The Great Wall of China, one of the 7 Wonders of the World, is the longest man-made structure ever constructed. It snakes through 4,000 miles across the mountains of northern China.
It was built more than 2,000 years ago to guard from the enemy tribes from the north, the Huns. It was built and re-built over a 200 year period during the Ming Dynasty (14th - 17th Centuries) when watchtowers and cannons were added.
The average width of the wall is roughly 6 meters wide and 8 meters high. The watchtowers add another 4 meters to the height.
Visiting the Great Wall is in every China traveler's list, can anyone climb the wall? Some sections are fully restored and provide easier access, so yes, just about everybody can enjoy a trip to the Great Wall. There are different segments of the wall, some are easier to climb offering handrails and well-refurbished conditions, some offer cable cars that save you a lot of the climbing and drop you right on the wall, so it is possible for people with mobility issues to enjoy. Some sections are in a more rustic condition offering a more "authentic" experience and a more challenging hike. What they all have in common are the mind-blowing views they offer of this remarkable historical site.
These are some of the most popular segments that are open for tourists. Closer to Beijing and most visited are Badaling, Mutianyu and Juyongguan. All three segments have been restored with plenty of facilities making them some of the easiest and most convenient to visit.
A bit further away and significantly less crowded are Jinshanling and Simatai. Plenty of restoration work has been done on both segments, some still ongoing, but the renovations are more limited and target essential support to fortify and stabilize the structure and remove any potential hazards. The original appearance of the wall is still visible and gives you a more "authentic" experience. The Jinshanling to Simatai hike was one of the most popular Great Wall hikes but the route is closed at the moment. Both segments can still be visited individually. Simatai is the only segment that is open at night.
And two very unique spots, Huanghuacheng along a lake with some segments of the wall even submerged in water, and Jiankou, the "Wild Wall", as wild and authentic as they come, this section is the real thing and a very challenging hike.
Great Wall of China Map
The Great Wall at Badaling
The Great Wall at Badaling is the most popular section of the Wall since it is one of the best preserved and complete segments and closest to Beijing. The new Badaling Expressway takes you there in just over an hour. You can also reach Badaling with public transportation, either bus or train to the New Badaling Railway Station which is right next to the Wall.
The Badaling Great Wall was the first section to open for tourism in 1957. About 2.3 miles (3.7 km) and 19 watchtowers of the Badaling section of the Wall have been restored and outfited with facilities for the public, including plenty of handrails to help you along the way.
There are now two Cable Cars located at both the north and south ends which you can take to go up and come down. Another way to come down is with the pulley available on the north end only. This is a series of trolleys linked together with one "driver" at the front.
Badaling is the highest section of the Jundu mountain and the views from here are truly breathtaking.
Tips for visiting Badaling:
- This section of the wall is well-restored and suitable for seniors and children, the cable cars also make it easier as they drop you right on the wall, you walk as much or as little as you wish
- Badaling is the most popular section and can get very crowded, get there early to beat the crowds and by all means, avoid National Holidays!
- There are restaurants and toilet facilities near the main entrance and by the bus and train stations
- Private transfers to Badaling are convenient and flexible with pick up and drop off at your hotel
- One sure way to avoid the crowds and enjoy the mesmerizing views of Badaling is with a helicopter tour that also lets you appreciate the sheer size of the Great Wall, the vistas are incredible
- A stop at the Ming Tombs is on the way and worth taking the time for, easily done with most tours to Badaling
Our first trip to the Great Wall more than twenty years ago, was to this section. Crowds and all, Badaling was a magnificent sight and still remains such a special memory...
The Great Wall at Mutianyu
The Great Wall at Mutianyu is also one of the best-preserved sections that are close to Beijing but does not attract the crowds that Badaling does. On our most recent trip we went in the early afternoon and had basically the whole Wall all to ourselves.
This section of the wall is fully restored and there are handrails at the very steep parts. The Mutianyu Segment is 3.4 miles (5.4 km) long with 23 watchtowers and some unique terraces along the Wall and the immediate branches.
On the South side there is a chair lift, it works just like the ones at the ski resorts. The chair lift brings you to Watchtower 6, from here you can walk either left or right and come back to the starting point and take the toboggan down.
The ride down the Mutianyu Toboggan or slide was a great bonus for the kids, the highlight of their Great Wall visit. It is like a luge ride where you wind around the mountain and can control your speed with the hand brake. Small children have to ride with an adult. Grandma and Grandpa decided they had enough action and took the chair lift down.
