Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan China

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) is a renowned scenic area located in the northern part of Yunnan province in southwestern China, halfway between the cities of Shangri-La and Lijiang. The gorge is a deep canyon in which flows the Jinsha River (金沙江) with violent ferocity. Jinsha is actually the name for the upstream section of the famous Yangtze River (扬子江/长江), which is the longest and most important river in China, passing through major metropolises like Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, and empties into the sea near Shanghai.

It’s been a while since I wrote a light travel post on this blog, and in this post I will outline some tips on how to get to and get around Tiger Leaping Gorge, especially seeing that information for this destination is quite scarce on the English-language internet. Enjoy.

Getting In

Tiger Leaping Gorge is sandwiched between the massive Jade Dragon (玉龙雪山) and Haba (哈巴雪山) Snow Mountains, with Lijiang (丽江) being the nearest city. Most people get into the gorge from Lijiang, and there are several ways to do so.

Lijiang is the major tourist hub in the region, with a well-connected airport and a brand new highspeed rail station. Flights into Lijiang from major Chinese cities are relatively expensive compared to flying into Kunming, so if you are budget-sensitive then you can fly into Kunming and take the train to Lijiang. The highspeed rail (opened only in 2019) from Kunming to Lijiang takes about 3.5 hours and is both comfortable and scenic – highly recommended.

Lijiang is a nice town to stay a couple days in, but there is lots of info on Lijiang so I won’t mention it further here. To get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, you can:

  1. Hire a car or arrange a minibus that takes you directly from Lijiang to the entrance of TLG or one of the hostels inside the TLG scenic area (would cost around 400 CNY per car, you can split it with other travellers).
  2. Take the public bus to Shangri-La and get off at the town across the river from the TLG entrance (it’s called “Qiaotou/桥头镇” apparently), and then get a car from there or arrange someone from your TLG hostel to pick you up (should be 150 CNY or so per car). If you look on any map (Google or Chinese local map app) you will see the place where two rivers meet, and that’s where the town is.
The place where two rivers meet – Tiger Leaping Gorge is between the mountains on the right

Getting Around

Hand-drawn map from hostel host – quite accurate!

We’ll reference the above hand-drawn map for orientation around TLG – believe it or not there is very little accurate map info online regarding the place, so this hand-drawn map is probably the best map there is!

As you can see, Qiaotou is on the far left (west), which is the entry to the gorge itself. As you drive into the gorge on the road along the bank of Jinsha River, you will first see a couple of crazy looking bridges super high up above the river – those are bridges for the new express way and highspeed rail they are building to go from Lijiang to Shangri-La (as of 2020, currently you can only go by bus).

After admiring that Chinese construction prowess, the canyon starts getting deeper as you drive further east into it. You will first arrive at the entrance to the entire TLG Scenic Area, where you will need to buy a ticket. After that you will enter the “Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge” section, which is a fully developed touristy area with a parking lot, staircases, and a statue of a tiger (marked on the above map as the staircase loop area). You can stop by here to take photos etc. but the fun is only just getting started. Note that most Chinese tourists and tour groups usually come here, since the majority of Chinese people tend to do car or group tours rather than going off-the-beaten path to hike, etc.

Viewing platform at Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge, with the tiger statue and that crazy bridge on the far side
Don’t fall into the river

If you are staying overnight in TLG (you should), most of the car-accessible hostels/guesthouses are in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge. So if you are getting dropped off, you’ll leave the viewing area in Upper TLG and keep driving east. The canyon starts to get real deep and the road starts getting rougher and more dangerous – there is no barrier on the side of the road, so you can see a direct drop down the cliff from the road. Tell your driver to drive slow if you find yourself feeling a bit uneasy – there have been accidents in the past where cars lost control and basically went off the cliff.

Tina’s Guesthouse is a popular stay for backpackers and hikers, but personally I stayed at Tibetan Guesthouse a bit further down. The facilities are better, cleaner, and the atmosphere is more “family-run guesthouse” rather than “backpacker hostel”. Nice in-house cooking as well as stunning views of Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge from the room balcony. Highly recommended. A couple pics below:

Tibetan Guesthouse entrance
View from the patio at Tibetan Guesthouse
Homecooking and beer at Tibetan Guesthouse

If you arrive in the afternoon/evening, I would suggest staying the night and then spend the next day hiking. If you scroll back up to the hand-drawn map above, you will see the solid lines representing hiking trails. I highly recommend the trails on the bottom right of the map – you hike down from the main road and eventually go on a trail on a cliff right above the river (“thin strip of sky”), and you can reach the section of Middle TLG with a large rock in the middle of the turbulent waters, connected to the shore by a simple suspension bridge. Simply stunning.

Views on the trail in Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge
Looking down the cliff at the large rock in the middle of the river

Note that you will pass through some shacks on the trail where locals will ask you for money (15 CNY per person or so). This will happen once on the trail in Middle TLG and once at the “Sky Ladder” (a metal ladder straight up the face of the cliff). I was happy to pay them because this area of the TLG was not developed so the trails were made by locals, and the fees basically serve as a “donation” for the locals. It was not much so I didn’t see it as a rip-off, but simply for paying for servicing the trails.

Climbing back up from the bottom of the gorge

Alternatively, if you arrive at the start of TLG in the morning, you can get dropped off near the entrance and hike the trail which goes up the mountain. That trail circumvents the Upper TLG area and there are several guesthouses along the way (Tea Horse, etc.). This is a popular route for hikers who prefer to trek the gorge by foot – stay a night at one of the guesthouses and then continue down to Middle TLG the next day.

Also, there are trails that go up in elevation from the main road near Middle TLG – these trails lead to Luke’s Guesthouse and further along to the base of Haba Snow Mountain. If you want to hike Haba Snow Mountain though that will be a whole different beast, and you will need to stay at one of the hostels at the foot of the mountain and you should make serious preparations (altitude 4,000m+).

Note that if you visited Shangri-La first and you are coming to Tiger Leaping Gorge from Shangri-La, you can basically do the same and get off the bus at Qiaotou and then call for a car.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a natural wonder and it is simply breathtaking – if you are ever in Yunnan it’s definitely a must-visit. Happy trekking!

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