Your Guide to Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge in 3 Days
Despite its bombastic name, the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek is one of the more popular hikes in China mainly due to the spectacular views to be experienced along the moderately-difficult trek. You don’t need to be incredibly fit to hike the route, which renders it appealing even to novice trekkers or to those who normally favour couches over hiking trails.
Where is the Tiger Leaping Gorge?
China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge is located in the Yunnan province, between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain, not far from the city of Lijiang. The gorge is one of the deepest and one of the most beautiful canyons in the world, mostly inhabited by Yunnan’s Naxi people.
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Getting to the Tiger Leaping Gorge
The gateway to the Tiger Leaping Gorge is the small town of Qiaotou. Buses from Lijiang, or Shangri-La, run to, or stop in Qiaotou at different times of the day.
Public buses from Lijiang run specifically to Qiaotou, or to Shangri-La stopping at Qiaotou. Some guesthouses can also help in arranging your transport. One particular guesthouse at the Tiger Leaping Gorge (Tina’s Youth Hostel sometimes referred to as Tina’s Guesthouse) has its own fleet of buses running the route. There are quite a few bus stations in Lijiang and going to the right one may be quite confusing. We’re including a map to show you exactly which it is.
Take a bus headed to Dali or Lijiang and ask to be dropped off at Qiaotou.
Since we were based in Lijiang, we decided to walk to the bus terminal and find a bus headed to Qiaotou. Unfortunately, we could not find the right bus terminal and eventually got a taxi to take us there for 8 RMB (about €1). We got tickets for the 8.30am bus for 22 RMB (about €2.80) each.
Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge
Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge is a moderately difficult activity that can be undertaken by most people having ‘regular’ fitness levels. Nikki and myself did not even fit within that category at that point in our travels, but as long as we took frequent rests on the trail, we felt fine. The actual hike can be completed with relative leisure in two days, with the third day being dedicated to going right down to the gorge via a network of paths and ladders.
Some people choose to combine the first two days into one long sprint, but honestly, this is not our style, nor would we have realistically been capable of such an ordeal. We actually really enjoyed our longish breaks at the top or sides of the hills and mountains surrounded by pines and flowers taking in the views of the mighty River Yangtze.
Day 1 of our Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
The bus from Lijiang stopped us first at the Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket centre within Qiaotou itself, from where we bought the obligatory ticket to access the trail for 65 RMB (about €8.50) each. Many people start the trek here, but the bus took us up a further 1km to the very start of the trail. Some touts just outside the ticket centre offered us a car to Naxi Family Guesthouse for 150 RMB (about €19.50), which would cut the trek short by a few km, but hey, we were there to hike!
Due to ongoing road upgrade works, we actually started the trek amid lots of rubble and construction which made the trail exceedingly dusty and dirty (Dec 2017). Needless to state, we felt that this part of the trek was quite horrible and would have happily skipped it.
I quickly realised that I was carrying way too many items in my daypack, including my very heavy laptop which, contrary to Nikki’s better judgement, I had refused to leave in storage! Seriously, trekking in Timor-Leste had not taught me a thing! Apart from the heavy weight, the scorching December sun lay heavy on our faces. We had not thought of bringing sunblock along, assuming that the days would be cold and dull, rather than hot and sunny. I still can’t believe how stupid that was! DO take sunblock and lip-balm along – we looked and felt horrible after three days trekking without them.
After climbing a steep hill, we stopped to rest at a makeshift stall run a sweet elderly Naxi woman who grinned at our red faces. We bought Snickers and Red Bull (8RMB/€1 each) and ice-cold water and she handed us walnuts for energy out of a large container. Her routine job, it seemed, was to break open the walnuts on that high secluded, windy spot, and sell a few items to the curious (or sun-stroked) hikers who passed by.
The route to Naxi Family Guesthouse was mostly downhill and we were glad to grab lunch and to stop there for a while. You could even choose to spend the night there and trek for longer the day after, but we really wanted to get rid of the infamous 28 bends on the first day. Our egg and chicken fried rice and diet cokes went down a treat though!
By 2.30pm, we were at it again. The road up from the guesthouse was once more very steep and this pretty much led to the alleged 28 bends (which felt more like 100). At this point, I believe that I overheated and was suffering a minor sunstroke, so much so that Nikki had to pour a bottle of cold water over my head as I sipped from another bottle. I felt a lot better after…. again – sunblock, frequent sips of water and a lighter daypack will help you avoid this!!
