Wǔdāng Shān attracts a diverse array of climbers, from Taoist nuns with knapsacks, porters shouldering paving slabs and sacks of rice, business people with laptops and bright-eyed octogenarians hopping along. It’s a gruelling climb but the scenery is worth every step; plenty of Taoist temples line the route (where you can take contemplative breathers) and you’ll see the occasional Taoist cairn or trees garlanded with scarlet ribbons weighed with small stones. On the way down, note how some pilgrims descend backwards!
To start your ascent, take bus 1 (¥1) or walk from Taihe Lu to the Main Gate (山门口; Shān Ménkǒu) and ticket office. The bus ticket (compulsory with your admission) gives you unlimited use of shuttle buses (from 6am to 6.30pm).
One bus – often only leaving when full – runs to the start of the cable car. For those who don’t mind steps, take the bus to South Cliff (南岩; Nányán), where the trail to 1612m Heavenly Pillar Peak (天柱峰; Tiānzhù Fēng), the highest peak, begins. Consider disembarking early at the beautiful, turquoise-tiled Purple Cloud Temple, from where a small stone path leads up to South Cliff (45 minutes). From South Cliff it’s an energy-sapping, two-hour, 4km climb to the top.
The enchanting red-walled Cháotiān Temple (朝天宫; Cháotiān Gōng) is about halfway up, housing a statue of the Jade Emperor and standing on an old, moss-hewn stone base with 4m-high tombstones guarding its entrance. From here you have a choice of two ascent routes, via the 1.4km Ming dynasty route (the older, Back Way) or the 1.8km Qing dynasty path (the ‘Hundred Stairs’). The shorter but more gruelling Ming route ascends via the Three Heaven’s Gates, including the stupefying climb to the Second Gate of Heaven (二天门; Èrtiān Mén). You can climb by one route and descend by the other. Temple ruins, fallen trees, shocking inclines and steep steps misshapen by centuries of footslogging await you.
Near the top, beyond the cable-car exit, is the magnificent Forbidden City with its 2.5m-thick stone walls hugging the mountainside and balustrades festooned with lovers’ locks. From here you can stagger to magnificent views from the Golden Hall, constructed entirely from bronze, dating from 1416 and in dire need of some buffing up. A small statue of Zhenwu – Ming emperor and Wǔdāng Shān’s presiding Taoist deity – peeks out from within.