Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge!
When in Lijiang there are two big natural attractions to visit, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Both are awe-inspiringly beautiful with views of some of the highest snow-capped peaks you’ve ever seen. One attraction is quite costly – Jade Snow Mountain… and the other is not!
We found ourselves heading to Lijiang in mid-April unsure of what our big adventure would be, but thanks to the Nomadasaur’s blog post on Tiger Leaping Gorge, we were inspired to tackle it, but in a slightly different way.
*Actually, we intended on tackling the 3-day hike through the gorge the exact same way, however, one of us got really sick and was bedridden for 3 days.
So we started one day late, giving us only two days to hike through the gorge. Looking back on it, I’m happy things worked out the way it did because three days may have been too long. We were blessed with magnificent weather both days, which definitely helped us achieve the hike in the amount of time we had. Thank goodness!
To get to the trailhead we took a 2-hour bus from Lijiang to the small village of Qiaotou. As we sat down on the bus, a nice man held out a translation on his phone saying, “Are you hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge?” We eagerly nodded yes, and he responded with, “Me too!”. We were instant friends!
The bus drops off regular passengers in Qiaotou, then takes hikers to the ticket office where you purchase your pass to enter the gorge.
If you’re interested in cost:
Bus to Qiaotou from Lijiang: 35 RMB each = $6 x 2 = $12
Gorge Entry ticket: 45 RMB each = $8 x 2 = $16
Our new friend turned out to be a hiking guide scoping out Tiger Leaping Gorge for future tours. We were so thankful to have met him (although I can’t remember his name) because he had a GPS map to get us started up the mountain. It was 10:30 AM when we began in the town of Qiaotou that sits along the river. The way towards the Upper Gorge Trail ascends very quickly through a combination of small shacks and industrial buildings. We had read that the way is clearly marked with blue signs, but we saw maybe one the entire 45-minutes time it took to get to the actual trailhead. We would have gotten lost if it weren’t for our new friend and the additional help of a few small Chinese women who lived in the area, pointing us in the right direction!
The initial ascent was the hardest part of the hike. We had to keep reminding ourselves that our bodies were trying to cope with the elevation. Qiaotou sits at 6,300 feet above sea level, higher than Denver, and we’d be climbing 2,000 feet higher (multiple times) over the next 48 hours.
We climbed and climbed until we reached a more leveled off path into the tree line. Our plan was to make it to Halfway House (more like Two-thirds way House) to spend the night. The path was clearly marked at this point so we said goodbye to our friend and hiked on without him.
Along the way, we passed many locals who had set up shops on the trail to sell water, fruit, candy bars, and marijuana? I was struggling to make it up the mountain without carrying anything on my back and to think these people hike up this mountain every day just to make a living. Sure, some had donkeys but some did not!
After hiking through the woods for a while the view of Haba Mountain began to grow better and better with each step. Knowing we had to make 2 days of hiking into 1 day we were pushing ourselves pretty hard, in fear that we may not make it before sunset. Ok… Zach was going his normal pace, however, I, the one who had been bedridden a few days before, felt like I was going to collapse from the elevation and for the sheer fact that this hike was difficult! For the first two hours, we had only been climbing upwards! But then, we started to go down.
We had crossed the first outcroppings of the mountain ridge and began descending towards the small town where most hikers spend the first night. The trail takes you along a small road through a village directly to Naxi Guesthouse. We arrived here around 1:00 PM, where we found many people eating lunch looking like they were about to start their second day on the trail. We were surprised to find so many European and Australian foreigners here doing the exact same thing we were doing! We stopped only for a moment to buy more water and continued on the trail heading towards the dreaded 28-Bends.
After leaving Naxi Guesthouse it took an hour of steep hiking to reach the beginning of the 28-Bends section. It was like beginning the hike all over again. Naxi guesthouse isn’t too much higher than the river, and we had to climb all the way back up the mountain again.
