Tiger Leaping Gorge: Trekking Through the Mountains of Southwestern China

Tiger Leaping Gorge: Trekking Through the Mountains of Southwestern China

The magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia) lies in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan on the Jinsha River. Yunnan is diverse, the southern region being more tropical and akin to the climate of Southeast Asia (it borders Burma/Myanmar). Northern Yunnan, where the gorge is located, is renowned for its mountainous countryside that more closely resembles the landscapes of Tibet.

Here, about 60km (37mi) north of the famous city of Lijiang, lies Tiger Leaping Gorge, the deepest river canyon in the world (though, by some metrics, it’s only one of the deepest in the world). It rests gracefully in between the glorious Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain.

Jinsha River at the beginning of Tiger Leaping Gorge

During my ten-day tenure backpacking around Yunnan, I spent two days hiking through this stunning scene. I knew that this trek would be a major highlight of my trip, but I could not have prepared myself for the views that awaited me.

The trail varies greatly, and it ends very differently than it begins. The first view is of the villages and terraces that lie directly beside the gorge. From the same vantage point, I turned my head, only to be assaulted by the view of these mountains, which I had traveled all this way to see.

The mountains beyond Tiger Leaping Gorge

The mountains beyond Tiger Leaping Gorge

Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province in China, as more than 80% of its population is made up of minorities. Tiger Leaping Gorge, specifically, is most commonly inhabited by the Naxi people (pronounced NAH-shee), who live in small villages and hamlets. Various wildlife inhabit the gorge as well. The locals use donkeys to traverse the terrain, and many will offer to carry your bags (or your body!) through the tougher bits of the hike. But, there is a price, of course! There is always a price…

As I covered more and more ground and delved deeper into the uninhabited wilderness, the terrain became more difficult and more wild, and mountain goats began to make regular appearances. The most difficult part of the trail is known as “28 Bends,” aptly named for its arduous hatchback trail of 28 bends, that takes a about 3 hours to complete. In fact, it’s some of the most challenging hiking I’ve ever encountered.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is relatively safe when the right precautions are taken. This hike has claimed many lives over the years due to recklessness and poor planning. Only hike during the day, avoid rainy weather and don some sturdy footwear. You’ll need it.

As I hiked, with my head on a swivel, I attempted to take in my surroundings. There was so much to see and so much to consider. I felt placated and composed. I was satisfied. This is what I had come to China to see. This is why I was here.

Cliffs at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cliff’s edge at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Standing inside the deepest gorge in the world, in some remote area of the world on the opposite side of the earth, accompanied by almost complete strangers, I felt plugged into the world and at sync with everything in it. I was ecstatic, feeling an immense sense of luck and privilege to be standing where I was. But I was also saddened, knowing that most of my friends and family would never experience the brilliance of a Chinese mountainside. You simply can’t grasp the magnificence of this place without experiencing it.

On the second day of the trek, hiking further along the gorge, we came upon a Tibetan temple built into the mountainside. Hundreds of prayer flags hung between walls and rafters, blowing dramatically in the high winds. I pictured the local Naxi people coming to this temple for solitude and silence.

After all, peace and composure is what I found deep between these mountains.

Tibetan temple in Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tibetan temple in the mountains of Yunnan, China

Though not an intuitive moniker, Tiger Leaping Gorge received its name from an old Chinese legend which stated that a tiger, running from a hunter, leaped across the gorge to escape. The tiger jumped the gorge at its narrowest point, seen here, which is 25 meters (82 feet) from edge to edge. It must have been a pretty big tiger!

The narrowest point of Tiger Leaping Gorge, supposedly where the tiger jumped.

The narrowest point of Tiger Leaping Gorge, supposedly where the tiger jumped.

My trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge reinforced my love for travel. Sometimes I feel jaded because I have already seen so much, and despite living in China for a number of months, it feels like it’s been some time since I’ve experienced something truly remarkable. Trekking through the mountains of southwestern China, though, reminded me of the thrill of traveling to a new place, and what this life is all about.

Things to Know Before Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

Getting There: There are multiple buses every day to the start of the trail from Lijiang, though they are often run privately by tourism cafes or hostels. Ask the hostel you’re staying at about a ride to the start of the trail. If you’re returning to Lijiang after your hike, you can leave your bag at Jane’s Guesthouse (start of the trail in Qiaotou) for a small fee (5RMB) and pick it up the next day on your way back. The bus will stop here as long as you make the request.

Price: There is an entry fee of 65RMB, or 25RMB for students with ID. This is payable at the ticket booths at either end of the trail.

Weather: The weather can be hot during the day and very cold at night. Remember to layer your clothing! The best time to hike the gorge is the middle of the year, around May and June. Check in with cafes and hostels before setting out on your journey. Ask what the hiking and weather conditions are expected to be. The photos you see above were taken in February.

Eating: If hiking north, stop at Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou to stock up on water and snacks. You can stop at guesthouses along the way for reasonably-priced food.

Sleeping: There are a number of guesthouses along the way, most charging 40RMB/night for a shared room. There are showers and home-cooked food is available to order. The guesthouses are not heated, though they often provide heated blankets (but not always).

