above 8000 m, reaching the highest elevation at Mt Dhaulagiri (8167 m) and Annapurna (8091 m). And at a certain point where the river bed is at 2520 m, between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, the difference reaches 5571 m- more than 5 km and 500 m of depth!
Further downwards, Kali Gandaki winds between the lower ridges of the Himalayas, and through the Siwalik Range to Gaindakot. From there, it goes out of the mountains. There is only an area of low hills ahead on which the border between Nepal and India passes, and beyond them is only a vast plain. Finally, the Kali Gandaki merges with the Ganges River which flows in the Indian Ocean. But let’s back to the Himalayas.
The huge elevation difference between the river bed and the two 8000-ers is the reason why Kali Gandaki Gorge is among the largest canyons in the world– it is not the longest, nor the widest, but it is the deepest of all (with some conditions). And it is possible only in the highest mountain range on our planet- the Himalayas.
The gorge is not too long, and in fact, it doesn’t have a clear “beginning and end”. If we count the river valley from its source to the exit of the Himalayas at Gaindakot, the length is more than 300 km, but not everything of it is a “canyon”. The real, deep canyon is not more than 50 km long.
In fact, the peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna aren’t rising directly over the river bed and can’t be seen from there- these peaks are a bit hidden behind lower “sub-peaks”. Thus, you can’t really feel the 5571 elevation difference, it is only statistical. But the gorge still looks spectacular.
With its depth, the slopes of the gorge enter several elevation zones- from subtropical broad-leaved forests and bush, through high alpine pastures, to the snowcapped and glaciated tops of the surrounding mountains. And this is not just a set of natural landscapes, but there is also a unique local culture.
History and local culture
Kali Gandaki River flows through an area with a long history. Today, its gorge is entirely within the borders of Nepal, but in the past, it was a part of various kingdoms and empires. The area has also been noticed by the religious people, Buddhists, and Hinduists who built temples, stupas, and other religious constructions, even man-made caves like the 10 000 Mustang Caves.
The gorge is also in the transitional zone between the Tibetan and Indian cultural worlds and is home to the Thakali and Gurung people. Its upper part is located within Mustang District. It has been an isolated autonomous kingdom, only recently opened for tourists. And even today, it is still somehow off the beaten due to its remoteness. Thus, Kali Gandaki Gorge is not only incredibly beautiful but also full of mysteries.
How to explore Kali Gandaki Gorge
There is a dirt road that follows the river bed of Kali Gandaki and connects Mustang with the rest of Nepal. This road has been used since ancient times as a trade route between Tibet and India. And today the local people travel on it- on foot, by motorcycles, by 4×4 vehicles, or even by horse. In modern days, this road is also used by travelers to Mustang. But the most popular way to use this road is as a trekking route.
This trekking route is a part of two longer trekking routes that circle around the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massifs. They are called Annapurna Circuit and Dhaulagiri Circuit, and they share a common section- the road on the river bed of Kali Gandaki River, between the two massifs. This is the section from Kusma (Kushma)- 700 m and Kagbeni- 2850 m. Its total length is 106 km.
So, if you want to explore Kali Gandaki Gorge- you can just hike on this common section (on foot or by vehicle), or make a full circle around one of the massifs (only on foot). Now, let’s focus on this section in more detail.
The route from Kusma (Kushma) to Kagbeni, attractive points
This route follows the main road that connects Mustang with the rest of Nepal. Its lowest section (from Kusma to Baglung) is paved, but further, it becomes a dirt road. Usually, the trekking on the gorge, as well as the whole Annapurna Circuit start from Nayapul, a town that is not located on the gorge, and reaches Kali Gandaki at Pokharebagar. But the “full version” of the Kali Gandaki trek starts from Kusma (Kushma).
The whole route is a spectacular attraction. Yes, there are some points of interest on the way, but they are not too much “more special” than the whole road between them. They are mostly some waterfalls, lakes, observation points, and towns:
- Kusma (Kushma). A nice town, spectacularly established at the merging point of Kali Gandaki and Modi Rivers.
- Baglung. Another lovely town, the western end of the Pokhara-Baglung highway. Here is the beautiful Golden Bridge on the Kali Gandaki.
- Lovely Hill. This is a spectacular panoramic place on a small but steep hill over the merging point Kali Gandaki and Myagdi Khola rivers, in the town of Beni. This is also the starting (or ending) point of the Dhaulagiri Circuit.
