19.3997° N, 98.8767° E
As two Coloradoans (and two avid hikers) it made sense that we would set our sites on climbing to the top of Doi Chiang Dao, the third tallest mountain in all of Thailand, and definitely one of the prettiest.
The mountain itself sits at 2,175 meters or roughly 7,136 feet. Not that high compared to many mountains in our home state. But it wasn’t the height factor we were chasing. No, it was the desire to not only do something a bit harder than riding motorbikes all day, but to also explore and experience one of the prettiest natural areas in the region - and of course, get a little off the beaten path.
Doi, means “mountain” (though “Doi”, “Phu”, and “Khao” all can mean mountain depending on your location in Thailand: Doi is usually used for mountains in the north, Phu in the northeast, and Khao in the middle and the south), so Doi Chiang Dao really just meant Chiang Dao Mountain. Which made total sense once we arrived: the mountain sat firmly in the middle of the district and could be seen for miles around.
Chiang Dao, while quite close to Chiang Mai (a mere hour ride away), feels very different than the bustling city. In place of tall apartment buildings are limestone mountains, in place of large street thoroughfares are lush open plains, and in place of restaurants and bars are vineyards. Yes, Chiang Dao has earned the nickname, “Little Tuscany” due to it producing several unique types of wine. The district is also a very important natural area and popular birding spot - especially the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to 300+ unique types of birds. Similarly, the district is special in that it is the only place in Thailand with all twelve hill tribes in residence.
Doi Chiang Dao, which is actually part of a limestone massif, is one of the highest (Thai) peaks in the Daen Lao Range, a mountain range of the Shan Hills, which begin in Myanmar. The Shan Hills start close to the border with China and runs all the way south and across the Thai border. In fact, Doi Chiang Dao sits less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border with Myanmar.
Some Answers to the Most Important Doi Chiang Dao Questions
| Can you do the hike in one day?
Yes! It is only 12 kilometers (~7.5 miles) round-trip. So if you start early you can definitely make it to the top in one day (see more information on this below).
| With a guide or not?
Usually, we would say go solo (we are very much independent-minded travelers), but as of 2019 you are now required to have a guide. It costs about 100 baht ($3.25) for a guide and you have to go to the main park office, which is not at the trailhead, to pay and reserve your spot (guide). Most people say to go at least one day ahead to make sure everything is in order before you start hiking.
| Best time to hike Doi Chiang Dao?
Though this might be a tad surprising, one of the best times to hike Doi Chiang Dao is actually during the rainy season. Why? Because if you are willing to risk getting a bit wet (definitely bring a raincoat and good waterproof shoes) you will be rewarded with lush green scenery, amazing clouds, and even prettier mountain vistas. Plus, the rainy season is the liveliest time in the hill tribe villages and in the fields. So if you are curious about the various hill tribe cultures and traditions, this is a great time to check them out.
| How much will it likely cost?
There are various factors to consider when looking at price. As of now, you have to at least account for the 100 baht cost of a guide and the 200 baht entrance fee to the park. Besides that, you have to consider lodging (we believe we paid around 150-200 baht for our cabin, which also included dinner and breakfast), snacks (maybe another 40 baht) and then anything you want after the hike (coffee, a full meal, etc.).
A rough (rough) estimate would be about ~600 baht, or just under $20. Which is not bad at all. Note: joining a tour group would of course make that total cost a lot higher.
| Is it worth it?
YES! Absolutely. The hike itself is really beautiful, and definitely not something a lot of tourists do. So if you want something truly off the beaten path and adventurous, hiking Doi Chiang Dao is 100% worth doing. Plus, the views are truly stunning.
Now for our own adventure climbing Doi Chiang Dao
We headed up to the mountain for a weekend away from the city, a nice trip to get back to nature, get a bit of a workout in, and explore a different part of the region. Luckily, there are plenty of places to stay near the mountain including in the town of Chiang Dao itself. We decided to forgo staying in the town for something a bit more rustic - so we headed out of Chiang Dao, up Road 3024 (a beautiful winding mountain road with stunning views) until we reached Baan View Doi Luang Chiang Dao, a nice mountaintop retreat with camping and small one-room bamboo cabins.
We can’t remember how much we paid to stay (we don’t think it was very much), but besides the cost covering one night’s stay in the cabin, it also included dinner and breakfast (both of which were absolutely delicious). Plus, the views of the surrounding mountains, including the cloud covered summit of Doi Chiang Dao, made it entirely worth it.
