Beijing’s go-to place for admiring the crimson and gold leaves of autumn has long been Xiang Shan. A famous park in the hills of Haidian, Xiang Shan is a historical landmark renowned for its autumn scenery and its seasonal throngs of tourists. For red leaves with less of a traffic jam, set your sights ten kilometers northeast to Baiwang Shan Forest Park (Baiwangshan Senlin Gongyuan). With an area of 150 hectares (compared to Xiang Shan’s 157), Baiwang Shan has hills, foliage, scenery, and a little bit of war history to satisfy your thirst for fall without the crushing crowds of Xiang Shan.
Evergreens, common smoke trees, and mature maples cover 95 percent of the park, and in the fall, thousands of vibrant red leaves burst forth for Baiwang Shan’s annual Red Leaf Festival (For more info, see adjacent page). The park’s main entrance is the East Gate, and just inside is the Stele Forest area (Beilin qu). In the center is a tall, double-roofed pavilion constructed in 1993 to commemorate Chairman Mao’s 100th birthday. Surrounding the pavilion is a large exhibit of calligraphy carved in upright stone tablets. The tablets, called steles, are epigraphs for more than 200 revolutionary martyrs.
A main path leads to the top of the 210m high peak, though the path is paved in uneven stone and concrete. It is steep in the beginning, and while it’s not a difficult climb, navigating with a stroller may pose a challenge. The climb from the hill’s base to Zhanfeng Pavilion, which sits atop the peak, will take 30 minutes to an hour depending on your pace. If you want to take a water or snack break, there are plenty of benches in shady alcoves dotting the main path.
Getting to the top is well worth the effort. On a clear day, you can see the buildings of downtown Beijing in one direction and the mountains beyond Haidian in the other. Zhanfeng Pavilion, the ideal yet popular outlook, is only accessible via stairs on both sides of the mountain. On the south side of the hill’s peak, just steps below Zhanfeng Pavilion, is She Taijun Temple (she taijun miao), a small shrine dedicated to She Saihua. Also known as Grand Dame She (she taijun), she is a historical figure from the Northern Song dynasty. Legend has it that she stood on the hill where her shrine is now to watch her husband Yang Ye, and their son fight a battle below. Army General Pan Mei refused to send aid to Yang Ye’s troops, and he and his son died as a result. After she persecuted Pan in imperial court, Emperor Taizong, who trusted her judgment, made her commander-in-chief of his army.
Once you hit the main spots, tap into your adventurous side and strike out on the smaller, steeper trails that spider through the park. Some paths are hard to spot, so look to the sides of the main path or scout out a route from the while you’re atop the peak. The small trails, which are unpaved and have jagged stone steps, lead to places like Tianmo Valley (tianmo gou), the red leaf area (hongye qu), and less-trafficked, unlabeled lookout points.
One of these lookout points, situated in the heart of Baiwang Shan Park, has a stone statue covered in a brilliant yellow cape, but no markings indicate who or what it is for. The main path has a few stops with Chinese maps that are faded and torn. The most accurate, readable map (Chinese-only) is on the main path at Friendship Pavilion (youyi ting).
Despite these setbacks for navigating, it’s easy to find your way through the park or side trails. There are plenty of peaceful spots to sit and have a picnic, escape other tourists, or enjoy the fact that you are out of earshot of Beijing traffic.
There are three small snack shops in the park: one at the East Gate entrance, one at the base of Shetaijun Temple, and one at the top of the tallest peak at Zhanfeng Pavilion. The stores sell crackers, ice cream, and drinks (water is RMB 4, crackers are RMB 6), but it is important to come to Baiwangshan well-provisioned, especially with water. If you venture onto the small trails, it’s easy to find yourself a good 30-minute walk from these stores.
If your family wants to keep soaking up the final vestiges of good outdoor weather, it’s a quick bus or taxi ride from Baiwang Shan Park to the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan), Beijing Botanical Gardens, or even Xiang Shan Park.
Baiwang Shan Forest Park 百望山森林公园
RMB 6, half price for students with ID. Children under 1.2 meters get in free. Daily 6am-6pm. 19 Heishanhu Beikou, Haidian District (6288 4508) www.baiwangshan.com 海淀区黑山扈北口19号
Xiang Shan Park 香山公园
RMB 10, RMB 5 (students). Daily 6am-6pm (winter), 6am-6.30pm (summer). Xiang Shan, Haidian District (6259-1155) 海淀区香山
Red Leaf Festival
Every autumn, Baiwang Shan has the Red Leaf Festival. Exact dates depend on the weather; if it’s colder sooner, the festival is also sooner. Generally, the Red Leaf Festival lasts from around October 20 to November 15.
By public transportation:
Take subway Line 4 to Beigongmen station. Just outside exit A1 is the Beigongmen bus stop. Jump on Bus 697 or 330 and ride four stops (about 15 minutes) to Baiwang Shan Senlin Gongyuan stop, which drops you right outside the park’s East Gate. Baiwang Shan is also reachable through buses 518, 633, 651, 718, 909, express buses 4 and 6, and yuntong bus 112.
From Madian Qiao on North Third Ring Road, head north to hook up with the Jingzang Expressway. At Shangqing Qiao on Fifth Ring Road, head west. Then take the right ramp to Xiaojiahe Qiao. At the end of the ramp, turn right (northwest) onto Yiheyuan Xilu. Continue 1.8km and turn left on Malianwa Beilu. Cross the river; the parking lot of the East Gate of Baiwangshan Forest Park lies straight ahead.
Photos by Ellis Friedman