Opportunities for mountain climbing in China abound, but for many Chinese outdoors-enthusiasts, climbing the five sacred Taoist mountains is a lifelong goal. Besides housing at least one temple, all important pilgrimage spots, each of the sacred peaks are beautiful in their own right.
Five Great Mountains of Taoism
The five holy mountains associated with Taoism are loosely associated with the cardinal directions. The five are said to represent the body of Pangu, the creator, with Tai Mountain as the head in the East.
Tai Mountain (Tai Shan)—Tai Mountain is considered the holiest in China and, as a result, is the most climbed mountain as well. Located in Shandong Province on China’s eastern coast, Tai Mountain is famous for its sunrise; so many climbers stay the night at the top of the 5,069 foot (1,545 meter) Jade Emperor Peak and catch the sunrise before descending to the trailhead in the morning.
Hua Mountain (Hua Shan)—Hua Mountain, the westernmost of the five great Taoist mountains, is located in Shaanxi Province near the city of Xi’an. The tallest of the mountain’s five peaks maxes out at 7,067 feet (2,154 meters) and is known for its precipitous cliff faces and steep, narrow passes. Bring along a flashlight and climb the East Peak at night to reach the summit in time for sunrise.
North Heng Mountain (Bei Heng Shan)—The 108 peaks of North Heng Mountain in Shanxi Province are famous for housing the Hanging Monastery, a wooden complex perched precariously halfway up a cliff face. Heavenly Peak, the highest in the North Heng range, sits 6,617 feet (2,017 meters) above sea level.
South Heng Mountain (Nan Heng Shan)—Of the five sacred peaks, South Heng Mountain in Hunan Province is considered to be the most visually stunning. The highest of the 72 peaks rises 4,232 feet (1,290 meters). Besides holding an important place in Taoist culture, South Heng Mountain is also a notable Buddhist destination and houses numerous temples and monasteries.
Song Mountain (Song Shan)—Song Mountain is the central Taoist sacred mountain and is said to be the birthplace of Zen Buddhism in China. Most notably, the base of the mountain is where you’ll find Shaolin Temple, known for its history of martial arts. Unlike the other sacred mountains, Song Mountain has more than one path meandering to the various peaks, the highest sitting at 4,921 feet (1,500 meters), so bring a map and a compass.
Other Places to Climb
While the five sacred Taoist peaks may be the most popular mountains in the country, climbing enthusiasts should also check out the four sacred Buddhist peaks, as well as the mountain climbing and bouldering opportunities on the limestone karst formations near Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.