We woke up in the morning, after a nice relaxing nights sleep, ready to conquer the mountain. But... then we realized Luke was missing one of his shoes. After searching the entire village (and getting the help of many of the local villagers) we realized it was gone, disappeared into thin air (or more likely into one of the street dogs' hideaways). We didn’t allow the loss of a shoe to deter us though. Thanks to Luke’s creative mind (and possible background in engineering) we wrangled up one of the other lost shoes from the village (a nice flip-flop), grabbed some fabric and thin wire, and after a couple of minutes, boom a second shoe was born.
After that interesting ordeal we headed to the trailhead, which though it doesn’t appear on Google Maps, is easily found off the side of the same road we drove up on (there might even be a car or two there as well). Just look out for the sign saying Doi Chiang Dao, and the symbol of a hiker.
While many people (and other websites) state that you need two days to do the hike, in truth it is relatively easy. There are a couple of steeper spots, including a rock scramble to the very top, but for most of the hike you are gradually climbing through tropical forests, open mountain valleys, and eventually, high up on the rocky peak itself. It is only 12 kilometers round-trip, or just under 7.5 miles. So if you start early you shouldn’t have a problem conquering the mountain in a day (we did it in about 6 hours).
Note: if you join one of the two-day tour groups, which include a guide and porters, you do have the opportunity to see the mountain peak during both sunrise and sunset, which would probably be pretty sweet.
One of the other great things about doing the hike in one day instead of two, or going with a tour group in general, is that you will likely have the peak all to yourself. We reached the top and found it completely empty. Just us, a sign and some of the best views Thailand has to offer. Make sure to spend some extra time at the top - not only will it give you a good perspective of the area, but the landscape always changes with the clouds.
From the peak you simply retrace your steps and head right back down the way you came. Note: there are a couple of side trails off the main trail, but if you are smart and only follow the more well-trodden path you should be fine. The way back was a lot quicker and in no time we were once again back at the trailheal. After resting for a bit and quickly switching shoes (Luke’s makeshift shoe held up just fine, even on the steeper parts), we hopped on our motorcycle and headed back to town for a nice refreshing drink and some much-needed food.
Luckily, Chiang Dao has a lot to offer - including some great cafes like Hippocampus, Gaedum Bakery & Mokluang Cafe, and Black Bear Cafe (all three have awesome views of the mountains as well). While we are not necessarily city people, Chiang Dao does have a nice feel to it. It isn't super touristy like Pai, but it also has all the services you could need (including good iced coffee and fresh fruit). If you have the time, we definitely recommend spending some extra time in the Chiang Dao area after or before the hike.
Even after exploring a fair bit of Northern Thailand, we both agree that hiking Doi Chiang Dao and adventuring in the Chiang Dao area is a definite must for any traveler looking to have an authentic, off the beaten path experience. Not only are there some great mountains the climb, but also beautiful waterfalls, caves, temples, and even wineries to explore. So if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai and are looking to escape the bustling city, we highly (highly) recommend heading north to the Chiang Dao district.
Curious about other adventures in the Chiang Dao area?
Besides the mountain itself, there is a lot of exciting things to explore in the Chiang Dao District - including, but not limited to these three places below. Other destinations to explore include Srilanna National Park, Sri Sangwan Waterfall, Doi Kham Fah Forest and the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center.
| Wat Tham Chiang Dao
This spot combines two very common things in Northern Thailand: caves and temples. Wat Tham Chiang Dao sits on the edge of town and is worth spending a couple of hours exploring. It costs 100 baht each and includes the main grounds and the lit cave system (there is a darker cave area that requires a guide and is double the price).
| Wat Tham Pha Plong Chiang Dao
Just up the road from Wat Tham Chiang Dao is another beautiful temple, though this one includes over 500 steps in place of a cave. While it might be a bit of a tough walk (especially right after reaching the top of Doi Chiang Dao), the temple is definitely worth checking out for the views of the surrounding jungle. It is also free to enter, just dress accordingly.
| Chiang Dao Hot Springs
Is there anything better than a nice soak in some hot springs after a long day on the trail? Probably not (we could be convinced that an iced coffee is also sublime). Luckily, there are some “natural” hot springs just outside of town to soak away any aches or pains you may be feeling. While the hot springs are free to use, they are also quite busy. So we suggest either going quite late or very early in the day. Or you can pay 50 baht and go to the private hot springs right next door. Note: if you want to stay close to the hot springs, there is a farm stay just down the road that offers lodging and free breakfast.
Want to learn more about our other off the beaten path adventures? Follow us on Instagram @backroad_packers.
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xx always adventure,