- Mahaveer Waterfall. A refreshing waterfall at the Annapurna side of the road. Not too big, but still creates a beautiful landscape.
- Tatopani. A small hot springs resort. At this point, Annapurna Circuit enters the Kali Gandaki Gorge.
- Narchyang Waterfall. A beautiful waterfall that falls as several streams on a mossy bed, located aside from the main road, on the Annapurna slopes. The place is full of Hindu temples.
- Rupse Waterfall. This is a small waterfall jumping as several cascades on a stony slope at the Dhaulagiri side of the gorge.
- Titi Lake. This is an amazingly beautiful pond, located at the Annapurna slope, about 3 km aside from the main road. Reachable by a short hike.
- Sekong and Butharchho lakes. Two small ponds in a beautiful alpine forest, located at the Dhaulagiri slope of the gorge, about 1 km aside from the road.
- Jomsom. An important town located already in Mustang. It has a small domestic airport. Nearby attractions are Dhumba Taal Pond, Gharapjhong Fort, a remnant from the Thakali Kingdom, and the Leopard Cave.
- Kagbeni. This is the last point of the “official” Kali Gandaki Gorge (of course, the gorge still proceeds further upward, but that’s another section and route). The area around offers spectacular views. Here Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Circuits separate and proceed on their routes at the northern sides of the two 8000-ers.
Kali Gandaki Tours and Treks
You can walk, ride a motorcycle, or travel by another vehicle from Kusma to Kagbeni, then you can back by plane from Jomsom, proceed further on one of the two circuits, or penetrate Mustang. Or, you can hike the classical Kali Gandaki trekking route, a part of Annapurna Circuit.
Until April 1st, 2023, you could do everything independently, but there is a new rule now- you have to hire a local guide. Read more about it in the Useful Tips section. Or, you can join a Kali Gandaki trekking tour. These treks are normally between 14 and 18 days long, including the transfer from and to Kathmandu.
The classical Kali Gandaki trekking route starts from Nayapul, passes through the spectacular Poon Hill, and after two days reach the bottom of the gorge at Tatopani. From there, it proceeds day by day to Kagbeni. And before back to Jomsom, you usually visit Muktinath- a religious area with Buddhist and Hinduist temples east of Kagbeni.
Here are some organized treks on this route:
- Kali Gandaki Trekking by Himkala Adventure. They offer a 14 days trek with a price starting from $1115.
- The Kali Gandaki Valley Trek by Himalaya Hikes. Their trek is longer, 18 days, on the same route, just including a bit more details than the 14-day treks.
- Annapurna Kali Gandaki Valley Trekking by Himalaya Journey. They offer a 17-day trek, almost similar to the other treks, just spending the nights in different locations.
- Kali Gandaki Trekking by Annapurna Foothills. This is a 14-day trek, similar to the one offered by Himkala Adventure. The price starts from $1100.
Many more companies offer treks on this route, but those four are the most popular.
Another option is to travel on the Circuits (Dhaulagiri or Annapurna). But they are different than the Kali Gandaki treks- what they usually offer is traveling by vehicle on the Kali Gandaki road, and hiking only on the rest of the routes (otherwise, it would be too long).
Annapurna Circuit is more popular and easier. Kali Gandaki route is only its western section that the organized tours usually pass by vehicle. But the more attractive and difficult part is the rest of the route. The treks usually start from Nadi (Nagdi), at the southeastern side of Annapurna, and from there gradually ascend to the highest point Thorang La Pass (5416 m). In other words, the direction is counter-clockwise, which is better for altitude acclimatization.
Again, the whole route is spectacular, with constantly changing landscapes. Nevertheless, some points of interest can be mentioned, like Chamjie Waterfall, Deepwater Fall, Mring Taal Lake, the town of Manang with its breathtaking viewpoints, and finally Thorang La Pass.
From there, the route descends dramatically to the valley of the Marshyangdi River and passes through the religious complex Muktinath, until finally reaches Kagbeni and Jomsom. Here the trek ends and you proceed by vehicle downstream along the Kali Gandaki, at Tatopani leave the gorge and back to Pokhara (and Kathmandu). That’s what most of Annapurna Circuit’s organized treks look like. And they usually complete it in 13 to 15 days. Let’s see some of them:
- Annapurna Circuit Trek. This is a 15-day trek. Kathmandu is the starting and the ending point. The trekking part is from Nadi (Nagdi) to Jomsom, and the rest is by vehicle.
