Trekking in Chiang Mai: travel blogger’s recommendations.
Trekking in Chiang Mai is a wonderful activity to explore the lush, hilly and beautiful region. There are many hikes to take through different parts of Chiang Mai: from the city and into the mountains, to waterfalls and temples, and through jungles and small towns.
Our family has trekked through Doi Inthanon National park, as part of our wonderful homestay program at Huay Pakoot which included a huge hike to see elephants living in the forest (more about our adventure below).
I asked some fellow travel bloggers about their experiences trekking in Chiang Mai too, to give a you a better idea of what’s available. I’m sure you’ll find some stunning outdoor activities that take your fancy here!
- 1 Treks in Chiang Mai
- 1.1 Trekking to find elephants: the Mahouts Elephant Foundation
- 1.2 Trekking with elephants: Elephant Nature Park Hands Off Hike
- 1.3 Trekking Doi Inthanon – Pha Dok Siew Nature Trail
- 1.4 Trekking to Montha Than Waterfall
- 1.5 Trekking the Monk’s Trail to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
- 1.6 Other treks in Chiang Mai province
- 2 Responsible travel tips
- 3 The best season for trekking in Chiang Mai
- 4 Gear to pack for your Chiang Mai trekking adventure
- 5 Final thoughts
Treks in Chiang Mai
Trekking to find elephants: the Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Our homestay and elephant trek was with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation. Their program allows guests to stay in a hill tribe village: being hosted by a local family, and taking a day trek and optional overnight camp into the surrounding forest to observe elephants in the wild.
It was exactly the kind of elephant experience we’d hoped for. They were so happy and healthy, being able to forage all day for their natural foods, and play and bathe uninterrupted by humans. The elephants were rescued from work camps in the city of Chiang Mai, and their mahouts and the Foundation staff walked alongside them for eight days to return to Huay Pakoot. You can read more about our visit and the Mahouts Foundation in my full account: Our ethical elephant experience with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation.
The drive from Chiang Mai city to Huay Pakoot took four hours, through hilly and sometimes quite muddy terrain! On our second day we trekked to find the elephants, which is a different path every time as they’re allowed to roam freely. It took us several hours to find them, with the experienced Mahouts able to track them anywhere.
It was a beautiful hike; challenging in some places, but with stable and well-worn paths to take it was possible even for our young kids (if you’re quite unfit I’d suggest doing some basic preparation first, like this Walking as a Workout course. You don’t have to be an athlete, just able to handle walking up and down hills for hours!) And we were so lucky to enjoy a private tour of this beautiful forest region as we were the only tourists at the time.
We visited in November and were surprised at how cool it was at night and the early mornings in the village! The mountainous regions of Northern Thailand are the coldest places in the country, and some of the coldest parts of Southeast Asia.
Trekking with elephants: Elephant Nature Park Hands Off Hike
By Delilah Hart from Our Travel Mix
Hiking in Thailand next to elephants is an unforgettable experience. Although hundreds of elephant ‘sanctuaries’ exist in Thailand, very few are ethical. I chose Elephant Nature Park, one of the parks well-known for their ethical treatment and rehabilitation of mistreated elephants. When looking for an elephant experience in Chiang Mai, do your research to help you choose an ethical elephant sanctuary. There is plenty of information online, including reviews of other travellers’ experiences.
Elephant Nature Park offers many different tours, but the one that caught my eye was “Sunshine for Elephants”. This tour is part of their Saddle Off! Initiative which endeavours to improve the lives of previously-mistreated elephants, and teaches elephant owners how to care for their elephants ethically and incorporate responsible tourism practices.
All Saddle Off! tours are small groups. In our group, there were only ten people. The full-day tour included a hike around the jungle in Chiang Mai with three elephants, as we prepared food for them. The trekking experience included around three to four hours of walking at a moderate pace. This makes the trek suitable for most age groups, especially active older children. At the end of the trek, we got to enjoy a delicious vegetarian Thai lunch.
