This is an incredible hiking area in a remote part of Western Sichuan. There are three route options, all of them are very high-altitude with beautiful snow-capped peaks, vast meadows, a plethora of streams and lakes, and grazing yaks. All of them begin at Zhonggu Village (中谷村), about 30 km North of Kangding (康定)
Route 1: Zhonggu Village (中谷村) to Yala Lake. 27 km, 1,280 meter elevation gain
Route 2: Zhonggu Village (中谷村) to Tagong (塔公). 54 km, 2,500 meter elevation gain
Route 3: Yala Mountain Loop (start and end in Zhonggu Village). 64 km, 3,060 meter elevation gain
Route 1: Zhonggu Village (中谷村) to Yala Lake.
This first trekking route is the shortest and most straight-forward of the three options, and the one that is most often taken by commercial trekking operations taking clients hiking. It is also the one for which we have the most detailed information, as we didn't finish the other two routes. Click on any of the pictures below to see captions/descriptions.
Once you make it to Zhonggu Village 中谷村, continue along the highway until it crosses the river and turns abruptly to the southwest--that's where the trail starts (pictured). There is a pretty spot to camp on some farmland about 100 meters up the road (pictured), and there is also a guesthouse that, when we went, seemed to be wholly under construction but whose owners claimed to be accepting guests. They even had a hot spring in the works for a before or after-hike soak. Regardless, the owners are very nice and let us park our car in their lot for 40 RMB per day.
Day 1: The trail for most of the first day of hiking is wonderful, wide, and easy to follow. There are basically no wrong turns you can make, and the elevation gain is so evenly spread out that it is almost hard to notice in many parts. There were quite a few muddy areas--attributable to the herds of yaks and locals on motorbikes that use it as a thoroughfare during the rainy season--and a few easy-to-navigate river crossings, but apart from that, simply enjoy the hike as you climb further up into the mountains.
A pretty little meadow with some small wooden huts and a fenced-in pasture called Xindianzi (新店子) is located about 9 km into the hike after about 300 meters of elevation gain. This is where a lot of commercial groups camp on the first night, and would be a good campsite if you're taking a more leisurely pace. We arrived here after about 3.5 hours, had lunch, and continued on towards the first pass.
The trail climbs steeply out of the meadow, and then continues more gradually towards the "base" of the first pass another 9 km past the meadow. It alternates between forest and meadow, and the views become more open and grand as you climb. There is quite a size-able population of grazing cows along this section, and there are many more suitable camping spots until about kilometer 16 or 17, when the valley walls begin getting steeper. Around km 18, the trail begins climbing more steeply up towards the top of first pass, around 4,200 meters.
The trail becomes noticeably more difficult here, especially at the end of the day, but all things considered its not too bad, and only continues for about 2 km before reaching the top of the first pass. We decided to camp in a meadow about 100 meters beneath the first pass, after spending an hour or so looking for a dry patch, around km 19.
Day 2: We woke up socked in by fog, but after about an hour of hiking the skies cleared and the peaks came out around us. The top of the pass is magnificent. After climbing about 100 meters from our campsite we came upon the first of the two lakes that straddle the pass. There were a few temporary yak encampments along this section, and the local herders were very friendly. Himalayan marmots abound and squeal at you as you hike by, and Himalayan Vultures soar overhead. This section lasts about 3 km before it begins descending down to Yala Lake.
The trail descends for about 1.5 kilometers along a widened dirt path before reaching a junction--take a left to head up to the beautiful Yala Lake (unsure about the actual name). This has one of the best views of Mt. Yala you will get on the hike, and plenty of beautiful flat areas to camp near the shore. It is about a one-kilometer detour from the main pathway, but very much worth it. This is perhaps the main attraction in the area, and there is some significant construction happening to develop it for tourism. Visit soon if you wish to experience it with any semblance of solitude. Unfortunately, it has already suffered from tourists and their trash, as we found a massive pile of trekking rubbish near the lakeshore (a lot of the other garbage was religious in nature--scattered prayer flags and paper money). One can only hope the increased development brings some sensical management along with it, and tangible and sustainable benefits for the locals who depend on this area and its resources. For everyone else, please Leave No Trace.
From the lake, it is about 3 kilometers and about 300 meters of descending until you reach the base of the valley, and the end of this trekking route. There are dirt roads being constructed around this whole area, and sightseeing paths along the river, as there will likely be throngs of tourists congregating here when this area opens to the public. There should be plenty of locals around who will give you a ride to Bamei (八美) or Tagong (塔公) for a somewhat exorbitant sum (we paid 700 RMB for the 2 hour journey), but it would probably be cheaper to arrange your own transport in advance. Theoretically, you could also hike the 14 or so km to the main highway, where there are plenty of cars and cell service. Of course, all of this will be moot once the tourist area opens, but we have no idea when that will be.
