Tiger Leaping Gorge is a stunning, narrow gorge nestled under Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the Yunnan province of China. It is possible to walk the length of the gorge independently in two days while staying at local guesthouses.
Situation and history
Tiger Leaping Gorges is situated between Lijiang and Shangri-La in the Yunnan province. The area is home to the Naxi (say nashi like the pear) people. The Naxi are a unique matriarchal society meaning commerce is controlled by alpha-females. Rice paddies, farming, and now tourism are the main staples of this area.
Legend has it the name of the gorge came about when a hunting party failed to slay a tiger it had been tracking when it leapt onto a boulder and across the river to safety.
The trail can be broken down into several sections and, whilst most people will complete the route over 2 days, it is possible to break up the trip at any of the accommodation en route.
Toll both to walking trail 3km (1hr): The trail starts at the toll booth on the edge of Hutiaoxia (also referred to as Qiaotou). After paying the token gorge entry fee (about 50RMB/pp) head along the road past Jane’s guesthouse on your left. About 700m further on take the fork in the road uphill. Follow this road as you ascent slowly and the road slowly curls left towards the gorge. There are numerous walking trails off the road, most of which are minor shortcuts and not worth navigating. About 2km from the main road fork you will arrive at a switchback with a white building and small carpark. Leave the road here.
Trail start to 28 bends 3.3km (1hr): Proceed along the walking trail to the left of the building. Follow the trail as it becomes more precarious and enters the river valley. After crossing a small hamlet you will arrive at the base of the main ascent.
28 bends to Tea Horse Guesthouse 5km (2hrs): Follow the trail up the switchbacks and into the forest. After crossing the ridge this remotes section of the trail descends to the Tea Horse Guesthouse.
Tea Horse Guesthouse to Halfway House 4km (1hr): Proceed around the contour to the Halfway House.
Halfway Guesthouse to Tina’s 4km (1hr): Continue around this rock isolated section and descent to Tina’s. From Tina’s it is easy to cross the road bridge and descend into the gorge itself along one of the private trails by paying a nominal fee. The trails down into the gorge to see the rock are hair-raise and not particularly safe. Use extreme caution if considering crossing any of the man-made bridges.
The traditional route stays high above Tina’s and continues to walnut grove.
Planning your trip
The trail is typically completed over two days enabling you to stay at a guesthouse en-route and comfortably fit in transport to and from the trail.
Starting elevation: 2,870m
Summit elevation: 3,860m
Total ascent: circa 1,000m
Trail distance: 16km
Average gradient: Medium
The first section is on road but most of distance is a basic walking track. The private trails down into the gorge are pretty shoddy.
Warm gear in winter. Study footwear will be an asset. Most supplies are available en route so a day pack would suffice.
Access to and from the hike
Shuttles are available from Lijiang to the toll booth at the start of the trail. These cost about 50RMB. It is also possible to get to the start of the trail from Shangri-La.
Leaving from Tina’s there is only one mini-van to Lijiang and spaces often fill up by mid-morning. Alternatives include corralling enough people for a second van or paying for a more expensive taxi.
If you continue walking to Walnut grove it is possible to cross the river and arrange transport to Lijiang from the far side of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Navigation & Facilities
Signage has recently been installed making it easier to find your way. Expect to miss a couple of turns so stay vigilant to avoid big detours.
There is plenty of basic but comfortable accommodation along the route. About 60RMB should get you a simple room. Most guesthouses also serve excellent meals for about 20RMB along with beer and water. There are plenty of local vendors on the trail selling snacks including fruit enabling you to support the local economy.
Stories abound of unscrupulous locals imposing arbitrary fees on access to the main trail. There are also a few enthusiastic dogs in the area.
The biggest danger is probably the trail itself, particularly the private trails that descend to the river.
Flora and fauna
The area is home to irrigated rice paddies, pine forest and rocks. There are plenty of chickens in the villages but limited local wildlife.
We found that the Lonely Planet China adequately covered access, accommodation and some brief trail notes. The latest edition is available here.
Tiger leaping gorge was amazing. It’s basically a 2 day hike through small villages and into a hair-raising gorge. 2km vertical from river to mountain peaks. We stayed a guesthouse along the route where the chicken for dinner is very fresh… Meals cost about $2-4, a big beer cost $2 and a quaint room with mountain views cost $12. The area is home to the Naxi people and the food was exceptional.
