If you’re looking for a leisurely afternoon walk, a middle earth fan whose not up to white water rafting, or simply rained out of a white water trip like we were, fear not as I have a solution for you. Enter the Kawaru River pathway (aka Gibbston River Trail) which starts with views of people jumping off a bridge, passes through more than a couple wineries, and stops along several scenic picnic spots on the river rim. It’s a great shorter walk/ hike to get outside and admire the Kawaru river… without partaking in the rough house activity of rafting it.
Where to park for the Kawaru River trail:
Google maps AJ Hackett Bungy Kawarau Bungy Centre and park in the same lot as the bungy bridge.
The parking lot is just 20 minutes outside of Queenstown along hwy 6 (toward Wanaka). The turn off for the parking lot will be on your left just after passing over the kawaru river bridge. (~23 km along hwy 6)
Distance: 2.25 miles/ 3.6 km 1 way. Go as long as you like though
Difficulty: Easy, little to no hills
Time: Allow at least 1.5 hours
Kawaru River Trail Directions:
Once you park, go ahead and wander down to check out any jumpers from the bridge as they leap from the historic suspension bridge, get caught up by their ankles on the bungy, and rafted back to the river side. Sign yourself up if you’re feeling daring and make use of the facilities around the bungy center.
The Gibbston River trail goes both ways along the Kawaru river actually crossing over the historic suspension bridge- and both directions make for a scenic walk. HOWEVER if you want the specific views in this post and/ or Lord of the Rings filming locations, you’ll want to skip crossing the bridge and actually walk up the parking lot from where you parked, to the East side where you’ll see a drive way for the Winehouse and then signs for the Gibbston River Trail.
At first the trail is pretty close to the road but after a few minutes, it will turn off and cut down to the river’s rim. There it will meander along occasionally cutting away from the river before returning back to it. There’s a couple wineries you can stop at if interested, or even better do the wine & bike tour to see more of the river trail and more of the wines. Otherwise you’ll come across the first awesome view point (probably the best one) about 1 mile/1.7km in. There’s even a bench to mark the spot of a great view.
It was standing here that we were definitely able to see the scene at the end of the Fellowship where the party is rowing down the river Anduin and passes between the giant Argonath statues. (We were still disappointed as to not be able to raft ourselves down through the narrow canyon)
You can continue on for more views of the narrow river canyon with the next best view point being about mile 1.93/3km. Make sure to take the left trail junction (the one that says for advanced bikers only) to get to this view point. This section of trail is definitely the most interesting with a few little bridges here and there, loads of bunnies hopping about, and being some of the closest to the cliffs down to the river.
You can follow this trail for as long as you like, although we turned around once the canyon opened up about 2.25 miles into the trail. Overall it’s a flat easy trail with nice river and canyon views. We didn’t get a change to check out any of the wineries, but if I went back to Queenstown I’d definitely consider a biking trip down this river trail to see more of it and almost certainly be re-booking myself for the Kawaru white water rafting tour.
Unless you have a ride sorted out for getting back, return on the trail from whence you came to the bungy bridge carpark.
A visit to Machu Picchu seems to be on everyone’s bucketlist, as it should be. The ruins incredibly sacred, scenic, and unlike any other in the world. It’s nestled high in the mountains amongst the Andes glacier topped mountains and low valley jungles. Whether you decide to do a trek in or a hike once you are there, here are some basic thoughts for planning your trip:
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
Purchase your entrance tickets at least 1 month in advance, 3 months if you want to hike Huayna Picchu during the high season. You can purchase them here for the best rate. (use Google translate if needed)
Purchase your entrance tickets for a 6AM start so you can be among the first into the site.
Purchase your BUS tickets for the ride up the night before your visit so that you can get in line at 4:30 AM the day of and be ready to go.
Don’t hike up from Auguas Calientes! (unless you really want to) It is a very steep trail with BIG steps up and traverses the same path the bus takes (so you don’t get any different perspective) Even the most fit people in our group got to the top very out of breath and sweating.
DO get a mountain hike ticket! This ticket gets you 1 re-entrance (the normal MP ticket does not allow for re-entry so if you get hungry or need to pee… you’re outta luck)
Dress in layers. It is COLD in the morning but gets very hot during the day. Dress accordingly.
Pack a snack. As previously stated, there’s no re-entry unless you have a mountain ticket.
We were up at 4 and heading out of our hostel with our guide and group by 4:30 to the bus stop. We got bagged lunches/breakfast from the tour company as our last remaining meal provided by them. By the time we got there (about 4:40) the line was already formed and we were maybe 1-2 bus loads from the front of the line… By 5 AM I’d say the end was 10 bus loads back.
We were stationed right outside some convenience shops which did open their doors early for the queue of people. We sat on the curb in our line spot, some of us cracking into our bag of snacks for some breakfast. Around 5:30 the bus officials came by to inspect both our bus tickets and entrance tickets against our passport. (Make sure you book your tickets under the same name) and by 5:40 the buses were rolling up to start moving people up the mountain.
There were at least 10 buses in droves and we were quickly shepherded onto the bus with our group. The ride lasted about 20 minutes and the first half was pretty dark, but twilight illuminated the views for the 2nd half. At the top we got in line to wait the 5 minutes or so we still had before they opened the gates, and our fellows who hiked up met us in front of the line.
We shuffled in showing our tickets a second time and were among the first people into the site so we immediately headed up to the terraces to get the best view. We took a couple shots of the group in a couple good locations before settling at the top of the terraces with our guide to learn some history.
Most of what we were told were things we actually learned from either the Sacred Valley tour or the day before at Llactapata and it lasted about an hour. I wish we had walked among the ruins for our tour but that is a 1 way journey… so unless you have a re-entry ticket, you don’t want to walk around down there until you are ready to leave.
Crowds moving in to watch the sunrise
It WAS one beautiful sunrise- definitely worth the early morning
Around 7AM we said goodbye to our guide and snapped a few more photos of llamas enjoying all the vantage points we could of the terraces before heading up for our hike to Machu Picchu Mountain.
So many llamas
Machu Picchu Mountain
Now onto the hike which was challenging. I’d say it probably is less so when it isn’t on the heels of a 4 day trek, but it is steep and long. About double the height of Huayna Picchu, this trail takes around 1.5-2 hours to climb at a moderate pace. Expect it will take 3 hours round trip. We checked in at the gate to the start of the trail, showing our tickets once again and signing a registrar. As this trail was really more stairs than anything else, we decided to hike at our own pace and do our own thing for it. (my hiking partner got up to the top in probably an hour or so while it took me 1.5)
I’d say I’ve never seen so many stairs in my life (but that would be a lie after hiking around Mt. Huangshan in China)
How the majority of the climb looks
There are pretty spectacular views as you go. Pictured above is the ridge we climbed over the day before with Llactapata hidden in the clouds and the Llatapata resort seen in that cleared space just below the middle of the picture.
The best part is every couple of flights you get another astounding view down on Machu Picchu. Once you get close to the summit, it takes you around the back which doesn’t mean less stairs, but it does give you a bit of a break on steepness, and makes cresting out on top that much more spectacular
First view of the summit from the stairs
Looking down on the river bend we walked the day before
Awesome views of Machu Picchi and Huayna Picchu
Above the ridge line from the previous days climb but still a little ways to go
The trail has frequent drop offs… Keep that in mind if planning to do this hike and don’t have the head for heights
Finally on top!
On top the view down to Machu Picchu is amazing, but the best part really is being above the clouds and at the top of the world. Across nearby ridges you can see the top of Salkantay Mountain poking it’s head up (amazing to think we started our trek on the far side of that mountain) and the ridge we climbed to visit Llactapata. The entire bend of the river is laid out and it is so much easier to see just how nestled among mountains the Incas built their temple. It certainly provides a post card view from the top.
There’s a lovely little hut for getting out of the sun and a summit sign to pose with. I spent about 20 minutes trying to de-sweatify, taking in the views, and sharing the largest avocado I’ve ever seen with generous fellow hikers. After about 20 minutes, my friend and I headed down hoping to have plenty of time to check out other parts of the site. It took about an hour to get down (making it well and truly 3 hours RT for me. I am perfectly average on the hiking scale! Woohoo!)
The top of Salkantay Mountain! We started our trek on the far side of that mountain!
