The world's scariest hike is more than an internet meme—it's a 7,000-foot-high cliffside trail in China that will take your breath away.
It was the uncredited photo of wooden planks stapled to the mountain that got my attention. The whole setup looked so precarious. And while I couldn’t tell just how high the planks were, the snow-capped mountains peering from the distance gave some indication.
Ever since the picture hit my inbox—an email forward from a friend—I couldn’t get it out of my mind: Could a place like this really exist? Could people really go there?
I needed to find out. A few hours of online sleuthing proved that the photo was real. The path does exist, on a mountain called Huashan, 75 miles from one of China’s historical capitals of Xi’an. So I booked a flight.
The city is a popular destination for international tourists. Some make the 90-minute drive to Mount Hua, but few would think about scaling the mountain’s cliffside plank path. The Chinese, on the other hand? They’re not so easily deterred.
Every year, millions of Chinese make pilgrimages to the Five Great Mountains, Taoist landmarks that have long featured in legends, history, and art. Besides being naturally stunning, the mountains are dotted with temples, teahouses, and plenty of opportunities for reflection and prayer. Hua is China’s West Great Splendid Mountain, and it attracts thousands of visitors daily.
I arrive to find a parking lot full of domestic tour buses, with cable cars ferrying traffic to the base. Innocuous enough, although the optional insurance for purchase with my day ticket suggests this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. “We don’t encourage foreign tourists to visit Huashan,” a guide tells me. “Too dangerous.”
But the path, known locally as No. 1 Steep Road on Mount Hua, requires no actual climbing experience. From the base, steep steps are carved directly into rock. Their proximity to the edge, overlooking a 3,200-foot drop, doesn’t rattle the cheery tourists visiting that day.
There are no hiking boots in sight. Instead, the only gear present is the thin white gloves everyone seems to wear as they hold onto the cold, heavy iron chains that bracket the paths.
It was hot and humid in Xi’an this morning, but here, snow dusts the trees, and Mount Hua’s 7,000-foot elevation has frozen the air. The higher I walk, the more I wish I was wearing more than just a thin sweater. But I’ve come a long way, and the signs in poor English keep urging me forward.
My destination, the cliffside plank path, is located between the south and east peaks. After an hour of walking, tourist traffic peters out. I exit a beautiful temple, walk around a boulder, and almost spew my pistachio snack. The view is extraordinary, and the narrow path beckons. From this point on, safety harnesses are required—I fork over the equivalent of $5 for one and a set of caribiners. My hands are freezing, and in an act of compassion, the attendant takes off his thin white gloves and gives them to me.
Iron bars are hammered into a crevice, and I scale down them slowly, not eager to test these caribiners. A few feet down, I reach the thin, cracked planks on the rock face. It looks just like the photo. Clipping on to the chain above, I shuffle along the wood, overwhelmed by the silence, the mountains, the beauty, the cold. A two-inch plank of wood is all that separates me from the void.
After a few minutes, I hear giggles from the crevice above. A half dozen students emerge, amused to find a foreigner on the path. We take some pictures together and walk carefully to the end of the planks, where we find a small temple in a cave. I presume this is where one offers thanks for making it alive. To get back, I will have to once again brave the planks. This time there are more students making their way from the other side. Detaching our safety harnesses, we squeeze past one another, vulnerable to balance, strong wind, creaky wood, and battered nerves. Somehow, we make it.
I return the gloves to the attendant and stroll back along the solid cement trail to buy some tea to warm my chilled bones. Is this the world’s scariest hike? Perhaps not. But it’s certainly close enough to the edge for me.