Mighty Huashan (aka Hua Mountain) is spectacular. One of the five sacred mountains of Chinese Taoism, the scope of Huashan’s importance throughout Chinese history is unfathomable; very few places have so perfectly embodied the mysticism of ancient China. It was here that hermits defied death to climb the razor-blade edges of Mt Huashan’s five peaks in search of spiritual epiphanies, Immortals from Taoist legend secluded themselves in caves throughout the epic mountain spines for years on end while perfecting their inner being, and accomplished martial artists populated the temples teetering on secret peaks, bringing their bodies to ultimate perfection in the high-altitude air.
These days, a bit of Huashan’s magic has faded under the shadow of its overpriced hostels (filled with large crowds during peak summer months) and Red Bull vendors along the lower paths. But the climb through fragrant rainy valleys and unbelievable sheer drops will remind you in a flash that Huashan still holds mysteries that the modern world can never take away. If you have time for only one excursion outside of Xi’an, it should definitely be the top of this mountain.
There are three routes to the top of Huashan’s first North Peak. Two of these thrilling footpaths have earned Huashan its reputation as the most dangerous of China’s Five Great Mountains, and the other is a scenic eight-minute cable car.
Path one: The Warrior’s Path – There is good reason that this route running under the cable car is labeled The Warrior’s Path. If you’re in decent shape, you can expect a blood-pumping two hour hike to the North Peak, with a hair-raising 100 m (328 ft) end stretch of slits chiseled out of the cliff-side. These are your stairs, but hey, at least you get a chain to hold on to.
Path two: The Misty Valley – This path is the most popular route. Along the 6 km (4 mi) valley there are a host of beautiful waterfalls, rivers, pavilions, veneration caves and small food and drink stalls. It’s fairly easy going up this part, but once you reach the mountain’s precipices there’s a good 30 minutes to an hour of uneven stairs cut into the cliff. Expect between three to five hours total for this journey, and don’t forget to cheer on the deliverymen who hike up and down the 6 km base with huge loads of drinks and food hanging off their shoulders. Be aware that supplies get much more expensive the further you go along, so it’s best to stock up in town before you go.
Path three: The Austrian Cable Car – Yes, it was built by Austrians. No, we don’t think that’s the official name, but it sounds cooler. Those less inclined to play cliffhanger on Huashan’s daunting stair cases can opt for the cable-car. The quick ride will give you a bird’s eye view of the mountain as you hit the North Peak in eight easy minutes. No one is judging you.
The assault on Huashan begins from the village below the mountain. Again, stock up on food and drinks here so you don’t have to pay exorbitant prices as you near the top. Once you make it to the North Peak, there are four other peaks that you can hit for a good four-hour circuit. That’s right, the rest of the peaks will take an additional four hours once you’ve already climbed the mountain. It’s a worthy goal for some, but don’t underestimate the strain of Mt Huashan’s peak-to-peak hiking. The danger doesn’t end once you complete the cliff ascents either. Between the peaks, ridge pathways become nerve-wrackingly narrow, and they offer their own fatal drops if you should slip on a wet, icy or crowded path. Keep your head up and be careful!
However, don’t be dissuaded from mounting a couple or all of the peaks if you’ve got the energy. The scenery is world-class along the Dragon Ridge (Cānglóng Lǐng;苍龙岭) that connects the North Peak (Běi Fēng;北峰) to the East Peak (Dōng Fēng;东峰) and the iconic West Peak (Xī Fēng;西峰), whose unique beauty has been represented in countless pictures of Huashan. The walk between each is sensational.
Also check out the sublime views from the rear East Peak and South Peak (Nán Fēng; 南峰), but be aware that the south one – the tallest peak at 2,160 m (7,086 ft) – is the most crowded. For a hand-numbing experience, test your mettle on the South Peak’s Plank Walk (Chángkōng Zhàndào; 长空栈道; ¥30), a set of wooden boards clinging to a 2,000 m (6,561 ft) vertical drop. There are chains to hold and you will be strapped in with a safety harness, but this does little to reduce the terror. After the walk you may need a change of underwear.
The sunrise from the top of Huashan is excellent. It is a fairly coveted experience, and there are two ways you can catch the morning sun break over the Qinling Mountains. The first is to begin hiking from the base of Huashan at around 23:00 and be at the South or East Peak by sunrise. This should only be done over the Misty Valley route; do not attempt the Warrior’s Path in the dark! Option two is to hike in the late morning or afternoon (or cable car it), spend the night at the top, and get up around 5:00.