I read some mixed reviews of the 28-Bends. Some said it isn’t that bad, some say it is very difficult. I can imagine that if you spend one whole day hiking only this section that it would be challenging (because in no way is it easy). But if you took your time in climbing up the endless foot-high steps to the top it wouldn’t be that bad. You could stop every once in a while, and make a real day of it. However, we were, again, exhausted, and nervous about not making it to “Halfway” House so we scrambled up the foot-high steps that never seemed to end. We climbed up and up and up! I hadn’t been pushed this hard physically in a long time, and the other hikers on the trail seemed to be struggling just as much as I was.
AT LAST, we reached the top! The view at the top of 28-Bends is SPECTACULAR. You have a panoramic view of Haba Mountain capped in snow with the gorge and river below. It felt like I was in a scene of Lord of the Rings or something. It was truly an out of body experience, having struggled so much to make it to the top and to be so generously rewarded with the unforgettable view. I wanted to happily collapse right there and not move another inch. I was too tired to even take a picture. However, the one downside to the viewpoint area is that it is so small. And with so many hikers reaching it at the same time we decided to push on.
After 4 hours of hiking back down the mountain, we finally made it to Halfway House. At about 5:30 pm, thoroughly exhausted, we checked in to a small room with two single beds and a nice big bathroom. It was 150 yuan (=$21 USD) to spend the night, which is a bit pricy, but staying at Halfway is convenient because they serve hot food and cold water. We had maybe the best fried rice we’d had in China there, and the view is truly amazing.
The town has multiple guesthouses to choose from. We chose Halfway House because there is information about it on other blogs and it seems to be a popular place to stay for hikers. If we were to do this hike again we would stay somewhere else because not only was it expensive, but because it left me itchy… I’ll explain why at the end of this post.
The next morning we were back on the trail by 10:00 am. We had 2 hours of hiking ahead of us before we reached the end of the trail at Tina’s Guesthouse. You can either start your hike here (although I’m not 100% sure how you’d get there) or end your hike here. A lot of hikers end here because Tina’s Guesthouse has a fleet of buses that will transport you back to Lijiang. I believe our tickets cost 50 yuan each and the buses are quite nice. It is a great little operation they have going. You can even eat lunch and stow your bags for free if you’re up for a little more hiking before the bus leaves promptly at 3:30 pm. We stowed our bags and decided to hike down to the gorge to the river, as we had not yet seen it up close. It’s not like we had already done enough hiking or anything! Thankfully, we had about 2 and a half hours to do this because it took all of that time! I was so worried we wouldn’t make it back in time for the only of the day that I made us practically run all the way back up the 1000 steps and scary “Sky Ladder” it took for us to go all the way to the bottom. If you are reading this post because you plan on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, make sure that you leave enough time at Tina’s Guesthouse to go all the way to the bottom of the gorge, and all the way back up! It is a pretty cool addition to the hike, but beware, it is also extremely difficult.
At 3:30 PM, we boarded our bus back to Lijiang with about 40 other hikers. We were exhausted and content in our accomplishment. We had really done it! If I could describe this hike in a few words it would be, a true adventure. Cheesy, I know, but it’s true! I would recommend it to anyone who happens to be in the Lijiang area of China. It will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and it made our trip to China that much more special.
Thanks for reading!
-Leah & Zach
(We hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge in early April of 2019)
So why did Halfway House leave me itchy?? Duh-duh-DUH!! …bed bugs. NO one wants to wake up with a thousand little red bites on their neck and back, but I did. It was a crummy situation, but thankfully only a few pieces of clothing I had with me on the hike were red-flagged as infected so I had to carefully keep these items separate from the rest of my luggage. I finally found a dryer in THAILAND 2 weeks later to kill the potential pests. There are ZERO laundromats in the Yunnan Province of China so I had to wait. After two weeks my neck was back to normal, but again, I wouldn’t stay at Halfway House a second time.
(If you plan on visiting this area for an extended vacation, try to find a hotel or guesthouse that will let you launder your clothes. We found one in the town of Shaxi before visiting Lijiang, however, they did not have a dryer; only a washing machine.)