In China’s sun-soaked southwestern province of Yunnan, Lijiang has a wealth of waterfalls, cliffs, and mountains.
Most tourists who visit Lijiang in Yunnan Province spend their time in its charming (but arguably overrun) Old Town. Luckily, Lijiang is surrounded by some of the most unspoiled countryside that China has to offer. From the famed Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the rivers and lakes that feed off its meltwaters, there’s a world of staggering beauty on Lijiang’s outskirts. Escape the city, stretch your legs, and fill your lungs with fresh alpine air at these nine jaw-dropping natural attractions in and around Lijiang.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Standing at a total of 18,360 feet above sea level, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain has been conquered only once by an American expedition, in 1987. The imposing and permanently snow-capped mountain, which dominates the entire city, can be admired by visitors from one of the highest viewing platforms in the world, accessible only by cable car.
Blue Moon River
Below the mountain is a river of many monikers: Blue Moon River, named after its crescent shape and vivid color when the weather is clear; White River, named after a milky hue from the churned up limestone riverbed after rain; and Love River, because, as legend has it, young men would once stand in its frigid waters, fed by ice melt from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, to prove their devotion to a woman. The river’s length holds several waterfalls and pools, which reflect the stunning surrounding scenery.
Jade Spring Park
Within walking distance of Lijiang Ancient Town is the Jade Spring Park. This 100-acre oasis is home to endless ponds and bubbling springs, swaying willows, lush landscaped gardens, and historic monuments and temples. On a clear day, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is reflected in Black Dragon Pool, the main body of water within the park.
Lijiang Alpine Botanical Gardens
Lijiang Alpine Botanical Gardens, the world’s highest at over 8,500 feet, is home to a collection of more than 2,000 plant species, thriving alongside crystal clear waterfall-fed pools. Set on the southern section of Hengduan Mountain and projected from the elements by the eastern Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the biodiverse plants here include endemic groups, rare and endangered flowers, and important economic crops. The garden’s beauty is genuinely otherworldly.
Within the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain park (but inexplicably absent of tourists) is Yak Meadow, where the black- and white-haired companions of the Yi and Zang ethnic minorities graze. With the mountain and an ancient pine forest as its backdrop, this colorful and pristine valley looks like it’s straight out of Switzerland. Take the hour-long stroll to the temple in Yak Meadow along a wooden path and enjoy some warm yak milk as your reward.
Marking the border between Yunnan and Sichuan province is Lugu Lake. Surrounded by the fascinating matriarchal society of the Mosuo people, the lake’s appearance changes dramatically throughout the day, from a misty orange pearl at sunrise, to an emerald shock of jade at midday, to a dark green sheet of glass at sundown. Visitors can take boats around its flora and fauna-rich islands or ride scooters along its shores.
The hike up Wenbi Mountain is not only pretty and fairly easy-going—with paved paths shaded by sweet-smelling pine trees—but it also comes with a worthwhile reward. The terrace at the serene Wenfeng Monastery, built at the mountain’s summit in 1739, is flanked by fluttering prayer flags and rewards hikers with stunning views of the city below. Friendly monks are also happy to show visitors around the Buddhist artwork displayed inside.
It takes only around an hour to reach the pagoda at the 8,800-foot summit of Elephant Hill, which commands epic views of Lijiang. The 360-degree skyline, meanwhile, is dominated by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, as well as the Wenbi, Saddle, and Wenhai peaks. The ascent itself is also interesting, traversing past tombs and, if it’s an auspicious day, ululating local women paying respect to their ancestors.
Lashihai Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve
Thousands of birds spanning 57 species make the Lashihai Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve their home every winter. The origin of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, this tranquil spot on the southern slope of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is mobbed by around 30,000 migratory birds (some of which are endangered species) when the rest of the northern hemisphere shivers under frost. Visitors can stroll around 20 miles of shore or enjoying birdwatching from boats.