Classic Treks: Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

China isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind when adventure travelers are considering their next challenging, trek. But the country has plenty of remote, wild places that can offer backpackers an amazing hiking experience. Perhaps the best of those is a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, a deep canyon located along the Yangtze River in the southwest portion of the country.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is an excellent hike for independent trekkers looking to escape the hustle and bustle, not to mention the pollution, of China’s busy cities. Located about 40 miles north of Lijiang City in Yunnan Province, the trail first rose to prominence in the 1980’s, when western backpackers began to explore the area. At that time, there were actually two distinct routes, consisting of the easier and flatter “Low Trail” and the much more challenging and dangerous “High Road”. The Low Trail has recently been paved over and made into a highway and while it is still an option, the High Road is a far superior option.

That trail is a mere 15 miles in length and requires just two days to hike end to end, but it is a long and difficult trek thanks to the steep trails and dramatic changes in altitude. The mountains that flank the trail are both well over 16,000 feet in height, and the sheer cliff faces fall away sharply. More than 6500 feet below, the Yangtze River can be seen rushing by, making a thunderous noise as it passes. Scenic vistas dominate the region, giving you plenty to gawk at throughout the journey.
The first day of the trek generally takes hikers up more than 3000 feet, but rewards their efforts with a stay in a local tea house, which are found frequently along the route. The tea houses are great places to get food and drinks, while taking a break from the trail, and they offer cramped, but comfortable accommodations for the night when you’ve decided to put up your feet by the fire.

The second day of the trek is not any easier than the first, although the trail does turn down out of the mountains, eventually depositing hikers on the banks of the Yangtze, the very river they’ve been watching from above for the past two days. The narrow trail can be difficult to navigate at times, but the views are worth the effort, as you’ll find that the altitude isn’t the only thing that takes your breath away.

There are few reliable maps for the region, but fortunately the trail is well marked and easy to follow. You can choose to hike it with a guide, but it is also very easy to do independently as well. Simply hop a bus from Lijiang for about $4 and then pay the entrance fee to the Gorgel, which is about another $8. From there, you simply follow the designated route, going at your own pace, and choosing to stop at a tea house when ever you desire.

While not as long as some of the other major trekking trails in the world, Tiger Leaping Gorge still has plenty to offer, and is an excellent escape from modern, metropolitan China, which can provide sensory overload at times. For a little peace and quite, and fresh air, add this trek to your itinerary, and you’ll get to experience a piece of rural China that few outsiders experience.