- 15-Day Annapurna Circuit Trek with Tilicho Lake. This trek follows the same route as the first one, but adds a detour to the fantastic Tilicho Lake, shortening the rest of the route a bit.
- Annapurna Circuit Trek (Budget Version). This trek is exactly like the first one, but the accommodation on the way is more basic and cheaper. It is 15 days long.
- Annapurna Circuit Trek (Budget Shorter Version). This is the same as the Budget Version but is one day shorter (only 14 days). What they cut is the vehicle journey on the Kali Gandaki Gorge. Instead, you fly directly from Jomsom to Pokhara.
- Annapurna Circuit Trek (Splurge Shorter Version). This is a 13-day trek (actually, it is 14 days, but just it doesn’t count the first day of arrival in Kathmandu). It is the same as the Budget Shorter Version, but with better places to stay.
- Around Annapurna Trek. This is an 18-day trek. It follows the same route as the other treks above. But this time, there are some trekking sections after Tatopani (on the Kali Gandaki Gorge), which makes it a bit longer.
- Annapurna Circuit Trek (18-day full trekking). This is the complete trekking version of Annapurna Circuit. The trekking is not only at the eastern and the northern sides of Annapurna but also on the Kali Gandaki Gorge. It is a bit long, so you will skip Kagbeni and Jomsom, and from Muktinath will descend directly to Marpha.
See more Annapurna Circuit treks below:
This route is shorter than Annapurna Circuit but is much more difficult. It starts from Beni (in the Kali Gandaki Gorge) and follows the valley of the Myagdi Khola River. Here it ascends gradually from 900 (Beni) to 5370 m (French Pass), then crosses another pass (Dhampus, or Thapa Banjyan Pass- 5290 m) at the north side of Dhaulagiri, and descends again to the Kali Gandaki River at Marpha (2650 m). Finally, it closes the circuit at Beni, but usually, the tours leave the valley at Tatopani and end in Nayapul.
Due to its difficulty, it is longer and there are much fewer organized treks on it. Here is the best one:
- Dhaulagiri Circuit Trek. It is 20 days long. The trekking part is from Beni to Nayapul, thus you almost close the whole circle around Dhaulagiri on foot. Only the rest is by vehicle (from and to Kathmandu). It is also much more expensive than Annapurna Circuit but offers more adventures and fantastic landscapes.
Beyond Kagbeni- into Upper Mustang
Now, let’s back to Kali Gandaki, to the final point of the “classical section” of the Kali Gandaki Gorge- Kagbeni. Here you are already in Mustang, and the river valley proceeds further upstream to its source. Although here the gorge is not as deep as below Kagbeni, and the valley is in general wider, looking more like a “normal valley” than a canyon, it is not less beautiful. Just it offers different kinds of beauty, with more Tibetan taste. In fact, here you are beyond the highest part of the Himalayas.
And the road proceeds for a while at the bottom of the Kali Gandaki, however, from Chele, it leaves the bottom and follows the western slopes of the valley until it reaches Lo Manthang (4230 m), the main settlement in Upper Mustang. From Lo Manthang, you can go to some nearby places of interest like Chode Gompa, Jampa Lhakhang, and Chosser Caves. To proceed further to the glacier source of Kali Gandaki, you need a special permit, because you approach the border with China, so, in general, the Kali Gandaki routes end here.
Let’s see two organized treks on this route:
- Upper Mustang Trek (Short Version). It is 15 days long and follows the main road from Kagbeni to Lo Manthang. From there, you back on foot partially on the same road.
- Upper Mustang Trek (Long Version). It is 18 days long, and follows the same road go and back, but includes visiting the Chosser Caves and Muktinath.
This is what the exploration of the Kali Gandaki Gorge looks like. As you can see, to taste it best, you should also look at one of the circuits around Dhaulagiri or Annapurna, or the Upper Mustang. Of course, it depends on many things (budget, time, physical ability, and more), but let’s see some useful tips you should consider.
First, before we proceed further, we have to announce something that probably would not please independent travelers: Nepal banned independent hiking from April 1st, 2023! It doesn’t mean that you must only join organized treks- you still can hike on your own (with your own itinerary), but not alone. You have to be accompanied by a local guide.
