Hiking in Hong Kong
]If you know Hong Kong only as a metropolis of concrete canyons and neon signs, the notion of hiking here might seem as ludicrous as clubbing at the North Pole or skiing in the Sahara. And yet, Hong Kong is a marvellous place for hiking.
Hong Kong's setting is the key to this: the city lies in a territory that's around three-quarters countryside, with rugged hills, islands and islets. Chunks of land are protected in country parks and special areas, and there are superbly maintained trails, ranging from gentle family walks to tough, long-distance hiking trails.
Add various guidebooks and maps and the excellent public transport system, and your only problem might be: where should I start?
Hong Kong hiking
The variety of trails and landscapes leads to a host of options for hiking in Hong Kong. Good routes are possible almost anywhere outside the main city and towns - I’ve only struggled to find something interesting in the northwest New Territories. Perhaps surprisingly, Hong Kong Island boasts some of the best trails, which are especially good for anyone wanting to give hiking a try.
Note, however, that you should ensure the weather is okay for tramping about. When it’s not raining, that’s usually the case from late autumn to early spring. But in summer, hiking is tough in Hong Kong, and if you do head out you should take it easy, and drink fluid by the litre, perhaps mixing sports drink and water so your salt levels don’t plummet. Also in summer, be leery of deluges, which can cause flash floods that can make streams and gullies dangerous.
Hong Kong Island: the Peak, Mount Butler, and Dragon's Back
The Upper Peak Tram Station is a fine starting point for introductory routes. For anyone who hasn’t walked it yet, I reckon the circuit of the Peak along Lugard and Harlech roads is a must, starting with magnificent views of the city, then revealing the flip side of the island, as greenery and reservoirs dominate. Level all the way, it barely qualifies as a hike—but you can go a little wilder, by taking a small path from behind a tiny park where Lugard Road gives way to Harlech. After tunnelling through trees, this climbs High West, a surprisingly raw summit that looks across to islands including Lantau.
Opposite the station car park, you can drop down Pokfulam Reservoir Road, which is effectively closed to traffic. It promptly plunges into dense woodland, emerges onto scrubby hillside facing High West, and meets a handful of trails. One is the Hong Kong Trail - follow it eastwards, and you keep to the hillside, and arrive at a bluff with Aberdeen set out below. Down from here, you could turn off to Aberdeen, leaving the Hong Kong Trail to continue through the heart of the island.
For a harder, more spectacular hike, aim first for Parkview. Don’t dally by the monster, but start up the steps where the Wilson and Hong Kong trails run together. Unless you’re superfit, your heart will soon be pounding away as you keep on, up to the top of Jardine’s Lookout.
One benefit of the climb is soon apparent: Parkview is receding but, sadly, not crumbling just yet. More importantly, there’s a grand landscape of rolling hills laid out before you. Walk a very short path, and - Bam! - there’s a birds-eye view of Victoria Harbour and surrounding city.
Continue along the Hong Kong Trail, and you’ll soon reach the top of Mount Butler. This is another of those classic HK viewpoints, which are at once close by the city, and yet apart from it. Again, there are harbour and city on one side, hills on the other, with the lovely Tai Tam reservoirs low in a valley.
The Hong Kong Trail fairly tumbles off Mount Butler, then meanders down past the reservoirs. For me, that’s usually quite enough hiking for the day, thank you very much, and I like to catch a bus to Stanley for a meal with a beer or two. I’ve walked the next section of the HK Trail, but if you ask me it’s boring.
The following section - along Dragon’s Back - is, though, one of the top ridge walks in Hong Kong. You can walk it from north to south, passing first through woodland, then up to the spine of the dragon, where the vegetation is low and there are panoramic views of southern Hong Kong Island, the Clearwater Bay Peninsula, and islands to the south and east. Dropping down to Shek O Road, perhaps catch a bus to Shek O, to stroll along the headland and onto the islet across the footbridge - where in easterly winds you can enjoy surf pounding the rocky shoreline, and unwind after all your exertions in one of the restaurants.