Trekking Doi Inthanon – Pha Dok Siew Nature Trail
Contributed by Vaibhav Mehta from The Wandering Vegetable
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Chiang Mai is trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park.
The three main choices are – Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, Ang Ka Nature Trail, and Pha Dok Siew Nature Trail. Out of these, Pha Dok Siew is the most off-the-beaten-path track and has more scenic spots. Also, it’s easier to do with a family. Hiring a guide is advisable for safety purposes and it will usually cost around 200 Baht.
Trekking through the forest, you’ll find pine, cinnamon, and chestnut trees. You’ll also come across a beautiful flower plantation containing Chrysanthemum flowers.
Then, a steep path has you crossing a couple of small waterfalls, leading you to an adorable little bamboo bridge. When you cross the bamboo bridge, you’ll see a calm river flowing under the bridge and a spectacular Pha Dok Siew waterfall right behind you. It is a sight to behold.
Walking further, a series of Banyan trees lined along a muddy path guide you to a stunning visual of well-organized terrace farms cut into hills for the cultivation of rice and strawberries. The farms surrounded by lush green hills on either side make for an alluring visual.
Then, a flowery path has you passing coffee fields and the trail ends with you entering the Mae Klang Luang village. Celebrate the completion of the trek with a hot cup of the tasty local Arabica coffee.
Though the trek is a 2-hour activity, it doesn’t feel exhausting at all thanks to the lovely nature spots in between. All you need for the trek are good trekking shoes (as the path is steep and slippery at some places) and you’re good to go!
Trekking to Montha Than Waterfall
Contributed by Kathi Kamleitner from Watch Me See
The hidden jewel of Montha Than Waterfall is tucked away at the end of a long and bumpy road in the hills above Chiang Mai.
Visiting Montha Than Waterfall (also known as San Pa Yang) is a fun day trip from the city you can do on your own, as long as you’re comfortable hiring a car or scooter for transport.
The road to Montha Than branches off from the popular main road towards Doi Suthep (road 1004). Since the waterfall is inside the Doi Suthep Pui National Park, you have to pay a small fee to continue on this road.
Park up at the generous car park and continue on foot. Montha Than Waterfalls roar down the hills in cascades and the trail climbs up to all of its nine levels. Several of them form pools that are large enough to go for a swim, so make sure you pack a bathing suit and towel! The waterfall is surrounded by lush greenery, beautiful flowers and even several endemic plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
With its jungles, thrilling mountain roads, a beautiful series of waterfalls and a great sense of adventure, this was by far my favourite trip on our Chiang Mai itinerary!
Trekking the Monk’s Trail to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Contributed by Celine Brewer from Family Can Travel
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the top temples to visit in Chiang Mai. It’s very popular and for good reason, it’s a beautiful temple in a stunning setting with incredible views. Most people visit Doi Suthep temple by getting a ride to the base of the 309 steps. When we heard that we could hike to it instead, we knew that was the option for us.
To take a self-guided trekking tour, you start at the trailhead of the Monk’s Trail on the western edge of Chiang Mai. As you hike, the trail is marked by golden strips of fabric tied to the trees, though they’re faded and not always easy to see. The trail is through a treed forest offering some welcome shade up to the first temple, Wat Pha Lat.
After a very short section on the road, you start the second part of the hike which is steeper and more difficult. Our kids, who were five and three years old, managed to hike the entire way on their own except for the road section and small parts where they needed a little extra help. Our trip to Thailand with kids was in the dry season (December), so the trails were dry. This would have been a much more difficult hike in the rain and mud.
This hike can be a challenge in the heat and humidity, but overall we really enjoyed the experience of visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep by hiking to it.
Other treks in Chiang Mai province
ChiangMai trekking opportunities and other outdoor activities are even broader! They include:
- Chiang Dao, an hour north of Chiang Mai where you can hike the 2175m summit of Doi Chiang Dao. The mountain is also home to a wildlife sanctuary and tours are available.
