Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge is said to be one of the best hikes in China. The scenic trail will take you to sweeping views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and picturesque scene of the powerful Yangtze River below the cliff. Here are answers to questions that will guide you in planning for the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike.
Where is Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Tiger Leaping Gorge is located in the Yunnan Province of China. It lies in the border of Lijiang and Shangri-la County. The scenic gorge cuts between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang and the Haba Snow Mountain in Shangri-la. Jinsha River or the upstream of Yangtze River runs between these two mountain ranges.
Curious Tiger Leaping Gorge Facts
- It is one of the deepest gorge in the world at a maximum depth of about 3,790 meters from river to peak of mountain.
- Wondered why the name Tiger Leaping Gorge? Legend has it that a tiger leapt across the raging Jinsha river to escape a hunter. The rock where the tiger allegedly jumped can be viewed in Middle Gorge.
- Indigenous Naxi people are the primary inhabitants of the gorge
- Tiger Leaping Gorge is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The three rivers refer to the upper reaches of the three great rivers of Asia: Yangtze, Mekong and Salween. Aside from the remarkable geological feature of the river gorges, the rich biodiversity make it ecologically significant.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Map
I downloaded a photo file of a Tiger Leaping Gorge map on my phone prior to the hike so I did not get myself a paper copy. My guesthouse in Lijiang provides a Tiger Leaping Gorge hike map and I’m sure other guesthouses offer them, too. You can also ask for one at the ticket office in Qiaotou, the town that’s also the jump-off point for hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The available Tiger Leaping Gorge trail maps are hand-drawn maps created by the guesthouses along the trail and by tour agents. All these Tiger Leaping Gorge maps indicate that the gorge is segmented into Upper Gorge, Middle Gorge and Lower Gorge. The maps would also refer to the High Trail or Upper Trail and the Lower Trail. Below, I’ll explain what these places are.
Upper Gorge is where you will get a chance to view the thunderous Jinsha River. A visit to the Upper Gorge will not require any strenuous hiking as the area is developed for tourism with a boardwalk. Cars and special buses can pull over at a parking lot.
From there, the viewing platform can be accessed through a relatively level wooden plank. Jinsha River at this section of the gorge is much wider and is famous among the local Chinese tourists.
Sounding like a Lord of the Rings location, Middle Gorge is visited for the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Rock. The steep trail down is worth the extra 1.5 kilometers from Tina’s Guesthouse, the endpoint of the Tiger Leaping Gorge High Trail (more on this later). From here, there is a viewpoint at the bottom where you will have an upfront view of the raging Jinsha River.
The point is also called the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Rock. It’s the narrowest point of the gorge where the tiger in the legend apparently jumped to the other side of the dangerous river.
The Lower Gorge is 24 km away from the ticket office in Qiaotou and is already part of another town called Daju. If hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge isn’t enough to quench your adventurous heart, you can extend you hike to Daju Village. From here, you can hike from the Lower Gorge to the Upper Gorge.
Alternatively, you can climb the Haba Snow Mountain via Haba Village. This climb, however, needs more physical fitness and preparation.
High Trail or Upper Trail
If you prefer a real hiking experience of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you should then follow the High Trail (also referred to as Upper Trail). In your map, look for the trail at the Haba Snow Mountain side of the gorge. To enter the Upper Trail, you will start in Qiaotou along the main road past the ticket office, Jane’s Guesthouse and a school. A little past the school, is a smaller road to the left where the High Trail begins.
The High Trail will take you to rural Naxi villages, green farmlands, spectacular views of the jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and views of the majestic Jinsha River down below. Along the trail are local guesthouses every two or three hours of hiking. The High Trail is approximately 22 kilometers hiking distance.
Below is a screenshot of my Maps.Me map showing the location of the common stops at the High Trail route. Read on to the next sections for a more detailed description and photos along the High Trail.
The Lower Trail actually refers to the main road that runs parallel with the Jinsha River. The low trail will likewise give you fantastic views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Still, like in a theater, there’s nothing like the views at the balcony. This route, however, is popular among local Chinese tourists.
How to Get to Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge
There are shuttle buses departing from Lijiang to the Upper Gorge via Hutiaoxia Town at 7:30 AM and 8:30 AM. The bus station is walking distance from Mama Naxi Guesthouse, my guesthouse in Lijiang.
Travel time is approximately two hours. Fare is RMB 45 (May 2019). The bus stopped at the ticket station in Qiaotou. Here, you need to buy entrance tickets for the Tiger Leaping Gorge. You can walk to the High Trail entrance from here.
Alternatively, there are vans that can be hired from Lijiang. Ask from your hotel to arrange this for you. Cost will be split among the passengers. You can also take buses bound to Shangri-la and ask the driver to drop you off at Qiaotou.
