The Great Wall of China is a UNESCO World Heritage site that should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list – and it generally is. As a result, millions of eager visitors flock there each year. Fighting your way through swarms of tourists taking hundreds of photos is hardly the ideal way to appreciate this majestic site. Don't worry though - I'll show you how to avoid the crowds so you have an amazing experience hiking the Great Wall.
Key Planning Considerations
If you want to avoid the crowds at the Great Wall, the three most important considerations to keep in mind when planning are:
Which section of the wall should you hike?
Many people decide to visit the Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing. This is a great plan. Just do not choose to visit the section of the wall that is closest to Beijing.
The most restored and complete section of the wall – Badaling – is also the most popular site for visitors. It is only ~70 km (45 miles) from downtown Beijing, plus has cable cars and pulleys to transport visitors from the parking lot up to the wall. As you can imagine, this means it gets very crowded. It's also become very commercialized. I recommend avoiding Badaling unless you’re ready to take on the masses of people.
We chose to hike on the section of the Great Wall from Simatai West to Jinshanling. The start of the hike is ~142 km (88 miles) from Beijing. Depending on traffic, it takes ~2.5 hours to drive from downtown Beijing to the start of the hike.
The reason I enjoyed this hike was that we got to see both the rugged and crumbling original parts of the wall as well as some fully restored sections. We had fewer people on the trail with us at the beginning of our hike in Simatai where the wall was mostly unrestored.
Based on our experience, I highly recommend hiking this portion of the wall.
Other sections of the wall you can hike include Jiankou, Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Gubeikou. These hikes vary in level of difficulty and each offers something a little different. Some day, I hope to make it back to the Great Wall to hike some of these other sections.
Which month should you visit?
We decided to go to Beijing at the end of August for a long weekend to celebrate Jeremy’s birthday. It was still summer and so Beijing was hot and humid, though not as bad as Hong Kong! Once we got out of Beijing and closer to the Great Wall, the temperature dropped a few degrees. By the time we climbed up to the wall, it felt quite pleasant.
Our guide mentioned that the best months (weather-wise) for hiking the Great Wall are in the spring (April-May) and fall (Sept-Oct). In this case, visiting during an off-peak month like August helped us to avoid the crowds. Though I think I might have looked better in photos during a cooler month!
Tip: If you are hiking during summer, be sure to bring lots of water! Though there are vendors in some of the entrance point watch towers selling water (in addition to souvenirs), you don't want to run out of water while on the wall.
Which day of the week should you visit?
As is the case with all tourist attractions - weekends are more crowded than weekdays. We had to choose whether to visit the Forbidden City or the Great Wall on the weekend. We chose the Forbidden City… on a Saturday… (shudder). Needless to say (but I will anyway), it was crazy.
But, this meant we went to the Great Wall on a Monday. It felt so empty and serene! This isn’t to say we saw no other tourists, but we had stretches of time on the wall when we were all alone - just us and our guide.
Booking Your Visit
Since we like to go at our own pace, we booked a private tour through Trippest. The tour included pickup/drop off at our hotel, driving to/from the wall, and a guide to hike with us. We also had a delicious meal at a local restaurant which was included in the tour price (total US$313). Click here for a brief overview of the tour with Trippest.
If you're looking for hiking buddies and/or to save a few bucks, Trippest also offers small group tours which are slightly cheaper. While we were on the wall, we saw some people hiking without a guide that may have taken public transportation or another means to get to the wall.
The Great Wall Trip
Our trip to the Great Wall started at 8:00am when we were picked up at our hotel. Our guide told us some facts about Beijing and pointed out landmarks as we drove out of the city. Then we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. The drive took a little over 2 hours.
Before we started our hike, we stopped at a visitor center and stocked up with water and snacks. Our guide provided Snickers bars!
The center also had clean facilities with western toilets (and friendly reminders about using them) and space to change clothes. Then we set out on the hike.
The Hike - Simatai West to Jinshanling
Start Location: East Five-Window Tower
End Location: General Tower
The hike starts with a steep climb up to the Great Wall. After all those hikes straight up mountains in Hong Kong, I was feeling prepared and didn't even have to stop to rest!
Once we reached the first watch tower – East Five-Window Tower – we took some photos and climbed up onto the wall to begin the hike.
Pro Tip: You can do this hike in either direction and many seemed to be hiking from Jinshanling to Simatai West. Our guide recommends starting at Simatai West and hiking towards Jinshanling because the East Five-Window Tower is the highest point on the hike.
Since we started there, we got the steepest uphill (walking up to East Five-Window Tower from the parking lot) out of the way when we were fresh. So, even though we climbed up and down on the wall throughout the hike, overall we were still going downhill. I was grateful we did it that way!
It seems silly now, but before going on this hike, I didn't fully realize just how many hills are involved. Since the Great Wall was built on an undulating mountain range, it rises and falls with the mountains it sits on.
As you walk along, certain areas are very STEEP! The steps are sometimes crumbling, and other times just paved flat (not helpful). You have to be very careful of your footing as you descend.
Tips: You should have a moderate level of fitness for this hike and wear sturdy footwear with good tread so you don't slip on the steep, smooth, stair-less surfaces. Remember to stretch before the hike and wear comfortable clothing so you can easily maneuver on the steep stairs.
As you walk along, you’ll encounter many watch towers – some restored, some not. It’s interesting to see the restored ones to see what they would have been like hundreds of years ago. However, the unrestored towers feel more authentic and show the effect time has had on the wall.
As we hiked along and started entering the more restored areas, we encountered a few more hikers on the trail. Many were going up the opposite direction.
We finished our hike at the General Tower and the views looking back at our hike were stunning. It's incredible to see this wall stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction.
From the General Tower, we left the wall and hiked back down to the parking area. It was a much shorter hike down since the wall is closer to the road in this part. The hike took around three hours total to complete.
Planning a trip to Beijing? Check out my 'Ultimate Guide to Preparing for International Travel'.
Lunch at a Local Restaurant
The nice part about having a driver is that he moved the car and picked us up at the parking lot closest to our end destination so we didn’t have to figure out how to get back to our starting parking lot. Then we headed off to lunch. Even though we'd eaten our Snickers on the wall, we were starving by that point!
We arrived at the restaurant (or local farmer’s house?) for lunch a bit before 2:00pm. They prepared a feast for us! We each got a huge bowl of rice – I thought it was to share and started to pass it until our guide laughingly told me it was all mine. I swear, I thought he was joking until three more huge bowls showed up! The food was all delicious and we were stuffed afterwards.
Return to Beijing
Back in the car by ~2:30pm, we headed for Beijing. Driving back into the city, we hit some traffic, but still got back in under 3 hours. I slept most of the ride so it went by quickly for me! Our driver and guide dropped us off at our hotel around 5:30pm.
Although the trip takes the full day to complete and I was exhausted by the end, it was worth every minute! Hiking the Great Wall was definitely the highlight of our trip to Beijing.