Who Built Hong Kong's Epic Hiking Trails?


Hong Kong - A Modern Mecca for Hikers

While for some, Hong Kong is a jungle only in the urban sense, those in the know appreciate the city's vast network of hiking trails that can quite literally take individuals from urban landscapes to mountain peaks within an hour.

In this way, us Hong Kongers are truly spoilt for choice as there are incredible hiking trails in every single district in the city - from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the New Territories, Lantau and even on our outlying islands!

But how did Hong Kong reach this elevated status of hiking nirvana? Who built all these amazing trails and when did hiking even become synonymous with a city that was once just a collection of coastal villages?

What Were Hong Kong's First 'Hiking Trails' Used For?

Looking back in time, the city's love affair with hiking wasn't always so prevalent. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hong Kong was made up mostly of rural areas and villages.

The population of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon was "283,905 in 1901. In addition, the New Territories were estimated to have over 100,000 inhabitants."

Any 'hiking' routes at this time were used mainly to transport goods from one village to another for trading purposes. Many of these routes still exist in Hong Kong today and are known as 'ancient trails'.

With inhabitants at the time living a pretty tough existence, hiking as a leisure activity simply didn't exist as a concept.

Hong Kong Hiking Begins to Boom in the 1970s

During the first half of the 20th century, life in Hong Kong was tumultuous at best, with wars and population influxes stretching the city to its limits.

However, once Hong Kong began to stabilize and prosper in the 1960s and 1970s, hiking began to bloom as a desirable recreational activity - especially as more and more residents left the countryside to live in urban areas.

According to Country Parks Officer Fai Fai (Felix) Yeung, the "Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) has been responsible for the management and maintenance of the hiking trail network in country parks ever since the establishment of the first batch of country parks in Hong Kong in 1977."

At the time, the Country Parks Ordinance included 21 country parks, while today there are 24.

The creation of these designated country parks and the introduction of long-distance footpaths like the MacLehose, Lantau and Wilson Trails granted residents unlimited and convenient access to Hong Kong's stunning scenery and nature.

This is when modern hiking and Hong Kong's hiking trails, as we know them today, were born. After this point in time, hiking quickly became one of the city's favorite outdoor activities.

How Does the AFCD Select Where to Build Hiking Trails?

I'd argue that Hong Kong's hiking trails are some of the most stunning in the world and this is certainly by design. Mr Yeung explained, "We (the AFCD) plan to link up the scenic spots with high aesthetic and recreational values via our hiking trail networks."

In addition to getting hikers to some of Hong Kong's most scenic locales, Mr Yeung also emphasized that introducing Hong Kongers to nature in a safe and responsible way was another consideration when selecting where to build hiking trails.

The AFCD selects areas that can provide "comfortable, convenient and safe access for visitors to enjoy nature...without compromising the natural environment, historical heritage and other existing land uses."

Yeung mentioned that when selecting where to build hiking trails the AFCD would also "avoid the unsafe spots, minimize the impacts to ecologically sensitive areas, heritage interest and private village settlement as far as possible."

How Are Hong Kong's Hiking Trails Built?

According to Mr. Yeung, there are five steps to building a hiking trail in Hong Kong. These are:

  1. Planning & Design – various offsite planning considerations, onsite ground truthing and adjustment on design.
  2. Construction – utilizing eco-craft and manual methodology with simple hand tools, wise use of onsite natural materials such as wood logs, natural rocks/stones as far as possible and avoid using large machinery for construction and transportation of materials to minimize impact to the surrounding natural environment.
  3. Installation of signage and various ancillary facilities along the trails – distance posts, waymarks, information boards, warning signs, law enforcement signs, shelters, benches etc. at suitable locations.
  4. Routine Inspection - regular patrol and inspection to monitor the status of trails and associated facilities
  5. Regular maintenance – remediate any defects detected from inspection and improve/upgrade the trail conditions, whenever necessary.

How Are Hong Kong's Hiking Trails Maintained?

Once a hiking trail is built, upkeep is extremely important for the longevity of the trail and safety of hikers.

The main sources of damage to hiking trails in Hong Kong, according to Mr Yeung, are "heavy and intensive usage and erosion problems driven by severe rainfall under extreme weather."

When a hiking trail is damaged or needs routine maintenance work, Yeung states that AFCD frontline workers repair damage by utilizing "eco-craft and manual methodology using simple hand-tools."

Through these simple means, trail maintenance can be completed with minimal impact on the natural surroundings - something that would be impossible with the deployment of large, disruptive machinery.

5 Ways You Can Help Maintain Hong Kong's Hiking Trails

If you're an avid hiker or just want to do your part to preserve Hong Kong's unique hiking trails, there are four ways you can actively help according to Mr. Yeung:

  1. Utilize official trails as much as possible - creating shortcuts or using informal trails may lead to deterioration of trails and surrounding natural environment.
  2. Only use hiking poles if absolutely necessary - there is sound scientific evidence that suggests hiking poles are a serious source of soil erosion on trails.
  3. Become a trail volunteer - The AFCD's “Repair Our Own Trail” Scheme engages public volunteers to do trail maintenance work under the supervision and guidance of our experienced frontline staff.
  4. Practice good hiking etiquette - these are the six main ways to ensure you're following proper hiking etiquette. Following these basic rules will help reduce the amount of resources spent by the AFCD on basic things like trash collection.

Why Country Parks and Hiking Trails Are So Important to Hong Kong

Hong Kong's country parks and hiking trails make accessible the incredible natural wonders of Hong Kong. Currently, 40 per cent of Hong Kong's land area has been designated as 24 country parks and 22 special areas.

The reason such high importance is placed on Hong Kong's natural environment is because of how uniquely rich the city's flora and fauna is.

In Hong Kong, we have approximately 3,300 species of plants, 55 species of terrestrial mammals, 115 species of amphibians and reptiles, 194 species of freshwater fish, over 130 dragonfly species and about 245 butterfly species.

Hong Kong also boasts around 26% of all the marine species recorded in China despite making up only 0.03% of the region's total sea area.

Through hiking, more people come into contact with Hong Kong's amazing wildlife and can appreciate how important it is that we preserve it. Indeed, Hong Kong's "country park system is one of the best in the world and has been a regional example of conservation best practice."

I have nothing but admiration and respect for the men and women who plan, build and maintain our country parks. It's often a thankless job, but it brings joy to millions of locals and visitors, alike!

For more information on the AFCD's hiking efforts, visit their website here.