The trail down with steep drop offs
Once we got down from the hike, we were shocked by the loads of people meandering around so after a quick break in the sun, we decided to head out through the ruins where you guessed it, even more people milled about!
There were loads of guides with 15+ people groups randomly stopping to point things out in narrow corridors. It. Was. Stressful. And in the end we mostly just wanted to get out of there instead of being able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of what should be exploring stunning architecture and ruins.
My advice for dealing with the crowds
In a perfect world, I’d take 2 days to see MP- 1 day to get up early and get there first things so I can then explore the ruins on my own at 6:30 AM (most people don’t head down there as it is 1 way to the exit) maybe even climb Huayna Picchu since you get to walk through the ruins on the way to that mountain. And then I’d plan a second day to climb MP mountain.
I have heard that if you don’t need to catch a train that day, the place empties out a lot an hour or 2 before close so you might also be able to have some peace then if you use you MP mountain re-entry.
So. many. people
It was cool to explore the ruins themselves. It would’ve been nice to have a personal guide walking around pointing out specific structural intricacies that we may not have learned on previous tours.
Magic floating building. The Incas were magicians.
My last glimpse of the mountain as we exited the site.
The exit is definitely a la Disneyland. There was a long line for the bus (took about 30 minutes), it was hot, and people routinely tried to cut in line. Again you had to have your ticket and passport out for inspection before getting on as well. The bus ride itself was much more scenic this time since it wasn’t as dark and Aguas Calientes is a fun town to explore in the afternoon.
Grilled Alpaca, quinoa, and my signature banana milk shake for lunch
Once you’re finished with your Machu Picchu adventure, pick a spot for lunch, enjoy the street performers that seem to be everywhere, and wander the charming streets of Aguas Calientes.
Bonus: If you do a trek into Machu Picchu, then you get to experience the train back to Ollantaytambo/ Cusco for your first time and it is MAGICAL.
All in all- a Salkantay trek is an incredible trekking experience and Machu Picchu the most awesome finale! I will do a summary post on all 5 days of our trek soon but for now, I hope the Salkantay Trek has earned it’s spot on every reader’s bucket list.
Machu Picchu Day Costs:
Breakfast: Included in Salkantay Trek Tour Return bus ticket from Agua Calientes to MP: $25 Machu Picchu entrance + MP mountain $40 Guide in MP (included in Salkantay Trek tour which was $405) Lunch in Agua Calientes at Munaycha $17 Gelato in town: $3.75 Snacks and water purchased from shops: $13.50 Taxi to hotel from tour office in Cusco $13- $3.25 pp Hotel near Cusco airport (with included airport shuttle): $57- 14.25pp
1. The Llactapata Ruins- RIGHT in front of Machu Picchu
2. The various views of Machu Picchu (above, across, below)
3. Getting to hike along original Inca trail
4. Sunrise on a stunning valley
5. Continued jungle wildlife- especially birds
Day 4 Stats:
Distance: ~18km or 11.5 miles
Elevation: ~2,500 feet up, ~4000 feet down
Time: 9 hours with stops
*You can shave off 3 hours and at least half the mileage by paying $30 and taking the train from Hydro Electric to Aguas Calientes.
Our morning started with epic views on the hike uphill to the ridge
Day 4 was our earliest start on the trail, with a wake up of 4:30 aiming to leave 30 minutes earlier. While we had electricity in camp the night before, the power was out for the area in the morning so it was DARK indeed. We ate breakfast using the collection of headlamps our group had ( I can’t imagine how they cooked stuff for us) and packed our stuff up as normal. This was our last morning with our chefs who we tipped and said goodbye to before hitting the trail at 5:30. The first few hours of the trail were steady uphill and we raced to be done with the uphill before the sun heated everything up. Watching sunrise over the valley was STUNNING and overhead flew parrots squawking and making a ruckus so even with a few hours of sweaty uphill, the morning was a killer hike.
The trail this day was 100% Inca made and required permits to enter which our guide supplied at the start booth. After about 1.5 hours of steady sweating, we took a break at the only stand on that side of the ridge where people got fresh orange juice for a dollar and others used the open air toilets (they were pink!) on the back side of the hut with incredible valley view below. There was a cute puppy wandering around we all shared snacks with before pressing on for another 45 minutes or so to the summit of the ridge. Then it was about 20 minutes downhill to the Inca site Llactapata.
View from our break spot- Almost to the top of the ridge!
Adorable dog at our break spot
Even though we were sweaty and most definitely tired of going uphill, some parts of this trail were just complete magic.
The name of this site means elevated place or “at the top of ” and has a direct view across to Machu Picchu (albeit a little higher up) and had an ornamental fountain and gate that framed Machu Picchu perfectly.
A lot of the site was still overgrown meaning what we saw was only the tip of the iceberg here but wow, the views across to Machu Picchu as well as being able to look to the side and see Salkantay mountain was mind blowing. We’d come so far and were within sight of our final destination!
We took another break here, eating snacks and snapping photos while Carlos explained more about the site and its connection to Machu Picchu. He explained it was used as a preparation place for the wealthier/ more important Inca families as they traveled to Machu Picchu. The site was initially reported by Hiram Bingham in 1912 (same explorer who discovered Machu Picchu) but wasn’t actually extensively explored and mapped until 2003.
The main buildings that are uncovered at the site
Can you spot Machu Picchu’s terraces?
The central gate
I loved exploring this site
After a brief rest here, we pressed on another 30 minutes or so down steep, muddy switchbacks to another rest stop called Llactapata Lodge (you could actually spend the night here) where more toilets and snacks were available. At this point a few members in our group were struggling with the downhill (knee pain) so our numbers were spread thin as everyone moved at their own pace. We didn’t stop again for another few hours until reaching a small shack where we stopped to wait for Carlos to catch up at least and guide us on.
He walked us 15 minutes further to our lunch stop at the restaurant Aobamaba while he ran back up to assist the last people in our group. Lunch here was a family owned restaurant right overhanging the river. We had a type of yellow curry over rice that was delicious and were able to rest a while and digest while waiting for the last of our members (who caught up to us) to finish their meal. We were finally about done with the uphill/downhill game but we still had a LOT of walking ahead of us.
View from Llactapata Lodge
Continuing down the trail, we caught site of a beautiful waterfall just in front of the Machu Picchu site. So beautiful!
After the restaurant we came to the long, and a bit scary suspension bridge that spit us out just below a waterfall running down from Machu Picchu.
After the waterfall we reached the small town of Hydro Electric where you have the option (for $30) of riding the train the rest of the way into Aguas Calientes. A couple of people opted for this option to save their feet and knees but the majority of us pressed on for the final 3 hour walk to our lodging for the day. The trail cut across 2 of the switchbacks the train takes through massive banana trees before then just following the train tracks the rest of the way.
Passing along the bottom of the same waterfall we’d seen in the distance. It was HUGE.
Almost to Hydro Electric
At hydro electric looking straight up the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. That line cutting across the center is actually where the Inca Bridge is (you can hike to it from Machu Picchu as part of your ticket)
It was a BEAUTIFUL walk with the river on one side, and often little streams or falls flowing in from the other side of the tracks. In a couple places you were forced to walk ON the tracks as there wasn’t a separate bridge for pedestrians.
The trains passed us pretty slowly allowing for plenty of time to hear and get out of the way. Eventually our guide caught up to us and guided us off the train tracks and down to the road that would take us straight into town. Unfortunately for us, our hostel for the night was on the upper far side of town. We all settled into our rooms for showers to clean up and nap a bit before dinner.
*Tip pack your soap and change of clothes in your day bag for this day as you barely get your duffel bags before dinner. The room was pretty nice in that it was cooler, with decently comfortable clean beds! (after 3 nights in a sleeping bag, the sheets and bedding were a welcome respite)
The trail cutting across the train track switch backs through epic banana tree forest
The train tracks are so scenic
View from the tracks looking straight up to the bottom of Machu Picchu
Crossing the tracks as there weren’t any pedestrian bridges
Watching a train go by.