There is a cable car in the North section that brings you to Watchtower 14. If you head northwards towards Watchtower 23 you will be rewarded with some of the most stunning Great Wall scenery. Heading south towards Watchtower 6 (about 2 km) will lead you to the Toboggan, from here you can slide down back to the main Entrance.
Tips for visiting Mutianyu:
- This section of the wall is also well-restored and suitable for anyone, in fact it is our favorite segment when traveling with grandparents and kids. Badaling is also suitable but Mutianyu is less crowded.
- The cable car offers a steadier ride than the chair lift.
- Kids will definitely enjoy the toboggan slide.
- There are toilets by the ticket office and on the Wall near Towers 4, 7, and between Tower 15 and 16.
- Public transportation is not the best to get to Mutianyu as there is no direct bus or train, you have to make a change in Huairou town. Easiest is the bus shuttle from downtown Beijing direct to Mutianyu Great Wall only US$6.75.
- For the experience of a lifetime, book your private transfer to Mutianyu and a 10 or 15-minute helicopter ride for that bird's eye view of this magnificent structure. Private transfer only can also be booked.
Top Mutianyu Excursions:
The Great Wall at Juyongguan
The Great Wall at Juyongguan is the closest section to Beijing at only 37 miles (60 km) from downtown.
Juyongguan is one of the three great passes of the Great Wall of China. It was considered one of the major strategically important sections because of its position as a link to Beijing.
The climb is a steep one specially on the eastern part and there are no cable cars or chair lifts to help you out here. Something to consider if you are traveling with really small children and/or grandparents. The Juyongguan path circles in a loop and takes a good part of the day to go all the way around.
This segment of the Great Wall has been fully renovated, in fact, has a very smooth and fresh feeling to it, to some people this wall is "too sanitized" and "touristy", with even replicas of the Terracotta Army warriors along some parts of the wall standing in formation. It still gives a very impressive view plus there are many interesting structures, temples, pavillions, platforms...
Tips for visiting Juyongguan:
- This section is recommended for fairly active people since there are no cable cars or chairlifts to help you with your climb. If you have any mobility issues consider the Mutianyu or Badaling sections
- There are two gates, the main entrance is through the the South Gate. From here, the Eastern side offers a gentler climb
- The highest point is on the steeper Western side at Tower #13, you have the most impressive views of the pass here as well as from the North and South Gate Towers
- There are plenty of gift shops and toilet facilities near the South Gate main entrance, additional toilets along the Wall between towers 3 and 4, 8 and 9, 10 and 11, 12 and 13 and at the North Gate
- There are NO restaurants or snack kiosks at Juyongguan. Be sure to bring water and refreshments with you
- If you are short on time, this section is your best bet because of its proximity to Beijing, and it can be combined with some of the other attractions in the city. Many tours will include a stop at the Ming Tombs
- A private car to Juyongguan costs about US$115 (cost per vehicle)
The Great Wall at Simatai and Jinshanling
The sections of the Great Wall at Simatai and Jinshanling located 120 km north-east of Beijing are less developed and in a more natural state than the sections closer to the city. It takes about two-three hours to drive here and the drive is well worth it. There are fewer crowds and you quickly leave the hawkers behind.
The 10 kilometer hike from Jinshanling to Simatai used to be one of the most popular Great Wall hikes but is currently closed.
At the moment, both Simatai and Jinshanling can be explored independently. Even though much restoration work has been done (and still ongoing), most of the work is for essential refurbishment and stabilization of the Wall, to remove loose debris and potential hazards. Many parts of the wall along these sections have not been fixed up or restored in any way, which gives you in a way a more "authentic" experience but also a tougher trek.
Simatai holds the access to Gubeikou, a strategic pass in the eastern part of the Great Wall. Gubei Watertown at the foot of the Simatai Great Wall is a lovely watertown and highly recommended for an overnight stay. Simatai is the only section of the Great Wall that is open at night.
