Tiger Leaping Gorge: Yunnan's classic trek

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Time for a photo amidst the raging waters of the Yangtze River as it passes through Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

A quick introduction to Tiger Leaping Gorge

In and of itself, Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) is one of the most spectacular hiking destinations in all of China. Besides the otherworldly surroundings and views, other factors also work to make trekking 'the gorge' one of the most worthwhile trips in the country for outdoor enthusiasts, and a can't-miss destination for those visiting Yunnan province.

While the trails snaking through Tiger Leaping Gorge are never crowded, they are also only about two hours from Sanyi International Airport in Lijiang (丽江). Basically, you could step off the plane in the morning and be at the trailhead by noon. Once there, Tiger Leaping Gorge's trails wind their way through alpine villages and feature world-class views of stunning Himalayan peaks. And unlike soaring hikes deep in the mountains of Nepal and northern India, Tiger Leaping Gorge can be hiked year-round. In fact, the dead of winter is often one of the best times to go.

The gorge has been carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha River (金沙江) — the main headwaters of the Yangtze. As it pours through the gorge, the Jinsha is flanked by the imposing massifs Jade Dragon (玉龙雪山) and Haba (哈巴雪山) snow mountains. Both of these ranges soar to more than 5,000 meters above sea level and provide the extraordinary vistas that make Tiger Leaping Gorge such a popular destination.

Hiking through this stunning chasm is also quite flexible in terms of possible itineraries, with different ways of stringing together trips that last anywhere from a single day, to add-on destinations that could keep you occupied for more than a week.

The local people and story behind the name 'Tiger Leaping Gorge'

The predominant ethnic group in and around Tiger Leaping Gorge are the Naxi people — pronounced 'nah-shee' — who are thought to have migrated to the area centuries ago from the Tibetan Plateau far to the north.

Historically, Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which, at its most basic, teaches that humans and nature are brothers. At important events such as weddings, Naxi invited a dongba — or shaman — to perform religious rites and rituals. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba passed down their religious duties to preserve the Naxi writing system within families.

The origins of the name Tiger Leaping Gorge are obscure. Depending on whom you ask, you may hear one of many explanations, each more odd and fantastical than the next. Most involve some variation on the tale of a tiger jumping across the Jinsha River at the narrowest point in the gorge to avoid pursuing hunters.

Perhaps a more likely explanation is that somebody at some point decided a rock formation in the river resembled a tiger in the act of leaping. Various guesthouses have laid claim to the name 'Tiger Leaping Stone' for rocky outcroppings in the middle of the river that can be accessed by trails leading down from their lodges. Does any of them look like a tiger? Pick one, hike down, and judge for yourself.

Walking along the 'high path' in China's Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)
Walking along the 'high path' in China's Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

How difficult is the hike?

Some may huff and puff and complain their way up the infamous '28 Bends' section where the trail climbs to its highest point at about 2,650 meters above sea level from a starting point of around 1,850 meters. But, with some grit and determination, the 'high path' of Tiger Leaping Gorge can be done by anyone fit enough to walk up stairs, albeit a lot of them.

Regardless, there is usually a local lurking nearby with a scruffy pony who will carry people and bags up the slope for the right price. For the more fit and trim, the gorge trek should be relatively easy and can even be done in a day if you keep the pace up. Some ambitious trail runners have even tackled it successfully in just a few hours.

Tiger Leaping Gorge trail information and itinerary ideas

Please note that all destinations listed below require each visitor to pay a 65 yuan entrance fee. We recommend keeping your ticket stub with you for the duration of your stay so there is no chance of being charged a second time.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge trail can be accessed from the town known to locals as Qiaotou (桥头), which is now officially called Tiger Leaping Gorge Town (虎跳峡镇). The trail traverses Naxi villages along the west side of the river — part of the lower flanks of Haba Snow Mountain. It then ends at Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge when it rejoins the paved road that runs lower down and closer to the river.

This narrow paved road, sometimes referred to as at the 'low path' continues onward through a village called Hetaoyuan (核桃园), or Walnut Grove. From there, if followed, it meanders onward through the mountains, eventually reaching Shangri-la (香格里拉) by a much more circuitous route than the main road that passes through Qiaotou. This way is also a popular cycle touring route.

A boulder the size of a house withstands the deluge in Tiger Leaping Gorge, China (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

There are several spots along the low path where local families have built steep side trails running all the way down to the river itself. There, the true scale of the gorge and the ferocity of the Jinsha River both become readily apparent. It is nearly impossible not to feel tiny and insignificant in the presence of such surroundings, and many first-time visitors are left speechless. Good access points to hike down to the river include Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and Walnut Grove.

There is one other option mostly reserved for visitors driving their own cars. Located just off National Highway G214 near Qiaotou are a series of sightseeing decks at river level. This is generally the busiest of any area in the gorge, as tourists park, stroll along the promenade, snap a few pictures and set out again. Views of the river here are up-close and amazing, but the platforms do not offer access to the hiking trails above.

A signpost in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China (image credit: Yereth Jansen)
A signpost in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

Food and accommodation in the gorge

Dining and lodging are mostly rolled into one in Tiger Leaping Gorge, as every guesthouse also serves food. Available fare ranges from drinks and snacks to full Chinese and Western-style meals. Locals also set up stands selling snacks and beverages at strategic spots where hikers will most be craving a cold soda or beef jerky. Some find the genuinely local food, such as baba flatbread, to be on the simple and uninspired side. Guesthouses have tried to compensate with innovations like yak cheese dumplings and baba pizza. While not traditional, these dishes are certainly unique, and have been met with approval by many travelers.