The bends are tough especially for those of you who, like us, attempt to hike this route with such a horridly low fitness level. But they are not impossible. They seemed seriously never-ending though, and as we sweated and puffed our way up, we realised that this part of the route covered a 400m elevation over an 800m span.
We tried counting the bends but lost count after the first few. At this point on the trail, we were stopping every few metres to catch our breath, which I felt was a little bit pathetic, considering that we had been on similar treks before. But I guess that this was a bit of a reminder that we are nearer to 40 years of age rather than to 30 and that traveling long-term had taken a toll on our energy levels too.
As soon as we got rid of the bends it was mostly flat or downhill which was a lot easier of course! After about 1.5 hours, just before sunset, we arrived at Tea Horse Guesthouse, where we had planned on spending the night, and imagine our surprise when we realised that a wedding was in full swing! The owner’s son had just got married!
We were escorted to our room and courteously invited to join the festivities. After having rested for a few minutes, we were taken to table laden with several dishes of different traditional Yunnan food, some of which we were not able to identify, but nevertheless, we enjoyed every morsel! By this time, the sun had set and we were starting to feel really cold, so we were glad to use the thick jackets we were carrying, which had no doubt contributed significantly to the weight and volume of our daypacks!
The room at Tea Horse Guesthouse was somehow a lot more comfortable than what we had expected out of the teahouses on the trek. The room was warm and the western-style bathroom very clean. There was a kettle too, but unfortunately no cups. The room was complemented by several sockets for charging our electronics, electric blankets, and a few other extra regular sheets and blankets too. Soap and toiletries were provided. It was really so much better than we had envisaged and just what we needed for a good night’s sleep!
Day 2 of our Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
The next morning, we woke up to a hearty breakfast of porridge and coffee (perfect for trekking!). Day 2 was characterised by lovely views along a windy path right up to Tina’s. Unlike the previous day, it was a leisurely 1.5 hours trek to Halfway Lodge where we stopped for coffee and a mini-break.
Curiously, we had heard that Halfway Lodge is reputed to be home to a loo with one of the most beautiful views in the world. We were looking forward to using the infamous toilet, and when we did…we concluded it was ok, but not really that spectacular! Two hours later, after walking along a very narrow flat/downhill mountain path we were at Tina’s.
We met landslides and waterfalls along the way, probably caused by a recent downpour, but none hindered our trek. Day 2 was a lot more enjoyable than Day 1 just because it was so easy, so that we could really enjoy walking in the fresh air whilst taking in the dramatic views which presented some great photo opportunities.
We had a lunch of noodles and yak cheese dumplings at Tina’s and decided to keep walking all the way to Walnut Grove, where he had originally planned to get a room. We had read that this was a more beautiful and quiet area than the area in which Tina’s was located, and that both Sean’s Spring Guesthouse and Chateau De Woody were great accommodation options. Although we did research lodging beforehand, we chose not to book in advance and when we got to Walnut Grove, we quickly realised, to our dismay, that everywhere was deserted! We actually tried going into the reception at both places and waited for a while but nobody came out to greet us at all.
Along the way we also checked out Tibet Guesthouse where we were offered a beautiful room with an equally enticing view. There was construction going on one side of the building, but the owner discounted the cost of the stay and gave us a lovely and comfortable-looking room on the other side, away from the noise.
We were overjoyed and started to make ourselves comfortable … until we realised that the bathroom was non-functional and the pipes and drains had not yet been connected! Somehow, the owner had forgotten to mention that one important detail when negotiating a price! We were told that we could use a downstairs bathroom, but that kind of arrangement was really not what we were looking for, so our only option at that point was to head back to Tina’s, which, despite being only a few kilometres back up the same road we came from, felt a lot further!
Thankfully the room at Tina’s was not bad either! After buying a ticket for next day’s bus to Lijiang, for 50RMB each (about €6.50), we had a nap and enjoyed another meal onsite.
Day 3 of our Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
Technically we had completed the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike on Day 2, however one of the best things to do around the Tiger Leaping Gorge is to go right down to the river to experience the mighty rush of water. This is no mean feat – as you can imagine, the slopes leading down the gorge are almost perpendicular. The great thing about this part of the hike is that most accommodation places in the area allow hikers to leave their belongings in a storage area and walk backpack-free. DO carry enough water though!
