Tiger Leaping GorgeAddress Shangri-La City, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan, China
Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) is a two-day trek in a province of China not visited often enough by international travelers: Yunnan.
Closer to Hanoi than to Beijing, Yunnan feels a world away from the bustling megacities that dot China’s east coast. The massive province borders Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Tibet, and, fittingly for its position on a crossroads, it is China’s most ethnically diverse. The province is home to 25 of the country’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities (though the groups are more diverse than their official designations), which offers visitors a chance to see ways of life not found elsewhere in China.
It is also geographically diverse: though its southern borders are coated with jungle, Yunnan’s western edge is home to jaw-dropping peaks at the beginnings of the Tibetan Plateau.
Situated among them is one of the world’s most spectacular sights: Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Named for an old legend of a tiger that jumped across a river to escape its hunter, Tiger Leaping Gorge is a set of jagged peaks dramatically severed by the Jinsha (金沙)—or “Golden Sand”—River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The Jinsha is rapid-strewn as it cuts below Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), a peak over 18,000-feet-high that can be seen all across the region, and Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山), 17,000 feet.
It’s possible to visit a portion of the bottom by bus, but the truly incredible views can be seen only from the Upper Trail, a 14-mile route through waterfalls and high-elevation villages that most hikers complete over a couple of days. Given its position high up in the gorge, the route offers hours of uninterrupted views. (But that said, note that it’s maybe not the best choice if you’re scared of heights.)
The trail is more than a hiking path. It was once part of the Tea Horse Road, an ancient network of trading routes connecting China with South Asia. The Road is credited with spreading tea culture outward from Yunnan, where some historians believe the first tea was cultivated. And it was also crucial to spreading Buddhism from India into Tibet and China.
This region of Yunnan is known as the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and much of it is culturally Tibetan. The prefecture’s seat is Shangri-La, a tourist town surrounded by high-elevation plains of grazing yaks, and many hikers to the gorge continue to Shangri-La after their trek is completed.
You don’t need to be an outdoor pro to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge—you just need patience, a good pair of shoes and plenty of water. That’s because, while the hike is undoubtedly challenging, there are guesthouses all along the way that provide beds, local food, and cold beer.
Most people opt to split the trek in half, spending their one night en route at the Halfway Lodge. The guesthouse is positioned in the middle of the trail, but because much of the first half is uphill, the first day ends up being much tougher—about seven hours’ hiking, compared to the second day’s three. (When your calves are sore the next day, you’ll be thankful you only have three hours left to hike.)
The trail winds through a few small, traditional villages. Many of the locals are Naxi, an ethnic group primarily in Yunnan, who make their living here by a combination of small-scale farming and catering to visitors. In the busier summer months, many locals set up stalls that sell water, snacks, and—as it grows locally—weed. The weed stalls, and Yunnan’s proximity to Southeast Asia, make for a social, Banana Pancake trail vibe in busy months. But many of these same stalls are shuttered by fall.
Guesthouses along the trail offer private rooms for under $20 a night, and bunk beds for cheaper, no reservations necessary. If you’re looking to rest earlier than the Halfway Lodge, other hiker favorites are the Naxi Family Guesthouse, just an hour into the hike, and Tea-Horse Trade Guesthouse, further in.
Though high in elevation, Tiger Leaping Gorge has blessedly mild weather, with average highs in the 60s F year-round. Locals recommend fall and spring for hiking, even though most tourists visit in the peak summer travel months. Though not severe, summer in Yunnan is the rainy season, and the trail can occasionally get slippery and wet during these months.
China is working on a high-speed railway that would link this region to Yunnan’s capital of Kunming. But until that’s complete, travel to Tiger Leaping Gorge requires a hodgepodge of flight, train, and bus.
It’s easiest to fly into Kunming (昆明), a major airport, and China’s gateway to Southeast Asia. (A flight to Kunming from Bangkok, for example, is under two hours.) From Kunming, there are high-speed trains to Lijiang (丽江) that take just over three hours, and they leave frequently enough that you should be able to show up at the Kunming railway station in the morning and grab a ticket without reserving.
Lijiang is a popular tourist destination, ringed on all sides by gorgeous mountains. You could opt to spend a night there, or you could head directly to the long-distance bus station (长途汽车站). You’ll want a bus heading in the direction of Shangri-La (香格里拉), and your stop, Qiaotou (桥头), will be two to three hours into your journey. This is where the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail begins.
All of this can seem daunting if you don’t speak Chinese, but the route to Tiger Leaping Gorge is a well-trod trail. If you have the Mandarin characters for your destinations ready on paper or your phone screen, cab and bus drivers will understand without much problem.
After you finish your hike, you’ll find yourself at Tina’s Guesthouse, which organizes vans back to Qiaotou, or onward to Lijiang and Shangri-La. The ride to Shangri-La, if you choose to visit, is full of jaw-dropping mountain views. But perhaps you’ll have had your fill of those by then anyway.