Clouds hover on the mountainside, drifting through the ridges covered in lush green forests, waterfalls cascade to the raging Jinsha river below, high above towering over you is the jagged ridge line and snowy peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Emerging from the forest you are greeted by a small herd of goats grazing on the hillside as you look down on a small Naxi farming village surrounded by fields of corn. It has rained recently, transforming the Jinsha River far below you into a frothing muddy beast with seemingly limitless power and awe-inspiring rapids (In the dry season it slows down to a relatively mellow turquoise river). Jaw dropping views of the gorge get better and better around every bend in the trail. Though in the distance you can still hear the sound of construction vehicles as the never-ending expansion of China’s infrastructure marches on. It is the start of your hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world with two peaks Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596 m 18,360 feet) and Haba Snow Mountain (5,396 m 17,703 feet) on either side of you, rising in sharp contrast to the surrounding valleys and foothills. The gorge hike is very accessible with an established trail and plenty of lodging options.
Helpful things to know:
Time required: 1 — 3 days
Entrance fee: 65 RMB
- The gorge is a loop. You will hike to the end and then take a bus back, passing where you started.
- Because of this you can leave any excess baggage or heavy items at the beginning so you don’t have to haul it with you the entire way. (See “Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse” in Part: 0 below)
- It is a little strenuous with hiking uphill at the beginning, but only until Teahorse guesthouse (around halfway), after which it is fairly mellow.
- There are ample lodging and food options along the way. No need to camp or bring lots of food.
- Just about every village along the way (The start and end of each of these “parts”) is accessible by road. For example if you want to skip the uphill portion and start at Teahorse Guesthouse to avoid pretty much all the uphill hiking ( I met a woman who did this with her much older mother), it is possible to get a car to drop you off at any of the villages along the way.
- You can also get your bags dropped off at most of the guesthouses along the way (I’ve been told it is 150 RMB for 2 bags from point A to point B, two points along the hike).
- These are arbitrary portions. You can hike the entire thing in one long day, or if you have time and want to enjoy it, spread it out over 3 days.
- Every portion has progressively better scenery.
- I recommend going down to the river at some point. There are two places to do this; Upper Gorge and Middle Gorge, and can either be done at the start or end of your trek. (You can see the Upper Gorge viewing area before you start your trek and Middle Gorge after you’re done hiking. Best option if you have time.)
- Throughout your trip you will probably pass people offering horse rides or perhaps they can haul your bag for a fee. They don’t seem too persistent but this could vary by season.
- The trail is pretty well-marked with blue signs and arrows pointing the way.
- At the end of this post I have added some maps that you might find useful. Map 01 Map 02 Map 03
Time of Year — Raining or dry:
Don’t listen to those people who tell you not to do the hike during the rainy season (Rainy season is generally June through September). If you’re in/around Lijiang/Shangri-La during the rainy season and you want to do the hike, DO IT. If you have time you can wait for a sunny day and head out (they do happen during the summer). On the plus side during the spring/summer the rains turn everything green, transform the Jinsha river into a savage beast and also can give more of a moody atmospheric feel to the gorge. Of course the rocks are a little slippery, the views probably won’t be as good and if it’s pouring rain you probably will not want to hike and there is a danger of mudslides. If it has been raining a lot recently you can call one of the guesthouses listed below to ensure the road is open, as sometimes if there is a landslide the road is closed for a few days.
Getting there from Lijiang:
Take bus 8 or 13 to the Lijiang Bus Terminal. Ask for a ticket to the town of Qiaotou (桥头) 40RMB. This is usually the bus that continues onto Shangri-La and they run throughout the day. The trip takes about 1:50–2 hours. Alternatively check with your hostel/hotel and they may be able to get you a bus that drops you off directly at the trail skipping “Part 0” detailed below and saving you about an hour of road hiking). This should be about the same price (40RMB).
Trails, stairs and boardwalks:
The trek described below is for the traditional trail on the North side of the gorge also called the “High Trail”. It takes at least 1 long day (With an overnight at the end) or can be spread out into multiple days with a few other side trips outlined at the end of this guide. There is also a lower flat path on the South side of the gorge, a cement path that runs along and close to the Jinsha river. This lower path can be done as a day tour from Lijiang (or on your own), though it may not be open due to construction. Additionally there is an “Upper Gorge Viewing Area” which is a network of stairs and a boardwalk that goes down to the river level. This is where the pictures are taken on most of the promotional posters of the gorge of people standing on a platform amidst a raging brown river. This is also where the vast majority of the tours go and it will usually be full of people (though in my opinion definitely worth visiting).