After 3 hours of flat walking along the train tracks we finally made it to Aguas Calientes. (the launch pad town for Machu Picchu)
We walked as a group from the hostel to a restaurant where we had dinner (in much the same fashion as we had along the trail) and here you could also order drinks but they were not included in the tour price. (It was again difficult to pay for things when we were charged as a group for drinks… try to have close to exact change and small bills)
After dinner we walked as a group to the bus ticket office a block away where we could purchase bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the following morning. Out of the 11 of us including Carlos, only 2 chose to continue the trail and hike UP to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The bus tickets cost $15 pp round trip and was well worth it as the trail to MP from town was straight up LARGE steps offering no other perspective than what you can get from the bus. After purchasing our tickets, we were able to wander town a bit if we chose and make our own way back to the hostel on our own. But with a VERY early morning the next day, most everyone headed back to bed.
The camp we started at looking up the canyon we hiked the previous day
Highlights of Day 3
2. Soaking in hot springs
3. Visiting and learning about many plantations along the trail
4. Sampling plantation wears.
5. Definitely getting our faces painted with trail side berries
Day 3 Stats:
Distance: ~18 km/ 11.5 miles Elevation: It’s up and down all day ~1000 feet up ~ 2000 feet down Time: 6 hours hiking, 2-3 hours at the hot springs
How our day went:
Day 3- Supposedly the “easy” day which I’d say it was really only easier in the fact that it was the shortest and lowest altitude day. It probably had at least 1000 feet of up and down gain/loss through the jungle and after the previous hard day, it definitely didn’t feel all that easy.
The first of many waterfalls of the day
A sign along the road showing the turn off for the trail
It started the same as before- 5:00 wake up time, 5:30 breakfast, 6:00 Depart. We walked through the outskirts of town along the road for a while passing a magnificent waterfall along the way. We stopped to admire a trumpet flower, and Carlos painted our faces with a berry that is used in textile dye. (We had some pretty ferocious faces after that)
Our trek continued down the road a ways before turning off on a trail crossing the gorge on a really cool bridge- setting the precedent for cool waterfall crossings of the day. Then there was about a 30 minute climb up in which almost all of us sweat our berry paint off. I had to stop at the top of the hill to shed some layers and take a wet wipe to my face. (and some bug spray to the rest of me)
The first (and coolest) bridge we crossed
Check out that face paint (bangs kept mine at a minimal haha!)
Looking back from higher up at the crystal blue water
While there was tons of beautiful scenery on day 3, it all kind of blurred together. We stopped for our first break stop at a passion fruit farm and shortly after that passed a stunning 2 tier waterfall. A lot of the trail had some steep drops off down toward the river and was loose dusty footing. We passed several more fruits and snack stands, stopping at a couple to make use of facilities or make purchases. All in all we walked for roughly around 6 hours in total for the day.
Another bridge crossing some falls along the trail
The biggest waterfall of the day
We followed the river for a lot of the day
The trail was beautiful but more difficult than we all imagined
Steep drop offs from the trail
One of my favorites showing how small we all were in the jungle
Fruits stands along the way- The Popsicles are delightful
A lot of the homes and fruit stands don’t have any roads running nearby but there was a major road on the other side of the river. We passed multiple wires crossing over that had a large basket used for transporting stuff across the way. (at one they were even moving tourists along, I’m guessing those who followed the road and needed to cross over the trail side)
We eventually reached some towns where we stopped for our 2nd break at a coffee farm. Carlos showed us how coffee beans are processed which was really interesting, and we got to sample some as well. (You can even purchase some coffee beans or ground coffee to take home) From there it was going to be another 45 minutes or so of walking or you could opt to take a free van ride to the 3rd camp…. Most of the group chose to walk but as the walk looked to be more through little towns without much change in scenery, I chose to give my feet a break and hitch the ride.
Grinding up the softer outershell of the coffee flower to reveal the beans (still needing to be roasted)
The sample/ shop
When we got to camp, the hosts showed us where our stuff was dropped off and allowed us first pick of the jungle domes. There were the largest of the lodgings but the least ventilated. Definitely DON’T leave your shoes or wet clothes in there. I set out to take a few photos around camp and since we had the place to ourselves, I found the only hammock where I set back to relax and enjoy the nature around me.
Also I’d like to note here you can purchase beer for $2 at the camp here. Another thing to bring cash with you for.
Once our fellow trekkers arrived and checked out their domes, we got lunch which was another spectacular affair. Not only was our appetizer ceviche (a raw fish soaked in citrus juices with some chili/ spices thrown in) the presentation of all our food was the best so far. Lots of fun food critters and of course, everything was delicious
Our 3rd night/ last camp along the trail. The next night would be in town
The orange dome with a hammock
Note the socks and sandals.. It is generally a bad idea to just wear sandals around Peru as there are biting flies and sand flies/ no seeums. Any time I wore shorts I liberally doused my legs in deet but found it easier to just wear socks with my sandals than cover my toes as well.
Lunch = AWESOME
Our app of ceviche
beans awesome details on the turtle!
After lunch we all changed into our swimwear and climbed aboard the Hot pots express (about an hour each way bumpy van ride) that took us to some hot pools by the river in another town. This was one of the add ons you will need cash for and I had NO idea about until the day before our tour. Definitely don’t pass this up!
View from the entrance to the hot springs
There were 4 large pools each marked with their temperature. It was heaven having the place to ourselves when we got there.
We were among the first to arrive there so got to enjoy multiple pools almost to ourselves. *Make sure you shower off before entering as you will get whistled at, and you will have no idea why haha. They had several pools of varying temperatures, with a couple getting VERY hot. You could actually swim lazily around in them, or find seats built into the stone around the sides. At the far end they had cold showers in the forms of waterfalls coming down the rocks, and warm showers you could sit beneath which were wonderful. And just past the pools you could glimpse the raging river so while the pools are not natural, the hot springs and river gave it a natural feel. We had around 2.5-3 hours to spend there and we lasted about 2 hours in the water before getting too pruney.
BRING YOUR BUGSPRAY WITH YOU. While I could typically make the dash between pools and showers without feeling swarmed, the second we actually started drying off, the mosquito cloud was intense. I probably got 8 bites in the 1 minute it took me to dry off and spray myself down. After getting out they have a bar where you can purchase beers/drinks/ snacks until the van ride back.
Entrance to the hot springs
The ride back was almost in the dark and took quite some time, but we all felt much more relaxed and clean upon return. We had our happy hour and dinner in the dark around camp (our last dinner with our chefs) and it was another stellar number.
After dinner, our guide had us move up to the home at the entrace to the camp site where the hosts had a bonfire going! We all sat around enjoying watching the stars and the flames flickering. From what I saw, none of the other groups bunking in our camp (there were maybe 2) got the bonfire treatment so we felt incredibly special. It was a blast of an evening!
From there we were all just about ready to hit the sack when there were 1 or 2 choruses of yelps/ screams from other domes where an invading spider surprised the new inhabitants. Shaenah and I remained blissfully unaware of any visitors in our dome, but that didn’t stop us from taking the bug spray to any spots that were less sealed looking along the ground.
Another incredible adventurous day along the Salkantay trek.
**Note if you choose the 4 day trek instead of the 5 day, you miss out on the coffee plantation, hot springs, and jungle dome camp.
1. THE BEST VIEWS OF THE ENTIRE TREK 2. Experiencing the change of scenery from alpine to jungle 3. The fun jungle huts and being DONE with the hardest day
Day 2 Stats:
Distance: 22km/ 14 miles Elevation gain: 3,000 feet Elevation loss: A whopping 6300 feet Time: 10 hours
If Day 1 was the warmup, Day 2 was certainly the main event, the big kahunas, the “challenging” day. It also set the precedent for our daily routines. We were woken up at 5 by our guide bringing us Coca tea in our beds. (room service as they called it) and with camp 1 being so cold, the tea was definitely a welcome wakeup. Ater that, we were in for QUITE a day.
We had 30 minutes to prepare for the day, arrange our daypacks and repack our duffels, brush our teeth, and re-stuff our sleeping bags. At 5:30 we met with everyone for breakfast which was a quicker affair than other meals but still delicious. We’d have 4-5 platters of food options, a variety of more teas, a breakfast juice, and at the end we’d get our snacks/ purified water for the day. After eating, we’d have about 10 more minutes to use the toilet, and make ready to go with a depart time targeted for 6AM.
The beautiful sunrise on our glass domes
After a VERY rough night for me stomach wise and freezing I didn’t get much sleep and couldn’t eat much breakfast. Luckily one of our comrades in the group brought Imodium pills which is likely what got me through the day.