- Mae Tang area, also about an hour from the city, has trekking to sticky waterfalls, as well as white water rafting, a zipline park and kayaking opportunities.
- Mae Wang National Park, is 45 kilometers from Chiang Mai. It boasts mountains and streams that lead to the Wang River, where rubber and bamboo rafting is available. Hikes and bike rides are also possible in Mae Wang, but please avoid the camps that promote elephant riding.
(This same link has Doi Inthanon private tours available).
Responsible travel tips
When trekking Chiang Mai (or anywhere), it’s vital to be a responsible tourist by not leaving any trace of your visit behind. Take all rubbish with you and dispose of it properly, and stick to the marked trails so you don’t accidentally harm vegetation. Never remove plants or objects from your hike either, and don’t feed or disturb wild animals.
If you’re not confident to go it alone, seeking a local guide ensures that you won’t get lost, AND your tourist income directly benefits a person who lives in the community you’re visiting. Supporting local cafes and shops is another great way for your holiday to have a positive impact on real people in the area, so please don’t squabble over prices with them.
Also, people in Hill Tribes (or anywhere) are not photo opportunities just because they may look different to you. Please practice Respectful Photography by always asking before taking a picture, and explaining why you want it and how you will use it. If you can’t do that, it’s best not to take the photo. Trying to communicate with local people and make new friends will give you better memories anyway, as a real connection is far better than a simple photo.
The best season for trekking in Chiang Mai
Northern Thailand has three seasons: dry/cool, wet, and hot. Trekking in Chiang Mai is possible in every season, but there are different considerations for each one.
The dry season in northern Thailand lasts from October until March. This is probably the best season for you if you’re not a huge fan of hiking in hot temperatures and humid weather. But the nights can be frigid in the mountainous parts of the country, so if you’re planning your trip during this time of year, you must bring gear to keep you warm even in the coldest nights, which can drop to 2°C, about 35°F.
Please also be advised that within the cooler dry season is the burning season, or the ‘the smoky season’, which isn’t recommended for trekking in. Each year in late February or early March, many farmers intentionally set fire to their fields to make way for new crops. The smoke from the fields combined with traffic pollution influences the air quality a lot, so always check before leaving on your trek.
The hot season lasts from April to June, where the temperature can get as high as 40°C. If you’re feeling adventurous and choose this time of year for trekking, bring a lot of water and staying away from direct sunlight. The best solution is to hike early in the morning and choose forests with lots of shade to hike through.
The wet season/monsoon season begins in June and lasts until September. Trekking in the monsoon season could be the hardest to plan your journey, but it’s still possible. The downpour usually happens in the afternoon, so again choosing the morning as your hiking time can solve the problem with rain. Keep in mind that some trails can be affected by the storms (which can make them inaccessible) so always talk to a local guide and ask for help during the wet season.
Gear to pack for your Chiang Mai trekking adventure
Depending on the season you choose for your trekking adventure, it is crucial to bring everything that you may need on your trip. Obviously you’ll need some warm clothes in the dry season! Layers work well to peel off as the days warm up. And a comfortable hiking backpack can make a big difference, especially if you’re going for long hikes.
An insulated water bottle is essential, and consider a portable water filter too, especially if your hike is for a full-day or overnight. That way you can refill from natural streams as necessary and carry less water with you.
Choose quality trekking shoes that have a good grip, and pair them with socks that will protect your feet from blisters and other foot-related injuries.
Other great things to bring include a hat, sunscreen and insect repellant (made of natural ingredients if possible, so you don’t contaminate the environment), and a small first aid kit.
I hope that gives you a lot to think about as you plan a trip to Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai was our favourite place in Thailand and we’ll definitely return there one day! It’s a wonderful city and with so many amazing nature opportunities in the province, it really is a spectacular base for extended exploring.
Some of the other things we got up to include:
- Visiting the Elephant PooPooPaper Park, which was a lot of fun!
- Painting and enjoying art at the original home of Elephant Parade Land.
- Finding many things to do in Pattaya with kids. We we pleasantly surprised!