The BEST option, weather permitting, would be to hike over the mountains to Tagong along Route 2 (see below).
Route 2: Zhonggu Village (中谷村) to Tagong (塔公).
DISCLAIMER: We have not finished hiking this route. We only hiked 3/4 of the way up the valley towards the second pass, where we had to turn around due to inclement weather. If you attempt this, make sure you do extra research beforehand. This Youtube Video has some useful information and beta.
This route simply continues where Route 1 left off, and instead of leaving from the intersection of valleys, you cross the river and hike south/southwest up the valley towards Tagong.
From this point on, the trail is less developed and route finding becomes more difficult. If you are willing, however, this valley and the surrounding area has some of the most beautiful rivers and pristine forest I have yet experienced in China. The GPX differs in some places from the pictures we have posted, but we recommend following the GPX track, crossing the river slightly North of where you come down from Yala Lake, and heading up the trail on the West side of the river. Be aware, though, that if you do this during the rainy season, you will lose the trail as it is washed out in many places, and you will have to wade across the river. Plan to have wet feet, keep a cool head, and check the map frequently.
The first 2-3 kilometers up the valley climbs gradually through beautiful mixed conifer forest along the river, then climbs up past a couple large scree fields. If you keep to the west of the river (we somehow managed to cross it three times, which is unnecessary especially outside of the wet season), you should avoid these scree fields (pictured).
About 5 or 6 km up the valley, and just above 4,000 meters, is an impressive natural hot spring (one of the best I've encountered). This is definitely worth a soak. Just above there is a wide open meadow with plenty of options for camping.
From the beginning of the meadow, the top of the pass (4,850 meters) is about 8 kilometers and a bit over 800 meters of elevation gain. We made it about a 3rd of the way before turning around due to worsening weather. The landscape changes dramatically at after the pass, as you enter Tagong Grasslands (塔公草地), a truly vast expanse of green and brown rolling hills streatching as far as the eye can see. From the top of the pass to Tagong is around 9-14 km, depending on how far you want to hitchhike. The GPX route from the pass to Tagong is just a potential route based on topography and Google earth, it has not actually been hiked. However, the grasslands are wide open, so there are many potential routes to take through them.
If you want to continue hiking back towards your starting point, hike south across the grasslands along the base of the mountains, following Route 3 below.
Route 3: Yala Mountain Loop (start and end in Zhonggu Village).
DISCLAIMER: We have not hiked ANY of the latter part of this route. If you attempt this, make sure you do extra research beforehand. All of the pictures below, as well as the GPX track, were taken from the 两步户外助手APP, from user by "向北(zs_OivmgY)". Here is the link to their track on the APP, from where you can download more pictures and detailed information: https://www.2bulu.com/track/track_detail.htm?trackId=jWNHiHa6GiPp/R2KBg5Tzw==.
This route builds upon Route 2, but instead of heading down to Tagong after the 4,850 m pass, it heads South/Southeast through the grasslands back towards Zhonggu Village.
According to the GPX, after the pass the track continues through the meadows, gaining and losing little bits of elevation at a time, for about 16 kilometers (pictured above). My impression based on the beta is that water is present in the form of small lakes and tarns, but nowhere near as abundant as the previous parts of this route, so plan accordingly. Somewhere along this section would be a good place to camp for one or two nights, depending on your speed.
According to the GPX by 向北(zs_OivmgY), the track continues along the meadows for about 16 km before heading back into the mountains over a 4,550 meter high pass (pictured). From there, it continues Northeast down a valley for about 4 km, before turning sharply Southeast for another 3-ish km. The track then comes upon the newly constructed highway that links Tagong with Zhonggu village.
This is our own picture of the end of the trail, taken as we drove past from Tagong to Zhonggu. Once on the road, it is still another 10 km downhill to the trailhead where you started, so best to hitchhike or arrange transport in advance! Service should be available at this point, however.
That's the end of the full circumnavigation of Yala Holy Mountain! If you have hiked the full route, please feel free to comment below or e-mail us with more details to fill in the gaps. Thanks and happy hiking!
Getting to the Trail Head (Zhonggu Village 中谷村)
The trailhead is located just North of Zhonggu Village (中谷村), which itself is about 30 km North of Kangding (康定) in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (甘孜藏族自治州) of Sichuan Province. It is about a 12 hour drive from Kunming (without stops), and about 4.5 hours from Chengdu. The easiest way to get there without a car is probably to get a bus from Chengdu to Kangding (130元; 4-5 hours), and then hire a private vehicle to take you the last leg to the trailhead. A Didi from Kangding to the trailhead should cost around 150元 or less.
GPS Coordinates: 30°16'56.57"N 101°50'17.14"E (30.282381, 101.838094)