Stretching across 60 miles, the MacLehose Trail offers the most comprehensive experience of Hong Kong’s unique and diverse nature.
When people think of Hong Kong, tightly packed high-rises and bright neon signs often come to mind. But the city is also a hiker’s paradise.
Three-quarters of the land is protected nature, owing to a mountainous landscape that limits development.
And it’s possible to hike across the entire city, thanks to a trail built more than 40 years ago.
Stretching across 60 miles from east to west, the MacLehose Trail offers the most comprehensive experience of Hong Kong’s unique and diverse nature.
Opened in 1979, the route is named after Murray MacLehose, Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor and a hiking enthusiast. In 2016, National Geographic called it one of the world’s top 20 “dream hikes.”
Most people tackle parts of the trail on day trips. Some have attempted to do it all in one go.
A Nepalese team holds the record for fastest through-hike—an astounding 10 hours and 58 minutes, set in 2013 during the annual Hong Kong Trailwalker competition, where teams race along the entire MacLehose Trail.
But a more realistic pace is four to five days, which I attempted earlier this year in March.
Preparing for the hike
As an avid hiker, I have spent many hours on trails in Europe and Asia. None are quite like the MacLehose.
Here, the distance between wilderness and civilization is miniscule. You can trudge for hours fighting the elements, with Hong Kong’s sprawling cityscape still within eyeshot. It is wilderness at the edge of a metropolis.
For the hike, it was important to pack light. I packed only essentials, relying on Korean black bean noodles, a container of homemade kimchi, and granola bars for the bulk of my meals.
Hong Kong in March is temperate, so all I needed for clothing was a dry t-shirt and a warm sweater to change into in the evenings.
The trail intersects both roads and popular trailheads, where amenities like running water and bathrooms are available. So with some careful planning, I managed to get by with only two bottles of water, which I refilled at various points along the trail.
The trail starts in the far eastern section of Hong Kong in a scenic nature park called Sai Kung. It follows the edge of the High Island Reservoir, a dam which provides drinking water for the city.
The road leads to the Geopark, a Unesco World Heritage site where an enormous volcano erupted 140 million years ago, creating the islands and hexagonal pillars that line Hong Kong’s dramatic eastern coastline.
Over the years, erosion has formed a series of sea arches and caves, which can be viewed from the trail.
We then coil around the Sai Kung Peninsula, snaking up and down ridges and crossing white beaches with turquoise waters which look straight out of a postcard.
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This is arguably the most beautiful part of the trail, a popular destination for hikers, climbers, kayakers, and surfers alike.
The second day sees some of the most grueling inclines of the entire hike, as the trail works its way out of the densely forested slopes of Sai Kung and up to a ridge, just below the peak of Hong Kong’s second-highest mountain, Ma On Shan, at 2,300 feet.
Here, the landscape opens up and offers a beautiful overlook of the Sai Kung Peninsula and its adjoining archipelago. This is where I pitch my tent for the night, with the view at my doorstep.
I wake up to fog the following day and set off on what will be the toughest day of the entire hike.
The trail follows a ridge which flanks the most central parts of the city, offering a spectacular view of the Hong Kong skyline.
Here, you’ll also find caves, bunkers, and trenches constructed as a defensive line during World War II.
The trail then cuts north and enters Kam Shan Country Park, which is teeming with wildlife. There are boars, snakes, porcupines, and the occasional red muntjac deer. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a cockatoo.
But by far the most common encounter along the trail are cows. They have been around in Hong Kong since the 1970s, when a decline in farming left the animals free to roam the city’s countryside parks.
While most animals will avoid hikers, macaques though have a reputation for harassing hikers for food. Fortunately, they leave me alone and I’m spared any discomfort.
The final leg, the push up Needle Hill, is what makes the day so tough. The incline is steep and the stairs seem endless, especially since the peak came towards the end of a 17-mile day.
The last day is the longest but also the easiest. The only real challenge is summiting Tai Mo Shan, the highest peak of Hong Kong at 3,140 feet.
The peak itself is occupied by an observatory, but the view is beautiful on a clear day. From here, the trail slowly works its way down through forests, to the finish line in Tuen Mun, where I celebrate with a burger.
A few days on a trail always serves as a good reminder to appreciate the fruits of civilization. For many people, myself included, completing the MacLehose Trail is not only a challenge, but a way to temporarily escape the city and its many realities.
“Like many Hong Kongers, I felt depressed and stressed in the past year,” says Au-yueng Tai-shan, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Au-yueng also through-hiked the MacLehose in four days earlier this year.
“Hiking provides a relaxing space for my mind and body, and reminds me that there are still many things in this city left to discover,” he said. “Before the hike, I said ‘If the past year didn’t beat you down, why should the MacLehose?’”