The hike out of camp was mellow for a bout… 10 minutes before starting to climb up. I wasted no time in breaking my hair tie (again thankful for prepared group members who had extras) and it took around 1 hour to get to our first meeting spot above camp and at the base of Salkantay mountain at Salkantaypampa (13625 feet). It was a beautiful morning, perfect weather and with little pink clouds rolling through the valley. We passed multiple streams and a few llamas (a couple which gave us a show…) and from our break stop we could look down on our progress and see our camp down at the bottom of the valley. All in all, not a bad start to the day with just under 1000 feet of gain. (935 feet)
Llamas spotted running through the meadows
Looking back at the start of our day- our first camp is located in the valley just under that cloud
Behind me you can see uphill climb part 2 which is the start of the dreaded seven snakes
The next section of trail (uphill part 2) would be the most difficult. There was a decently steep climb to the base of the infamous “seven snakes” switchbacks and we reached those just as the sun was coming up. While our group started to take breaks to sunscreen up, I carried on until I was at least IN the sun and shedding layers before I bothered with the the sunscreen and even then I tried to keep my momentum going with minimal breaks.
At these switchbacks we ran into the pony trains which got frustrating as we were forced to let lines of horses past us only for them to stop a few switchbacks up and we’d re-pass them. It was also super having the 50+ people who did NOT hike this section all on horseback trying to tell us good job when I was feeling probably as low as I’ve ever felt on an uphill climb. Luckily it wasn’t too long before I reached the top where a bunch of big boulders with awesome views of Salkantay mountain greeted me along with a few fellow people from my group. I met up with them and we continued to the next meeting/ rest spot at Suyrooocha (14,730 feet) to eat a few of our snacks, use the toilet, and prepare for the last assault. All in-all part 2 of the uphill climb was around 1200 feet (we lost about 100 feet after the seven snakes)
Views from the trail of the Seven Snakes. Straight ahead is the right trail (“shortcut” route) which gains about 100 feet less than the switchbacks as it meets up with the main trail later on. The views were better from the seven snakes but in hindsight- I’d have taken the right fork to avoid all the mule trains.
(However our Salkantay Trekking group shirts say “I survived the trail of the Seven Snakes” so… of course I had to do that route instead)
Reaching the top of the switchbacks
Soaking in the sun and views of the incredible Salkantay Mountain
Our break stop was just past all these boulders
After our daily snacks devoured, we set out for the final climb of the day- only 483 feet to Salkantay Pass. It was a fairly steep climb but after about 20 minutes/ bend in the trail, you could see the final destination which always gives you a little burst to get to the top at 15,213 feet.
The pass was COLD.
While hiking up in the sun with little to no wind had made us sweat, breaching over the pass was very windy and some clouds rolled in as we got there. It was a godsend however that our cooking crew were there with a big thermos of hot coca tea and baloney/cheese sandwiches (I picked the baloney off and settled for just the cheese) We all layered up and took our group/ individual photos for about 30 minutes before getting ready for the next challenge: the downhill.
Looking up the final hill to the pass
Views from atop Salkantay Pass
Looking back from where we came. The trail curves around to the right base of that mountain.
Once again we created an offering to the mountain with stones each of us collected along the trail and carried up with us.
Right away as we started the descent I could tell this would be my favorite stretch of trail. All around us were big peaks playing hide and peak behind clouds, giant boulders and alpine flowers, all with a huge valley splayed out before us.
We were once again allowed to hike at our own pace so I spent a bit of time walking by myself, and bit of time chatting with others from my group who were nearby. It took quite some time to get to our lunch spot (around 2.5 hours of downhill) at Wayracmachay at 12812 feet so we were all pretty ready for a break. Especially considering we’d already descended 2,401 feet in the span of 2 hours.
Starting the trek downhill from the pass
The views of where we were going- it was definitely alpine terrain
Everywhere there were horses and mules grazing- often times amongst old Inca ruins or abandoned farms.
A short breakstop on the way down- only halfway to lunch
Some of the amazing horsemen that carted our stuff ALL THE WAY from our first camp down to our 2nd camp, and then went back up over the pass.
Bridge crossings along the trail
The first sign of civilization we saw in a while- still 30 minutes to lunch spot
An interesting pigpen we spotted on our way to lunch.
We finally made it to the tents that contained our lunch. The meal this day was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. Again we had a small app, soup, and then 6 platters of food including trout which I really liked. We were able to refill our waters (as needed) before then hitting the trail again for another 2,500 feet of loss.
Carlos kept saying it would be more gentle- less rocky after lunch… but honestly it was still just as steep in spots and still a LOT of downhill. If you were using poles, keep them out ! It was definitely a change of scenery as we hit the jungle. Just about everything in the scenery was different and it couldn’t have felt more wild of a transition. There were hummingbirds bigger than my fist, flowers as long as my forearm, and rain forest trees as far as you could see.
Along this route, we only had 1 more meetup stop to make sure everyone was coming and that was at Rayanniyoc (11,460 feet). Bathrooms and snacks were available here and I believe a few people invested in a powerade but most of us were just ready to be done so we didn’t rest for long. Then it was onto the village of Chaullay where our camp would be for the 2nd night at 9,414 feet. (Total loss from the day was 6300 feet!)
Changes of scenery
My favorite flower was those yellow ones that look like birds from a distance
The canopy of trees was UNREAL.
Looking back up the trail, you can’t even tell we were just walking amongst rock giants and snow
Our camp here was the most “rustic” as far as toilets went (only 2 stalls with no toilet seats) but was quiet and nice. The huts were up off the ground about 2 feet with little steps to get in and again there were 2 twin beds with super comfortable mattresses.
We did NOT have electricity here but you could pay 10s ($3) for pretty fast wifi and another 10s if you wanted to take a hot shower. As we settled in, people rushed to get on the sign up sheet for showers (30 minute blocks I believe) and others headed for cocktail hour. (Seriously hot cocoa and popcorn after a long day of hiking might be my new go to) We had a little time after cocktail hour to rest but it got dark very fast so there wasn’t much to do besides hang out around the only light- the mess area or sit in the relative dark of the huts.
The early shower blocks were full and as nice as those sounded (literally you could see the steam and hear the people sighing from the open air shower) I knew once it got dark the bugs would be all about that light in there.. so I forgo the shower in favor of the hot springs/ shower I knew we’d get the next day. We had a slightly later dinner at 6:30 but everything was as delicious as before. It wasn’t too long before we were then all headed for our beds ready to pass out after a 26 km day.
Dinner and Dessert- Stir fry and Red corn pudding
Day 2 of the trek extra costs: $3 for a hot shower $3 for good wifi Cash at any of the stands for powerades or sodas.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for, and most definitely my main excuse for visiting Peru… I give you the Salkantay Trek. I’ll likely write up an overview of this trek/ tour to compare with the Inca trail tours but to start with you may just wonder why choose one over the other? Here’s my top reasons:
Less Crowded (though that is becoming less so as word is getting out about the beauty of this trail)
LESS MONEY– Salkantay treks are much more luxurious (I’ll get into that) for less money
Let me emphasize LUXURIOUS. Our tour had enclosed domes/huts for 3 nights with actual BEDS, 3 course meals, snacks + “happy hour” (more on that later), electricity and showers some of the nights, and the use of horses if needed.
More Flexible. Can be booked only a few months in advance instead of a whole year- plus you get more options for dates you like. Since this trail isn’t permitted like the Inca trail, you don’t have to plan this trip 1 year in advance.
Arguably more BEAUTIFUL. This can be debated but when I looked at photos from each tour, I found the Salkantay trek scenery to be so much prettier and more diverse. Gorgeous mountain lakes, glaciers, jungles, and yes you still get to see off the beaten track ruins – 1 of which gives you direct line of sight to Machu Picchu.
About our tour:
It was as luxurious as a trek can get and more beautiful than I even imagined. It was hard- but not harder than I figured it would be. The company was well organized, the guides, porters, cooks- all amazing human beings that I can’t imagine a tour of this scale being successful without. And it was all wrapped up in a shiny package at only $450 for 5 days. 5 days friends!
