The Yellow Mountain in China is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s major tourist destinations. The Chinese name of the Yellow Mountain(s) is Huangshan (黄山), where “Huang” (黄) means “yellow” and “shan” (山) means “mountain”. The mountain is located in the south of Anhui Province, and it is believed by many Chinese to be the most beautiful mountain in the Middle Kingdom.
Today the Yellow Mountain is popular for its beauty and its “four wonders”: its unusual pines, its grotesque rock formations, its mystical sea of clouds, and its hot springs.
I visited the Yellow mountains in the summer of 2020, during a short 2-days trip from Shanghai, which I describe here. In this article, I only wanted to mention the best activities or things to see and to do in the Yellow Mountains.
1. Watch the sunrise at Bright Top
Watching the sunrise over Huangshan is a very popular and highly recommended activity. Every day, the glow of the sunrise and sunset draws the crowds of tourists to several popular viewing spots. I’ve noticed that Chinese tourists are especially interested in the sunrise.
The best sunrise/sunset viewing spots on the mountain are marked on all hiking maps in HuaShang. One of the most popular viewing spots is called The Bright Top.
Bright Top (光明顶 ) is the second-highest peak on the mountain (1860 m) and it is one of the most popular (and busy) places to see the sunset. The spot is conveniently located in the middle of all hiking routes, and it’s easily assessable from the main mountain-top hotels.
If you want to see the sunrise, you’ll have to get up very early, probably between 5 and 6 am, depending on the exact period you are visiting. Make sure to check the exact time of the sunrise or ask at the reception of your hotel.
Also, be aware that very often the mornings are too foggy and there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually see the sunrise. According to some local guides, in the summer only 1 out of 3 mornings, the weather is clear, and you can see the beautiful sunrise. In the winter, a clear sunrise is even rarer.
My personal advice is to watch the sunrise from another less crowded summit that is closer to your hotel. Your hotel can advise you on the best sunrise viewing spots around. During my trip, I stayed in Shilin Hotel, which is very close to Beihai hotel. We were told that the best nearby places to watch the sunrise are Lion Peak (狮子峰) and to the Stone Monkey Watching over the Sea (猴子观海).
Important: if you want to watch the sunrise in the Yellow Mountains you will need to go up the mountain top the day before and stay overnight. The entrance to the mountain is not open that early. A mountaintop hotel would cost around 1100 – 1300 RMB for a double room, in high season. It doesn’t really matter which hotel you’ll book, as they all have similar prices and conditions. I stayed in Shilin Hotel and the double room was 1400 RMB per night.
2. See the Seas of Clouds
The “seas of clouds” or 云海 (yunhai) are mountain areas, where during cloudy days, tourists can observe a beautiful natural phenomenon: when the sky is very cloudy the higher peaks are seen above the clouds and look like islands in the sky. The best time to appreciate this phenomenon is from November to May, especially after rainy days, at sunrise or sunset.
There are five seas of clouds in the Yellow Mountains, and the other very popular mountain in China to observe them is Zhangjiajie a.k.a. the Avatar Mountains. Unfortunately, during my stay in the Yellow Mountains, I couldn’t witness the famous sea of clouds.
3. Visit the Grand Canyon
The West Sea Grand Canyon, also called Xihai Grand Canyon (西海大峡谷) is the must-see spot in Huangshan and the highlight of all hiking trips in the mountain. It represents circular hiking at the mountain top. The route is not very long, and it takes less than half-day hiking (about 2.5-3 hours).
The circle path starts from Dispelling Cloud Pavilion(排云亭), goes through the 1st Ring(一环) and the 2nd Ring(二环), and returns to Dispelling Cloud Pavilion.
This route is not very steep and it’s entirely paved with small stairs. Hiking the West Sea Grand Canyon feels like taking a pleasant walk on the top of the mountain. The scenery is breathtaking. This was my favorite route, the Yellow Mountains in terms of views.
For those who don’t want to hike (walk), there is a small tram (a.k.a monorail or funicular) that runs from the bottom of West Sea Grand Canyon directly to the upper cable way station of the near Baiyun Hotel. It will cost 100 RMB, but I really won’t recommend it, because the Grand Canyon Route is already quite easy and not that long to hike.
4. Climb the Lotus peak
The Lotus peak is the highest (1864 m) and the most popular peak in the Yellow Mountains. Unfortunately, this also makes it the busiest. For many Chinese tourists, climbing this peak is “the thing to do” when going to the Yellow Mountains.
As everywhere in Yellow mountain, the way to the top of Lotus peak is entirely paved with stairs. In some places, the path (staircase) is so narrow that you’ll need to wait for the people in front of you to go up or get down. I liked the view, but having so many people around was not very pleasant.
It takes up to 1,5 hours to climb up and down Lotus peak. There are stairs all the way up, so it’s not a technical climb, but be prepared for the crowds. The Yuping cableway station is located just at the foot of Lotus Peak (see photo above) and many “climbers” are coming directly from the cable car station. That’s the other reason why the passage is so busy and climbing this peak is not that pleasant of an experience.
The best view of Lotus Peak is seen from Turtle Peak (see photo above). To avoid some part of the crowds, you can first go to Turtle Peak, then go towards Lotus Pavilion and start ascending Lotus Peak from there.
Keep in mind that Lotus Peak and West Sea Grand Canyon are closed each year from December to March.
