Hiking in Hong Kong
Hong Kong Trail
Distance: 50 km* (45.25 km)
Time: 10 hours
Ascent: 1183 m
Date: June 2018
Start: The Peak, Hong Kong Island
End: Big Wave Bay
Do this hike if:
you love big climbs with epic views
you can handle long, flat sections to get to the good stuff
you like the comfort of frequent escape points back to civilisation
Avoid this hike if:
you need frequent water top-ups
you want more trail than concrete
you don’t like surprises in the forest
The Hong Kong Trail is one of the most popular trails in the city, traversing Hong Kong Island from west to east. It is split up into eight sections, and most people will only tackle a couple at a time, but I decided to go all out and complete the lot in one epic hike. The entire walk is marked with distance posts approximately 500 metres apart, labelled H001-H100. While 50 km is the stated length of the trail, it is commonly known that it runs short (my GPS finished at 45.25 km). I will refer to the distance posts in my account below to give an idea of how far along the course I was.
(Full disclosure: I had attempted this route before, but bailed at the halfway point after thunderstorms came through and refused to leave. I took numerous wrong turns and was constantly checking my phone to see where the path way, as I barely saw any signs stating ‘Hong Kong Trail’. Signs were pointing to all sorts of other destinations that were not recognizable to me at all, so I couldn’t use these. It was only around the H045 point (just before I gave up) that I realized that some of these other signs had a little painted icon of two hikers on them, which I discovered represented the HK Trail. Now that I knew these existed, I had a lot fewer wayfinding issues and phone-checking moments on this trek.)
The trail starts in the most amazing location: the Peak, one of the most famous lookouts over the city. It’s a huge tourist destination so I didn’t have the views to myself, but it provided the perfect inspiration to get me started. After taking a few dozen photos I commenced my hike, following the route out along a 3.5 km flat concrete path around the side of the mountain. The occasional gaps in the trees offered different angles of the urban landscape below. It was a popular running path - I met dozens of runners along here and I was jealous I wasn’t joining them.
At H007 the concrete stopped and the stairs started. Down I went, squeezing past other hikers who were getting a decent workout by doing this part in the opposite direction. The stairs deposited me on a trail, where I felt like the hike truly began. While it was mostly flat, with only the occasional rise and fall in the terrain, I was happy to be walking through dense forest with tall trees towering over the top of me.
Around H010 the waterfalls started, although I would barely call them that. Small streams of water came trickling down the side of the mountain and disappeared under the path. I’m sure at the end of the wet season these would be more impressive. It was fairly quiet along this section, possibly due to it being a weekday. My previous attempt was on a Saturday, and I never went more than a couple of minutes without seeing groups of people out for a weekend stroll.
The trail turned into road at H014, and the road brought out dozens of hikers and their dogs. I guess the firm, uniform surface was more appealing than the dirt track, although I have no idea why. All of the housing I had seen in Hong Kong so far was apartments, and these were big dogs – where on earth did they live?
From the road it was up a long set of stairs to a paved path, which gently rolled up and down the hills. The terrain alternated continuously between concrete and a paved stone walkway, neither of which provided me the sort of trail I was after. A long stair descent followed, offering views over the cities and towns on the southern coast that weren’t quite as impressive as the Peak. It never ceased to amaze me how many skyscrapers are jammed into this tiny region.
At the bottom of the staircase was a path running alongside a catchwater. There wasn’t a whole lot of water running through this drainage system and really it was just a concrete eyesore. Thankfully I turned off up a dilapidated road less than a kilometre later, following a creek with small cascades providing a soothing soundtrack. Interestingly there was a foot massage station along here, with a series of smooth, round rocks cemented into a rectangle patch. The sign invited me to take my shoes off and give my feet a treat. I declined.
Finally, after H026, I turned onto a trail again. It had been such a long paved segment that I wondered if the dirt was ever going to reappear. The flat track coursed through forest along the side of a mountain, with a sporadic waterfall splashing down beside me. While I was glad to be on trail again, the scenery became a bit same same after a while. This section seemed to be never-ending, and I found myself getting bored with the unchanging surroundings.