Part 0: Entrance gate (Qiaotao) to start of trail
About 10 minutes down the road just after crossing under a red trestle turn onto a road that goes uphill on your left with some signs including a blue sign written in traditional Chinese-English translation grammar that states: “Tiger leaping gorge hiking highway thus into”. Follow this road as it continues winding up the mountain through some small villages and passed fields with views down to the junction of the Changjiang River a tributary of the Jinsha River. After about 50 minutes the road turns to dirt right after a “China Railway” building (on the right hand side). On the other side of the street right before the trail, is also a place to eat (Last place before Naxi Village).
Part 1: Start of trail to Naxi Village
- 120 RMB Deluxe Double room with private bath
Part 2: Naxi Village to Bendiwan Village (Halfway Guesthouse/Come Inn)
Another lodging option you will pass before Halfway Guesthouse is Come Inn. From a sign on the trail they have lodging options from 30 to 300 RMB and a happy hour from 5–7 pm with 2 for 1 beer. It also states “BBQ provided when book in advance”
Part 3: Halfway Guesthouse to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge (End)
For a more complete list of lodging options you can check out the wiki travel page: http://wikitravel.org/en/Tiger_Leaping_Gorge
Additional trips in Tiger Leaping Gorge:
Up close view of the Jinsha River (Optional — Highly Recommended):
I highly recommend getting down to the river level at some point in your trek, which can be done before or after the main hike listed above. There are 2 normal options for doing this. You can do one or both.
Upper vs. Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Viewing area:
Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge Viewing Area:
The picture you usually see on posters and ads (on the ticket as well) of a viewing platform full of people surrounded by a raging brown river, is the Upper Gorge Viewing Area. When you start your hike in Qiaotou you enter “Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge”. This is where the gorge starts (at the junction of the Jinsha and Changjiang Rivers). From Qiaotou it’s a good 5+ miles (8+ KM) of paved road to the Upper Gorge Viewing Area. You could walk but it seems easy enough to flag down a car as there is usually a steady stream of tourists driving this route. I just stood there and waved at cars. If a mini bus/van stops they will probably charge you. (One van wanted 20 RMB so I got out, flagged down the next car and squeezed into the backseat with their 2 adorable little kids and tried to teach them English as we rode through the gorge.) Have your ticket handy as it will be checked at another entrance station/building and usually again at the viewing platform area.
While it is possible to have the bus drop you off here on your return trip it might be easier logistically to hitch a ride down here and back on the morning of the beginning of your hike, if you have time. If you do want to visit it on your way out just ask the bus to drop you off at the Upper Gorge viewing area. Although you will have to hitch a ride back to Qiaotou where you can then catch a bus to Lijiang or Shangri-La.
Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge — Ray of Sunshine Path:
There is a network of trails going down to the river in the Middle Gorge called the Ray of Sunshine Path. If you only have time for one view of the river up close I would recommend doing it at the middle gorge after you finish your trek. This is also where the “Tiger Leaping Rock” is located, where legend has it when a hunter was pursuing a tiger, the tiger leapt from this rock (the narrowest part of the gorge) to the opposite side and to it’s safety. As you stand on the rock you might wonder if perhaps this legendary tiger was part mountain goat, as I did. Note that you will be charged 15 RMB for access to the trail (an additional 15 RMB if you exit a different route than the one you entered on) and 5 RMB if you want to use the bridge to walk out to THE rock.
There are a number ways to get down to the river in the Middle Gorge, 5 actually by my count. The first is from Tina’s , the second from Sandy’s Guesthouse and then three progressively further down the road. Sandy’s Guesthouse has access to what is known as the “Sky ladder”, a few connected ladders going straight up the side of the cliff with vertigo inducing views at the top looking down to the river far below. Going up the sky ladder on the hike out is the way to do it (there is a trail that goes around it if you want to avoid it or go down around it).
Sandy’s Guesthouse and the “Sky Ladder”
If you just want to go down to the river and back up paying the least amount I think Sandy’s is the way to go. You will pass many stalls on the way down as well as a larger “shopping” area at the bottom. In high season these will probably be stocked with vendors (They were pretty much empty in mid July). They even have signs for cannabis, although I’d guess it isn’t any good. When you get to the “Sky Ladder” go around it using the path going down (you can climb up it on the hike out). Eventually you will arrive at a flat area near the bottom, follow a small trail to the river. If you go left there is a hanging wooden suspension bridge of terror leading out to a rock in the middle of the Jinsha River that would be fitting in any Indiana Jones movie. It cost 10 RMB to use this bridge as it was built and is maintained by locals. There is a locked gate preventing access to this bridge if no one is there to collect the fee. It was locked when I was there but just for a cool picture I’d pay the fee…. for a friend to cross.