If you will travel onwards to another town after your Tiger Leaping Gorge hike instead of going back to Lijiang and need to leave a bigger bag, you can safely leave them at Tina’s Guesthouse. I hiked with a local guide and she helped me communicate with the bus driver to drop off my bag at Tina’s for pick-up the day after.
Tina’s Guesthouse can also arrange for your bus ride back to Lijiang or Shangri-la. Buses from Tina’s depart between 2PM to 3PM to either Lijiang or Shangri-la.
Shangri-la to Tiger Leaping Gorge
There is a bus from Zhongxia International Youth Hostel in Shangri-la departing at 8 AM for Tina’s Guesthouse via Hutiaoxia County, also known as Qiaotou. Ask to be dropped off at Qiaotou and walk to the High Trail entrance from there. Travel time from Shangri-la is around 3 hours. Bus fare is RMB 55 (May 2019).
Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike: The High Trail
Day 1 – Start of hike in Qiaotou
Prior to the hike, our shuttle bus stopped at the Ticket Station in Qiaotou. The price of ticket to Tiger Leaping Gorge is RMB 45 (May 2019). Discounted rate applies if you are a student. Just show your passport and student ID.
We were never stopped at any point of the High Trail to show our tickets, but the bus will take a compulsory stop at the ticket booth for you to pay the entrance fee. The ticket covers entrance to the Upper Gorge viewing platform. Actually, the ticket seems to be mainly for the Upper Gorge entrance. The ticket only shows a map and photo of the Upper Gorge.
As I described earlier, the start of the High Trail is just past a school along the main road, with a blue sign leading you uphill. However, we did not start from this point. We hiked with a local guide and she informed us of the on-going construction of the Kunming – Shangri-la Railway. This link will traverse a section of the road below the High Trail.
She described that the construction works has ruined the supposedly scenic views at the initial part of the trail. She then made us decide if we want to pursue the real High Trail starting point or cut off the initial route by about one hiking hour. We decided to forego the first few kilometers and save our energy for much better views.
The first leg of the hike was a steady rise in elevation. What a great way to warm up, huh! The first kilometer or so was an uphill paved road. We were less than 30 minutes into the trail when we had to stop to admire and take photos of our first views of the stunningly jagged rocks of the Jade Dragon Snow. The towering mountain is looking over us behind the green mountain ranges.
Arriving at Naxi Family Guesthouse
We approximately skipped 2 kilometers of the real start of the High Trail, but still we were able to take a glimpse of the photo bomber construction views down below. After almost an hour covering roughly more than 3 kilometers into the trail, we arrived at Naxi Family Guesthouse.
I ate rice for breakfast before I left Lijiang and I felt it was too early for lunch at 10:45 AM. However, we still ordered noodles, which was quite heavy. This is good because we will be needing energy to tackle the notoriously referred “28 bends”, which is up next.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: 28 bends
We resumed hiking with almost a full stomach (well, a lunch without rice will never be a full meal for us Filipinos) and a refilled water tumbler. The start of the 28 bends is about one kilometer and a half from Naxi Family Guesthouse.
Twenty bends are sharp switchbacks which involves the steepest ascent in the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. The ascent is 453 meters on a 2.5 kilometer long trail. As such, this section is known to be the toughest part of the trek. The endpoint of the 28 bends will lead you to the highest part of the hike at 2,661 meters.
There are mixed opinions about the level of difficulty of the 28 bends. Some would regard the way up to Naxi Family Guesthouse to be tougher than the 28 bends. While some made it their cursing points of the hike.
As an averagely-fit person with no athletic inclination but who occasionally engage in outdoor physical activities, I would consider the 28 bends as manageable. This is as long as I do it slowly and stop for a few seconds or more to catch my breath even if it means doing so every 10 steps of the way.
It was also the hottest time of our entire trek as it was noon time. I was glad I chose to wear pants as the trail is un-shaded and dusty. I would have taken it slower (and I already am to my companions hehe), if I’m not in the company of an 18 year old girl at the prime of her life and a hike guide who can traverse the entire High Trail for 6 hours.
Arriving at Tea Horse Guesthouse
Going through the 28 bends is a great relief thereafter as the trail onwards from here is fairly level. It would be a leisurely walk to the edge of the mountain, with unlimited views of the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
The trail to the Tea Horse Guesthouse occasionally took us to views of the Yangtze River below. At one point, we were able to see the viewing platform dotted by sightseers at the Upper Gorge below. We walked past dirt paths shaded by a canopy of trees, sometimes rimmed by what looks like dried bamboos.
