THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO TIGER LEAPING GORGE
Everything you need to know before hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge
Our three day itinerary, how many days to hike, where to stay, how to get there, food, drink, safety and everything else you need to know
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering over the winding Jinsha river below, mirrored by the equally enormous the Haba Snow Mountain. China has some scenic views to boast of, but the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is home to some of the best. Turquoise waters, limestone cliffs, snow-peaked mountains, fluffy clouds and glorious light combine to make your jaw drop for the majority of this trek. China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge is hailed as one of the world’s best multi-day hikes. Scaling along the sides of a gorge that is almost 2000 meters deeper than the Grand Canyon, offering unrivalled views of some of China’s most dramatic landscape.
But we didn’t know that. We actually went into this hike preparing to be under-whelmed.
Don't ask me why, maybe it was some bad experiences with Chinese tourism that had left us feeling a little jaded (our incredible trip to the Great Wall as one obvious exception - you can read about that here).
So we set off on our little expedition with low expectations, and had them literally BLOWN OUT OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA.
Looking back at some of the TripAdvisor reviews it seems those who didn’t enjoy this hike attempted the trail in 1 day. Our advice - plan for at least 2 or stretch to 3 days if you can. There is enough good hiking and scenery to make it worthwhile.
So here is our guide; our full itinerary, how we got there, what we encountered, food, safety, and top tips in case you’re in need of some extra inspiration for your own trip. We’ve also added in some options for shorter treks if you are looking to hike in less time.
If you’re headed to China, we'd absolutely recommend you add this to your plan, it’ll be a highlight.
Our three day trip
Where to stay
How to get there
Food, safety and top tips
A handy map
Our Three day Trip
Time: 10:30am -> 4pm inc. an hour for lunch and lots of breaks.
Lunch: Naxi Guesthouse in Changsheng village
Stayed: Teahorse Guesthouse in Yongsheng village
We had based ourselves in Lijiang prior to the trip, and bright one morning we headed to the local bus terminal. Our hotel manager had marked this on a map for us & assured us we would get delivered straight to the start of the hike - yay for no bus changes! We left plenty of time to get there before the planned bus departure as everything seems to take longer in China. Arriving 30 minutes early we eventually spotted some hikers and followed them to join a queue we assumed was for Tiger Leaping Gorge. We presented our handwritten note (helpfully provided by our host from our hotel) that requested 2 tickets to Qiaotou (or sometimes Hutiaoxia, it's the latter on all the maps) - Approx ¥24.
Its a 2 hour bus that arrives in the spectacularly ugly Tiger Leaping Gorge Town (Hutiaoxia), probably a quaint village only a few years ago but the Chinese construction behemoth has well and truly arrived and it's safe to say this town has zero soul remaining. We were ushered off the bus and into the tourist office to buy our Tiger Leaping Gorge scenic area tickets for ¥45 each. We had planned to walk from the office (as some blogs had suggested) but the bus driver wouldn’t hear of it and pushed us back onto the bus. Turns out this was for good reason - The walk up a busy road packed with cement trucks would not have been pleasant.
2 kms down the road we reached a bus stop (with shop, toilets and map), and here the driver gestured at the door... our cue to exit. We were joined by 4 other hikers, but the rest of the folks on the bus stayed put... we assumed they were choosing to be bused directly to the tourist area "scenic spot".
Following arrows and a sign saying "Tiger Leaping Gorge hiking high way thus into" (translated Chinese signs are a continuous source of entertainment) our journey commenced.
**NB: There used to be 2 trails; a higher and a lower. Some years ago the lower trail was tarmac'd for busing touristic convenience...only use the high trail**
We had failed to read any recent guides that warned that the first 2 hours of the hike were now through a massive construction site... so not a great start to our trip. Two enormous bridges are being built across the gorge to connect Lijiang and Shrangli-la... to say they spoil the natural beauty of the upper gorge is under-calling it vastly. If we were to do the hike again, we'd skip this bit.
After a bit of a slog uphill, dodging cement drugs, and lightly frying in the midday sun, we finally arrived at Naxi Guesthouse for lunch. To our surprise we found 2 Italian hikers who had taken the bus to the scenic spot and then walked up the hill to the Naxi Guest House in Changsheng village, brightly telling us that "everyone knew to avoid the walk from Hutiaoxia..." D'oh!
**Naxi GH is super friendly, good food and nice looking rooms if you want to stay here the night before starting**
After lunch we faced the slightly terrifying sounding 28 bends, a rather gruelling uphill stretch with enough corners to make us feel dizzy, but thankfully the scenery in the afternoon both significantly made up for the rather sub-par morning & made each and every bend worth it. The sound of construction was far behind us and from that point on, all we could only hear was the roar of the Jinsha river below, the insects chirping around us, and the locals around every corner demanding that we sit & rest (and now you've sat you must buy a drink).