This day and day 2 tied for first place on my favorite day in Peru. Even with the early pick up from the Plaza de Armas at 4AM…. We met our guide and hopped in the van for a 3 hour drive to the start of the trek. They passed out blankets on the van so people could continue to sleep (but not me) and our whole group (10 of us) were loaded on. The first part of the drive was quite long- it didn’t start to get light until 5:30 and the road was twisty and bumpy at times.
After around 2 hours we arrived at the town of Mollepata for our breakfast stop. We had 30 minutes and the place was very efficient. For 15 soles, we got espresso (pre made and bottled) teas, juice, fried eggs, and lots of bread which I used to make egg sandwiches. We all ate, used the banjo, and loaded back in for another 40 minutes up the mountain. The views driving up from here were amazing though as we looked out over the clouds we wondered just how much higher our chariot would take us. The road was a dirt road and quite bumpy- not too mention a little scary with drop offs at times, so when we saw the end we were all quite happy about it.
Bathrooms at the trailhead.
At the TH, the group loaded up on sunscreen, once again made use of the facilities, and got our gear all in order. Our guide assured us this day wouldn’t be too bad and he was right. There was about 30 minutes of climbing switchbacks which ordinarily wouldn’t be hard, but at 12,000 feet- were quite challenging. It then leveled off for the remaining 2 hours or so of our hike to camp.
The views looking up at the mountains ahead were incredible, and equally amazing were the views of valley we drove up. Carlos pointed out special plants and began teaching us Inca/ Quechua vocabulary like Pachamama (mother Earth). We followed some irrigation ditches, crossed a couple bridges, passed a few cows, and in general enjoyed the beautiful trek into camp. We stopped about 20 minutes before to have our snacks and rest before arriving at maybe the best camp I’ve ever stayed at. (and could’ve enjoyed for many more nights)
Total miles to camp: ~6 miles
The group leading the way to the base of Humantay Mountain with Salkantay peaking through on the right. Our camp would be in the valley of the two.
Looking back at the mountains we drove up. The trail is the higher road on the right, the driving road is lower on the left.
Walking along the irrigation ditches still used by farmers today
A view into camp- still a ways away.
Beautiful views along the trail in the morning
When we got to camp, we picked the first dome in the row of domes our group was assigned and found it to be the BEST little home away from home. We had 2 single beds with the most comfortable 4-6 inch foam mattresses we had our entire trip, a small light, charging outlets, glass ceiling for star gazing, clean blanket and pillow (to add to our sleeping bag setup) and best of all- an insane view out our door.
We lay in there with the door open for a breeze, gazing out at the horses grazing beneath the most stunning mountain I’ve ever seen- Salkantay. We had an hour to nap so we laid down and I even noticed a few mules wander up to munch on the grass by our front door. Eventually I gave up on the nap and walked out to sit on the porch chairs and enjoy the sun.
Looking into our dome- the tarp was to keep it from getting too warm during the day
The INSANE view from our doorstep
Friendly mule looking for snacks
Looking down the row of our group’s assigned domes. We even had nice park benches to sit and enjoy the view from.
After our hour siesta, we had lunch which was a fabulous 3 course meal – followed by yet another 45 minutes to nap/ relax/ and digest before the 2nd part of our hike for the day. (apparently it takes longer at higher altitudes to digest) Once again napping was fruitless for me but I still really enjoyed relaxing around camp in the sun.
We got the best seat in the house as well. (though disclaimer, it was very hot)
The hike to Humantay lake
You could see our next hike from our camp: a steep (very steep) hike up to Humantay lake which was just out of view. At home, I would look at it and think “sure that won’t be easy but it also won’t be too bad…”
Let me tell ya- after a few hours of sitting around and a big lunch- it was bad. Starting out I was the slowest one, wishing I’d brought my poles and just having the hardest time pushing myself up the hill. Eventually I got back into the grind of everything and since when I hike, I HATE stopping to take breaks, I cruised up and was the 2nd to the top. Carlos gave us some coca tea leaves to chew on (which were gross) and I can’t attest whether they actually helped or not. What DID help, was playing epic soundtrack music on my phone.
The view looking back down at camp in the bottom of the valley- we already had come quite a ways.
The trail got SO steep at times.
When we finally rounded on the lake, all our jaws dropped.
I mean- this was THE MOST beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. Crystal clear lake that reflected the most beautiful turquoise when the sun hit it, sitting under massive glaciers on a jagged mountain peak. My favorite part? The 2 dueling crater like ridge lines that framed the lake perfectly. We took some group photos on the shore before heading our separate ways to get a view from higher up on the ridge. We had about an hour to hang out before meeting back with Carlos to learn a few more Inca phrases, and make an offering to the mountain. The offering came from all of us selecting rocks and stacking them into a cairn. We then each got to say something along the lines of “Here is our offering, bless us mountain and mother nature” Then it was back down everyone at their own pace
Insanely beautiful lake
The 2 dueling ridgelines that were so unique compared to other mountain lakes I’ve seen
Rock offerings from the groups that came before us.
Oh ya, the glaciers up there weren’t bad either
I moved pretty quick downhill (since there was no where for privacy to pee up there) but I still enjoyed taking in the view and even raced a couple horses as they ran down to dinner.
Back at camp
Back at camp, we got our first happy hour. We again got the best table with a beautiful view of the mountain while we nibbled on popcorn, cookies, hot chocolate and hot teas.
After that we got another short break to change into warmer clothes and watch the stars come out. Dinner was an amazing affair following the same theme as lunch with a small appetizer, soup, and then 6 platters full of food. We spent more time getting to know our fellow hikers and guide before we then got to meet the rest of our amazing team! We had 2 cooks that were both younger than me and a horseman who would help move all our things from day 1- over the pass- to our 2nd site. They were all so smiley and nice, it was awesome to thank them in person for our incredible meals and experience. Our dinner was then followed up with flaming bananas in rum for desert and then a mint tea to help with digestion.
Racing horses down for our meals.
The happiest valley I’ve ever seen
Bundling up before dinner
Enjoying the views without our tarp on the dome.
Our dome was right next to the mess house.
As we headed to our domes, the milky way was out and visible, Shaenah and I both started looking for the darkest spot we could find around camp. I grabbed my little tripod I brought hoping just for this and managed to find a spot 3 tries in. It was COLD once it got dark so I didn’t try for long but was happy I got to take a few shots of the stars and our domes all lit up in the night. We then snuggled into our sleeping bags under our additional blanket for the night.
Awesome conclusion to an awesome first day on the trail.
Everyone knows I can’t go on a vacation without checking out at least one hike and in this case, the Gordon Creek waterfall was calling my name.
Distance: 2.5 miles RT if you go all the way to the top of the falls
Elevation gain: 250 feet (there’s one decent up and one down each direction)
Kid friendly, dog friendly, ATV friendly.
Don’t over complicate this. Go ahead and plug Gordon Creek TH into google maps, it has the right location. It will take you from from HWY 191 onto Consumer’s Road and this is where it might get tricky. Google tried to convince us we needed to go through a coal weigh station but the truth is (while you can go that way when the gate is open) you want the left turn just before the plant. After a 50-100 feet you’ll cross a cattle guard and continue on this road until it merges with Trestle Road. From here google maps works like charm. The trailhead will be about 3.5 miles from where you turned off Consumer’s road and the gravel road is well graded with no pot holes (so family vehicle safe!) When you reach the trail head sign, park anywhere and follow the ATV road for the hike!
The ATV road/ trail is just to my right, follow it all the way to the falls!
One short downhill section and you’ll be in my favorite area. Around the bend you’ll cross a small stream and head up a hill.
Not too long after that you’ll be able to see the falls. We first headed to the top of the falls and then came back to that plateau to enjoy the view in front.
Looking out across the top of the waterfall
Trying not to slip
Lots of places to sit, dip your feet if it’s a hot day, and a cool area to explore around the top of the falls… just take care not to slip.
We wandered over to the plateau for a better look at the canyon that Gordon Creek flows through
Not to mention the falls themselves
We had some time to kill so we spent about an hour sitting here with this view, enjoying some drinks and talking about life. We saw one other small family that shortly visited the falls before continuing back up the trail.. so all in all we had the area to ourselves!
As there was no one to take our photo… this was the best we could get with a giant pile of rocks and a phone on selfie timer haha
The trail will maybe take you 30 minutes each way. So the main time decision is how much time you’ll spend at the falls. Keep in mind that there’s no services anywhere along the road or at the trail head… so if you have 1 too many coffees at breakfast, or drinks during your life chat, plan accordingly.