There are three trails leading down from the main road to the river below, located somewhere between the road from Tina’s to Walnut Grove. Each trail is maintained by a group of people who charge a fee for its use. We didn’t really figure out what the maintenance included, but the fees are very affordable – 15RMB each for each trail (about €2).
Tina’s Youth Hostel runs a free van to take guests to one of the trails (we didn’t ask but probably they could arrange to drop you off at any of the other trails). Hiking down this trail and up from the trail at Sandy’s would ensure that you are in time to catch the bus back to Lijiang or Shangri-La, both of which leave simultaneously from Tina’s at 3.30pm.
The first part of the trail consisted of a number of never-ending steep steps which we rather enjoyed on the way down. These led to a short trail along a mountainside, until we got to another place where we needed to pay another 15 RMB, so we concluded that this part is where two of the trails join up.
After paying the fee, you can go right down to the water’s edge and climb back up. The way back up is either via the route you’ve walked already or via, what is called, the Sky Ladder. We had read about the Sky Ladder but we only appreciated its true significance after spotting it from afar. Nikki’s first words were ‘I am SO not going up that thing’. After realising that the way up would be much harder without the ladder, he convinced himself to use it, cautiously, one rung at a time.
I do not usually suffer from vertigo, but the long, vertical Sky Ladder should not be taken lightly. As I was climbing up, I realised that my grip on the iron rungs was the only measure keeping me from falling into the gorge below, and an almost certain death. Nikki surprisingly seemed undisturbed by the whole operation, and since he had successfully climbed up first, I was almost sure that the ladder was structurally sound! Waves of relief passed over me as soon as we were both on safer grounds.
Eventually, we also needed to climb another two similar, but much shorter ladders. The rest of the climb up was even steeper than the 28 bends, but without our daypacks, it felt SO much easier!
Where to stay when Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge
Prior to starting the trek:
Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse
We didn’t actually stay here since we started our trek immediately after alighting the bus from Lijiang, however if you want to spend the night in the small town of Qiaotou before starting the hike, we heard that this is the place to be. If you plan on heading to Shangri-La after the trek, you should consider leaving your large backpack stored here whilst walking the trail. Since we changed plans and decided to go back to Lijiang, it was more convenient to leave them in Lijiang so we never used this service either.
150 RMB (about €19) for a lovely little room on the second floor with a private bathroom.
120 RMB (about €15.50) for a room with private bathroom. Cheaper options with shared bathroom are also available, as are more expensive deluxe rooms having better amenities.
Tips for Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge
- Be sure to carry sufficient water, especially on Day 1 of the hike. There are a few makeshift stalls along the way if you get caught without, but there is no guarantee that these will be open.
- Lip balm/moisturiser/petroleum jelly and sunblock is absolutely necessary! The air is very dry and it can be very sunny (though cold).
- Do NOT overpack. Essentially you don’t need much except a change of clothing and something to sleep in. The trail has some very steep inclines and we almost broke our back because of our heavy daypacks! My insistence to carry my heavy-as-a-brick laptop made the hike seem a lot more difficult than it was!
- You can leave your daypack at one of the teahouses on Day 3 – we felt refreshed and a million times better hiking without it!
- You will experience the steepest elevation on Day 1.
- Wear layers of clothes. In December, we hiked in t-shirts but wore thick jackets as soon as the sun set.
- The trail was very dusty in December, particularly the first stretch, possibly due to some ongoing roadworks.
- Some English is spoken at the teahouses. The staff at Tina’s all seem to speak English fluently.
- We arranged a bus back to Lijiang from Tina’s Youth Hostel. Despite adverts along the trail claiming that a bus service from Chateau De Woody also existed, the service seems to be irregular. When we called Woody’s we were told that there was no bus running on the day, so it seems that the service from Tina’s is way more reliable.
- In December, the village or hamlet of Walnut Garden was completely deserted. It would be best to plan on sleeping at Tina’s during this period.
- Be sure to go down to the gorge on Day 3. It’s absolutely stunning. The hike down takes 2.5 – 3 hours from Tina’s down one trail and up from another (at Sandy’s). You can also go up and down the same trail and pay the fee for accessing only that particular route, but we really do recommend that you do the other as well.