Sadly, there are a few points where the side of the trail is used as an open dump for plastic bottles and softdrink cans. This could’ve been avoided if every hiker used their own reusable water tumblers which they can refill at the guesthouse stops. What remained constant along the trail is the irresistible view of the rugged mountain ranges.
We arrived Tea Horse Guesthouse after about 3 hours from Naxi Family Guesthouse. We sat and ate at the guesthouse’s dining area for a much needed rest. Aside from the lovely views at the Tea Horse Guesthouse, their toilet was one of the interesting things I remember about China. There are no doors at each cubicle but at that time, I was lucky to have it on my own.
We initially planned on staying for the night at this guesthouse but it was still too early at 3PM so we decided to move on to our next stop, the Halfway Guesthouse.
Arriving at Halfway Guesthouse
By this time I have taken a lot of photos of the breathtaking views to the massive mountain along the path. Each may look like the same but it’s like seeing them for the first time at each gaze.
We knew we were nearby a village because we met goats grazing at the side of the cliff, while I admiringly watch their skillful balancing act. Unfortunately, signs of development like electrical lines will try to spoil your wilderness feel.
Boo to those ugly electrical lines
Two more hours of walking from our last stop and we have finally reached the Halfway Guesthouse. As we walked up to their open common area, we came unbelievably close to the solid mountain up front. I now understand why the Halfway Guesthouse is the most popular place to stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Day 2 – Onward to Tina’s Guesthouse
It is surprising how we only get to see other hikers when we stop at guesthouses. In fact, we met more goats on the way than hikers. Most of the hikers we met at the local inns are foreigners. This goes to say that the local Chinese crowd prefer the Low Trail than immerse in the rugged environment of the High Trail.
After breakfast and one last stare at the view from Halfway Guesthouse, we set off at 8 AM for Tina’s Guesthouse. About 2 km into the trail, we passed by a waterfall that trickles down the edge of the trail and down into the cliff. The trail is wide enough for humans to safely walk at the side of the falls. Of course, cautious steps should be taken to avoid slipping at the wet path.
We also passed by a small Buddhist temple adorned with colorful prayer flags, giving us a slice of Tibet in China. Views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was still the star of Day 2 hike but this side gives a somewhat different landscape of the mountain.
Going down towards Tina’s Guesthouse, we followed a steep trail and it felt like trespassing at someone else’s farm at some point. I would imagine that this part would be challenging during the rainy season. We reached Tina’s Guesthouse after about 1.5 hours.
Rosey, our guide led us to the dining area where she spoke to the lady in charge to get our bus tickets to our onward destinations. I will be continuing to Shangri-la while Rosey and Yan, my young companion, will be heading back to Lijiang.
Hiking Down the Middle Gorge
We quickly moved on to our side trip to the Middle Gorge after sorting out our bus tickets. The steep hike down is our chance to see the intense Jinsha River up close. From Tina’s, we crossed the bridge along the main road. A little past the bridge is Sandy’s Guesthouse which has a stone path leading down to the river’s edge.
You will see a blue sign “The Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge” in front of the guesthouse. The sign also prompts you to pay RMB 15 and includes an explanation justifying the fee. It says that the locals voluntarily built and maintain the trail without receiving any financial support from the government.
Descent to the Middle Tiger Leaping Rock
The one kilometer-ish descent may sound easy but the truth is that it is the most strenuous part for my knees. After about 8 hours of hiking from Day 1, I can already hear my ageing knees complaining. It’s also a fact that downhill trek significantly puts more stress to ones knees than going uphill.
After going deep into the trail, we have come to the edge of the river. We were stepping on an outcrop at the Gorge’s base, which is also where the tiger apparently escaped from the hunter. I think the river flow isn’t its strongest at the time (May) but it’s incredibly powerful just the same.
There’s a hanging bridge to the left of the rock where you can cross the other side of the gorge but you have to pay another RMB 10 to use it. Curious what it feels like to cross over a raging river by walking on a swingy wooden bridge, we paid for the bridge access. After getting poorer by RMB 10, we rested for a while in the “refreshment hut” to get ready for our ascent.
We were presented by our guide with two options to go back up: 1) the fastest, most straightforward route – the Sky Ladder where there’s nowhere to go but up. This vertigo-inducing ladder should be climbed with caution as there will be no harness or protection other than your firm grip at the rails; 2) hike another 3 kilometers through Walnut Garden village and end at Sean Spring Guesthouse along the main road.
Reading through the Sky Ladder info posted on the wall and looking up from the bottom of the Sky Ladder, our quick answer was Option 2. By the way, if you’re fine with the Sky Ladder (congratulations! I admire your courage), the RMB 15 already covers this.