AND PLEASE PACK OUT YOUR TRASH.
After vising the falls, it’s an easy little drive on the trestle road just past the parking area to see the trestle bridge that crosses over Gordon Creek. (you could see it for a half a minute hiking back from the waterfall from afar) The Gordon Creek Trestle bridge was built in 1912 and serviced the Mohrland Branch of the Utah line for almost 100 years. It saw it’s last train crossing 6 years ago, and unfortunately, part of the rail deck was burned and damaged so the bridge (in its current state) is not longer safe for use.
Map of the trail. The yellow dot is the trail head. The shorter detour pointing down is the road to the trestle bridge if you’d like to visit. (It’s definitely a cool checkout if you’re interested in trains, history, bridges, or all of the above!)
**Bonus: If you have an ATV or bucket loads of time to explore, there is a cabin that is another couple miles (2-3) past the waterfall, and a SECOND LARGER waterfall another 3-4 miles past the main one. (So if you want to do all of that, you should plan on at least 8 miles RT, possibly 10 but seemed worth checking out.) Supposedly the ATV road goes almost up to the 2nd falls so if you have one of those, it would be a great place to explore! Enjoy!
Day 5- our 2nd day on the mountain. We were both kind of waking up around 5:30 and noticed lights of people/ groups out hiking to a peak to watch sunrise. We both had rough sleeping, but felt good enough at least so we got dressed, gathered our small pack of things, and headed out to check out sunrise. In the interest of not getting up early enough and being hungry for breakfast, we only did the short walk back to the cloud dispelling pavilion where we’d watched the sunset. I wish however that we had just done the jaunt up to Purple Cloud Peak as that was probably the best/ closest peak to our hotel and was tall enough we would’ve been able to see the East side of the mountain.
Ah well, still not a bad view from the pavilion.
We hung around for 10-15 minutes as the sun was already almost up when we got there. The views and affects were similar to the night before… no morning clouds/ fog for us. Then we checked out of our hotel and grabbed breakfast around 6:15 (narrowly avoiding the rush) and I will say breakfast was decent. They had a large array of food, I mostly stuck with rice porridge, rolls, hard boiled eggs, and a ton of fruit. But they had lots of “noodle” options and even toast. They also had an intriguing “orange juice” that was basically orange fanta made from boiled water. So it was hot. Haha at least we knew it was safe.
Then we were headed out onto new terrain. We backtracked to complete the loop in the center and take the path b Xihai hotel up to Bright top. There were a few “hotel” paths that looked like they may be the one we wanted but had no signs so that confused us but eventually we found the sign and trail split we were looking for (further East of the hotels). In other words, if there isn’t a sign, it isn’t the path. Hahaha!
Morning light filtering through all the pines. We really hoped we’d spot a monkey, but alas… we did not.
It was a pretty strenuous up hill walk to Bright Top with stairs continuing forever. It took us at least 30 minutes and we were definitely over it. While the trees were pretty, there wasn’t much of a view and thus I deem this path not really worth doing.
Beautiful reservoirs of water that act as holding tanks on the mountain. While the area gets a decent amount of precipitation, it definitely still needs plenty of water to support all the visitors and hotels!
Made it to Bright Top (view again looking toward the Western Sea)
Trail Stats from Paiyunlou Hotel to the Mercy Light Pavilion (bottom of the Western Steps)
Distance: 8.3 miles
Elevation Gain:1,300 feet
Elevation loss: 3500 feet
Estimated time: 4-6 hours
*These figures are based on maps I saw with distances and elevations of the points of interest called out and are rough estimations.
Points of Interest: Turtle Peak (separate trail), Lotus Peak (closed to peak bagging but you can see it), Celestial Capitol Peak, and the Guest Greeting Pine .
Peaceful morning on the trail
Looking up at Bright Top, the main focal point of the mountain by diving it into quarters
On Bright Top looking over at Turtle Peak (a great sunset/sunrise spot if staying at the Baiyun hotel)
Clouds way in the distance
Once at Bright Top, it was easy to continue following the signs for the “Yuping scenic area, otherwise known as the “western steps” and the path we planned to take down off the mountain. This side was pretty unique with the granite tops being more rounded and boulder-y looking than the peaks on the Eastern steps.
We were glad we started early!
The craziest part of this mountain were the numerous porters offering their services to carry people. And there were.. several people that we passed taking them up on that. (this lady we are pretty sure was carried all the way from the Baiyun hotel area to the top of the Yuping cable car.
Prices for reference! Only $15 to be carried 2 km! (one of the more flat paths I suppose) .. but like what?!
While I couldn’t myself pay someone to carry me, I don’t blame some of the older folks as this side of the mountain was a LOT of up and down. One part was the steepest set of stairs we came across on the mountain (maybe ever), “the ladder to heaven” and unfortunately we had to go up it.
Our first view of the incredible Celestial Capital Peak.
We walked for probably another hour-1.5 hours before we started seeing the crowds from the Yuping cable car (getting to the area then right around 8:30 or so)
You can see the Yuping cable car far down below it. (those were also already very high for reference)
A cool part of the trail walking under some boulders.
My favorite! Pine trees!
And then we hit the crowds full stride close to the Guest Greeting Pine and entrance to the cable car. If you want to have the tree to yourself, you’re going to have to start pretty early. As bad as this looks however, the distance to the tree wasn’t too bad and it took maybe 15-20 minutes or moving through the queue to actually get to the tree.
I affectionately refer to this tree as the Mona Lisa Tree because I have NEVER seen SO MANY PEOPLE trying to take selfies and pictures with 1 thing. It was hard to even get close; I basically scaled a small rock and even then I couldn’t get a great photo of it. I tried for a bit to have my photo taken with it when one lady really nicely let me down my small rock to stand in front of it. It’s still a terrible photo though so not sharing it here. haha
Once we took the trail past the tree, the crowds dropped off a fair amount but still a steady number of people seemed to be heading for the Capitol peak.
Which when I saw it, even I thought they were crazy. The stairs looked a lot like the “ladder to heaven” stairs and seemed never ending. They must’ve climbed 1000-1500 feet almost immediately with no break. (I’m talking worse than Angel’s landing- steep STEEP stairs) Granted our previous day had left me tired and somewhat sore, but even feeling fresh I don’t know if that peak would’ve held appeal for me.
But neither would what we ended up doing as it would turn out. My one piece of advice when it comes to exploring this mountain, is to TAKE THE CABLE CAR. On either the Eastern or Western steps, please don’t try to hike down them, and seriously don’t go about walking up them. While I’d read the scenery was much better on the Western steps (hence I chose to take the cable car up the East steps, and WALK down the west steps) I found it never ending stairs and boring. Seriously the steps. Never. End.
You hardly get any scenic views and just see a lot of trees. Save your time and energy for hiking the peaks up at the top and just take the cable car.
At the bottom of the western steps walking path, there is a beautiful building that sometimes seems to serve as a visitor center, and a shuttle bus stop. We bought our tickets back to Tangkou and hopped on.
Which, here comes mistake #2 of the day. We forgot that bus stop map photo I’d taken and so when the bus turned down a different road than we expected, we panicked and got off at the first stop. At that stop we were harassed with sellers as soon as we got off so we hurried away from the station. It wasn’t until we were well past the station that we saw the buses were going back to the main road and thus… were going the way we had wanted to go. *face palm
At this point we just continue to walk thinking the hotel we’d left our bag at was just down the road 10 minutes or so
We got off the bus WAY too early. Our stop we wanted was the very last one on the route!
That “10 minute” walk became a blazing hot 30 minute walk with little scenery. By the time we reached the hotel, we were dehydrated and exhausted from our walk DOWN the mountain and then through town.
The light at the end of the tunnel dawned however as we ate at the restaurant yet again (our favorite.. it was so good) and decided that since we had 6 hours until we needed to leave for the train station and had nothing to do, we may as well book a room. Lolololol Weird, I had a hard time explaining that since we were taking a sleeper train to Shanghai that night, we wanted a place to shower, change, and NAP before we headed on our next phase of our journey. $35 well spent my friends. That green tea foot soak was just as great on this day and the nap was even nicer.
