Hiking in Lijiang: Dry River Valley

By in Travel


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the dominant peak overlooking the historic city of Lijiang, is renowned for its impressive alpine scenery and popular tourist sites. Visitors can enjoy the music and dance performance by local ethnic peoples. Cable cars transport visitors to the alpine zone, where there are splendid views of an active glacier.

The Chinese name of the mountain is Yulong Xue Shan (玉龙雪山). The massif, thirty-five kilometers in length, forms a compact mountain range with a dozen peaks surpassing 5,000 meters. Striking geological formations find a home here, too. The title of the surrounding nature reserve sums it up nicely: Yulong Snow Mountain Scenic Area and National Geological Park.

View of Milk Lake and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
View of Milk Lake and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

One such geological wonder is Ganheba (干河坝), a sinuous valley emerging out of a canyon wedged deep inside the mountain stronghold. Unknown and invisible from the normal tourist circuit, the valley is readily accessible on a surprisingly short hike.

Ganheba can be translated as "Dry River Dam" or "Dry River Embankment". Here we elect a simple descriptive name, "Dry River Valley".

Panoramic view from mid-valley to Milk Lake, with Dog for a Day
Panoramic view from mid-valley to Milk Lake, with Dog for a Day

Valley Description

Seen from the air or on a map, Dry River Valley takes the form of a small mammal, like an otter. The snout points to the east, the feet are planted south, the rump arches north, and the tail stretches out to the west.

Glacial moraine hogbacks line the formation, rising as high as 200 meters above the valley floor. Breaks in the moraine afford passage into the interior. As described below, footpaths cross the Eastern Portal (snout) and Southern Portal (feet) leading directly to the inner sanctum.

	A herd of horses crosses Milk Lake on the way to the grazing meadows
A herd of horses crosses Milk Lake on the way to the grazing meadows

In ages past, a valley glacier flowed down to an elevation of 3,000 meters. Today, the glacier has receded upslope to its present limit at or above 5,000 meters, extending further upward toward the 5,596-meter summit of Shanzidou (扇子陡), the highest peak of the Jade Dragon massif. This glacial remnant, once part of a grand and voluminous river of ice, remains readily visible from the streets of Lijiang. But one wonders for how long. Scientists have mapped 19 glaciers on the massif and reported advanced rates of glacial recession.

View of a peak from the valley floor. Shanzidou is hidden behind
View of a peak from the valley floor. Shanzidou is hidden behind

Extensive meadows and open forest populate the surprisingly level valley floor. Local herders drive horses up to graze the grasslands. The valley ascends gradually higher, becoming a vast expanse of stones and glacial debris. Rock walls tower into the sky upon entering the mouth of Snow Mountain Canyon (雪山峡谷). The walkable section ends further back where the precipitous slopes begin.

Milk Lake

One especially striking feature of the Dry River Valley is found at the former glacier's eastern terminus, within the otter's snout. Milk Lake (牛奶湖), an expanse 500 by 1000 meters, is composed of white sediment leached out of limestone rocks and washed down from high on Shanzidou. Much of the year the lake is bone dry, a crusty flat of mineral effluent. During the summer rainy season, water collects in pools that take on a milky or bluish cast depending on the water's depth and light from the sky.

Artificial berm at mid-valley
Artificial berm at mid-valley

A few scattered trees and bushes grow on the lake bed. Their ability to survive appears amazing, given how the branches are encrusted with white stuff that sticks even when shaken or disturbed.

Winter storms blanket Shanzidou in snow, and the bright mantel matches the coloration of Milk Lake. The striking juxtaposition of pure white can confuse first-time visitors.

Milk Lake, milk tree
Milk Lake, milk tree

The Dry River threads the length of the valley down to the flats of Milk Lake. It normally carries water only during the summer rainy season. At the middle bend of the valley, below the otter's rump, an artificial berm was constructed with the apparent purpose of channeling water to the lake. Perhaps it was believed filling the lake would create a more attractive sight from a touristic standpoint, or maybe there was an ecological purpose behind it.


An entirely different feature appears at the mouth of Snow Mountain Canyon, five kilometers up valley from the lake. Here a monster landslide thundered down in May 2019. The cataclysm created "a huge plume of dust, ice, snow and rock that blanketed the entire valley," according to a contemporary account. Fortunately, no one was injured, and the cable cars and park infrastructure were unaffected. The aftermath remains visible to this day: boulders and haphazard debris lie on the valley floor at an elevation of 3,400 meters.

Landslide debris
Landslide debris

East Portal Access

Several routes lead to the Dry River Valley. The shortest is from a hamlet known as Alu Village (阿鲁村) and it goes by way of the East Portal at the otter's snout.

You should begin by driving north from Lijiang some 15 kilometers to the Yulong National Park gate. Pay the entrance fee of 100 yuan per person and continue driving north on the one-way highway. After 5 kilometers or so, turn left off the highway onto a side road that leads to Alu Village. At the time of writing, a boulder engraved with the characters 阿鲁村雪山 marks the turnoff. Continue on the side road for 1 kilometer to reach a parking lot and adjoining restrooms. Park here at an elevation 3,050 meters. A local business owner may request a small parking fee.