Hike Through Walnut Grove Village
This route is mostly level, with some uphill and downhill hike through the edge of the cliff. A few minutes into the hike was a small “toll booth” where we paid yet another RMB 15 as pass to a private property.
Walnut Grove is a small farming village along the Middle Gorge. This is Rosey’s village and she told us that the village grows a lot of walnut trees, hence the name. I think we would have gone lost or taken a longer path if not with the company of Rosey. Again, there were sections of this hike that required us to step at the edge of someone else’s farm. It took us about an hour to reach Sean Spring Guesthouse from the bottom of the Gorge.
How Many Days to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Two Days Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
We did it in 2 days. Actually, one and a half. The detailed itinerary is indicated above, but here’s a summary, for your convenience:
|7:30 AM to 9:30 AM||Lijiang to Qiaotou (stopping at Ticket Office)|
|9:45 AM to 10:45 AM||Qiaotou High Trail jump-off point to Naxi Family Guesthouse*|
|11:30 AM to 2:30 PM||Naxi Family Guesthouse to Teahorse Guesthouse|
|3:00 PM to 5:00 PM||Teahorse Guesthouse to Halfway Guesthouse|
*Since we got off the bus further into the normal jump-off point, we have reduced initial hiking time by one hour. If you start from the school or ticket office, add one hour more.
|8:00 AM to 9:15 AM||Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s Guesthouse|
|9:30 AM to 10:15 AM||Tina’s Guesthouse to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Rock|
|10:45 AM to 12:45 PM||Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Rock to Sean Spring Guesthouse|
Three Days Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
Based on our 2 days hiking experience, the trek could be extended to 3 days by taking it more slowly and by adding the Upper Gorge viewing platform in the itinerary. The latter is part of the RMB 45 entrance you will pay at the ticket booth, so better to use it, anyway. Here’s my suggested 3 day Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek:
|7:30 AM to 9:30 AM||Lijiang to Qiaotou (stopping at Ticket Office)|
|9:30 AM to 12:00 PM||Visit Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge Viewpoint|
|1:00 PM to 3:30 PM||Qiaotou High Trail jump-off to Naxi Family Guesthouse|
|8:00 AM to 11:00 AM||Naxi Family Guesthouse to Teahorse Guesthouse|
|12:00 PM to 2:00 PM||Teahorse Guesthouse to Halfway Guesthouse|
|3:00 PM – 4:30 PM||Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s Guesthouse*|
|4:45 PM to 5:30 PM||Tina’s Guesthouse to Walnut Grove (or stay at Tina’s)|
* You can opt to stay at Tina’s or walk further into Walnut Grove at Tibet Guesthouse or Sean Spring Guesthouse, along the main road for about less than an hour .
You have a choice to visit the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge Rock. Depending on how much time and strength you have spared, you can hike back up to Tina’s via the Sky Ladder or to Sean Spring at the main road through Walnut Grove.
If you are coming from Tina’s Guesthouse, you can go for the same route as we did, described in Day 2 of the 2 day itinerary. If coming from Walnut Grove, you can do the reverse of what we did and start across downhill from Sean Spring Guesthouse or a little further at Woody Guesthouse.
Use comfortable hiking shoes. We went in spring, when light clothes is recommended. I also brought a light sweater as it can get cold in the night and early morning. Bring a light sweater and a light coat if you’re hiking in autumn (October to November) or winter (December to February).
Where to Stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse
Along the High Trail
Naxi Family Guesthouse
Family Guesthouse (330 meters before Halfway Guesthouse)
Come Inn (270 meters before Halfway Guesthouse)
Five Fingers Guesthouse (820 meters past Halfway Guesthouse)
Teacher Zhang’s Guesthouse (850 meters from Tina’s Guesthouse)
Tibet Guesthouse, Walnut Grove (2.3 km from Tina’s Guesthouse)
Sean Spring Guesthouse, Walnut Grove (2.5 km from Tina’s Guesthouse)
Woody Guesthouse, Walnut Grove (2.9 km from Tina’s Guesthouse)
Rosey helped us book for our stay in Halfway Guesthouse. I guess the Tea Horse Guesthouse and Halfway Guesthouse are popular stops to stay overnight along the High Trail. There are a few guesthouses nearby but if you want to particularly stay in these two stops, you can book them in advance.
When is the best time to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge?
The Tiger Leaping Gorge hiking trail is open all year round. However, the rainy season, which is from June to September (July and August are the wettest months) is the least favorable time to hike.
According to Rosey, autumn (October to November) is the best time to hike as the weather is sunny but the air is cool. At this time, she said, the trees are green, highlighted by some blossoms. The mountains against the blue sky is also perfect for photography.
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