That evening we stayed at Teahorse Guesthouse in Yongsheng village. It was friendly, clean and had a great roof terrace overlooking the gorge.
Have a look at prices and availability here.
Time: 10:00am -> 4pm inc. an hour for lunch and lots of breaks, and getting lost.
Started: Teahorse Guesthouse in Yongsheng village
Lunch: Halfway Guesthouse in Bendiwan village
Stayed: Tibet Guesthouse in Walnut Garden
Steph woke up early to snap the sunrise whilst I remained dead to world, we eventually both were up and about and despite feeling unsurprisingly achey. Local Yunnan coffee and a huge banana pancake made us feel ready for our second day of hiking.
We planned to walk from Teahorse guesthouse to Halfway Guesthouse in Bendiwan village for lunch, onto Tina's Guesthouse for a drink before finishing in Walnut Garden at the Tibet Guesthouse. Essentially all on the flat. Sounds easy? It should have been except for the bit in the middle where we got lost and found ourselves 100m above the path, edging along a vertical slope covered in thorns (Steph's legs bore the brunt of the scratches). Whilst taking stock of our situation under a tree (not cursing each other at all) a group of American students turned up as well - therefore proving that it was an easy mistake to make, and so in fact, it was probably the path's fault. We all continued along the goat track until we returned to the path... only adding an extra hour or so to our day - no big deal (except for hurt pride and war wounds).
Halfway Guesthouse was huge, with very hospitable owners, and a big terrace with probably the best view of any guesthouse on route. This view was also visible from the toilets... which made that experience quite memorable. We ate some fried rice and our newest fave snack and local staple; Naxi bread. Once back on the trail the afternoon delivered more stunning views of steep cliffs, narrow paths, gorges, ravines, waterfalls - all the good stuff.
We popped into Tina's guesthouse to assess the vibe and agreed that some of the other guesthouses had a more homely feel, so after a quick full-fat coke, we bought our bus tickets back to Lijiang (more on that below) and headed further on to Walnut Garden, 3km down the road.
In Walnut Garden, we stayed at Tibet Guesthouse, another very friendly place decked out in Tibetan style overlooking the gorge (as every Guesthouse did to be honest). We chose it as we had heard it had the best food in the area and they certainly delivered the tasty goods.
Have a look at prices and availability here.
Distance: 5km (and a skyladder)
Time: 11:00am -> 2:30pm inc. lots of breaks.
Started: Walnut Garden
Finished: Tina's Guesthouse
First things first, did Tibet Guesthouse have better pancakes than Teahorse Guesthouse?... the challenge was on. And the winner was (drum rollllllll) Tibet Guesthouse! Mmmmhhm tasty.
Breakfast sorted, we chatted with our friendly hosts about the plan and were advised to descend into the gorge, walk along the lower path until Tiger Leaping Stone, and then climb the skyladder up to the road near Tina's. Possible in 3 hours, but were told to plan in time for photos. It actually took us 4 hours. We walked down the road to Woody’s guesthouse and from there took the garden path down the side of the gorge, until we reached the lowest path (this bit was pretty overgrown and we came across the most enormous snake! so watch out). We then walked back towards the middle gorge (i.e. back towards Tina’s guesthouse but on a lower path).
Another incredibly scenic walk, we ended stopping every 5 minutes for another photo opportunity (ahh… when in China).
Remember that scenic area ticket we bought right at the beginning? It doesn’t cover the lower gorge area. This bit was redeveloped by the locals so they have their own tolls and tickets. It seems a bit annoying until you consider how much work must have gone into carving a path into the rock cliff 200m above the river. Honestly, how did they do that?
Toll 1: ¥20
Toll 2: ¥20
Toll 3: ¥10 (only if you want to get out onto Tiger leaping stone)
We descended along the path hewn into the rock, past the toll gates (each with a lengthy sign explaining why there was a toll) and eventually got down to the Tiger Leaping Stone. We crossed the rope bridge and got as close as possible to roaring gorge as our bravery allowed. There was a tiny rope to hold onto. Thanks, we thought, “This'll definitely save our lives”.
Our relaxing stroll downhill had come to a end, next we needed to get ourselves back up onto the road. We had two options, a long and winding path or "The Sky Ladder". We of course chose the latter, we really didn’t even think about it, the name was too enticing. It's like choosing the "mystery prize", sometimes you just have to.
