There is no better way to experience the natural beauty and history of China than hiking the Great Wall of China. Hiking the Great Wall solo can be a little confusing and intimidating so I have put together a how to guide for hiking the Great Wall based on my experiences on the wall.
The main Beijing sections of the Great Wall
The Great Wall starts in the far west at Jiayuguan on the Gobi desert in Gansu province and stretches in sections all the way to Shanhaiguan Pass at the edge of the Bohai sea in Hebei province to the east. In total the various sections of the Great Wall covers over 8,000 kilometers. The sections of the wall you are most likely to visit are those near Beijing so this guide will focus on hiking the Great Wall near Beijing.
The names of the main sections of the Great Wall of China near Beijing have been listed below:
Each of these seven sections is good for at least one to two hours of hiking and a number of sections are linked and good for a day or more of hiking. If you just want the experience of hiking on the wall and don’t want to spend a whole day hiking, my recommendations are Mutianyu and Gubeikou. Normally I would also recommend Simatai but Simatai is currently undergoing restoration. The only part of the wall I very strongly recommend you do not hike on is Badaling. You will understand why when you read the section description below for Badaling
The scenery of this section of the wall is magnificent and it is this part of the wall that international VIPs visit for good reason. The bad part about Badaling is that it is over commercialized and incredibly crowded during the main tourist season. Badaling is often referred to as the Disneyland of the great wall.
If you want to enjoy the splendour of the wall and a good hike, I strongly recommend you avoid Badaling and only go there as a last resort. Badaling is 3.7 kilometers long and takes around 2 hours to hike if there are no queues.
Hiking difficulty – Easy. Flat smooth surfaces with no steep climbs.
Getting there – You can catch a train (seriously) there from Beijing North train station and trains leave every 90 minutes.
This part of the wall is a fully restored section and the scenery is inspiring with the wall winding through tree covered mountains and hills.
This section of the wall is roughly 2.2 kilometers long and takes around 1 to 2 hours to Hike.
Hiking difficulty – Easy. Being fully restored, the surface of the wall is smooth and there are no steep inclines so hiking here is very easy.
Getting there – Mutianyu is 95 kilometers north of Beijing and getting there takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes. Harder to reach than Badaling but more rewarding. You can catch the 936 bus at the Dongzhimen Wai (东直门外) bus station directly to the wall.
The point that stands out about Gubeikou is it has not been restored and is in its original form. Other section.of the wall such as Badaling and to an extent, Mutianyu cater for mass tourism at the expense of conservation. Long stretches of wall at Badaling and Mutianyu have actually been destroyed to make way for reconstructions. Gubeikou is both beautifully preserved, reasonably accessible and ideal for hiking. The length of the Gubeikou section is 6 kilometers and it takes 2 to 3 hours to hike.
Hiking difficulty – Moderate. Being completely unrestored all the hiking surfaces are broken and there are some steep hills. The last part of this section that leads up to and past Wohushan mountain is dangerous and very difficult to hike. Best left to fit and experienced hikers.
Getting there – Gubeikou is 120 kilometers north east of Beijing and takes around 3 hours to get there. The best way to get to Gubeikou is to take a bus from a bus stop outside Sanyuanqiao subway stop on line 10. This bus will go through the Gubeikou town ship. Alternatively you can catch the 980 bus from Dongzhimen bus station (next to Dongzhimen subway stop) to a small town called Miyun where you change to a bus going to Gubeikou.
Simatai is a wonderful section of the wall to visit and my personal favourite. The bad news is it has been closed for renovations since June 2010 and the authorities responsible for Simatai are not expected to open it again until at least mid 2012. The Simatai wall is built on steep mountain ridges and very harsh terrain. Perilous, dense, diverse, artful and peculiar are five words often used to describe Simatai. Simatai section is 5.4 kilometers long and takes at least 3 hours to hike.
Hiking difficulty – Very difficult. Some parts of this section are so steep you have to literally climb them not hike them. This section is only recommended for experienced and fit hikers who have a degree of recklessness. I highly recommend hiking Simatai.
Getting there – Due to the restoration, there are no official bus routes there.
Serious hiking on the Great Wall of China
For the more serious hikers, there are two parts of the wall where the sections are joined and are good for at least a day hiking. There is the combination of Jiankou and Mutianyu in the west and the combination of Gubeikou, Jinshaling and Simatai to the east.
Gubeikou to Simatai
The hike from Gubeikou to Jinshaling takes roughly 9 hours and could be completed very comfortably in two days. If renovations to Simatai are complete or if that part of the wall is at least accessible for hiking, the entire hike would take 12 hours and be ideal for two days.
At present there is no way to know for sure how much of the Simatai wall is accessible so one idea would be to hike from Gubeikou to Jinshaling and leave enough time to continue the hike to Simatai if there is access. This hike would provide incredible views of the surrounding mountains and country and a unique perspective of the unrestored the wall at Gubeikou in contrast to the wall at Jinshaling which is restored.
If you do this hike during the period from late Spring to early Spring, you can sleep on the wall at the end of the first day. Alternatively at the end of the say you can find a hotel in one of the townships near the wall.
Jiankou to Mutianyu
The Jiankou section of the wall is the section has the most difficult and demanding hiking conditions. The wall is very steep, uneven and treacherous and hiking here involves a lot of scrambling. The hike from the beginning of Jiankou section to the end of the Mutianyu will take at least 5 to 6 hours.
This is a difficult hike but the best and most rewarding hike of the great wall that can be completed in one day in the Beijing area.
When to Go
Beijing can get very hot in the middle of summer with temperatures up to 40C so avoid this time of year if possible. Temperatures in winter can drop down to -20C so also a good time to avoid.
The best times for hiking the wall are from March to May and September to November.