“Exertions? What exertions?” hardcore hikers may be asking at this point. “You call Dragon’s Back a hike?” Now, I’ve taken a few people who’ve shuffled off Dragon’s Back red-faced and short of breath. But none were hardened hikers, to whom these Hong Kong Island hikes may be little more than modest strolls. And unless it’s summer, Hong Kong Island is not the place for challenging routes other than, say, trekking non-stop from the Peak to Shek O.
For more testing trails, you must head for the New Territories, or Lantau Island. And if you’ve a yen for wild summits overlooking city and country, head first for Lion Rock.
The New Territories: Lion Rock, Ma On Shan, and Tai Long Wan
You can approach Lion Rock by following the Maclehose Trail from close to the Kowloon Reservoirs. This trail has a fondness for switchbacking between hilltops and, sure enough, it isn’t long before it takes you up onto Beacon Hill, then along a ridge. But Lion Rock is too steep for even the Maclehose Trail, and you have to take a side path to climb it. A sign pointing the way says the top is just 400 metres away - but doesn’t mention that these could be the longest 400 metres you’ll ever encounter.
Once at the top, you’ll find yourself perched atop a huge crag that drops sheer away from you to the south. There’s Kowloon below, and beyond the harbour are hills including the Peak and Mount Butler on Hong Kong Island. To the north is Sha Tin; to the west lies Tai Mo Shan; and Ma On Shan could be just visible to the east.
Ma On Shan is an even better hill to climb than Lion Rock. It’s tougher, too, but I reckon this helps make the summit a more satisfying place to reach. I’ve hiked it from the east, again following the Maclehose Trail to get close before taking a side track to the top. Although nowadays not so impressive when viewed from across Tolo Harbour, thanks to the new town at its foot, Ma On Shan looks dramatic and imposing when approached this way. The east slopes are steep, and capped by a great fist of volcanic rock that seems like a natural fortress.
Hiking the side track, you find that this fortress is not so daunting from close to, and a little scrambling is all you need to reach the summit. On a clear day, you can see across great swathes of Hong Kong from here—face south and then turn clockwise, and you’ll see Dragon’s Back and the north shore of Hong Kong Island, a panorama sweeping north past Tai Mo Shan, hills in Shenzhen and, westwards, hills in the Sai Kung Peninsula.
Though its hills are lower and never as dramatic as Ma On Shan, the Sai Kung Peninsula also offers excellent hiking. One of the best short routes in Hong Kong is here: the walk from Chek Keng up and over to the beautiful Tai Long Wan, with its white, sandy beaches backed by abandoned fields and ringed by hills.
Two somewhat ramshackle restaurants overlooking one of the beaches are favourites with hikers; from close by one of them, a short trail leads to the best beach, Tai Wan.
On hot days, it’s perhaps sufficient to walk to Tai Long Wan, relax there, and return to Chek Keng. But in more comfortable weather, you could head south, and cross over a blunt peninsula to Sai Wan in the next bay, then head up to the service road above High Island Reservoir. From here, turn onto the Luk Wu Hiking Trail, which leads through a landscape reminiscent of British moorland before dropping down to a road near Pak Tam Chung.
Away to the west, the southwestern corner of Lantau also boasts superb scenery, yet seems almost overlooked by hikers. A road along a water catchment offers an easy way into the area, but it’s all uphill - and downhill - hiking from the end of this. A track leads up to meet the Lantau Trail, where you can turn left to soon find Hong Kong’s chief folly, the garden landscaped in traditional Chinese style at Ng Yuen. It’s now closed to the public, but you can stand on the dam to look at the carp pond with its zigzag bridge and pavilion, as well as the various buildings, all built well away from any highways. On from here there’s another oddity - a flying dragon sculpture on a boulder above a small temple.
Then comes a surprisingly impressive ridge walk through one of Hong Kong’s wildest landscapes, with astonishing views when the air is clear - look hard enough, and you can just see the city clinging to the sides of Hong Kong Island, seemingly far, far away. The city isn’t far away of course; once you’ve tackled two or three sudden flights of steps, you can catch a bus towards home. But now you’ve hiked this trail or another like it, you know the city is not all there is to Hong Kong - and you can escape it whenever you wish.