On the approach to the renowned Tibetan Plateau, deep in the northern finger of mystical Yunnan, one of the world’s deepest river canyons is waiting for you to take its 16 km (10 mi) trek across the glorious ridge that frames the river. It is phenomenal. The narrow path winds its way through steep bends and remote alpine villages – where your exhaustion is only outweighed by your bliss – and snow capped peaks on either side flicker their shadows across the rugged river more than half a mile below. Just don’t get too distracted by all that beauty; you need to watch out for donkey poo on the ground.Spending one or two (probably two) days hiking from Tiger Leaping Gorge’s starting point in Qiaotou Village (Qiáotóu Cūn;桥头村) to the ferry port at the end of the Lower Rapids (Xià Hǔtiào;下虎跳) is undeniably amazing. But the stopping points in the middle can turn the trek into a very manageable half to full-day hike as well. Both choices are totally gorgeous, and both are quite strenuous, even if you’re in good shape. Tiger Leaping Gorge demands respect; do not underestimate it.What’s more, there are dangers along the way (that’s why it’s an adventure, right?). First, the path is narrow and steep at places. During the rainy season (July and August) areas will be slippery and even unstable. Watch your feet and consider a hike during May or June – it’s prettier then anyway. Second, do not hike unprepared. If you’re hiking to the end you need three liters of water at a minimum. Bring warm clothes and a change of dry socks, too. Hypothermia is deadly, and it likes to catch people in wet clothes at high altitudes. Third, do not trek alone. There have been accounts of hikers being assaulted while trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge. Having at least one other person with you will deter assailants and allow someone to find help if you fall. Foreigners and Chinese alike have died in the gorge. Be smart, and you’ll have a great adventure.Before you head out, check the weather and trail conditions with your lodging in Lijiang, Qiaotou or wherever you’re bedding down. You can grab a map from most places too, but remember that few are up to date and none are to scale, and the one we have provided should be all you need.
The gorge offers two paths: the high road and the low road. The low road is relatively new and is populated by tour buses and stinky diesel engines. The high road has none of these, but it does have sublime views of the gorge and the snow-veiled mountains to the east and west (Haba Shan to the west and Yulong Xueshan to the east).
From Qiaotou Village, start your journey by walking southeast from the village towards the ticket booth and pay the nice man ¥65. Continue past the school and then follow the arrows that point you up an embankment towards the paved road (you need to go past the school; do not be misled by the false road before the school). After a couple of kilometers on the paved road, you will reach the trailhead for the steep gorge climb.
When you reach Nuoyu Village (Nuòyú Cūn;诺余村) your real test begins. From here to Yacha Village (Yachā Cūn;呀叉村) you will run a gauntlet of 28 switchbacks and curves that take most people around four or five hours to conquer. This part is painful, but you can do it! Grit through knowing that Yacha is the highest point on the gorge, so once you beat this leg it’s smooth sailing to Bendiwan Village (Běndìwān Cūn; 本地湾).
A couple hours from Bendiwan, the path gets a little precarious. Narrow, unkempt, wet – this is what you’ll find on the trail to the road from here. Keep in mind that you are hiking downhill, which makes finding your footing a lot harder. Pay attention to the road but keep your head up too. A sprained ankle or a broken bone is not a fitting end to your journey.
Once you meet the road junction at Tina’s Youth Hostel (see Sleeping & Eating) you’ve got a few more options to mull over.
1. You can stop here, refuel on food, then head back to Qiaotou. Obviously this move is only if you get to Tina’s by lunch and can make it back to Qiaotou by nightfall.
2. You can rest up here for the night and face the rest of the trek (either back to Qiaotou or on towards the Lower Rapids) in the morning.
3. You can hike a little further and spend the night at Sean’s Spring Guesthouse (see Sleeping & Eating) or Walnut Grove (Hétáo Yuán; 核桃园).
4. If you’re a machine, you can continue the hike to the Lower Rapids and pass out from exhaustion on a bus back to Lijiang or Qiaotou from there. This is the Panda’s personal favorite option.
Note: You will find staying at Walnut Grove or Sean’s Spring Guesthouse much more appealing than Tina’s, which has hard beds, gruff service and hit or miss hot water. If you don’t want to take the detour, just stick to the high road at Tina’s intersection. It will soon descend to Walnut Grove. Walking through a bamboo thicket means you’re on the right path.
Those who choose to continue from the junction at Tina’s should consider taking the 40-minute detour down to the Middle Rapids (Zhōng Hǔtiào; 中虎跳) to see Tiger Leaping Rock (Hǔtiào Shí;虎跳石). But beware, this trail is extremely steep. If you guessed that the rock looks like a tiger leaping in mid air you’re wrong. But, if you guessed that a legend says that a tiger once leapt across the Yangtze River from this stone and that’s how the gorge got its name, then you’re absolutely right. Some locals will try to charge you for viewing areas down here. If they do you can move to another spot. Turn left at the last hut before Tiger Leaping Rock for the one-hour hike to Walnut Grove. Locals will try to hustle you for ¥10 on this path too. Again, just ignore them.
Continuing the trek from Walnut Grove, many unbelievably fit people like to head to Daju Village (Dàjù Cūn;大具村). To do this, when you see the buses waiting to take people back to Lijiang just say “no” and head two more hours down the road to the ferry crossing. The ferry is ¥20 and a great, relaxing way to close off your journey. Beware that because buses from Daju to Lijiang pass through Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, you need to pay ¥105 for the ride. Note: new paths are always being constructed here. Make sure to take the small dirt trail (the size of a car) down to the ferry and not the old goat trail. You can also ask locals where to catch the ferry or just say “Daju” and point to the river, or point to the characters above.
We do not advise doing this trek on your own – make sure to stock up on supplies and be prepared.
Before leaving Lijiang, Qiaotou or Daju, be sure you have enough water for the first part of the hike. There are no shops, but you will find occasional vendors selling fruit and water. Prices vary, but fruit is usually around ¥2-3 per item, and vendors and guesthouses charge around ¥5 for a 1.5-litre bottle of water. Between the Naxi Family Guesthoouse and Yacha village, there is a shop (look for the Red Bull can mural) where you can buy a variety of things, but don’t count on this or the vendors to be open during the winter low season. Remember, it’s best to bring sufficient supplies from Qiaotou or Nuoyu.