View from moraine on the East Portal access route. Note couple walking on the lake
View from moraine on the East Portal access route. Note couple walking on the lake

Just beyond the parking lot is the one-way highway leading south back to Lijiang. Cross to the west side of the highway. (Busy road! Use care!) Follow a path ascending north, gradually leading away from the highway. After an ascent of nearly one kilometer (about 30 minutes), the path comes out on top of the moraine at 3,200 meters. Here there is a marvelous view of Milk Lake and, in clear weather, the upper ramparts of Shanzidou. The path descends northeast and reaches the lake bed in a few more minutes.

At Alu Village, you may encounter a dog that takes a fancy to hikers. Your "dog for a day" will accompany you however far you walk, but will remain in the village upon your return.

Dog for a day
Dog for a day

The distance from Alu Village to Milk Lake and return is 2 kilometers. For longer treks, count on 13 kilometers to the site of the landslide, and 18 kilometers to the walkable end of the canyon. These are round-trip distances.

For an alternate route to Milk Lake, continue driving north past the turnoff mentioned above to reach the national park Visitor Center. Hike south 2½ kilometers and mount the moraine to arrive at the lake. This is best done discretely, as park officials may frown upon visitors who leave the customary tourist areas and board walks.

Map of Dry River Valley
Map of Dry River Valley

An unpaved road zig-zags up to Milk Lake from the east, but it is closed to vehicles. A manned guard station sits near the base of the road, presumably to prevent access by automobiles and perhaps hikers too.

South Portal Access

Yuhu (玉湖村) is a picturesque Naxi minority village, a popular tourist destination 15 kilometers north of Lijiang. Yuhu Reservoir (玉湖水库) lies 1½ kilometers to the northeast. Many visitors ride horses to the reservoir, but you can also walk or drive.

On the trail to South Portal
On the trail to South Portal

The hike from Yuhu Village to the South Portal (otter's feet) is 7½ kilometers, with an elevation gain of 480 meters. Along the way you will pass the reservoir, cross the Sini River, skirt Frog Pond, and encounter a side path descending to a 2,900-meter trailhead.

You should be aware that local police patrols may turn back groups on this route. This may occur especially during the dry season when there is increased risk of fire danger. If that happens, another of the routes described here is an option.

After arriving at the South Portal, you can hike 2½ kilometers on the nearly level track to Milk Lake. The round-trip journey from Yuhu Village to the lake measures 20 kilometers and requires a full day.

South Portal
South Portal

Alternatively, you can walk from the South Portal to the site of the landslide. This involves four additional kilometers on foot and a gain of 200 meters. The round-trip from Yuhu Village is 23 kilometers, which will be a long and exhausting day for many folks.

You can shorten the trip to the South Portal in several ways. First, start the hike at Yuhu Reservoir, saving 3 kilometers on the round-trip journey. Second, trek one-way from Yuhu Village to the Visitor Center in the national park, a distance of 12½ kilometers. Of course, this will require a pre-arranged vehicle pick-up at the Visitor Center.

Third, you could navigate rough roads northeast of Yuhu Village to reach a trailhead at ca. 2,900 meters elevation. Start there and you will soon join the trail described above, reaching the South Portal after a hike of 2 kilometers. We hired a guide in Yuhu who asked 200 yuan if we provided our own vehicle, or 400 yuan to drive his own. We opted for the latter, a wise choice. The stony, borderline 4wd roads rattled the vehicle like crazy!

Yuhu Village

Hiring a Chinese-speaking guide in Yuhu Village costs 200-400 yuan for the day and may include shuttling by car. We know of a case, however, where a local guide charged 400 yuan per person. Inquire at any lodging establishment in the village or at the 63 Café. If you prefer an English-speaking guide from Lijiang or elsewhere, the cost will naturally be somewhat higher.

Yuhu Reservoir
Yuhu Reservoir

Upon arrival at the village plaza, local residents greet visitors with the words, "qi ma", which is their way of offering horse rides to Yuhu Reservoir. The cost is 80 yuan for the one- to two-hour trip. For the full-day ride to Dry River Valley and back, the journey will cost around 300 yuan.

A good source of area information is the 63 Café, located east off the main plaza. The restaurant is run by a Naxi couple, one of whom speaks English. They are hikers themselves, familiar with trails in the area. They own the adjacent Nguluko Guest House, currently being expanded and due to re-open in 2023.

Yuhu Village central plaza
Yuhu Village central plaza

Many visitors to Yuhu Village make a pilgrimage to view the home of Joseph Rock, now turned into a museum. Here, the famous botanist-photographer-linguist lived for two decades before leaving China in 1949. An historic photo of the Dry River Valley, taken by Rock, hangs in the museum. There is a modest entry fee.