Getting Out: There are buses from the end of the normal hiking trail (Walnut Grove) to Shangri-La (Zhongdian) and back to Lijiang every day. Inquire at your hostel or guesthouse as times can vary or change. The more adventurous can continue hiking to Daju or Baishuitai.

More Info: There are two paths: the high trail and the low trail. The high trail is recommended, as the low trail generally gets disappointing reviews. The low trail can be hiked in one day, though, whereas the high trail cannot.

For more information, check out this Tiger Leaping Gorge trekking guide from my friends at NOMADasaurus.


READ NEXT: The Li River: A Remarkable Journey Down the Historic Waters of China

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26 Responses to Tiger Leaping Gorge: Trekking Through the Mountains of Southwestern China

  1. Linda ~ Journey Jottings April 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    WOW!!!
    That is some scenery!
    A stunning hike – and awesome photos 🙂

    • Jeremy Foster April 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

      Thanks, Linda! I took about 500 photos in a matter of two days. It was tough to narrow it down, especially when they’re all so picturesque!

  2. Patti April 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    Your photos are wonderful! You really captured the essence of the area. I especially love the photos of the flags. Well done!

    • Jeremy Foster April 17, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

      Thank you, Patti. It’s such a picturesque area, and I was really trying to portray the scenery as I saw it with my own eyes. So glad you enjoyed the photos!

  3. Amanda April 14, 2013 at 2:23 am #

    Stunning photos, Jeremy! Sounds like an amazing experience… even I would consider doing it, even though I really don’t enjoy hiking. The scenery looks well worth it, though!

    • Jeremy Foster April 17, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

      Cheers, Amanda! I think you’d love it! It was such an incredible experience, and the scenery was spectacular.

  4. Leigh April 16, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    I would love to do this hike and wonderful to see some new country featured. It looks like there are some challenging ups & downs but what grand scenery as a reward.

    • Jeremy Foster April 17, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

      Some parts of the hike were very challenging, but well worth it. It’s a unique experience, for sure, but the vistas make every step worthwhile.

  5. Ela April 18, 2013 at 4:31 am #

    Fantastic photos!! I lived in Yunnan for 2,5 years and it’s the one place I never made it to!! Argh! Next time. 🙂

  6. travelFREAK April 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    That’s a shame! It was single-handedly the best thing I’ve done in China (not to rub it in, or anything!).

  7. Laura @Traveloafe.com April 24, 2013 at 2:39 am #

    Wonderful photos of the wildlife!

  8. Derek4Real April 28, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    That looks amazing! Now that is the side of China I would love to see, not the gleaming new cities. BTW change of plans on my end — I’m flying out one-way to Asia after TBEX, going to find a nice, new spot to settle down and teach English for a li’l bit. Can’t wait!

    • Jeremy Foster April 30, 2013 at 7:42 am #

      Keep me posted, mate. We might very well cross paths!

  9. Hilton April 30, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    These pics were fantastic. Did you hike there alone and did you encounter any difficulties like get lost?

    • Jeremy Foster May 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      I went alone, but easily joined up with another group of travelers who were hiking as well. There was a little bit of trouble finding the start of the hiking trail, but beyond that, no issues! It was spectacular!

  10. Daniel July 23, 2014 at 6:46 am #

    Great blog, which served as inspiration for me to do the Leaping Tiger Gorge hike. I have to say that your pictures are amazing. Having seen the real thing (in decent weather), I think these pics make the scenery look even more amazing. The hike was really spectacular (trust me, Im usually understated with my praise).

    • Jeremy Foster July 24, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

      Thanks, Daniel! I’m glad you got a chance to visit! We had pretty remarkable weather, so perhaps that made the difference!

  11. lamelcasa November 1, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    nicely writing and very helpful with awesome pictures. cool !!

  12. Julie June 10, 2015 at 1:15 am #

    Hi. Your article was great and the photos incredible!
    I am planning on going in a couple of weeks, I am a girl and would be alone. Do you think it would be safe enough?
    Can you easily get lost? Is it manageable in one day if you don’t go to the end (I am used to hiking).

    Thank you

    • Jeremy Scott Foster June 10, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      Hi Julie!

      You’ll have no problem hiking this trail alone and you won’t have any safety issues. It’s pretty easy to navigate so I can’t imagine that you’d get lost. If you get an early start, you should be able to do the whole thing in a day. I took my time, like most people do, and completed the hike in two.

  13. Rachel June 10, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    so happy to have discovered your blog! i’m traveling with friends in Yunnan for 2 weeks in August and will definitely be using this as a resource! Your pictures are beautiful

  14. Catherine Angus July 22, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

    Well you have defiantly just put this trek on my list! Is this area safe to be walking in alone or is it better done as a group/pair?

    • Jeremy Scott Foster July 23, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

      You’ll be fine doing it on your own. There are some guesthouses along the way in case you need anything (like lunch!).

  15. Taylor July 23, 2016 at 8:29 am #

    Is this hike do-able in Winter, specifically the end of December?

  16. Meghan January 8, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    I’m headed back to china (hopefully) this summer. This info is helpful. Definitely saving t for when I start to plan. Hopefully I’ll make it to tiger leaping gorge!

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