For most people living in Kunming, Dali is known primarily as a place to go to chill out and relax. What is not-so-well-known is that Dali also has a lot of great hiking to offer hikers of all levels.
The Cangshan (苍山) mountain range on the west side of Dali Old Town (大理古城) is accessible by cable car or the old-fashioned way: hoofing it to the top. The hike up takes approximately two hours whereas the cable car takes about half an hour and costs thirty yuan a one-way ride. The cable car operates from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm - make sure to give yourself enough time to get back to the cable car station if you are planning on taking it back down to Dali. Last year the Cangshan area was designated a 'scenic spot' by the local government, so anyone ascending the mountains - on foot or cable car - must pay 30 yuan to enter the mountain area.
Whether you take the cable car or hike up the mountain, it is advisable to first hit Zhonghe Temple (中和寺), which in addition to a temple features a small Bai-style restaurant and a small square with a is a beautiful view of Erhai Lake as well as plenty of stores to stock up on food and water. It is also at the head of several trails that stretch throughout the mountain range.
Hiking options in the Cangshan range include trips to lakes, waterfalls, mountain peaks and temples. For those looking for a leisurely hike the Cloud Pass is an easy choice. The stone path is fairly flat and winds around six mountains, past five waterfalls and three temples. There are also side trails jutting out from the Cloud Pass near the waterfalls that lead upward to clear pools, more waterfalls and excellent vistas. Stretching about twenty kilometers, Cloud Pass can also provide a nice workout. With road signs and plenty of other hikers there is no danger of losing your way.
If you plan on doing one of the more difficult hikes, it is a good idea to check in with the employees at the Higherland Inn. They are very knowledgeable about trails in the area and offer free maps and information for hikers. The hike to the summit of Zhonghe, the second highest mountain in the area at 4,100 meters, generally takes nine hours for the round trip hike, so it is recommended to stay at the inn for a night to get an early start. In some places the trail to the top is a little overgrown but it is not difficult to follow. Along the way bright green bamboo forests and clear mountain streams make one feel far from the human world.
After hours of hiking with no signs of civilization, the summit boasts a large TV tower with 20 full-time employees (who are often inside watching TV). This is a great place to take a lunch break and relax a bit before the hike down. The TV tower employees are very kind and enjoy talking to passersby. Upon arriving, it is common to be greeted with a round of hellos from the workers. If you have a tent and want to stay up top for a while, there is a trail on the Cangshan ridge that can be taken north or south, with beautiful views and small mountain lakes dotting the way.
The best time to hike above Dali is late summer and early autumn as to avoid the rainy season. It is advisable to bring some warm clothes whenever you hike in the area because cold weather can move in quickly on the mountaintops.
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