Turns out, we should have asked what the sky ladder was...
30 years old, 170 rungs, rusty as hell, and one damn scary experience. We learnt later that alternative names for the ladder are "ladder to heaven" and "towering ladder of death". I think they've tried to phase the last one out.
Anyway, once we reached the top, the adrenaline pulsing around our systems, we agreed that it had actually been kind of fun!* (well I did, Steph sort of nodded and looked away).
We reached the top of the path out of the gorge which reappears on the trail at Sandy's Guesthouse, which is a short walk from Tina's. We had a few beers to celebrate and then jumped on the 3:30pm bus back to Lijiang.
*In hindsight, we actually really wouldn’t recommend this - no ropes, no helmets, no safety, it’s probably rotten & rusting off the bolts - we were just too proud and/or stubborn to back down!
Where to stay IN tiger leaping gorge?
Some suggestions for places to stay from West (Hutiaoxia) to East (Walnut Garden).
We didn’t book, and we didn’t get the impression that you ever need to as there appears to be a surfeit of guesthouses, but sometimes it pays to plan ahead.
Check the prices & availability of the guesthouses below:
Only if you plan to start from Hutiaoxia, and want to stay overnight. Could be useful if you want to leave your bigbags and then jump on a bus from there up to Shangri-la after your hike. Not possible to book online
Naxi Family Guesthouse
We had lunch here, very friendly scene. Stay here if you want to tackle the 28 bends in the morning after a good nights rest. Not possible to book online
We stayed here for our first night. Good food and great views from their terrace. Rooms range from dorms, basic doubles, family rooms etc.
We had lunch here, probably the best views from their terrace of any of the guesthouses we went to. Not possible to book online
Big, youth-hostel kinda place, lots of room, the busiest place we stopped at and popular with the locals. This is where the bus back to Lijiang leaves from.
We stayed here for our second night. Excellent food, great terrace, very comfy rooms, very friendly hosts.
*Additionally, if you are staying in Lijiang before and after, there is tonnes and tonnes of accommodation but we managed to find a real gem in the old town called Xilu Xiaoxie Inn. Big rooms, tasty breakfasts, a super friendly host who went out of her way to help us navigate the town and a pair of super fluffy friendly dogs. In a town with a lot going on, we were happy to find this little peaceful oasis.
How to get TO TIGER LEAPING GORGE
Take the bus from the terminal on south-west side of Lijiang Old town located here.
Make sure you get a bus that stops at Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia, as not all of them do.
We asked our hostel to look up the timetable, and confirm the location of the bus terminal, and write down on some paper where we wanted to do (So everything then?)
The bus takes 2 hours, and cost ¥24.
Take any bus going to Lijiang, Dali or Kunming and ask to get off at Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia. Should cost ¥30.
To get back to Lijiang
Buses leave from Tina's Guesthouse everyday at 3:30pm.
Buy your tickets from any of the guesthouses along way, ideally the day before. Be on time as well, our bus left at 3:20pm...
Food, Drink, Safety
A few bits and pieces to be aware of:
Heavy rains usually occur from July to September, and can make some of the trails dangerous. Best time to hike is April and May.
Pack at least 2L of water per person. It's heavy, but it's also hot. You can but water all along the trail to top up.
Pack some snacks, but there is good food at every guesthouse and all along the trail.
Follow directions for the Upper trail. The lower trail doesn’t exist anymore.
Wear sensible footwear, one guy we met was in sandals... he wasn't happy with his choice.
Pack light and take all your rubbish with you.
If you have any questions or want to hire a guide, we found Keith Lyons very helpful
Other shorter itineraries
Bus to Naxi Guesthouse, have lunch at Halfway Guesthouse, get bus from Tina's Guesthouse back to Lijiang
Bus to Naxi Guesthouse, have lunch at Halfway Guesthouse, stay at Tibet Guesthouse. Next day walk down to the gorge and then back to Tina's to take the bus.
There are plenty of hand-drawn maps online provided by the guesthouses, and so tend to emphasise their guesthouse as the main attraction. We’ve added one here to help you orientate yourself, but there are tonnes online (Search: Tiger Leaping Gorge maps) and you’ll undoubtedly be given a few on your way to the start.
Is Tiger Leaping Gorge Worth It?
This is actually a really cool and fun hike, the views are outstanding, the guesthouses are all great, the hiking is tough but manageable, and not over-crowded at all - Something of a rarity when it comes to tourist attractions in China!
Where some of China's tourist highlights have not quite hit the mark for us... This was one definitely did.
more on china from the curious travel
Up for more adventures in China? We’re forever writing more about our travels - Have a little look below for more inspiration