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Hike the Jade Dragon Glacial Trough

Lijiang Shi, China



6.2 miles

Elevation Gain

1640.4 ft

Route Type



Added by Kyle Obermann

Be some of the only hikers to enter into this ancient glacial trough at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596m). A secret traversed only by local herders, enter into a hidden Yosemite of China with 2000m cliffs towering around you from the foot of a glacial moraine. Wake up early the next morning, ascend the valley wall, and watch a truly one-of-a-kind sunset as the sun lights the mountain peaks on fire. Plus, you’ll have it all to yourself.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is one of the most famous mountains in China’s Yunnan province. It’s China’s southernmost glaciated peak and stands at the southeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Regarded by the local Naxi people as a holy mountain protecting those who dwell below, its position less than 20km north of the ancient and touristy town of Lijiang now makes parts of it a hot-spot for visitors. I found this location through looking at Google Maps and from what I can tell this is the first documentation of any route through this valley (~3200m) in English or Chinese. It’s also possible that we were the first foreigners here. There are many yak and cow trails all around the valley as well as old fire pits, so it does seem local herders come here often. There are two main routes to access the valley (see images).

Route 1 (blueline):
This is the most straightforward way to access the valley. It is also not free as it requires taking the main highway towards the mountain and paying the fee to enter the mountain area (130RMB per person, plus a toll fee for the vehicle). The highways leading to and from the mountain are separate, so the road leaving the mountain going back towards Lijiang is hard to see as you are driving towards it (basically feels like a one way road, this is important later on). After you pass the ticket station and drive along an impressive river gorge, the two highway segments will eventually join up again to run side by side to go over a pass. It is almost exactly at this point where the first entrance to valley begins (blue X) – if you are heading towards the mountain it will be on your left side (off of the highway leading back away from the mountain), looking like a rocky/dirt road slowly ascending the mountain. It’s hard to miss if you watch closely. If you make it all the way to the Dry Sea Meadow tourist area (甘海子) and start descending from the pass you’ll have gone too far.

Once on the rocky road up, you follow it for a few long, gradually ascending switchbacks till it dumps you out through a notch entering the glacial trough. The walking then becomes really easy and it’s only about 5k from here to the end of the forest and start of the glacial moraine at the base of the mountain. You can camp virtually anywhere.

Route 2 (redline):
Getting to the start of this route is much more complicated, but it is free, and the scenery during the ascent is better. There’s also a fresh water source at the beginning. You’ll need a good car with 4 wheel drive.

Take the highway going north to the mountain until you reach the exit on your left heading west towards Yuhu village (玉湖村). Take the exit, and then soon after take your first paved road on the right (heading back north) towards a village named Wenhua (文华村). The road on the way to Wenhua will split in a “Y”, veer right passing by on the eastern side of the village. As you continue straight, eventually the paved part of the road will make a sharp left going back into the village, but an unpaved and rocky section will continue on to the right towards some large gravel piles. Take the unpaved road, and follow it as it heads northward to the mountain. At this point it’s a bumpy ride, but continue heading north and in clear weather the towering wall of the glacial trough will be clear ahead of you as your guide. Also try to keep the foothills to the west as close as possible (there are many other rocky roads splitting off). Eventually you will see a blue roofed building in front of you in the distance, with an opening to a tight valley and running stream before it opening up on the left. That’s your starting point.

There will be a small but clear path leading along the stream (this is your last, reliable 4-season water source), follow that as it curves up the valley, eventually leading to a large intersection of paths with a dirt road leading off to the east back towards the main highway and an old, stone sign. Facing the moraine wall (north), the path that leads off more to the left will lead you over a pass at the top of the wall and then back down into the glacial valley, while the path going straight ahead leads through a narrow notch into the valley directly. Either works fine, but I suggest taking the left path over the top of the wall so you are familiar with it if you want to go back up and catch sunrise the next morning (highly recommended).

Other Notes:
  • This is an extremely fire prone area. Absolutely use all caution and fire safety rules when cooking or building campfires. Although it is evident that local herders often have campfires in the valley you may get in trouble if caught. Be smart. Concrete rules are unclear in China.
  • You'll need to hire a driver (包车) to take you to the start of either route as no public transport stops here. Hiring a driver in Lijiang is no problem, but some basic Mandarin skill is strongly recommended.
  • Walking on top of the ridge on the valley wall is very easy, and opens up the option to take it closer to the mountain for more exploration/possible camping.
  • Before you go, look at Google Maps yourself. It has great detail of the valley and you can figure out where you need to go yourself and check the directions against the satellite imagery.
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