Calling Huashan China’s deadliest hike is admittedly a bit of hyperbole. It’s perhaps fairer to say that Huashan is one of the most dangerous mountains that is easily accessible and frequently visited by tourists. As one of China’s 5 Sacred Mountains, Huashan is a totally tricked out tourist destination. The hike around the mountain’s 4 peaks is complete with a cable car, food and rest stops every couple hundred meters, hotels, carefully manicured stone stairways, camp sites, and climbing activities. But don’t be deterred by all that, as all these developments are relatively well integrated into the natural landscape, making the one-day trek around Huashan one of our favorites so far.
As for the dangers, the most perilous part can be completely avoided and is in fact somewhat of a novelty, as the cliff side path leads to nowhere (described in detail at the end of the post). There are, however, some very (very!) steep stone stairways that you’ll have to climb if you want to access certain parts of the mountain. These stairways are so steep that you have to hang onto chain link railings to avoid falling off. However, anyone with decent balance and fitness should have no problems whatsoever.
Getting to Huashan
Huashan is super easy to get to from Xi’an. Take the high speed train from Xi’an North Station and get off at the first stop. We took the 7:50am train (RMB 54.50 one-way), which gets into Huashan at about 8:15am. From the train station (Huashan Bei / 华山北) you can either take a public bus or a cab to the main entrance （华山游客中心）. It’s a super short cab ride to the main entrance, so don’t pay more than 15RMB.
Once you get to Huashan get ready to buy lots of tickets. You’ll need a park ticket (RMB 180), a ticket for the bus to take you into the mountains (RMB 20), and another ticket to take the cable car up the North Peak (optional, RMB 150 Round-trip / RMB 80 one-way).
Planning a Route for a One Day Hike
Huashan is huge. There are four peaks and lots and lots of hiking trail options. The first question most people have is whether or not to take the cable car （北峰索道）. From the main entrance the bus takes you up the Huang Fu Yu Road / 黄甫峪公路 to the foot of the cable car. You can either take the cable car up to the North Peak / 北峰, or you can hike up. The cable car and hiking trail follow the exact same path, which offers beautiful views as you ascend up a deep valley. Hiking from the cable car to the North Peak takes a little over 1.5 hours.
If you’re trying to do all four peaks in one day (and get back to Xi’an), taking the cable car up is a good idea. Hiking between the 4 peaks will take around 4 hours. And you always have the option of walking down from the North Peak.
From the top of the cable car head towards Jin Suo Guan / 金锁关 (Golden Lock Pass). After you pass Jin Suo Guan you’ll see signs pointing to either the East Peak / 东峰 or West Peak / 西峰. Most people opt for going clockwise around the peaks, so head to the East Peak and then continue around to the South, West, and back to the North Peak. If you’re still feeling ginger after all that, then you can can walk down instead of taking the gondola.
As pictured above, there are a lot of steep stone stairs at Huashan. Clinging onto the chain railing while pulling yourself up these nearly vertical staircases is what makes Huashan so exciting. Seeing Chinese tourists climb up these in flip flops and dress shoes is also quite entertaining (and impressive ((I don’t know how Chinese men can stand doing everything / hiking in suit pants and black dress shoes)).
While we were at Huashan there were a number of renovation jobs going on. All the raw materials for the stairs and platforms being built are carried by hand up the mountain. Needless to say, we passed dozens of tiny yet super strong men and women with football calves who were literally breaking up stones by hand as they carved out new stone stairs.
As you walk towards Jin Suo Guan, to your right you’ll get the best views of Huashan’s iconic West Peak (pictured below).
Don’t worry about packing a lot of food or water for this hike, as there are rest stops just about everywhere. It’s easy to find a bowl of 快速面 at all the peaks.
You’ll also see locks everywhere on Huashan. Vendors sell these little golden locks, which you can engrave on the spot (or use the default 家里平安). Eye sore or not, the ubiquitous locks give you an idea of just how many people (tons) have trekked across Huashan over the years.
If you’re wondering whether it’s worth it to hike to all four peaks, it is. The views of the surrounding mountains change with every peak and you probably will leave with a strong case of FOMO if you don’t do the whole loop. Plus, many flag carrying / hat wearing tour groups go up Huashan, but almost none of them take the time and effort to climb around all four peaks. In between the East and South Peaks you’ll notice markedly fewer people.
At the East Peak there’s your first rope climbing option. If you strap on a harness your able to access the little pagoda pictured below. To actually get to the pagoda not only do you need to do a bit of climbing, but you also need to take a very narrow stairway that has no railings on either side. We didn’t make the little excursion, but I’m sure it’s a good time. Around the East Peak there’s also an opportunity to put on a harness and go and sit out on one of the overhangs for a picture. While sort of gimmicky, the pictures you get are pretty fun (we also passed on doing this).
From the East Peak you continue on to the South Peak, which is the tallest standing at 2,154.9 meters. Past the South Peak you’ll be able to see another cable car from Ju Ling Zu / 巨灵足 that wasn’t open at the time. When it does open, this cable car will offer another route down Hua Shan’s west facing trails.
The Cliff Side Sky Path / 长空栈道
The Cliff Side Sky Path (长空栈道 / Chángkōng zhàndào) is Huashan’s most notorious area. Located near the South Peak, this path is about 15 feet of planks that are attached to a cliff side, which drops straight down a long, long way.
For just RMB 30 you get to risk your life and get a huge adrenaline kick. What makes this path so scary is the combination of knowing you’re in China, doing it with a bunch of other people, and the uncertainty regarding the quality of the anchors.
Most likely there will be other people there when you get there. You’ll get in line and when it’s your turn you’re given a chest harness and two sets of carabiners that you’ll use to clip into the various anchor lines. Then a guy will tell you to be careful. And off you go!
The scariest part is the initial descent down a ladder of iron rods. If you look down you’ll see the thousands of feet you could potentially fall to your death to. Now for rock climbers, this won’t be scary at all really, especially if you’re used to lead climbing. The scary part is really the other people pushing you from behind and coming back directly underneath you (you have to come back the same way you go, since this path doesn’t lead to anywhere).
After you get down the ladder, clipping in and out of the anchor lines, you’ll get to the planks. The planks offer you about 2 feet of width to walk on. If you’re scared of heights do not do this climb.
About mid-way through the planks there’s a guy who will take pictures of you and print them out on the spot. Got to hand it to this enterprising guy (pictured below in blue). He spends all day everyday perched on that ledge.
I brought by Nikon D600 with me while doing the climb. I use a wrist strap and tied that to my chest harness with a carabiner. This is probably the best way to carry a camera while doing the climb without risking dropping it or banging it against the rocks.
I have no idea how many people die here every year. The anchors feel sturdy and with two safety lines attached at all times the chances of you falling are pretty slim (unless of course you un-clip both at the same time). But, given the huge number of people that do this climb and the utter lack of supervision and safety instructions, I can’t imagine that there aren’t any accidents. So if you do go, please please be careful, and don’t let some annoying guy behind you rush you (like someone did to me). You absolutely will not regret doing it (though you might while you’re climbing down that first ladder).
For particularly intrepid hikers and those looking to do a multiple day trip, there are more trails than described in this post. In fact, from the main gate there are trails that you can hike all the way into the mountains. According to a guide there, hiking in by foot takes about 4 hours and some of the longer trails take much longer. So, if you’re up for a real camping / hiking excursion know that it’s possible to do at Hua Shan as well.
In all, this is a fantastic day trip from Xi’an and should be on most outdoorsy people’s China hit list.
For other great hikes around China check out these destinations.