Turning right (facing the river) from the trail you came down on, will bring you along a path crossing a few small bridges to the larger bridge going out to the Tiger Leaping Rock (5 RMB). I didn’t pay this fee as no one was there to collect. But if there was I would probably pay. These extra fees seem excessive after paying 65 RMB to get into the gorge. All of these trails and bridges here however are built and maintained by the locals (A couple of families it seems). I found myself feeling thankful that there were trails and bridges here at all and I think 20 RMB (Approx. $3) isn’t terrible, especially for the cool looking shot of someone coming up the “sky ladder”.
Other options for the Ray of Sunshine Path:
If you have more time and don’t mind paying an additional 15 RMB you can descend to the river via another trail and go back up to the road using the trail to Sandy’s Guesthouse. Either starting from Tina’s or going further down the road from past the bridge and past Sandy’s there are a few more options. About 10–15 minutes further down road you will see another sign for a trail leading down to the river on the right hand side of the road. In all likelihood there will also be someone standing there to collect the fee of 15 RMB. This trail has a kind of alcove cut into the cliff that looks kind of interesting. I was told by another hiker that was the only attractive feature on the trail and that the steeper trail from Sandy’s was better. But if you have time and want to see more of the gorge you can start from any of the other options down to the river. (It seems there are a few other trails leading down to the river if you continue on down the road.)
Part 4: Walnut Garden (optional)
It is possible to not go down to Tina’s guesthouse and continue along the trail going through side gorge and crossing a torrential waterfall eventually arriving in Walnut Garden which touts the “Highest Lodging in Tiger Leaping Gorge” at the Walnut Garden Youth Hostel. Though I would caution that this portion of the trail is not for the faint of heart as the trail is very narrow in places, potentially washed out, has a slippery “ladder bridge” that you have to climb up and it’s hard to know the trail conditions especially if there were recent rains (a small rock slide/landslide could easily render the trail impassable). Apparently the people at the Walnut Garden Hostel are the only ones who maintain this section of trail so you can call them at:18065215732. This section travels along a large gorge with waterfalls and a small bamboo forest. The other option is to hike down to Tina’s Guesthouse (as detail in Part 3 above) and call Walnut Garden Hostel at: 18065215732. They offer a free shuttle and can come pick you up. You can then hike from Walnut Garden Hostel back to Tina’s Guesthouse along the trail detailed above, in a few hours.
Walnut Garden back to Middle Gorge via Waterfall:
Warning: This section of the trail is NOT recommended for inexperienced hikers. The trail is not regularly maintained and you must cross a sketchy, slippery ladder-bridge over a raging gorge!
Follow the trail leaving Walnut Garden Youth Hostel (The staff can show you exactly where it starts). After 5–10 minutes you will come across an open cement water channel and a pipe. You will follow this all the way to the waterfall. There is a trail the descends on the left leaving the main trail at: 27.2656, 100.1529 You can walk down to the waterfall and check it out, then return to this location. Leaving the main trail the path descends through a forest and you’ll get some better views of the gorge you will cross. Descending through a bamboo forest you arrive at a slanted log bridge crossing the gorge. It’s more of a ladder than a bridge. Be very careful here and on this next section of the hike as the trail is very narrow and crumbling. NOT recommended for small children or inexperienced hikers. Follow this trail as it winds down with more views of this side gorge, goes uphill and arrives back at the primary trail leading down to Middle Gorge and Tina’s Guesthouse.
Leaving the Gorge:
Additionally if it is a busy day on the road you could try to hitch a ride back to Qiaotou (where you started the hike) where you can then catch a bus to Lijiang or Shangri-La. Buses are running throughout the day, usually every 30 minutes to an hour.
Get a ride back to Qiaotou. There is a bus stop in Qiaotou where buses regularly go to Shangri-La throughout the day. You may also be able to get a ride from Tina’s
Beautiful natural limestone terraces with crystal clear water flowing from one to the next. A holy place for the Naxi people.
From middle gorge you can flag down a van going East (Further down the gorge) and ask to go to Baishuitai (40–50 RMB). If there are lots of cars you can try hitchhiking as well. Or arrange a car with your hostel. There is a town called “Haba” on the way to Baishuitai. I stopped there and spent the night but unless you intend to climb Haba Snow Mountain (5,396 m 17,703 feet) or have a specific trip in mind you might want to skip it. From Baishuitai it is possible to continue on to Shangri-La via a public bus on the main road.
Wikitravel: Some extra information and additional info on lodging options in the gorge.