Here’s our guide to an epic Great Wall of China adventure:
The first straightforward thing you can do is avoid the parts of the wall closest to Beijing. Badaling is top of the list of places to avoid. The structure is fully restored to its former glories complete with cable car and toboggan. But it’s too easy to add to a whistle-stop Beijing tour, so it’s crammed. Plus, there are add-ons you don’t need, like a KFC and a cinema. You’ll tick the “I saw the Great Wall” box, but not much more.
Mutianyu is another part of the Wall that’s a relatively short drive (1.5hrs) from Beijing. Like Badaling, it is well restored and attracts crowds. Given the choice, go for Mutianyu over Badaling. The Ming-era towers are as imposing as they would have been to any Mongol or Manchurian invader. If you don’t want too many steps, it’s a good option as there’s a cable car and a chairlift.
Jinshanling and Simatai are two separate parts of the Great Wall, each with their own admission fee. These parts of the Great Wall are further from Beijing, but still doable as a day trip with an early start. The upside is the drastically smaller crowds. Not long ago, you could hike 10km from Jinshanling to Simatai. But the route is now closed, which is a huge shame. Both are still great options for more adventurous Great Wall experiences.
Jinshanling is partially restored but retains lots of original features that are in good condition. Some parts are smooth and easy-going, but there are plenty of crumbling paths and towers to keep you on your toes. Often called the most beautiful section because of the undulating setting and the density of towers.
Simatai is wild and challenging. Sadly, some of the most beautiful sections to the West are part of the hiking route to Jinshanling that is now closed. There’s still enough wall in the other direction to make it a top Great Wall option. Simatai has some of steepest sections anywhere, so take good shoes, a light bag, and be ready to scramble up. The Simatai zip-line is a fun way to finish your explorations.
If Simatai is challenging, then Jiankou is kamikaze. It’s a totally unrestored section of wall, full of collapsing stonework, overgrown vegetation and sheer drops. The reward for your bravery? The Great Wall of China, all to yourself (and maybe a handful of other thrill-seekers).
This is another unrestored part of the Great Wall near Jinshanling and Simatai. It was the location for dozens of battles between Chinese and Mongolian forces over the centuries. The terrain is not as exhilarating as Simatai and Jinshanling. But for Chinese history buffs, it may be worth a visit.
Shanhaiguan provides a different Great Wall perspective. This is the eastern part of the Great Wall that ends, quite literally, in the sea. The ocean backdrop and sandy beach at the base of the Great Wall make it unique. This part is around 2 to 3 hours from Beijing on a high-speed train.
The Great Wall is more than 5,000 miles long – so there are many more choices beyond those outlined above. The options above work well for a backpacker spending time around Beijing. Head to the far west of the Great Wall in Gansu province and you’ll be at a crucial intersection on the ancient Silk Road.
On our China tours, we go as far off-the-beaten-track as possible to give you the ultimate Great Wall of China adventure. We camp under the stars at a stretch of the Great Wall (a few hours from Beijing) that is totally untouched, without a tourist in sight. Why the overnight camping? Because you’ll be one the lucky few to see sunrise over the Great Wall of China. It’s an unforgettable life experience, let alone travel experience.