At 5:30 we picked up some snacks/dinner for the train and our hotel called us a cab to take us to Huangshan train station. Here’s where it gets good again. Even though I clearly say HUANGSHAN and not HUANGSHANBEI I notice on google maps that our cab driver is taking us through weird back streets, neighborhoods, and most definitely NOT the most efficient way back to Huangshan town. When I tell him not to go to Bei, he doesn’t understand and thus we end up at Huangshan Bei (the HIGHSPEED train station that we’d first arrived at) anyways. So now we have an hour to go before our train departure. We show him our train ticket and say other station a few times and he gets it. So then we are off on another 20 minute ride back to the run down station in town. We did try to pay him extra for having to drive us further but he ended up giving it back to us instead of accepting it. Ah well. In we went where we had about 10-15 minutes wait in the large waiting room, and then we got on our train.
Photo from our next sleeper train, I didn’t get any of this one
It was an older style train for sure, with clunky sliding doors. They were bunk room compartments since we booked a “soft” sleeper so our bunk room had 4 bunks with Braden on the top bunk and I had the lower. We happily discovered that our bunk room was shared with a couple from the Netherlands who I enjoyed talking with for a 2-3 hours about our different experiences on the mountain and around town. It was even the latest we stayed up since we had our ramen noodle bowls and chatted for so long.
Sleeping was an experience. I slept rather well considering it was on a train, but overall I still only got maybe 5 hours of sleep. While maybe not the most “restful” sleep, I found the movement of the train comforting, and my individual bunk comfortable. The train provides a sheet to lay on top of, a decent pillow, and a really nice comforter. So moral of the story, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to book a soft sleeper again.
And thus concludes our epic trip around the Huangshan area, stay tuned for a recap post for hotel, trail maps, and useful tidbits to come all in one post!
Day 5 Costs: Breakfast included in hotel Shuttle bus to Tangkou $5.54 Lunch $19 Extra hotel… $35 Store $8.45 Taxi to train station $26.23 Sleeper train $99
Day 4, part 2 continued: The hike to the Fairy Walking Bridge.
Once we reached the bottom we took the Northern rail car back up to the top which spit us out near the Baiyun hotel. (where I would personally recommend staying for location and reviews) We debated going to check in at our hotel but the day was still young (it was only 11) and we were right at the top of the SOUTH trail around the Western Sea. This was the trail I originally planned on taking all the way down but was told it was closed half way.
Map of the trail to the Fairy Walking Bidge, then to Bright top peak to Flying-over Rock, and then onto our hotel. I circled Purple Cloud Peak even though we didn’t trek up there, as it would have made for an excellent sunset/ or sunrise spot.
The top of the rail car was nice and serene. We stopped for a rest before continuing on along this beautiful tree lined path.
The Southern path was still open to the Fairy Walking Bridge (even though it was closed just after) so we debated looking for lunch/ checking into our hotel or heading down. Since we were RIGHT at the start of the trail, we decided it would be our best bet to just do the trail first. The hotel advisor said it would take 2 hours RT to visit the Fairy Walking Bridge but there were signs at the start that said 2 hours TO it. Rest assured, it was a leisurely 40 minutes down to it for us.
Looking across the way to the Northern Route you can actually see the path in several places if you look hard enough.
The trail was WONDERFULLY devoid of people. We only passed 2-3 other small groups of 1-2 people each going down. No groups or loud speakers here. And while the trail wasn’t overhanging sheer cliffs, it did beat an amazing path through stone which I found equally beautiful.
Trails Stats from the Rail Car to the Fairy Walking Bridge AND Hotel :
Distance: 7 miles
Elevation Gain:1,400 feet
Elevation loss: 1,400 feet
Estimated time: 3-5 hours
*These figures are based on maps I saw with distances and elevations of the points of interest called out and are rough estimations.
Points of Interest: Turtle Peak (looking up at it), the Fairy Walking Bridge, The Western Sea Grand Canyon overlook, Bright Top Peak, Flying- over- rock.
The Western Sea overlook
There were so many lovely views and sections of trail here, as well as lovely stone picnic table spots to take a short rest at. If I were to visit this mountain again, I would still prioritize this trail.
Getting close. When you see the incredible pine tree cliff and look down to see the terrace, you are just about there.
YES! Made it. We actually passed through the tunnels and crossed the bridge already to get to this spot on the terrace.
The view looking from the bridge toward the terrace. It was amazing being surrounded by such tall, sheer cliffs.
The South- West of Huangshan mountain, mountains everywhere!
Looking up the sheer cliffs that somehow a trail weaved its way down
a cute “little” fairy bridge
Crossing the main bridge
balanced rocks easily seen from the terrace
How is this place even real?!
I wish I could tell you this epic bridge was constructed centuries ago by gravity defying monks fleeing religious persecution or something cool like that, but alas this was just built in the 80s to connect another one of the valley trails to the top of the mountain. (Amazingly we actually saw a few backpackers hike up from the valley this way)
Looking down the crevice from ON the bridge… a long way down!
Crossing back across the bridge to return.
Unfortunately the lighting, was terrible for the time of day we were at the bridge, with half the bridge in shadow making photos hard to get right. We waited around an hour or so to see if once the bridge was completely in shadow it would help. It didn’t really since the other wall was still so bright. So hungry and running low on water, we decided to call it and head back. It only took us 45 minutes hiking back but we were pretty tired and thirsty by the end.
Hiking back along this stunning trail
Lookig at the “flying rock” from the summit. You can see our hotel off on the right a little ways further
When we reached the Baiyun hotel, we bought the first bottle of water we found and realized we still had more up to do… We had to go up and over the Bright Summit to get to our hotel. (and this is why I recommend staying at the Baiyun hotel… hahaha)
Looking back up towards the bright top summit.
We made it to the summit in only about 15 minutes (of straight stairs) and picked the path my hotel receptionist told us to go on day 1 to our hotel. I imagined it as only 30 minutes walk but man… it was a tough walk of 3 km and almost an hour! We had a few more ups and a LOT more downs to do before reaching our hotel. It was still so hot. Thankfully I’d bought a souvenir fan down in town because I used that thing constantly. (Probably looked ridiculous, hopefully not offensive… but a necessary tool)
As exhausted and frazzled as we were, we couldn’t just walk on by without capturing this incredible “flying” rock.
A sea of clouds… and mountains
We finally made it to our hotel around 3:30 and checked in. Unfortunately we were on the top floor of a 6 story hotel that lacked an elevator which meant.. more stairs. It was pretty run down inside and the layout was pretty bizarre… and don’t get me started on the room. Definitely our worst hotel of the trip (and 5 times as expensive as our hotel the night before) The 2 twin beds in our room were basically box springs with yellowing comforters. We found a few small beetle like bugs around the room, which left me on high alert for bed bugs. No A/C either which after sweating all day, made the room an un-welcome relief. Needless to say, we were pretty appalled. Did I expect luxury on top of the mountain? No but at least a little better than what we ended up with.
Anyway the show must go on, no matter how thoroughly exhausted we were, we still had hours in the day. We showered and rested a bit before going out in search of food. The hotel just before ours, Xihai seemed like an easy enough walk and a little more fancy so we thought we’d check their restaurant out… WELL It was closed for some reason. (5:30 PM…) so we’d walked that way for nothing. We headed back to our hotel which appeared to have a restaurant and a street food type vendor. Apparently they are one in the same. What was advertised as pick 3 entrees , rice, and soup was really, you get what you get: which in this case was 3 questionable entrees, rice, and hot seaweed water. It was pretty terrible. The thing on the left was more seaweed? With some other texture, probably tofu, that I couldn’t quite accept. The middle dish was just eggs and tomatoes so a little better, if at least edible. The last entree was sweet potatoes and the safest of them all. The hot sea weed water was as bad as it sounds, and rice was rice.
Anyways, if you come here, just do yourself a favor and haul some ramen noodles up in your back pack. And if you don’t want to carry them, buy those at the little stores up top instead of trying to eat any of the street sidewalk food.
We ate what we could and headed back down to the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion which was thankfully an actual easy walk (with few stairs) from our hotel for sunset.
Crazy sun beam peaking over the mountains. The lighting and colors were just crazy beautiful
After hanging around for a while, we decided to continue along the Northern route again (the first hike we did) at least until we started to descend a lot of stairs. It was just so peaceful without all the people and with the magic lighting on the mountains. We probably went about 3/4s of a mile or so to the start of the descent where the tunnels start and what I’d consider the “opening” of the Northern route
No this is NOT a scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What you’re seeing is the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion everyone.