There was one event that occurred through here which broke the monotony. I was walking along, lost with my thoughts, when only a couple of metres away in the forest I heard a loud screech. This was quickly followed by a heavy-sounding being stampeding through the trees. All I could see was a silhouette, and I prayed that it was running away, not towards me. I think I nearly shat myself. It screeched again, clearly scared out of its mind and in a hurry. I could almost feel its fear. After a few moments of listening to its footsteps I concluded that it was indeed heading into the forest, away from my present location. My best guess is that it was a wild pig or boar of some sort. I had no idea what to do if it had charged towards me. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.
I realised somewhere along this stretch that these “500 metre” distance posts were more of a guideline than a precise measurement. I started calculating the difference between markers every now and then. The longest was 650 metres. The shortest 230 metres. Overall they were definitely shorter rather than longer than the stated 500 metres, which was why the total distance was well below 50 km by the end of the day.
After 7 km through this prolonged repetitive section, the course changed slightly by throwing in a few stairs before making its way back down to the catchwater. This wasn’t any better than the flat trail and thankfully only lasted for a short time. Next it was up a set of stone steps, which I had accidentally bypassed on my previous hike. On that occasion, in the middle of the storm, I had backtracked and found the stairs had turned into a river, with water gushing down towards the catchwater. This time they were thankfully dry, providing a less treacherous walkway.
The stairs ended at a road that climbed steeply upwards. Last time I also missed the turn off from here, but not so today (now that I knew to look out for that hiker symbol). Flat path, rocky trail, uneven steps then back on the road. At first it was through a pretty forest, but this slowly changed to become a residential area and was far removed from the natural environment I had been walking through for the last few hours. I passed the halfway mark and came out at a main road, which was where I had given up on my first endeavour on this trail. Today the sun was out and there was no hint of a storm – I was continuing on.
Except that I had no idea where to go. There were no signs, no hiker icons, nothing that indicated which direction I should go. I pulled out my phone and found my current location, and then where the next distance post should be. I was surrounded by half a dozen roads going in all directions, and it took a few turns of the map to figure out which way I had come and where I needed to go. I made a best guess attempt, and the little arrow on my app let me know I had guessed correctly (that doesn’t happen too often).
The first half of the Hong Kong Trail had been a little underwhelming. It started off brilliantly with views over the high-rise city, but since then the highlights were few and far between. There was hardly any climbing, little variation in scenery and my attention continually wandered. I was hoping something changed in the second half to make this trek worthwhile.
Maybe I spoke too soon about the climbing. The busy road I was on was steep. Really steep. A young man ran past me, and I stared in disbelief that he could run up such a ridiculous gradient. At H052 I turned into a picnic area and rejoiced that I had conquered that hill, but it hadn’t ended yet. This is where the stairs started, and they didn’t want to stop. Up and up I went, certain I had reached the summit when another set would start. The sun was beating down and there was no shade to be found. This section was also part of the Wilson Trail, another trek I planned to undertake one day. I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to know what’s waiting for you.
I paused to read an information board (and catch my breath), and learned that I was heading up to Jardine’s Lookout, an important vantage point for the Hong Kong and Canadian forces in holding off the Japanese during World War II. With roughly a million stairs up this hill, the lookout had better be worth it.
My first attempt of the trail was a little stormy...
... but not so on this occasion.
It was. Far-reaching views over the city and Kowloon to the north, and across Tai Tam Reservoir and the sea to the south. Green mountains rolled out around me, making up much more of the island than the skyscrapers did. I had travelled across much of that landscape today, and had a lot more to go. After a few moments to admire the scenery, it was time to move on.
Down, down, down the rocky exposed stairs and straight back up the next hill, Mt Barker. The entire walk provided a lookout towards the reservoir, with occasional glimpses over towards Kowloon in the other direction (once I had wiped the copious amounts of sweat out of my eyes). As tough as these climbs were, I preferred it a thousand times more than anything else I had covered so far.
