A few hundred kilometres west of Chengdu, deep in the Sichuan wilderness of western China, four magnificent mountains stand side-by-side, dominating the provincial skyline with their soaring peaks. Named after this towering quadruplet, Four Sisters Mountain National Park is composed of three major valleys that cut into the eastern escarpment of the Trans-Himalaya range.
The national park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2006 as a giant panda sanctuary, and the area is stacked with traditional Tibetan history and culture, yet it sees just a small fraction of the visitors that Sichuan's more popular Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong national parks do.
Though your chances of spotting those elusive pandas in the wild are slim, Four Sisters Mountain's unspoilt landscapes, wide-open views and insight into local culture are the real reasons to come. Each of the valleys offers a different experience, so pick and choose your favourite, or – even better – leave yourself time to explore them all.
The toughest and steepest walk of the three valleys, Haizi Valley also presents the most stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains and, for strong walkers, a string of deep blue lakes to reflect the snowy peaks. Despite the long uphill walk from the valley floor at 3200m to the turn into Haizi Valley proper, Yaomei Feng (‘Youngest Sister Peak’) still towers impressively at 6250m above her three older siblings and the viewpoints far below. Along the walk, look out for strings of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and take time to stop and admire the panoramas that open up above each of the four small lakes that dot the valley.
Horsemen hire out mounts to Big Lake about halfway up the valley, so even those not keen on a steep hike can hitch a ride this far. Even if you push up the entire 19km valley to the Twin Lakes at 4600m, you're still far below the enticing summits of Yaomei Feng and her three smaller sisters.
Just beyond the small tourist village of Rilong, Changping Valley is the middle way between the heights of Haizi Valley and the managed experience of Shuangqiao Valley. Directly at the foot of the Four Sisters massif, Changping Valley offers more closed-in forest trails than sweeping panoramas, but be sure to continue at least to the Muluozi viewpoint for an up-close view of the sisters from below. A short boardwalk starts at the ruins of a Lama monastery, but quickly reverts back to dirt trails after just a few kilometres.
Visitors who'd rather skip the initial five-kilometre road walk from Rilong to the monastery ruins can catch a shuttle bus from the ticket office at the entrance of the valley. It's also possible to combine Changping with more remote destinations: multi-day treks lead to destinations as close as Bipeng Valley just outside the national park boundary, or as far as the Chengdu Plain near Dujiangyan.
The longest of the three hikes at Four Sisters Mountain, Shuangqiao Valley is also the most accessible, with a boardwalk path and bus transfers between the entrance gate and the end of the valley. Though the walk is easy, the views never fall short. Burbling streams, glaciated peaks, pristine ponds and Buddhist stupas line that path throughout. Even with the comparative crowds that come to this easiest hike of the Four Sisters, it isn't hard to find a moment of peace in such a lovely natural setting. As the landscape transitions from larch forest at the top of the trek down to grasslands at the bottom, the viewpoints like those at White Lake and Hunter's Peak offer not-to-be-missed looks back at the mountains that ring the upper end of Shuangqiao Valley.
Outside of peak season (May to October), some lower sections of the boardwalk may be closed, so while visitors can still enjoy the mountain vistas they may end up doing more through a bus window than originally expected.
Make it happen
In recent years, tourists have accessed Four Sisters Mountain from the west, via the gateway city of Danba, but nearly-complete construction will soon have the area within easy range of Chengdu once more. Close to the city of Wenchuan, epicentre of the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan, poor road connections with Chengdu have played a major part in keeping Four Sisters Mountain off the beaten tourist trail. With reconstruction of the direct route via Wolong Nature Reserve soon to finish, however, what was once an all-day trip will shrink to three or four hours from Chengdu's Chadianzi station. Get there before the rest of the world finds out.
Camping is allowed within the valleys of the national park, though only with a local guide. Most travellers will base themselves in the small town of Rilong. There's a stretch of expensive tour-group hotels along the highway, but about 1km up Changping Valley is a small tourist village in a 'reconstructed historic' style that caters more to independent travellers' needs.