Yunnan province, like much of China, is home to some of the world's most vast and beautiful mountains. The best part is that many of these mountains are great for hiking and The Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡 – hu tiao xia) trek is no exception. Crossing between the Haba Snow Mountain and Yulong Snow Mountain, Tiger Leaping Gorge is the largest that can be found on the Yangtze River.
Along the trek, you will encounter incredible views of the famous Yunnan mountains, waterfalls, indigenous cultures, and other adventurous travelers. I was actually surprised to find the trail was not nearly as crowded as expected, especially given some of my other travels in China. That said, it makes for a truly awesome off the beaten path adventure.
The trek can be completed in anywhere from one to three days, though I recommend doing it in two as described below. When I trekked Tiger Leaping Gorge in late April (prior to the rainy season), the weather was perfect, though it got a little hot as one entered the center of The Gorge where heat gets trapped. The key is to pack light, drink plenty of water, and enjoy the rest stops along the way. There are many small vendors selling water, fresh fruit, candy bars and other "treats", which limits the need to carry too much yourself.
Starting from the city of Lijiang, it's easy to catch a 2.5 hour bus ride to Qiaotou (the base of the trail) for around ¥35 RMB, plus a trail entrance fee of another ¥65. Buses leave daily at 7:30 AM and you can begin hiking by 10:00 or 10:30. While the trail begins as a simple, paved path, things get pretty rugged within the first hour. Be sure to grab lunch and take a short rest by noon before you begin to cross the 28 Bends, which is definitely the most intense part of the hike that involves a pretty steep climb through (as you might guess) 28 switchbacks. Some parts of the trail are narrow and it's important to watch your step or it could be a long way down.
The 28 Bends will take close to 3 hours to traverse before eventually flattening out to a more casual trail. After that point, you have two choices – trek another hour and spend the night at Tea Horse Guest House or power through for two hours and spend the night at Halfway Guest House. Both places are good and run around ¥40 RMB for a dorm-style room, but the benefit of the latter is that you have more time the next day to walk down to the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge to see it in all its glory.
On day two, you'll reach Tina's Guest House, the point of departure back to Lijiang or on to Shangri-La, after two hours or so. From here you can drop off your bags to lighten the load, buy your ¥55 RMB onward bus ticket, and trek down to the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge. After seeing The Gorge from above while hiking through the mountain, it's well worth the venture downward to experience the sight of the rapids up close and personal. While the trek down takes around 40 minutes, you can climb a 150 foot "shortcut" ladder on the way back – one of the most terrifying and satisfying experiences of my life. After that, if your legs and feet are really hurting, you can ride a mule on the way back (note: even if your legs and feet feel fine, you can ride a mule on the way back because it's awesome – I did it!)
All in all, be prepared to hike around 7.5 – 8 hours the first day, followed by a more casual hike of around 4 hours in day two. Between the trail, people, food, the "ladder" and mule ride, I can safely say this was one of the best treks I've ever done.