5. Sleep at the top of the mountain
The best way to experience the Yellow mountains is by staying in a hotel on the mountain top, for at least one night. If you need some ideas on how exactly to organize your trip, have a look at my 2-day hiking itinerary in the Yellow Mountains. I believe this is the optimal choice for people who have only a weekend to spend in Huangshan. If you have only one day to visit the mounting you won’t be able to do all the hiking routes, see the sunrise, and you’ll need to use the cable cars to make your way up or down the mountain.
A double room in a mountaintop hotel costs around 1100 – 1300 RMB, in high season. It doesn’t really matter which hotel you’ll book. According to my research, most of them have similar prices. I stayed in Shilin Hotel and the double room was 1400 RMB per night.
6. Take photos
There are so many viewing spots, and you’ll have many opportunities to take photos during your trip. The only problem is that in some places it’s not easy to avoid the crowds.
7. Explore its oddly shaped rocks
The oddly-shaped rocks of the Yellow Mountains get their names not only from their appearance but also from legends. Each famous rock formation in the mountain has a name, a story, and a tourist plate to go with it. This creates a rich backstory about the mountain and shows that the Yellow Mountain is deeply rooted in Chinese history and legends.
The photo above is of a rock formation called “Stone Monkey Watching over the Sea” or “Stone Monkey Gazing at the Sea” located on the east of the Lion peak in the Beihai scenic area. The legend behind it is described below:
The legend of the Stone Monkey watching over the sea
In Xianyuan village lived a family called Zhao. They had a daughter named Zhang Zhu. Zhang Zhu was smart and beautiful. In a cave deep in the North Sea of Huangshan Mountain, not far from Xianyuan village, lived a spirit monkey. One day, the spirit monkey saw the beautiful Zhang Zhu, and he immediately fell in love. To win her over, the spirit monkey turned into a young, handsome man. In the evening, he came to Zhao’s house and presented himself as Sun Gongzi, the son of the leader of Huangshan stronghold. He asked the Zhao family to stay with them overnight because it was too late to travel back home. Seeing that he was handsome, well-dressed, and polite, the old couple Zhao believed him. They happily invited him into their house and hosted a banquet. After drinking three glasses of wine, Sun Gongzi (the spirit monkey) stated his love for Zhang Zhu and asked the family to accept him as their son-in-law. He promised her parents to serve and take care of them for the rest of their life. When the old couple heard his sweet words, they were very happy. Zhang Zhu was also happy too because Sun Gongzi was both smart and beautiful.
The next morning, the Sun Gongzi took Zhang Zhu to his cave, which he had previously transformed into a lavish house, and they married. At the end of the night, after the wedding banquet was over, the young couple went to their chambers. But when Zhang Zhu woke up in the middle of the night, she was surprised to find that Sun Gongzi was covered with hair. It turned out that when Sun was drunk, he was still a monkey. Zhang Zhu got very scared, and she immediately ran away straight to her home in Xianyuan village. She never returned.
Since that day, every day, the monkey would climb up the hanging rock behind his cave, sit on the stone, and stare at Xianyuan village, with the hope to see Zhang Zhu one last time. Over the years, he has turned into a stone and become the stone landscape of Huangshan. There is a poem that says, “when the monkey looks at the sea, he doesn’t know the year. Sit and watch the ups and downs in the world. It’s changed into a mulberry field after many struggles.”
8. Watch the sunset
If you’re lucky you may be able to see a beautiful sunset in Huang Shan.
Unfortunately, during my visit, we were unlucky with the weather and the sky was too cloudy, as you can see from the photo above. I’ve seen way more beautiful sunsets in mountains or at the seaside, but according to the locals watching the sunset is worth it.
9. Get off the beaten track
There are not many secret paths and passages in the Yellow Mountains. After all, this is China, and tourists here are never allowed to roam freely in the nature parks 🙂 But you should know that most local tourists start hiking from the Western or Eastern Steps Routes because almost all buses from Huangshan city stop at the South Gate. As a result, the Northern Route, also known as the Northern Steps Route, is relatively quiet and not that busy.
To get there, you need to arrive at the North Gate of Huangshan Scenic Area. From there you can take one of the mountain shuttle buses that will drop you off at the entrance of the Northern Route. Usually, this hiking path is not popular and not crowded at all. This is probably the best way to visit Huangshan “off the beaten track”, even though it’s entirely paved in stairs 🙂
The hike up is relatively easy and it takes about 3-4 hours. It’s mostly stairs and paved paths, not very steep.
If you’re lucky you may even meet some curious monkeys on the way. One of the most common monkey subspecies is the HuangShan Tibetan Macaque (Macaca thibetana huangshanensis). They are easily recognizable because of their large faces and beards. It’s difficult to see from the photos, but the ones we encountered were quite big. This monkey species is found only in the Yellow Mountains in Anhui Province.
10. Take the Taiping Telepher
In addition to the many hiking routes, Huashang has multiple cable cars:
- Yuping Cableway
- Yungu Cableway
- Taiping Telpher
- Grand Canyon monorail (funicular).
Most visitors take the Yuping or the Yungu cableways, but in my opinion, the most interesting is the Taiping Telpher. That’s because Taiping Telpher is Asia’s longest telpher. It is 3,709 m long and can take up to 100 passengers. It runs from Songgu An Nunnery (at the foot of the mountain) all the way up to the West Sea Grand Canyon. This is more than 1,000 m of elevation!