The Top 5 Challenging Hikes in China

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Feature image by Patrick He via Flickr

Updated: September 16, 2019

When asking around among those who have hiked in China, they’ll tell you that the scenes are magnificent, but the walks tend to be fairly easy

What’s an experienced hiker to do? Fear not, that’s what. No matter how easy some hikes are, there are more than enough challenging routes for the experienced out there. Here’s our list of the most difficult hikes in the Middle Kingdom… For those who are brave enough to try.

1. The Great Wall at Jiankou, Beijing

Unrestored, crumbling, and impossibly steep in parts, this section of the Great Wall twists across a precipitous ridgeline, making it both magnificent and terrifying. 

Only 80km from Beijing, this hike is easily accessible by car or bus and stretches over 20km between Mutianyu and Huanghuacheng. Compared with the more popular areas, this section provides hikers more of a challenge because it is almost completely unrestored, bearing the marks by time. At points, the pathway is reduced to a treacherously thin ledge, adding a real fear-factor to the hike. This route is also prone to severe inclines, including an 80-degree ascent aptly named the ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

In short: bring appropriate footwear and whatever courage you have.

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The Great Wall at Jiankou. Image by Ian Bruce via Flickr

RELATED READING: How to Make the Most out of a Trip to the Great Wall

Hikers have a range of options, including a popular four-hour hike to a restored section of the wall or a much more intense two-day hike from the far-western sections. No matter where you go on this wild wall, or for how long you trek, be sure to bring a camera to capture the rather breathtaking views.

2. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Snuggled between towering Himalayan peaks, Tiger Leaping Gorge stretches for 16km and reaches a maximum depth of 3,900 meters, firmly making it China’s deepest gorge. The name comes from a local legend which, unsurprisingly, describes a tiger leaping across the river to escape hunters.

No matter where you look, spectacular scenery is visible in all directions, from lofty snow-capped mountains above to the glint of the rushing river thousands of meters below. Roaring through 34 rapids in just under 15km, the Jinsha River makes for some noteworthy action shots.

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Tiger Leaping Gorge. Image by Mulligan Stu via Flickr

RELATED READING: New High-Speed Train Makes Yunnan Province More Accessible 

A reasonable level of fitness is required, along with a healthy dose of nerve – in addition to the hike’s high elevation, the path gets extremely narrow in parts, often becoming wet and slippery due to the cascading waterfalls. With some considerable drops below, this trek certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.  

A hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge can be split into two days, with a choice of traditional guesthouses to stay at along the way. By taking your time, you’ll get the chance to explore a colorful patchwork of ethnic minority villages and meet the local Naxi and Tibetan people. Or, for those pressed for time, it is possible to complete in a day – at a push! So, although this requires a very high level of fitness, it is certainly doable.    

3. Hua Shan, Shaanxi Province

Mount Hua is known as ‘the number one steep mountain under heaven’, and for good reason, as it regularly tops online rankings of the world’s most dangerous hikes. It was said that emperors had to climb the mountain to show their worthiness to rule, while failure would imply that they were not fit. With such high stakes, some opted to skip it.

While not an emperor, Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, did accomplish this mighty feat. And because of this, the mountain is considered one of China’s great holy peaks, earning it a sprinkling of beautiful temples and picture-perfect sites to practice kung fu. 

The Top 5 Challenging Hikes in China

 Hua Shan Plank Walk. Image by Aaron D. Feen via Flickr

RELATED READING: Xi’an Tours: More than Terracotta Warriors

However, most people come for the breathtaking scenery and death-defying trails.

With names such as the ‘Thousand-Foot Precipice’, ‘Hundred-Foot Crevice’, and ‘Black Dragon Ridge’, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hua Shan has some frightening elements to it – especially for those who suffer from vertigo. But the trail that trumps all is the South Peak, the mountain’s highest route, boasting the world-famous Plank Walk. While the views from the peak are unparalleled, the journey there is treacherous and involves shuffling along a plank built into the vertical rock face. The plank is a mere one foot wide, and the drop – best not think about it. 

Of course, you could join the crowd in choosing a cable car to the top… but where’s the fun in that?

Please note that although this is indeed a challenging hike, its breathtaking views have, understandably, made it quite the popular tourist destination. As such, it has become very crowded and isn’t always to everyone’s liking. 

4. Ganden to Samye, Tibet

With desolate high passes, lakes, and even desert dunes, this trek offers genuine adventure and rich diversity among the unbound wilds of TibetThe trailhead begins just 50km east of Lhasa and offers a four- to five-day, 80km hike between Ganden and Samye, two significant Tibetan monasteries.

Exploring the majestic temples along this route offers fantastic opportunities to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism, and you’ll get to experience nomadic culture up close and personal on the highland pastures.

The Top 5 Challenging Hikes in China

Brahmaputra from Ganden. Image by Antoine Taveneaux via Wikimedia Commons

RELATED READING: 6 Facts About Tibet

Although the sites may be marvelous, this is one of the most challenging hikes in China thanks to a heady combination of altitude and distance. Climbing to over 5,000m, the route’s oxygen is scarce and mountain sickness is a real danger, with the added disadvantage of limited to no medical help available in the high passes. What’s more, camping in the wilderness is very much a part of this experience and, as such, hikers must be experienced and ready to face the adverse conditions of mountain life. 

For those up to the challenge, you’ll be very much rewarded by spectacular scenery that will leave you (quite literally) breathless.

5. Yading Nature Reserve, Sichuan

When James Hilton penned Lost Horizon, he never did name the exact location of his fabled Tibetan utopia – but we think we’ve found it. Boasting evergreen forests that teem with life, sparkling lakes, and crystalline rivers, the low-lying valleys and soaring peaks of Yading Nature Reserve could well be the living incarnation of Hilton’s fabled Shangri-La.

The site of numerous pilgrimages, sacred mountains define this reserve and form integral parts of this challenging trek. Walk in the footsteps of pilgrims on their kora as you traverse the base of the 6,000m-high Mount Chenresig, a two-day 35km route. Stiff necks are guaranteed, as hikers will struggle to keep their eyes from the mountain’s majestic slopes on this multi-day voyage.

The Top 5 Challenging Hikes in China

Yading Nature Reserve. Image by Raymond Ling via Flickr

RELATED READING: 5 Things You Should See and Do at Yading Nature Reserve

The difficulty of this hike is ramped up when you combine it with other intimidating peaks in the area. Moreover, there are no hotels in the reserve, meaning good preparation and suitable camping equipment is required. While getting off the beaten path brings its challenges, the risk is well worth the reward.

With your piqued sense of adventure and challenge, now is the time to organize an expedition on China’s most challenging trails. We can customize any of our journeys to meet your each and every whim. Get started planning your trip.