Tips for visiting Simatai:
- Simatai restricts the number of tourists per day so if visiting during weekends or holidays you should make a reservation
- The Simatai segment is 3.4 miles long (5.4 km) separated into two parts by Mandarin Duck Lake. For such relatively short stretch there are quite a few Watchtowers along this segment of the wall. The Eastern part has 16 beacon towers, the Western part 18
- The Western part is still wild and original with little to no renovations. It is not officially open to the public and is the part that connects to Jinshanling. Small group tours are available and are a good idea if you want to see this authentic and original segment of the Wall. The trek takes about 3 hours
- There is a cable car that brings you to a forking path leading to towers 5 or 8
- If you prefer to climb, you can do so from the entrance area. The hiking path will bring you to Watchtower 2. Stairs are steep and irregular, so really have to watch your footing here. This hike is not recommended if you are in marginal shape
- If visiting at night, you are required to take the cable car. The lit portion is between towers 5 and 6
- There are toilet facilities by the main entrance and at the top of the cable car station but not along the wall
- There are no restaurants, bring water and refreshments
- There is a tourist bus from Dongzhimen that brings you directly to Gubei Water Town and leaves 4 times per day, earliest departure 8:00 am, latest return 9:00 pm
- A private 10-hour car charter from your hotel to Simatai/Gubei Water Town and return start at US$175 per vehicle.
Tips for visiting Jinshanling:
- The Jinshanling segment is 6.5 miles long (10.5 km) and is packed with a variety of Watchtowers, a total of 67, and 3 beacon towers. They all have different shapes and sizes, some several stories high, some with domes, some with flat roofs...
- There are three entrances, but stick with the Main Front Gate (West Gate), since the other ones are not open year-round and the Front Gate gets you closer to the main highlights of the Jinshanling Wall: General Tower, Small Jinshan Tower, Big Jinshan Tower
- The hike from the entrance to General Tower, Small and Big Jinshan Towers is about 5 km and takes about 3 hours
- There is a cable car from the Front Gate to Small Jinshan Tower
- There are toilet facilities at the ticket office and along the hiking paths but not along the wall
- There is a restaurant by the ticket office, bring water and refreshments
- To get to Jinshanling, take bus to Luanping from Wangjing West Station in Beijing, get off at Jinshanling Service Area. Or the tourist bus from downtown Beijing Chaoyangmen Subway Station to Jinshanling Great Wall only US$19.80.
Top Jinshanling and Simatai Excursions:
The Great Wall at Huanghuacheng
This section of the Wall is named after the nearby town Huanghuacheng or "Yellow Flower City" which takes its name from the explosion of wild yellow flowers that erupts every summer. The Huanghuacheng Great Wall runs along Haoming Lake and the views are stunning with the gleaming waters, the towering mountains and the majestic Wall that snakes through it all. Some segments of the wall are even submerged in water, a unique feature to this section.
This is becoming a favorite Great Wall hiking spot and there are other activities as well for a great day trip outside of Beijing. There are boat tours on the lake and a planked boardwalk that runs alongside the water, both giving stunning views and a different perspective of the Great Wall.
The Huanhuacheng Great Wall has been restored and the climb is an easy one. You can still see a section that is the original unrestored wall and there are three submerged sections.
Tips for visiting Huanghuacheng:
- There are no crowds in Huanghuacheng, even though it is only 45 miles (70 kilometers) away from Beijing
- Restrooms are by the entrance and along the plank road
- There are many small local restaurants outside the Scenic area by the villages, bring water and refreshments with you
The Great Wall at Jiankou
The Great Wall at Jiankou is the "Wild Wall" nestled between Mutianyu Wall on the east and Huanghuacheng on the west. It offers a completely different scenery with its verdant rolling hills, steep cliffs, narrow passes, and an untouched wall... as authentic as it gets as it has not been restored.
The names of some of the most beautiful spots are an indication of what's in store: Sky Stair, Beijing Knot, Nine-Eye Tower... this is certainly one of the most magnificent segments of the Great Wall but also one of the most treacherous as some spots are tough to conquer, Sky Stair's angle of elevation is 70 to 80 degrees!
Needless to say, this is a very challenging section!
Tips for visiting Jiankou Great Wall:
- Your starting points are either Xizhazi Village on the North side or Wofo Mountain Village on the South side
- Be prepared, take hiking equipment: boots, gloves, rope. Enterprising villagers might let you use their ladders for a fee.
- There are NO facilities at all on the wall, bring plenty of water and snacks.
- To hike the entire segment takes at least a couple of days. You can overnight at either Village or pitch a tent at Beijing Knot where the terrain is a bit more even
- Join a small group tour and hike from the East side of Jiankou to the Mutianyu Great Wall. You start from the Zhengbei Watch Tower, the highest point and also the largest and most complete watch tower in the section. It's a 10 km hike and takes about 5 hours to complete.
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