From the peak it was down hundreds of stairs to a BBQ area, where a road then carried me all the way down to the reservoir that I was standing way above only moments before. I crossed over the reservoir and came to a T intersection, again with no signs at all. I had a 50/50 chance of choosing correctly. I knew the trail would be heading out towards my left, so I chose left. A couple of minutes later I came to another three way intersection. This one was signed but they were not signs I wanted to see: the other two roads I wasn’t on had icon pictures for the Hong Kong Trail. How could I be on the wrong path, and how could these two other paths be the correct trail? I pulled out my phone and sure enough, I was supposed to turn right at the previous junction, which looped around to come back to this point. Stubbornly, I walked back to where I went off course and followed the right path around.
Back on track again I walked further down the road and onto a trail at H065. This undulated gently through the forest before turning into stairs that led me down to yet another catchwater. It seemed the entire island was covered with these concrete waterways. The pavement started again, as did the even terrain and lack of shade.
I presumed the catchwater would turn into the forest again soon, but it didn’t happen. On and on it went, my body baking in the hot sun and the monotony killing my motivation. I was tempted to jump into the shallow water running beside me, except that it was filthy and covered with algae. The only reprieve was the intermittent views through the trees over the harbour below, with million dollar condos and million dollar yachts. It looked a lot more inviting than where I was.
The catchwater started at H068. I didn’t leave it again until H083. That’s a big chunk of time to be on a flat, concrete path with not much to look at. I didn’t pass a single other person on this section. It was easy to see why.
After H083 the footpath changed into a half rocky, half paved track leading down to the beach, so close I could hear the waves lapping at the shore. As tempting as it was to relax on the sand for a while or jump in the water, I had a trail to finish.
Here is where the final section started, known as Dragon’s Back. Immediately I saw the steps leading directly up to what I presumed (and hoped) would be the last climb of the day. The stairs were small and uniform at first, making the trek relatively easy. Then I crossed a road and they became rocky and more free form. It was tough. Extremely tough. The sun was beating down, sweat was running off me in streams, and I was almost out of water. After walking over 40 km already, a huge ascent was not what my legs wanted.
I passed numerous people on this route, and it didn’t take long to find out the reason for this. As I climbed along the ridge, the panorama that came into view was mind-blowing. Out one side was the harbour I spotted earlier, where the rich people lived. The other side overlooked beaches, a golf course and neighbouring islands. It was by far the most picturesque spot on the entire route, and 100% worth the climb. If I wasn’t dying of dehydration and worried about developing heatstroke, I would have stayed up there for hours (as others clearly were). Instead I took loads of photos, tried to commit the lookout to memory then made my way back down.
(A note about water: I started out with 2.5 litres in my pack, naively presuming I would pass by a shop, a stall, even a vending machine at some point. It was not to be. There was not even a sign pointing towards a water source. I had to severely ration my stocks over the last three hours, and I ran out just before the end. 2.5 litres is nowhere near enough water for a 10 hour hike on a hot, sunny day – I recommend taking much more with you, or organising a drop bag somewhere along the route).
The steep route followed the ridgeline down to the forest, where relief came from the blistering sun. I turned onto a flat track covered with ankle-twisting rocks and roots. The rough track came out to a road briefly before returning to trail for the last 1.5 km. The stone stairs descended for an eternity, finally coming to an end in Big Wave Bay. I had done it – the “50 km” Hong Kong Trail was complete! The only celebration I wanted was the liquid variety (and no, not the alcoholic type). I entered the first store I came across and went straight for the coconut water, downing the can in about three seconds. I will need to plan my hydration needs better in future.
Once I had somewhat recovered I could look back and appreciate what I had achieved. It wasn't the world's toughest trail, but a huge climb in the middle and another right at the end made it a definite challenge. The impressive outlooks from the top of the peaks made me forget all of the flat, uninspiring sections I had to persevere through. Would I do it again? I would definitely run the route, helping to move more quickly through uninteresting parts, and I would be happy to tackle individual sections (such as Dragon's Back), but I'm not in a hurry to hike the entire trail again anytime soon.