Dawn's golden light caught the tops of the snowcapped Himalayas and gradually crept downward as the rising sun lit up a sweeping arc of soaring peaks, at once forbidding and starkly beautiful.
The stunning vista from the top of Poon Hill -- at 10,475 feet, the highest point of our family's six-day trek in Nepal -- was among many highlights of a "Lord of the Rings"-like adventure through lush forests, terraced fields and traditional villages nestled above plunging valleys.
Sometimes the going was tough -- like hiking two hours up steep, stone steps. Other times, we walked along gently undulating woodland paths.
Along the way, there were rewards: children who ran to greet us (sometimes asking for money or candy), wildflowers beside the path, breathtaking views and cups of hot masala tea at cute little rest stops.
If you're looking for a family adventure that immerses you in nature, beauty and a fascinating culture -- and you're willing to rough it some -- consider trekking in Nepal.
Our two boys, 12 and 10, loved the experience. One of my older son's favorite parts was the camaraderie with other trekkers from around the world in common rooms at the "teahouses," or simple lodges where we stayed.
Children as young as 8 or 9 could handle the popular 40-mile Ghandruk-Ghorepani-Poon Hill loop we hiked, located just south of the Annapurna Range. Small children can be carried on the backs of porters.
We hiked four to six hours daily, depending on the trail's difficulty, usually reaching our destination by 3 p.m., allowing time to relax before supper.
With good weather, this route will give you stunning views of a string of mountains, including Annapurna I (26,545 feet), 10th-tallest in the world; Machhapuchhre, or "Fishtail," with its distinctively shaped peak; and the towering Dhaulagiri (26,795 feet), the world's seventh-tallest. Mount Everest, located 190 miles to the east, isn't visible on this loop.
The circuit starts and ends near the lakeside town of Pokhara, central Nepal's trekking hub. We used 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, which specializes in training and employing women, to hire our guide, Mana Kunwar, an experienced, flexible and fun Nepali woman who spoke good English. Her knowledge of the trail, culture and language -- and contacts at tea houses where she booked our rooms -- enhanced our experience immensely.
Get to know the locals
We also hired a male porter to carry one backpack while I carried another. My wife and kids hiked with smaller knapsacks. Hiring guides is not only a way to get to know locals, it also offers them a valuable source of income.
Peak trekking season is in October and November, when skies are clearest and temperatures hover in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit. We mostly hiked in T-shirts and shorts (women's shorts should be knee-length out of respect for the local culture). But early mornings and evenings, when it got as cold as 40 degrees, we needed fleeces and long pants. We encountered no snow, but a week before our October visit, a freak blizzard and avalanche hit a pass at a much higher elevation about 30 miles to the north, killing more than 40 people.
April and May, also a good time to go, can be cloudier, but the rhododendron trees are in bloom. June, July and August are rainy.
Spartan but clean rooms
Be prepared to rough it. Some teahouses offer hot showers, but water supplies are often limited. Rooms run $3-$5 a night, Spartan but clean. Blankets are available, but most trekkers bring sleeping bags, which can be rented or bought in Pokhara or Kathmandu at shops that sell everything you need, including knock-off brand fleeces and backpacks. Trekking poles, about $5 apiece, are recommended, especially when descending. Don't buy hiking shoes when you arrive; break those in at home.
The food is rather monotonous: Lots of dal bhat, or lentil stew with rice, plus curries, pastas and soups, and not much meat or fruit. Deep-fried "gurung bread" is quite good. You may want to bring canned tuna or meat.
As for that sunrise from Poon Hill: We woke at 5 a.m. and hiked 45 minutes from the village of Ghorepani to see it, and we shared the experience with 300 to 400 other trekkers. But like the rest of the trip, the effort was well worth it. We got a panoramic view of both the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges in all their majesty.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE From Kathmandu, a fascinating city worth spending at least a day touring, head to Pokhara via Yeti Airlines or Buddha Air, or take a six-hour bus.
TREKKING AGENCIES Trekking agencies can arrange everything, including domestic travel in Nepal, lodging in Kathmandu and Pokhara, and packages that include trail lodging, food, guides, trekking permits, etc., but it's usually cheaper to make your own domestic hotel and travel reservations online. For the trek portion, you can pay a package price, or pay for lodging and meals as you go, and a guide by the day.
Two recommended outfits: 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, based in Pokhara, specializes in female guides (3sistersadventuretrek.com); Moonlight Nepal Trekking and Adventure Tours, based in Kathmandu, allocates some profits to children's health care and education (moonlightnepaladventuretours.com).
VISAS Citizens of all countries except India require tourist visas, available at Kathmandu's airport or through Nepali embassies and consulates.