Over time, more guesthouses have cropped up in Tiger Leaping Gorge, breaking up monopolies that older inns used to hold in the tiny villages along the way. The longtime spots include Tea Horse Guesthouse, Halfway Lodge, Tina's Guesthouse and Sean's Spring Guesthouse and Café. Hopefully the new additions mean more competition to provide better service and facilities, not to mention spreading the wealth around a little.

Fields front a guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)
Fields front a guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

Be sure to leave some time to comparison shop when you arrive at your destination. Food and lodging in Tiger Leaping Gorge are relatively basic, but there are definite differences between different establishments, and the quality of a particular place has the tendency to wax and wane over time. Leave a review on the linked lodging listings pages to let future visitors know about your experience.

As the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek has been a travel destination for quite a few years, prices for food, lodging and other related services are higher than in surrounding areas. Nonetheless, for such a stunning place with a modest amount of foot traffic, prices remain reasonable by Western standards. Budget somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 150 yuan for a private room, 15 yuan for a bowl of noodles and 50 yuan per person for dinner. Below is a sampling of some of the hotels and guesthouses in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

One of the stunning vistas in China's Tiger Leaping Gorge (image credit: Yereth Jansen)

Qiaotou — aka Tiger Leaping Gorge Town — is the typical starting point for the trek. There are many local-style hotels to choose from in Qiaotou, including the Tiger Leaping Gorge Yixiang Hotel, as well as the backpacker-oriented Jane's Tibetan Guesthouse. Both offer luggage storage services for hikers who are not planning to continue onward through the other end of the gorge.

Zhongnuoyu Village (中诺鱼村) is usually about two hours into the hike if going in the Qiaotou to Walnut Grove direction. Another option is the Naxi Family Guesthouse, considered one of the most consistently high-quality establishments in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Yongsheng Village (永胜村) sits at the trek's highest point, atop the 28 Bends section. This modest little hamlet features the Tea Horse Guesthouse with a nice patio looking out across the gorge at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Bendiwan Village (本地塆村) is one of the more popular overnight stops for people headed from Qiaotou toward Walnut Grove. In addition to the big and long-established Halfway Lodge, newer entrants include Come Inn and Bendiwan Inn.

Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge is where the trail descends and meets up with the paved road. Many hikers end their walk here and stay a night before hailing a bus or booking further transit through wherever they are staying. Tina's Guesthouse is here, as well as an old favorite, the Bridge Café and Guesthouse.

Walnut Grove is a few more hours walking down the paved road from Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge in the direction away from Qiaotou. Taking this route leads toward the foot of Haba Snow Mountain and the ferry across the river to Daju Village (大具乡). Walnut Grove is home to Chateau de Woody, among several other options.

Moonrise over a cliff in Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
Moonrise over a cliff in Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

Getting to and from Tiger Leaping Gorge

If not arranging private transport, which can be booked through most of the area's guesthouses, Tiger Leaping Gorge is accessible by bus.

From Kunming: Take a bike, car, train or plane to Lijiang or go to Kunming's West Bus Station and board a bus bound for Shangri-la. If using this last option, ask to be let off at Qiaotou. From there, choose the 'high trail' hiking path or the 'low trail' paved road. Please note that direct buses bound for Shangri-la from both Lijiang and Kunming do not pass through the gorge, only those heading from Lijiang to Baishuitai (白水台) go through. Overnight buses between Kunming and Shangri-La pass through Qiaotou quite early in the morning, often before sunrise, so be sure to pack warm clothes.

From Lijiang: First, make your way to the Lijiang Bus Station. To access locations along the road that run lower down in the gorge than the hiking trail, take a bus bound for Baishuitai and get off anywhere you like on the Tiger Leaping Gorge 'low path' road. To access the hiking trailhead, take any of the regularly departing buses leaving Lijiang for Shangri-la and ask the driver to let you off at Qiaotou. From there, follow the directions just mentioned above.

A note on getting to Tiger Leaping Gorge via buses bound for Shangri-la: As of the publication of this article, rapid progress is being made on a new expressway from Lijiang to Shangri-la. This highway will emerge from tunnels on either side and cross a bridge through Tiger Leaping Gorge close to the Qiaotou end, essentially passing underneath Zhongnuoyu Village.

While the expressway shouldn't interfere with the bulk of the beautiful views in Tiger Leaping Gorge, there is a high likelihood that upon completion, buses bound from Kunming and Lijiang to Shangri-la will bypass Qiaotou entirely and will no longer be a viable option for reaching the gorge. Travelers should check ahead of time to confirm their travel plans.

Rapids blast through Tiger Leaping Gorge in China's Yunnan province
Rapids blast through Tiger Leaping Gorge in China's Yunnan province

Side trips from the gorge

After finishing their hike, it is up to travelers what they would like to do next. Most flag down a public bus or private minivan and retrace their tracks back down the road to Qiaotou. Others get a ride continuing in the same direction and out the other end of the gorge to explore Daju Village.

This latter option to Daju requires a ferry ride across the river, which most guesthouses can arrange. For those looking to extend their trips even further, Haba Village (哈巴村) and further treks through the wilds of Haba Snow Mountain lie nearby, and the naturally occurring and lovely calcified pools and rock terraces of Baishuitai, or the small, motorcycle-friendly backroads to Shangri-la, beckon as well.

All uncredited images: Tiger Leaping Gorge

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Comments

Entrance fee is half price (32.5 rmb) for seniors 60 and over. The discount is noted on the information board written in Chinese, but not the English rendition. Of course you must show passport or ID as proof.

Yeah! This year I'll be 60. Can't wait to get discounts.

Entrance fee has been reduced by 30%, down to 45rmb. Half that for seniors. Guards at entrance station emphasized to me that ticket is good for one day only. Don't know how strict they will be on that. Earlier this year I entered the gorge twice on the same ticket a week and a half apart. We shall see.

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