For more information, read this article.
So now, these tips are more proper for those who prefer to explore Kali Gandaki Gorge on their own, with a local guide. They are about transportation, accommodation, and seasons to visit. If you join a trek, the tour guides will care about these things, you don’t need to worry about it. But if you want to be a bit more “independent” (only with your own guide), read below.
If you want to reach Kusma (Kushma) the lowest point of the “classical gorge” from Kathmandu, you can travel by bus. There are a lot of buses from Kathmandu to Kushma during the day which travels from 8 to 14 hours, depending on their route, stops on the way, and road conditions.
It is the same if want to start your route from Nayapul (the classical starting point for Kali Gandaki and Annapurna Circuit treks). Again, there are a lot of buses from Kathmandu to Nayapul during the day. The trip is a bit shorter, but the length again depends on the same conditions.
It is also the same when you back to Kathmandu- a lot of buses from Kusma (Kushma) or Nayapul.
If you want to trek on Dhaulagiri Circuit, you can get the bus from Kathmandu to Jomsom (15:00 and 17:00). It can drop you in Beni, again around midnight, so, on the next day you can start your trek from there.
Flight to and from Jomsom
There are no direct flights between Kathmandu and Jomsom, only private jet charters. There are regular flights, but they are not direct. If you want to travel by plane, you have to book two flights: Kathmandu-Pokhara, then Pokhara-Jomsom, and vice versa.
Traveling by rental car
This is a convenient way to explore Kali Gandaki Gorge quickly. You can rent a car from Kathmandu, travel to Kusma (Kushma), and then proceed to Kagbeni. However, have in mind the following:
- You must have IDL (International Driving Permit) for Nepal or a Nepalese Driving License (read this article for more information). You can apply for it online from here.
- Remember that the road on the Kali Gandaki Gorge is dirt. So, you need a proper vehicle (4×4, etc.).
Otherwise, there are rental car companies that provide vehicles with a driver. In this way, you can travel by vehicle more safely and easily.
There are a lot of places to stay on the road. Especially on Kali Gandaki Gorge, there are towns and villages all the way, and almost each of them provides some form of accommodation- from splurge to budget hotels, and from homestays to lodges with basic conditions. You can book a few of them in advance from Booking or Agoda.
However, for most of the properties, you can just use them when you arrive, if there is a free bed. Fortunately, there are a lot, so it should not be a problem. Some of them can be seen on Google Maps and you can see their phone numbers there. Usually, they can speak English, so you can try to arrange your stay in advance by phone.
You can also go camping. There are several campsites in the Kali Gandaki Gorge, as well as the established base camps on the Circuit routes. Finally, you can do wild camping (seems it is still allowed, despite the new regulations for independent trekkers). But have in mind some dangers in the wild. Also, check first whether the place you are going to install your tent doesn’t belong to a local farmer.
The best time to explore the Kali Gandaki Gorge is in October and November. The weather is sunny, with a clear sky, and moderate temperatures. So, this is the high season in Nepal.
The second high season is April-May. During this period, the weather is nice again, but occasional rain can occur, more than in October-November.
Then, the time from May to September is the rainy season. This is the time of the summer monsoon and the whole country experiences heavy rainfall (and heavy snowfall in the high mountain), especially in July and August. So, this is not a good time to explore Kali Gandaki- the roads are in bad condition, landslides occur, etc. In general, this is the lowest season and many activities are not available.
Finally, the cold season (winter) is from the end of November to the end of March. It is a good season but only for the Kali Gandaki Gorge which is at a lower elevation. The Circuit treks that ascend to more than 5000 m altitude are too dangerous (temperatures can drop to -20, even -30°C around Thorang La Pass).
This is Kali Gandaki Gorge. It is not just a gorge, but a whole phenomenon that combines a gorge with the highest mountains on the Earth, with fantastic landscapes everywhere and unique culture. No matter whether you “collect” visits to the largest canyons on the Earth, or just enjoy the majestic scenery of the Himalayas, Kali Gandaki Gorge and the two giants Dhaulagiri and Annapurna remain a pearl on your bucket list for exploring the geographical wonders on our planet.
Take a look at this video for more impressions from Kali Gandaki Gorge
Check some travel books about Nepal:
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.
Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.