China's Six Top Trails
A growing group of adventure seekers is seeking out China’s natural charms—and finding an incredible variety of top-tier rambles. Here, our six top trails, from day hikes to epic treks. By CRAIG SIMONS
WARM UPS (1 DAY)
MOUNT TAI | SHANDONG
One of China’s most important Taoist mountains, Mount Tai offers a head-on collision with China’s burgeoning outdoor culture. The 1,545-meter peak in China’s eastern Shandong province boasts a veritable who’s who of past visitors, including Confucius, several emperors and Mao Zedong. A 15-kilometer roundtrip from the base passes a dozen temples and provides a calf-muscle workout up 6,660 steps. After you catch your breath on top, check into one of several hotels and get up with the crowds to watch the sunrise; best of the bunch is the three-star Shen Qi Hotel (10 Tian St., Tai’an; +86 538 822 3866) at the mountain’s summit, which has a good restaurant, clean rooms and negotiable rates if you call in advance. Like China’s other holy peaks—Yellow, Hua and Emei mountains among them—the trail is crowded. But descend its backside for beautiful, less-traveled routes. T+L Tip The trailhead, at Hongmen Gong (Red Gate Palace) in Tai’an Town, is easily accessible from Beijing by train. The fastest is the D29, which leaves Beijing’s South Station every day at 7:47 a.m. and arrives in Tai’an before noon.
LASHI HAI | YUNNAN
For one of China’s most relaxed hikes, visit Lashi Hai, a lake in China’s southwestern Yunnan province that’s home to more than 70 species of migratory birds including hooded cranes, black storks and whooper swans. Winter is the best time to see birds, and visitors can add a few days in nearby Lijiang, a storybook town of cobblestone lanes, quaint restaurants and twisting canals. T+L Tip XinTuo Ecotourism (+86 888 510 6226; ecotourism.com.cn) offers hikes and tours ranging from short excursions to weeklong trips, or take a 35-minute taxi ride from Lijiang and explore the lake on your own.
LEG STRETCHERS (2-6 DAYS)
THE GREAT WALL | BEIJING
Actually a series of walls and towers built across northern China over some 2,000 years, the Great Wall provides everything from great day hikes to week-long rambles. One of the best routes is a two-day trek along Jiankou, or the “Arrow Notch,” a Ming dynasty stretch of wall northwest of Beijing. T+L Tip Beijing Hikers (beijinghikers.com) offers regular group trips to picturesque sections of the wall near Beijing and can organize private guides. Some sections cut through military bases and other restricted zones, so be sure to check with a guidebook or local expert to plot your route.
MOUNT KAWAKARPO | YUNNAN
Hikers can spend anywhere from a few days to more than a week on this Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage route in northwest Yunnan. Starting by the Mekong River, the trail wraps around the 6,740-meter Mount Khawakarpo, the tallest peak in Yunnan, and crosses five major passes. With an altitude change of 2,700 meters, it transects forests, pristine alpine meadows and picture-perfect villages chock full of stupas and monasteries. Lucky hikers spot Asiatic black bears and red pandas. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when many Tibetans follow the circuit in search of good karma. T+L Tip The pilgrimage trails are not marked and non-Tibetan speakers should hire guides. Try Khampa Caravan (+86 887 828 8648; khampacaravan.com), a Tibetan-run company in Yunnan.
LONG MARCHES (MORE THAN 1 WEEK)
MOUNT GONGGA | SICHUAN
This epic 12-day trek loops around the 7,556-meter Mount Gongga, offering views of a vertical drop bigger than Everest’s. The trek crosses three passes—the highest rises to 4,600 meters—and takes hikers past glacial lakes and through virgin forests that protect wild boar and pheasants. Dozens of rhododendron species flower in July and August, while autumn offers stunning colors and snow-clad peaks. T+L Tip Because the route follows unmarked trails, expert guides such as WildChina (+86 10 6465 6602; wildchina.com) are recommended.
MOUNT EVEREST, KANGSHUNG FACE | TIBET
If you want to see the big E without the Nepal crowds, here’s your ticket. A two-week trek skirts Tibetan villages, crosses 5,000-meter passes and winds through one of the world’s highest-altitude forests. The trail starts where a two-lane highway from Lhasa to Nepal meets the Quomolangma National Nature Reserve (Quomolangma is the Tibetan name for Mount Everest). Highlights include killer views of Mount Everest from the 5,330-meter Langma La Pass, scrambling over Everest’s Kangshung Glacier and camping in the shadow of Mount Makalu, the world’s fifth-tallest mountain. T+L Tip It’s possible to hike the route using Trekking in Tibet: A Traveler’s Guide by Gary McCue, but bring a compass—nomadic yak herders use hundreds of trails, and it’s easy to get lost. The hike can be shorted by driving to Kharta, a small Tibetan village near the Nepali border. Several companies, including WildChina and Khampa Caravan, can arrange guided trips from around US$4,000 per person.