We caught some pretty sunset light at the Purple Cloud cable car station (and spotted the peak where most people apparently go to watch the sunset- Purple Cloud Peak)
Another view from further away of the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion with our hotel Paiyunlou behind it.
The start of the tunnels and major descent down on the Northern Grand Canyon route.
(This spot is maybe a 30 minute walk from the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion)
Exploring the narrow passage with the dying light
Straight drops from this viewing platform- you can see why these mountains are the
More views from along the trail at sunset
Almost dark- so headed back to the hotel
Sea of Mountains
We stopped at the little convenience shop on the way to pick up a coke and oreos to follow up our terrible dinner and spent the rest of the evening in our room. Thankfully at night it cools off SIGNIFICANTLY and with the window open, the room was just right. The room also had a nice small but deep tub that I soaped down and soaked in which was extra nice. Though we slept terribly due to fear of bed bugs (we had yet to spot any) it wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be. (because neither of us actually got bitten by anything)
So solid day! So glad we made it down to the Fairy Bridge and caught such a glorious sunset. Day 4 part 2- SUCCESS.
Day 4 Costs:
Breakfast from store: $10.20
Shuttle to scenic area $4.08
Entrance to park $33.50/adult $16.75/student
Yungu Cable car ride $23.32
2nd tram ride/ Western Sea Rail car $29.15
Large bottle of water $3.64
Oreos and a coke to end the day $5.10
2nd best day of our trip (after the Great Wall) as the mountains and sites we saw this day were EPIC. but let’s get things straight.. this day was a TONNNN of stairs.
Our hotel receptionist told us 9AM would be a good time to head up so we didn’t set an alarm but my jet lag woke me up at 3 anyways. I killed some time waiting for Braden to wake up and started noticing tour groups around 5:30. (the first buses to the scenic area leave at 6). So we decided to just get up and get ready. We got some breakfast from the store across the street. (The owner was so friendly! She didn’t speak any English, but she gestured to her mouth and looked like she was asking us if we needed breakfast, and when we nodded yes, she took us directly to the BREAD section. About died. She knew exactly what I wanted. Hahaha) So snacks in hand, we checked out of our hotel, leaving our big bags there and walked the short distance to the scenic bus stop. (literally our hotel was the closest one to the stop)
“Civilized travel starts from me” … words to live by! haha
We bought our tickets for the Yungu Temple which was the start of the Eastern steps and Yungu cable car then queued to get on the bus. This area was SO organized, it was like Disney again. While it was getting busy, we just slowly followed everyone through the lines to get on a ready busy and once it was full, it left immediately for the scenic area.
We were feeling.. pretty proud at this point not going to lie. The bus ride was around 30 minutes and climbed at least 1,000 feet with sharp switchbacks passing through Bamboo forests before coming out in more open alpine plains.
View from the winding bus ride
Once off the bus, it was a short walk to the ticket counter (no lines yet) to pay our entrance fee to the mountain as well as buy a cable car ride to the top. The entrance fee was pretty EXPENSIVE, so if you are a student, make sure you bring your ID as it makes the cost less than half! Braden thankfully had brought his… I wish I still had a valid one. Haha There was a shorter 15 minutes line to board a cable car which we shared with 4 others (2 couples) who didn’t seem to enjoy the ride much. They looked pretty terrified.
Following Braden along the path from the bus stop to the cable car ticket counters
Giant sign right before the ticket counters for park entrance and the cable car
I found the cable car ride pretty thrilling. It was SO beautiful as all of the granite peaks we slowly unveiled the higher we got. Admittedly there were sections that were over such steep drops, I myself was a little afraid… particularly when the wind started to blow our cars. We reached the top after about 10 minutes and were immediately surrounded by hordes of tour groups whose guides spoke with large speaker phones.
So WITH that, here was our plan for our first hike and first half of our day:
Yungu Temple to the bottom of the West Sea Grand Canyon
Distance: 4.5-5.5 miles
Elevation gain: 500-900 feet
Elevation loss: 1300-1500 feet
Time: 4-6 hours
*These figures are based on maps I saw with distances and elevations of the points of interest called out and are rough estimations. The shorter distance/ time is if you go straight down with the longer distance/ time if you add in Beginning to Believe Peak and Lion Peak.
Points of Interest: Beginning to Believe Peak, Stone Monkey Watching the Sea, Cloud Dispelling Pavilion, and just about everything after that.
We snapped a few photos around the top of the cable car before hurrying away down the path to try and stay ahead of them. But it was too late. We should’ve started earlier as even though we passed several groups, there were always more ahead. By this time it was almost 8AM. I had an idea of where the mountain would be less crowded so we skipped the Beginning to believe area which I’m sure put us in front of many tour groups.
We reached the Beihai hotel very quickly and decided in the absence of too many tour groups there, to detour up and check out the “stone monkey”
The views were absolutely stunning of the surrounding peaks around us and though we skipped the peak, I was definitely “beginning to believe.”
These little trash receptacles were everywhere and I have to see this mountain was kept IMMACULATELY clean. If we saw trash, it was in these bins, but we also saw the bins being clean out frequently. So it was awesome how well they are managing trash up there… even if the amount of plastic waste is astonishing.
After a fair bit of stairs, we reached the monkey! Do you see him? This was one amazing view!
A photo with the monkey! We had our breakfast snacks we’d brought along up here where it was quiet. We concerned going the short extra distance to Lion Peak, but it was closed, so we headed down back to our original path instead.
Amazing views near the Dawn Pavilion.
After hiking down from the monkey, I used the public toilet at Beihai hotel which was horrible, but then again, on the main path for giant tour groups and by this time (8:30ish) was getting very busy. Recommend holding off until getting to the next hotels if you can.
Story of our day.
A view more of the views around Beihai hotel.
It was maybe a 30 minute walk from Beihai to Xihai hotel, and then another 15 minutes or so to our hotel at the start of the West Sea Grand Canyon (North) route, the Pai Yun Lou hotel. We unfortunately had to weave in and out of several tour groups along the way but seemed to make decent headway.
The path was pretty easy to follow with all of the signs at cross roads having the English names so as long as you knew where you wanted to go, you’d get on fine. The map we had showing the trail intersections was also helpful so between that and the signs, you really can’t get too lost.
The worst bit, was that way more groups were headed for the West Sea than I expected. All the information I had read (from 2013 and older mostly) indicated this area of the mountain was scarce with people… well that’s a load of baloney.
No matter though, as this area is worth the crowds, the hype, and the multitude of stairs
The Cloud Dispelling Pavilion
There were moments on the path that were people free and glorious! And there were moments we couldn’t appropriately enjoy because of the people blocking views or speaking loudly into speaker phones. Overall however the trail was so unique, beautifully crafted, and with incredible views, that it would be impossible to not appreciate it.
A really narrow part of the trail. I enjoyed running through it and having freedom to move period as up until this point, the crowds were pretty thick.
Views looking south and of the west sea. (our 2nd hike this day would take us over there)
Some of the many stairs. We had to descend like 3000 feet in around 1.5. Stairs were a necessity.
I left Huangshan with a deep obsession and love of these pine trees.
You will see many, many more photos highlighting these beauties…..
Some more stairs….
Some of the pretty details of the trail. Everything was rock solid but detailed to look like pretty pavers or wood. While I didn’t enjoy the crowds, I did enjoy the unique structure of this trail that basically hung over massive drop offs the whole way.
I spy, a boyscout.
One of the other few spots on the trail we had to ourselves
The trail looked like this most of the way, just jutted right out of a sheer cliff.
More stairs.. but pretty ones at least
Once at the bottom of the Western Sea- Grand Canyon you can hike back up (not recommended) or you can just pay the $15 or so for a rail car ride back to the top. #worthit
We didn’t see a SINGLE person climbing up these stairs. haha no one is crazy enough to do it I guess. IF the southern route which also connects down to the rail car station had been open, I may have been tempted to climb up a different way but alas, it was closed. (I’m really torn up about it)
Finally at the bottom thus concluding our first “hike” of the day. We had a short wait for the rail car to take us to the top and then we’d start the 2nd trail of the day. More information about the hotels on the mountain to come.