Up before dawn we skipped breakfast and squeezed into a taxi to the Shangri-La bus station. The buses had not been running for 3 days now and so all the tourists in the town had congregated at the bus station. There were 8 of us. It became apparent the buses wouldn’t run today either so we joined our Korean friend in a private vehicle driving to the gorge. We paid a hefty 100RMB/pp (NZ$20) but it was worth it to get moving. Our parting view of Shangri-La was a herd of wild horses cantering down the main street.
We spend a couple of hours driving downhill on excellent new roads before reaching Hutiaoxia (also refered to as Qiaotou). After paying the token gorge entry fee (50RMB/pp) we made tracks for Jane’s guesthouse to drop off unnecessary gear (5RMB) and have breakfast. Our Tibetan breakfast consisted of Yak butter tea and some form of corn bread with a pâté. There was too much to eat so we stashed the leftovers in napkins to eat later.
The first couple of hours of the hike were confusing with the trail being a mix of goat tracks and main roads. Once on the trail proper we quickened our pace and made good progress as the gorge progressively narrowed. We strolled through rice paddy terraces, past clucking chickens and around bluffs. Occasionally we would pass young men with horses who would carry you up the steeper sections for a fee (apparently 100RMB or NZ$20).
There were a handful of local women who had set up stalls alongside the trail to take advantage of the passing trade. We made a point of buying fresh fruit to support the local economy but passed on the stronger stuff on offer. The local women indicated about 50 hikers would pass through daily at this time of year whereas up to 100 hikers could be expected at peak times.
The midday sun was fading when we stumbled across the Tea Horse Guesthouse. Most of the guesthouses are owned by ethnic minority Naxi people (pronounced like a nashi pear). The Naxi are a unique matriarchal society meaning commerce is controlled by alpha-females. The guesthouse was slightly before the half way mark and after a delicious lunch we decided to crack open a beer (a bargain at NZ$1 for 660ml in such a remote location) and relax in the warmth. A typical Mark and Susan adventure would see us finishing the day with headlamps on having overtaken everyone on the trail. That day we chose to defy our urges and instead take advantage of the warm weather at the relatively low altitude. It was the first day in a month that the temperature was above freezing and the sun was out.
After inspecting our potential accommodation we settled on sans en-suite option for only NZ$12. The views across the valley were breathtaking with the peaks of the rock massif towering 2,000m above the depths of the river gorge.
For dinner we ordered chicken and had no concerns regarding freshness when a feathered chicken was carried in to be plucked and roasted. The meal was one of the best we had in China.
Feeling slightly cheeky that we’d stopped early on the walk we decided to make up by setting off at dawn and having breakfast at Halfway house (where other backpackers had walked to the evening before). Halfway house boasted some very scenic toilets.
The temperature dropped as we walked deeper into the gorge and we threw on extra layers. We followed an old watercourse hewn from the cliff side. Eventually the trail descended towards the road and the slightly characterless Tina’s guesthouse. It was possible to buy min-bus tickets to Lijiang but the 4pm departure was unappealing as it meant we had 6hrs to kill. Instead we headed for the Tiger Leaping rock which is a boulder in the river. Whilst the rock was almost visible from the guesthouse the return trip took almost 2 hrs.
There are several trails leading from the road down into the gorge. It was a seriously hair-raising decent and there must have been a few deaths while building the trail. It would take real faith to be carried by two men on one of the sedan chairs we saw en route. We did have to make use of a curiously built ladder for part of the gorge and Mark’s engineering mind was in overdrive the whole morning figuring out what was safe and what was not. At the bottom of the gorge there were a variety of timber structures that wouldn’t look out of place on a Peter Pan movie set. The river at the bottom of the gorge was pleasant but there is no way a tiger leapt across a river that big.
Back at Tina’s there were no tickets left in the mini-van so we corralled a motley crew of other stranded travellers and negotiated for vehicle to depart immediately for Lijiang. About 2hrs drive away and costing about NZ$10pp.We travelled out of the gorge on one vehicle and were swapped into another much older one.