Hiking in Hong Kong
Castle Peak to the Grand Canyon
(the hard way)
Distance: 13.3 km
Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Ascent: 1160 m
Date: October 2022
Start: Tsing wun, Tuen Mun
End: Leung King Estate, Tuen Mun
Explore this place if:
you want to challenge yourself on slippery trails
you're after spectacular scenery and views
Avoid this place if:
your shoes have no tread left (like mine)
it's the middle of summer (there is no shade)
In the far west of the New Territories lies Tuen Mun, which is popular with hikers for two reasons: Castle Peak and the Grand Canyon (aka Por Lo Shan, aka Pineapple Mountain). The two sites are connected by numerous trails, but there is one caveat: they are only accessible on Sundays, due to the region being used as a firing range by the military and police on other days. I found a Sunday when no rain was forecast and set out for this far-off destination, not knowing what to expect.
Castle Peak is known as one of the Three Sharp Peaks of Hong Kong (the other two being Sharp Peak and High Junk Peak), due to its steepness and difficult terrain. It is visible from many places in the SAR, including Hong Kong Island, and it looms over the town of Tuen Mun as though it is challenging you to tackle the ascent. I was ready to accept the challenge.
The steepness became apparent almost immediately. I commenced on a residential road that led me straight up at a heart-thumping incline. Already I could tell this wasn’t going to be a hike for setting any speed records. It wasn’t long before I hit the Tsing Chan Monastery, which I had originally planned to bypass. However, it didn’t really involve any extra climbing, so I thought I may as well have a quick peek. Brightly-painted buildings looked out over Tuen Mun below, and the aroma of incense wafted through the air. Rooms led into more rooms which led into more rooms, and I found myself in a mini maze as I tried to escape back into the sunlight. I wasn’t too disappointed though, as it gave my legs a brief break from the climb.
This was approximately where the stairs commenced, and they didn’t stop until I reached the peak. At first they were uniform, concrete steps, but they eventually gave way to rocky, odd-shaped, will-seriously-test-your-balance stairs. Chains, ropes and wooden railings were installed, which I utilised more and more as I climbed higher and higher. About halfway up the trees started to part, and behind me I could see the harbour, Tuen Mun and the mountains beyond. The summit was also frequently in sight, never seeming to get any closer.
When I finally reached the peak, just under an hour after starting out, I had to skirt around the edge of a series of radio towers before hitting the lookout. The view was breathtaking. Now I was well above Tuen Mun, and I could see all the way to Tai Mo Shan out east and Shenzhen up north. Looking south, the peaks of Lantau Island stood tall, and the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island were barely discernible through the haze. It was one of the best panoramas of Hong Kong I had seen in a long time. But what astounded me was the view on the other side of the mountain, looking west towards the Castle Peak Hinterland. The bumpy terrain reminded me of a barren, crater-filled planet, with off-white veins running along the ridges of the mountains. I couldn’t see any signs of civilisation out there, which was what excited me the most. This is where I was headed next.
Beside Castle Peak was a helipad, which offered me the same views. From here, I could see a clear path going directly north towards my final destination, the Grand Canyon. However, I had a different trail marked on my map, one that led west, straight into the middle of the otherworldly landscape.
I didn’t expect the descent to be so steep, and this time there were no stairs, chains, ropes or railings. The trail was composed of bare earth covered in a fine layer of sandy dirt and loose pebbles. As I was skidding constantly over this unstable surface, every step needed to be calculated. The ridgeline went straight down the mountain, with the land dropping away from me on either side. I was petrified of going over the edge, slowing me down even more. There were the occasional shrubs or patches of grass, but otherwise I was completely exposed to the elements. My pace now was actually slower than my ascent to Castle Peak. I was not having fun.
Eventually I hit the bottom, where I crossed over a creek and had to do the same thing on the other side except in an upward direction. I slipped so often that I gave up on bipedal movement and put my hands on the ground for support. I have no idea how I made it up some of those inclines. The up-down nature of the path continued as I made my way across the Hinterland; it was always precipitous, and I was always sliding. Every step was painfully slow, moving forward only a few inches at a time. I continuously regretted coming this way and wish I had stuck to the easy option. Several of my kilometres took me longer than 30 minutes to complete.
Paths were running in every direction, and more than once I missed the path I wanted to be on. In the end it didn’t matter, as they all linked up to each other. I had planned to undertake a longer route, but I became so sick of the lack of forward progress that I cut out a section to hopefully reach the end slightly more quickly.
The hike seemed to consist of endless cycles of scrambling down to a creek, jumping over the rocks, then crawling up the other side. At one creek crossing, I had just skidding down a vertical embankment that I knew I could not climb up again, but I couldn’t find the path on the other side. Back and forth I went, trying various options, until I decided to just push through the foliage. It was almost impenetrable, and I became tangled up in a mess of branches and vines. I was sure no one had come this way in years. When I at last emerged on the other side, I found the path I should have been on the whole time. The amount of places I was bleeding from were uncountable.
At one point I saw a giant fissure in a hill ahead of me, its bright peach soil a stark contrast to the deep green vegetation. Unaware of where the trail was taking me, I was amazed to end up right on the edge of this gigantic crack in the ground. For a moment I forgot all about the torturous route I was on as I marvelled at its incredible, craggy slopes.
After 6.5 km, I crested a peak to find dozens of people all out enjoying the trails. Clearly this was the main hiking path, and I hoped it would be less challenging from now on. It was, but only marginally. I still needed to put my hands out often, both on the ascents and descents. I passed by another crevasse, this one larger but not as colourful. I was given only the narrowest of rims to walk along to reach the bottom. I’m sure my cortisol levels were at an all time high as I desperately tried not to slide down the edge. A dozen trail runners passed me at this point, clearly with more guts than what I possessed.
The trek had lasted much longer than expected, entirely in the sun with no shade, and I was mentally exhausted. When I summitted the final mountain and a sea of skyscrapers came into sight, I almost jumped for joy. It was almost over. Not that it was an easy walk down to the road, but at least I knew if I went over the edge here, someone was likely to find or hear me.
Never in my life had I been so happy to put my feet on a paved path. It had been three and a half hours since I commenced the hike, but I had barely gone 8.5 km. I felt like I had completed an ultramarathon. Joining the crowds of hikers who were here just to visit the Grand Canyon, who had easily followed the road from town, I took advantage of the stable ground at set off at a brisk pace.