Hiking the Great Wall near Beijing

There are excellent hiking opportunities for would-be adventurers within range of Beijing. Following is a list of some of our favourite Great Wall hikes near the capital. Don’t take any of these lightly, though. The Wall is often incredibly steep, crumbling away underfoot, and exposed to the elements at high altitude.

Note too that at the time of research wardens posted at several points were making it increasingly difficult for hikers to access parts of the 'wild' Great Wall. For the latest intelligence, check in with a reputable tour specialist such as Beijing Hikers.

Jiankou to Mutianyu

  • 2½ hours (plus one-hour climb to the Wall)

Unrivalled for pure, untamed scenery, the Great Wall at Jiankou is tough to negotiate, but this mostly downhill stretch, which passes through the 180-degree U-turn known as the Ox Horn, is more easily navigated. Access the Wall from hamlet No 1 in Xizhaizi Village (西栅子村一队, Xīzhàzi Cūn Yīduì). Ideally you'll need someone to point you to the correct path, which climbs breathlessly up a steep forest trail to the Zhengbei Tower (正北楼, Zhèngběi Lóu). After admiring the stupendous views, head east along the Wall as it tapers gently downhill (the other direction is extremely dangerous), before arriving at the Ox Horn (牛角边, Niú Jiǎo Biān), a steep up and down (which can be skipped via a forest trail). Eventually you'll get to Mutianyu, passing around the right side of a tower where the way is blocked, and onwards to cable cars, toboggan rides and transport back to Beijing.

Huanghua Cheng to Zhuangdaokou & 'Lakeside Great Wall'

  • 45 minutes/three hours

The first stage of this hike is more of a short hop, and on a mostly restored part of the Wall. It comes with stunning views of the Wall by a reservoir and can be extended to take in the crumbling sections beyond Zhuangdaokou (though wardens might prevent you from doing this). At Huanghua Cheng, climb up the Wall to the west (left) of the road – you'll have to pay the proprietor of the Tenglong Hotel for access. Having scaled the Wall’s high point, walk down to the lowest part of the Wall (above an archway). Here you can descend the Wall to your left and follow the path to Zhuangdaokou village, where you will have to pay a small fee to be let out of a gate. Buses can take you back to Huairou.

Alternatively you can keep heading west along the unrestored Wall from Zhuangdaokou, wardens permitting. The Wall eventually splits at a corner tower: turn left. Then, soon after you reach another tower from where you can see the reservoir far below you, the Wall crumbles down the mountain, and is impassable. Take the path that leads down to your left, just before the tower. This path eventually links up with the Wall again, but you may as well follow it all the way down to the road from here, where you’ll be able to catch the H21 bus back to Huairou from the lower of the two large car parks.

The Coiled Dragon Loop

  • 2½ hours

This scenic but manageable hike starts and finishes in the town of Gubeikou and follows a curling stretch of the Wall known as the Coiled Dragon. From the Folk Customs Village (the southern half of Gubeikou), walk up to the newly reconstructed Gubeikou Gate (古北口关, Gubeikou Guǎn), but turn right up a dirt track just before the gateway. You should start seeing yellow-painted blobs left over from an old marathon that was run here: follow them. The first section of Wall you reach is a very rare stony stretch of Northern Qi Dynasty Wall (1500 years old). It soon joins up with the Ming dynasty bricked version, which you should continue to walk along (although at one stage, you need to follow yellow arrows down off the Wall to the left, before rejoining it later). Around 90 minutes after you set off, you should reach a big sweeping right-hand bend in the Wall (the coil), with three towers on top. The first and third of these towers are quite well preserved, with walls, windows and part of a roof (great for camping in). At the third tower (called Jiangjun Tower), turn left, skirting right around it, then walk down the steps before turning right at a point marked with a yellow 'X' (the marathon went straight on here). Follow this pathway all the way back to Gubeikou (30 minutes), turning right when you reach the road.

Gubeikou to Jinshanling

  • 6½ hours

This day-long adventure takes in unrestored and restored Great Wall, as well as a 90-minute detour through the countryside. Bring plenty of food and water. Follow the first part of our Coiled Dragon Loop hike, but instead of leaving the Wall just after Jiangjun Tower, continue along the Wall for another hour until you reach the impressive 24-Window Tower (there are only 15 windows left these days). Here, follow the yellow arrows off the Wall, to avoid a military zone up ahead, and walk down through the fields. Go through the park gate signposted 西门 and follow the path back up to the Wall, where you'll reach an archway to get up around the other side of the tower, then continue along the Wall to the restored section at Jinshanling. You'll have to buy a ticket from someone at Xiliang Zhuandao Tower, from where it's about 30 minutes to Little Jinshan Tower (for the path, or cable car, down to the entrance), or about 90 minutes to East Tower with Five Holes (for the path down off the Wall, from where it's a 30-minute walk to the bus back to Beijing).

Visiting the Wall

Most first-time visitors head to the famous restored sections of Great Wall such as Badaling and Mutianyu. Those bitten by the Great Wall bug then graduate to more 'wild' hikes along ruined battlements at the likes of Jiankou, Gubeikou and Huanghua Cheng. While most of these places can be visited by public transport, hiring a car and driver speeds things up considerably. Staying overnight by the Wall is recommended for sunrise hikes and to skip the crowds.

Tours run by hostels, or by specialist tour companies, are far preferable to those run by ordinary hotels or general Chinese travel companies, who often package pesky 'extras' like side trips to jade workshops and silk factories. The following reputable companies and associations run highly regarded trips to the Wall:

Beijing Hikers Varied and professionally run group hikes scheduled online two to three months in advance, and graded for difficulty.

China Hiking Affordable hiking and camping trips run by a Chinese-Belgian couple.

Great Wall Hiking (www.greatwallhiking.com) Locally run hiking trips to various sections of Great Wall.

Wild Wall Experiences Expert-led dawn hikes and Great Wall field lectures at Jiankou – a must for Wall enthusiasts.

Beijing Sideways Exciting trips to the Great Wall in a motorcycle sidecar.

Bespoke Travel Co Drivers and guides for tailor-made Great Wall excursions.