If you were to ask people, “Is China home to some of the best hiking in world?” Most would quickly answer “no.” After all, when people think of China they immediately think of gigantic cities and lots of people. And while this is true, many don’t realize just how much open area there is in China; including vast wilderness and amazing landscapes. One such place that we heard so much about was a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge, in the Yunnan region. After making our way to this breathtaking area and spending days hiking among the mountains, rushing water, and breathing the fresh air, I am now convinced, that China really is home to some of the best hiking – at least, at Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Where is Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Tiger Leaping Gorge is located in the Yunnan Region of southwest China, and hugs the Tibetan border. Some of the other notable towns for tourists in the region include Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. All have their own unique history and culture, which include many different local ethnic tribes as well as a hints of Tibetan influence.
The entire region is popular with travelers because of its beauty and cultural heritage. But Tiger Leaping Gorge is also a main draw for those who thoroughly love the outdoors. The gorge is north of Lijiang, a famous UNESCO ancient town, and south of Shangri-La which is primarily a Tibetan town.
With China’s global reputation for severe pollution and an unhealthy environment, Tiger Leaping Gorge is the country’s breath of fresh air. The gorge is remote and is still being developed (the low road is still being built for cars). It’s actually quite dangerous to drive into the gorge (no stopping due to falling rocks) and some cars / taxis are not allowed to go in due to insurance. Being that it is so remote, the only buildings around this area are mainly small guesthouses, which are also the only restaurants in the area. Any other developments are just local villages, people who have made a living in this difficult landscape for quite some time. Terraced rice fields are scattered about, fruit and nut trees are grown, and you will definitely stumble across a heard of goats during your journey.
After 15 months in China, it is the only place that we really enjoyed the peaceful sounds of nature and the majesty of a starry-night sky.
Hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Word is quickly spreading about the amazing, yet challenging, hiking trails located throughout Tiger Leaping Gorge. There are several ways you can go about hiking in, around, and even on top of the Gorge. Most people traveling to Tthe Gorge come by bus from either Shangri-La or Lijiang. The bus will drop you off just outside the entrance to the Gorge in Qiaotao village – because buses don’t go into the gorge. Here, you will need to stop at the ticket booth to buy a ticket, then you have a few options for your journey.
1. Hike the High Road Into the Gorge
The High Road is a hiking trail that begins at the entrance of the park, on the edge of Qiaotao village. It is the original route into the gorge and is still used by locals, who you will often find along the route herding animals, etc. This is a long and strenuous route up and along the higher ridges of the mountain, but it provides stunning scenery along the way. There are guesthouses at the entrance where you can stay overnight and even store some of your gear to lighten your load during your hike. Hiking this route usually takes 2 days to reach the middle gorge, so you will need to plan to stay at a guesthouse somewhere along the trail.
2. Private Car Into the Gorge on the Low Road
At the park entrance you can pay a private car to drive you into the gorge along the Low Road – a lesser used old trail that is currently being developed into a bigger road for cars and buses (meaning it’s sure to get busier here in the future!). There are plenty of cars available waiting to negotiate a price, or you may be able to arrange some kind of transport through your guesthouse.
The Experience Hiking the Gorge
The great thing about hiking around Tiger Leaping Gorge is that the trails are fairly well marked, and often lead you toward a guesthouse where you can either stay the night or take a break and grab something to eat. Even though this is a popular route, you should take all the same precautions as any long hike – provisions, survival gear, etc. because this is a serious journey. Also, be sure you have a good map, GPS device, and monitor the weather — the trail can get quite slippery and dangerous when wet.
While on the trail, you will likely encounter a few local sheep herders and some locals who attempt to charge you a toll. It’s hard to say whether or not they are legit – we’ve heard many differing stories. Overall, if you can find a way around them or feel justified to ignore them and continue walking – it’s up to you. You may also encounter some people trying to sell you “herbs” – just something to be aware of. It isn’t legal here, but law enforcement is scarce and the “herbs” actually do grow naturally in the area.
The Middle Gorge – Our Favorite Hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Due to limited time, we wanted our Tiger Leaping Gorge experience to be a bit more relaxing than a multi-day hiking trip. But at the same time, we wanted to get out on the trails and experience some of the the amazing hiking. So we opted to stay at Sean’s Guesthouse for our entire visit, located perfectly in the Middle Gorge. Sean was an excellent host and helped create many of the trails around Tiger Leaping Gorge. He was so friendly, extremely knowledgable and the food and accommodations were great. We had floor to ceiling windows that looked out to the gorge landscape – and we’ll never forget falling asleep to the echoing sound of the rushing water far below our window, and the starlit sky.
During our visit, we opted to do the Middle Gorge day hike, which was perfect for us. The hike took us down below the Low Road and ultimately to the raging river far below. From the upper parts of the Gorge it’s hard to see the river because it is so far below. Once you finally get down to the river, its power is impressive.
The hike down to the river took us through terraced fields, family farms and local homes where we could see families tending to their gardens. It also took us through some remote areas, hiking down steep terrain and hugging rock cliffs as we went further down. Ultimately, it took us all the way down to the famous Tiger Rock in the middle of the gorge.
A Visit to the Famous Tiger Rock
Legend has it that this huge rock in the center of the river is where locals saw a tiger leap from one side of the gorge to the other. This is why everyone started calling it Tiger Leaping Gorge. As we headed down to the famous rock, the scenery was just breath taking. We have never felt so small as we headed closer and closer to the river.
It’s a bit sketchy at the end, with some locals charging tolls to cross rickety bridges and ladders. But you can go all the way out and stand on the rock – just steps from the raging river. Certainly not safe, and definitely something that wouldn’t fly back home in the States. But it was exhilarating nonetheless.
It wasn’t just standing on this famous rock surrounded by the rushing water (partially fearing we would slip and be swept away) that was thrilling, it was the fact that we were surrounded by the beautiful towering gorge. The sheer size of the gorge was just overwhelming. At times I would stand still and stare up and down the gorge, feeling dizzy as I tried to capture the complete view. We literally had to turn our heads upward to see the top, then look far downward and still not see the bottom. Surreal!
The only downside to hiking the Middle Gorge is that the destination of your journey is down to the river. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that late in the day after you reach your destination, you have to climb back up and out of the gorge. Definitely a difficult journey! We chose to take the longer physical route, however, you can pay to take a super sketchy ladder straight up the side of the mountain to Tina’s Guesthouse (we passed on that option for obvious reasons).
Add Tiger Leaping Gorge to Your Bucket List
This entire region of Yunnan China was our favorite part of the country, hands down. But if you are a hiking and outdoor enthusiast, then you definitely need to add hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge to your Bucket List. However, be sure that you have plenty of time for your visit. If we could go back, we would have loved to have had more time and been prepared to do the High Road hike and stay at the guesthouses along the route for a couple of days. We heard from many that the High Road Hike is definitely challenging, but it is full of beautiful scenery, including waterfalls, and even more stunning views of tall mountain peaks beyond what we could see down in the Middle Gorge.
While we have discovered some amazing places during our travels around the world, it will be tough to beat hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is a trekking experience that all adventurers are sure to remember for years to come.