Chiang Dao Summit

Hiking Thailand’s Most Spectacular Summit

Ever since I set eyes on Doi Luang Chiang Dao dominating the surrounding valley last year I knew I just had to climb it and recently, I finally got my chance. For anyone heading North of Chiang Mai it’s impossible to miss the near vertical limestone cliffs rise 2225 metres into the clouds, which dominates the surrounding countryside. Doi Luang Chiang Dao is the 3rd highest peak in Thailand after Doi Inthanon and Doi Pha Hom Pok and undoubtedly the most beautiful mountain in the country. The area is home to some interesting attractions such as Chiang Dao caves near the base of the mountain, as well as hot springs. A number of quaint coffee shops and restaurants have also sprung up around the mountain, some offering spectacular views.

Chiang DaoView of Chiang Dao on the 107 Highway from Chiang Mai

Doi Luang Chiang Dao is part of a wildlife reserve area and a number of rare and endemic species populate the region. Access to the summit is quite difficult and there are no facilities along the trail which seems to put off most people from visiting. Technically a guide is required however it is possible to ‘sneak in’ if you know where the trailhead is. Since day trips are not even an option we took the gamble on not hiring a guide and we set off from Chiang Mai at 5am to make the trailhead by sunrise. It’s around an hour to Chiang Dao district but with several km of winding roads up the trailhead, allow yourself 2 hours to drive from Chiang Mai. After paying the necessary park fees of 200THB per person we drove up to around 1000m above sea level at and geared up for the long hike to follow.

Tip: If you choose to drive yourself the trailhead is marked with some limited information on the flora and fauna and a pretty non-descript map of the mountain trail as well as parking for a few cars on the side of the road. The trail is quite well trodden so from the parking area you can’t really miss the start. I would recommend at least 3 litres of water for the hike and plenty of snacks for energy.

The first hour was a moderately steep slog up a narrow trail which essentially brings you into a large bowl, the views were amazing and as the sun started poking its head over the craggy cliffs to the West we were all in good spirits. Despite Northern Thailand being in the midst of a drought the vegetation was green and lush and the sound of birds filled the air – something certainly amiss in other National Parks as hunting is a huge problem in the North. There were some beautiful plants and flowers along the trail, something Chiang Dao is well known for. The trail levelled off for a short time as we hiked North towards the summit inside the bowl, to the East and West were huge cliffs and to the North, the highest ridge at 2225m. The trail was strewn with interesting rock formations and we passed through a variety of stunning terrain with grand vistas all around us.

Hike to Chiang Dao2 hours into the hike with stunning views all around.

After around 3 hours we were approaching the final leg to the top and the trail started getting steeper and steeper. We passed through a campsite just short of the summit which was surprisingly full of people, it was quite sad to see quite a bit of garbage thrown in bushes and on the side of the trail, whilst most of it was biodegradable wipes it still made for an unpleasant site and would still be months before breaking down. Alas after 4 hours we reached the summit, a small open patch on the tip of a long ridge. It was without doubt the best hike I had done in Thailand and had some of the most breathtaking views making the 4 hours of walking easily worth the effort. I actually envisaged it to be much more technical but it was only steep in certain sections, most notably near the top but no climbing experience or technical experience is necessary to make the summit, rather just relatively good fitness.

View from Summit of Chiang DaoView from the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao

We rested for an hour on top giving me time to test out my new gas cooker and after a lunch of carrot and coriander soup, fresh coffee and sandwiches I had a quick explore of the ridge taking as many photos and videos as possible. We were all reluctant to leave the tranquility of the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, the views of the surrounding mountains were mesmerizing and the temperature a comfortable 20 degrees. The only downside was that the burning season started early so visibility was limited by a thin smoky haze. The hike down took approximately 2 hours, the final 30 minutes was particularly punishing on tiring legs and aching muscles but after 8 hours and 14.5km we made it back to the car and headed home via a nice restaurant to enjoy the sun setting over our newly conquered mountain.

Tip: I would recommend hiring a guide for the trip, there is a junction after a few km and it could be possible to get in serious danger as its quite far to hike out. We only opted against it as a member of the group was familiar with the trail and had done it several times. Thai Eco Solutions is an operator in Chiang Mai that offer hiking trips to Chiang Dao.  You can also find out more about trekking in Thailand here.