The best natural sights around Chiang Mai include misty mountains, lush forests, rivers, caves and waterfalls. Thailand’s highest summit is Doi Inthanon, which lies within a protected park within easy reach of the city. 

    Chiang Mai’s natural sights offer a range of outdoor activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, birdwatching, and river rafting. If you prefer something laidback, taking a dip in a hot spring, river, or lake is a must-do. Here are just a few ideas of where you can escape and discover the most beautiful landscapes gracing this province in Northern Thailand.

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    Doi Inthanon National Park

    Take in the view from Thailand’s highest peak

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    The Doi Inthanon National Park is a lush landscape of mountains, forests and waterfalls about 70 km southwest of central Chiang Mai. The park’s namesake mountain, Doi Inthanon reaches an elevation of 2,565 meters. It's a popular site for watching the sunrise in Northern Thailand. There’s no hiking involved to reach the summit, as you can enjoy road access by automobile or motorbike.

    Covering 482 sq km, the Doi Inthanon National Park is most easily explored by automobile or motorbike. You can arrange a guided tour for birdwatching or visiting notable sites like the Two ChedisSirithan Waterfall, the flower gardens of Inthanon Royal Project Research Station, and Mae Klang Luang Village. It’s best to visit on a weekday to avoid crowds. The park charges fees for entry and parking. 

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    2

    Bua Thong Waterfalls

    Climb the cascades of these “sticky” waterfalls

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    The Bua Thong Waterfalls, or Sticky Waterfalls, offer a refreshing retreat with cool multi-tiered cascades and limestone rocks. Mineral deposits in the water keep algae from adhering to the rocks, so you can explore the fast-flowing falls while keeping a good grip.

    Bua Thong Waterfalls are part of within the Sri Lanna National Forest, about 60 km north of central Chiang Mai. A popular sight next to the park is Mae Ngad Somboonchol Dam, a scenic reservoir where you could enjoy kayak rental, long-tail boat trips, and overnight stays in a traditional raft house.

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    3

    Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

    Glittering temple spires and nature trails

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    The Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is a 262-sq-km protected area that hosts Chiang Mai’s sacred hilltop temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. While many people come just to see the temple, nature lovers can find many miles of cycling and hiking trails, waterfalls, campgrounds, and bungalows.

    The Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is one of the most accessible natural sights in Chiang Mai. It's only about a 35-minute drive from the city centre. You can explore most of the park on your own, but you may choose to arrange a guided trip to help navigate the longer trails and visit the Hmong hill-tribe village.

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    Huay Tung Tao Reservoir

    Casual lakeside dining and chillout sessions

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    The Huay Tung Tao Reservoir is a lovely natural spot just 20 minutes from Chiang Mai. Located at the base of Doi Suthep, this large manmade lake offers a scenic setting to relax and take in the views. You can also enjoy a range of water activities like bathing and paddle boating. Those looking to explore off the water could set out on a trail walk, visit an animal sculpture park for fun Instagram pics, or go for a ziplining session or ATV ride.

    Dotted along the reservoir’s shoreline are about 20 restaurants with wooden or bamboo huts. Locals and visitors often visit the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir to unwind, enjoy a meal, or have a lakeside massage. There’s a small fee to enter the reservoir.

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    5

    Chiang Dao Cave

    Tranquil cave and temple complex

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    Chiang Dao Cave is a large complex of more than 100 grottoes inside a mountain range. It's about 70 km north of Chiang Mai. Only 5 of the caves are open to visitors. The caverns have large stalagmite and stalactite formations that look a bit like a glittering underground palace. Adding to the mystical aura are Buddha images dotted throughout the grottoes.  

    After paying a small entry fee and entering the cave entrance, you’ll reach a guide station. You can choose to carry on further into the cave on your own or hire a guide with a lantern to lead you. It’s well worth the modest cost to learn more about the ecology and local folklore of the caves and to avoid taking a wrong turn! Chiang Dao Cave is also a popular day-trip destination, with tours that include kayaking along the Ping River and jungle walks.

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    6

    Mae Kampong Waterfall

    Cascades near a peaceful mountain village retreat

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    The Mae Kampong Waterfall is near the mountain village of Mae Kampong, about 50 km north of Chiang Mai. This 7-tier cascade is accessible via a short jungle walk along a stream not far from the village. Most visitors include a walk to the waterfall as part of a larger exploration of the surrounding area, which exudes a tranquil, step-back-in-time feel.

    While visiting the Mae Kampong Waterfall, you can challenge yourself to the Flight of the Gibbon zipline ride, relax at a cozy cafe with leafy-green surrounds, and sample the village’s locally made sai hua (Northern Thai sausages). Several local families even offer homestays for those who want to experience the villagers' slow pace of life.

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    7

    San Kamphaeng Hot Springs

    Soothe your soul in the restorative water

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    The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs are a great for enjoying a restorative soak in hot mineral waters. The natural pools are easy to spot, with geysers at the entrance spraying a continuous flow of hot water high into the air. After paying a small admission fee, you can enjoy a foot soak session or full immersion in the natural hot spring waters. Massage services are also available onsite, as are shops and restaurants – you could easily make it a full day of rejuvenation here.

    Boiling eggs in the hot spring water is another popular activity at the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. There’s even a sign with time suggestions for making soft or hard-boiled eggs.

    Location: No. 1, Moo 7, Ban Sa Ha Khon Subdistrict, Mae On District, Chiang Mai 50130, Thailand

    Open: Daily from 7 am to 6 pm

    Phone: +66 (0)53 037 101

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    8

    Ob Khan National Park

    Magnificent river gorge scenery

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    The Ob Khan National Park is a natural wonderland of forests, mountains, waterfalls and rivers. The 484-sq-km protected parkland is in Hang Dong, about 30 km southwest of Chiang Mai. It's known as the only place in Thailand to find the colorful purple-and-white flowering plant Dendrobium Wardianum, which blooms during January.

    The photogenic Ob Khan gorge is near the national park office. There’s a nature trail that takes you along the gorge and into the forest. Huay Ta Sai is a section of the river with a sandy shoreline. It's popular with visitors looking to relax and have a refreshing dip. Hiking and mountain biking trails lead to various waterfalls, caves, hot springs, and viewpoints within the national park.

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    9

    Mae Wang National Park

    Home to Thailand’s Grand Canyon

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    The Mae Wang National Park covers some 120 sq km of forest and mountain ranges. Established in 2009, the park is best known for its “Grand Canyon” landmark called Pha Chor – steep towering cliffs rising from an ancient riverbed that resemble the famous national park in the USA.

    Near the park are several sights and activities for outdoor enthusiasts, including rafting on the Mae Wang River, the Mae Wang Waterfall, and several hiking trails. Located about 50 km southwest of Chiang Mai, the Mae Wang National Park makes for a good stop for those on the way to Doi Inthanon.

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    10

    Doi Ang Khang

    Cool weather and fog-shrouded mountains in the far north

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    Doi Ang Khang is an agricultural area in Chiang Mai's Fang district. It's a good place to catch spectacular sunrise views over the misty mountains. You can find numerous opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and birdwatching, with over 1,000 species identified in the area. Royal agricultural projects like the Bonsai Garden are open to visitors, as well as the various villages with hill-tribe and ethnic communities that reflect the area’s location on the frontier with Myanmar.

    Doi Ang Khang is about 150 km north of Chiang Mai. Getting there requires a drive up some steep hills, so it might be worth joining a tour or arranging a trip with an experienced driver.

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    Paul Smith | Compulsive Traveler

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