A park on the north edge of the village, Yuzhu Qingtian Fengjingqu (玉柱擎天风景区), contains ponds fed by cold mountain springs where visitors can view large trout and salmon. There is a small entry fee.

Yuhu Village and Reservoir, viewed from slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Yuhu Village and Reservoir, viewed from slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

For public transportation between Lijiang and Yuhu Village, you can take a taxi or ride the #17 bus.

A number of interesting sites lie within a short distance of Yuhu village. These include Yufeng Temple (玉峰寺) and Jade Water Village (玉水寨). These are accessible by the #6 bus from Lijiang. From the last stop at Jade Water Village, it is a 45-minute walk to Yuhu Village. Along the way lies another interesting site, the Dongba 10,000 Gods Garden (东巴万神园景区).

Author Pieter Crow is composing a series for GoKunming about hiking in Lijiang. For more, see his two-part article on circumambulating Haba Snow Mountain, hiking off the beaten track in Tiger Leaping Gorge as well as his explanation of where and how to hike Elephant Hill, Wenbi Mountain, Saddle Mountain, and Wenhai Mountain, all just outside of Lijiang. Pieter is author of the website TrekHaba.com, a trekking guide to Haba Snow Mountain.

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Informative piece, Pieter!

Look. Who is that sitting in the shade under a lone milk tree in Milk Lake?

It's "dog for a day"... your furry protector companion!

Limestone is often the oasis mirage of snow on Jade Dragon.

Quite a few hikers would get lost in mountains of Yunnan over the years. Notable search & rescues hit recent news which didn't end well. Understandable park officials would frown at those who stray off beaten path.

I've taken this path, well worth checking out if you go to Lijiang. It's a long walk to the trailhead, or use a 4 wheel drive to get there. But do it if you have the chance, everybody likes the spiritual quality of the mountains.

A new light rail is being built in Lijiang that will reach Yulong Snow Mountain foothills in 20 minutes, traveling a distance of 20.45 km from the city's South.

Rail workers donning orange are visible along the incomplete track doing work, even during Labour Day holiday..

Slated for completion in December, this project is touted as "the world's first tourist train with a panoramic view of the mountain."

The illustration of this train is pretty cool:


Update on bus #17 station, which is located at above photo of Yuhu Village Central Plaza (玉湖村广场), the terminal station. Final bus leaving the Yuhu Village foothill to 象山市场 (SE of Shuhe Old Town) is at 19:00pm. First bus 7am, to and fro.

Near the Yuhu reservoir, excavation of additional artificial lakes are being constructed by the boulder paved roads. The Lijiang government is doubling down on Jade Dragon tourism recovery in the post-pandemic.

I've been trying to locate the start of the new light rail line from Lijiang to the national park. A friend in Lijiang informs it begins off of Route S223, known locally as Yu Quan Lu (玉泉路), 7 km north of Old Town, between Shuhe and Baisha. I don't know if this is one of the five stations mentioned in the China Daily piece or the actual southern terminus, in which case no rail link from Lijiang train station.

Something else that will affect visitation to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain park. On a recent visit to Daju I noticed a new bridge under construction across the Jinsha River. For years a ferry has shuttled cars (except during periods of low water) and passengers across, but that will change with completion of the bridge. No doubt new popularity for auto tours/buses making the loop through Tiger Leaping Gorge with return to Lijiang through the park.

Appreciate the update.

It's entirely possible the starting point of the new light rail would be located near Yuquan Road (玉泉路) in the proximity north of Yunnan Tourism and Culture College (云南文化旅游学院).

The open track of the light rail visibly runs parallel to Yuquan Rd. This road is renamed "旅游环线" further up north, though still labelled as Route S223 if navigating on maps. A swathe of land is available to the east of S223, compared to areas south of tourism college. Details of the stations should be announced in the months to come.

As for public transport connections to the light rail. Bus 11 may approach the potential station starting point, while bus 101 should reach even closer to the designated location your Lijiang friend described.

Both bus routes start at Lijiang Old Town. Bus 11, often packed with locals, terminates at tourism college along S223. Bus 101, which caters to tourists, travels all the way to the main entrance visitor's center of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with fixed rate of 15 yuan per pax, notwithstanding the alighting point.

A heads up for commuters going up the mountain:

The bus 101 driver will ask to see negative test result (within 48-hour period) upon boarding. More strictly enforced if boarding 101 at the preliminary 忠义市场 Lijiang Old Town bus station.

En route to the national park gate, all passengers' temperatures will be scanned, movement tracking and health codes will be inspected at a security check-point prior to reaching the Dongba area.

At this time, entering the east portal access through the main gate on S223 would encounter stringent measures compared to the south portal access across from Yuhu Village.

Downloading offline map apps for hiking/tubu is recommended as network signals are weak or nonexistent deep into the mountain trails.

What an amazing transformation! Friends have sent photos taken last few days. The white dust plain of Milk Lake is covered in water, up to 1 meter deep. Healthy rainy season.

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