China is a nation filled from one side to the other with some jaw-dropping scenes, both natural and man-made. However, it would be hard to compete with the outstanding natural beauty found here. Each travel guide proudly represents his natural wonder before their China editions – Zhangjiajie National Park.
This must be the most world-recognized natural phenomenon China has to offer. A location which has been immortalized in the blockbuster movie Avatar and brought worldwide recognition. Somewhere that beggars belief and answers the question as to why this is considered such a magical place.
So in that case, here’s your ultimate guide to exploring Zhangjiajie National Park.
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Table of Contents
Where Is Zhangjiajie?
The city and the expansive natural beauty that surrounds it are found on the Eastern edge of Hunan province in southeast China.
First, let’s figure out what’s what. First and foremost, Zhangjiajie is a city, with all the must-see attractions being further outside the city limits. This is where much of the confusion starts.
People are familiar with some of the biggest highlights of the region, without knowing how vastly spread out they are. The region’s highlights can be divided into 3 main areas: Tiananmen Mountain, the Grand Canyon (which includes the glass bridge) and the most well-known of the three; Zhangjiajie National Park.
For this guide, we’ll only be focusing on Zhangjiajie National Park.
How to Get to Zhangjiajie?
The city of Zhangjiajie isn’t the most accessible one. Geographically speaking it’s located quite far from any other nearby must-see destinations.
That being said, it is still well-connected through multiple transport routes.
Getting to Zhangjiajie by Flight
Getting to Zhangjiajie by Train
China has a vast railway network made up of local trains equipped with sleeper cabins and some of the fastest high-speed trains in the world!
There are tickets available on a wide scale of luxury from Business Class to “no seat” tickets, which as the name suggests, come with no place to sit.
The best way to book train tickets in China is through Trip.com. The English language web page makes the process very easy and even gives you the ability to pre-book tickets before they’re released.
For a detailed guide on trains to Zhangjiajie, check out The Ultimate Guide To Chinese Trains.
|Beijing||25 hrs 28 mins||Hard seat: ¥192|
Hard sleeper: ¥351
Soft sleeper: ¥537
|Shanghai||18 hrs 40 mins||Hard seat: ¥189.50|
Hard sleeper: ¥343.50
Soft sleeper: ¥527.50
|Chongqing||5 hrs 59 mins||Hard seat: ¥69|
Hard sleeper: ¥130
Soft sleeper: ¥194
|Guangzhou||12 hrs 33 mins||Hard seat: ¥128.50|
Hard sleeper: ¥257
Soft sleeper: ¥459.50
|Kunming||19 hrs 1 min||Hard seat: ¥163.50|
Hard sleeper: ¥299.50
Soft sleeper: ¥456.50
China also has a high-speed train which takes you to your destination in a third of the time!
|Beijing||11 hrs 14 mins||2nd Class: ¥937|
1st Class: ¥1,510.50
Business class: ¥3,006.50
|Shanghai||9 hrs 21 mins||2nd Class: ¥739|
1st Class: ¥1,227
Business class: ¥2,369
|Shenzhen||6 hrs 31 mins||2nd Class: ¥580.50|
1st Class: ¥907.50
Business class: ¥1,821.50
|Guangzhou||5 hrs 57 mins||2nd Class: ¥506|
1st Class: ¥808
Business class: ¥1,622
|Guilin||7 hrs 23 mins||2nd Class: ¥342|
1st Class: ¥546
Getting to Zhangjiajie by Bus
Buying bus tickets in China may be the cheapest option but it certainly isn’t the easiest. Websites such as cTrip can only be used if you have a Chinese ID card. Sites such as China Bus Guide and Etrip run buses to Zhangjiajie. They also have English web pages, though they will charge a commission for their service.
Your best option is to buy your tickets directly at the bus station. Just be sure to have your destination name written down!
Though buses are a great option for short-distance journeys, China’s enormous size makes long-distance journeys either impossible or unbearable!
|Guangzhou||26 hrs 30 mins||¥470|
How to Get to Zhangjiajie National Park
First problem solved, now how to get to the national park itself? Naturally, such a tourist hot spot has the necessary infrastructure, just a lack of English. First things first, you’ll need to head to Zhangjiajie Bus Station.
From here you’re able to grab a tourist bus to various points around the park. To get to the station from the airport you can take the city bus number 402 or 4.
Alternatively, you could take the airport shuttle bus to Zhangjiajie Civil Aviation Hotel before grabbing a city bus number 5.
As you enter the bus station, you DO NOT need to go to the ticket booth. Go straight through security and follow route number 1 marked as “Tianzi mountain”. This route leads you to a large lot which has several buses, all of which will be headed to different destinations throughout the park.
The Entrances to Zhangjiajie National Park
Which bus you pick depends on where exactly you want to go. This will depend on 1) where you’re staying and 2) which entrance you want to use.
There are five potential entrances: Tianzi Mountain, Zimugang, Forest park (Luoguta) entrances as well as the two most popular: Yangjiajie and Wulingyuan entrances. These last two are located right next to areas with suitable accommodation therefore your best bet.
There are two possible bus routes to take to get to the entrances.
- A bus heads towards Tianzi Mountain (天子山) which will also take you past the Yangjiajie entrance. To get to the latter you need to get off the bus at Zhong Hu (中湖), from which you can then take a little white and green doorless scenic bus for a small fee, which will take you directly to the Yangjiajie ticket office.
- Another bus heads for Wulingyuan (武陵源).
- Another heading for the Forest Park (Luoguta) (罗古塔) entrance. There is no bus which heads for Zimugang.
It is also important to remember that these buses will NOT have English signs, so it’s pretty vital you make a note of the destination’s Chinese writings. They will have each stop the bus makes posted on the front. You can pay directly on the bus, which cost 15, 20 and 11 yuan respectively.
Important Details About Zhangjiajie
Entrance fees are as such and are valid for a total of 4 days:
|March 1 to November 30||December 1 to the end of February|
Opening Hours: 7 am – 6 pm
What’s To See in Zhangjiajie?
Within the confines of Zhangjiajie National Park is one of the most gorgeous sceneries found anywhere in the world, and certainly, one of the very best China has to offer. The expanse of the National Park itself stretches vastly across the region, giving visitors a lot of ground to cover. The park itself can be divided into different sections, of which there are three main areas to focus on – Yangjiajie, Yuanjiajie and Tianzi Mountain.
This by far would be the most popular and crowded region of the national park, and for good reason. This area provides the sites that make the park so well known. Here is where you’ll find the best examples of upward-stretching stone pillars poking their way above the vast valleys they are scattered amongst. The most recognisable image and by far the highlight of the entire park is found at the Heaven’s Pillars.
This is where you’ll see the best examples of the abundance of other-worldly limestone formations, with a ridiculous number of photo opportunities scattered across the cliff’s edge. This image has been made even more popular by a blockbuster movie which lends to the attraction’s new adopted nickname: the Avatar Mountains.
Other attractions in the area include the First Bridge Under Heaven, which is a natural stone bridge linking one of the high rock pillars with the “mainland”. A well-built walkway leads around the pillar giving an even closer look at the valley and down the steep drop below. Along the bridge and the pillars route are a number of red ribbons and locks inscribed by the people who left them there, decorating the entire way in a fairy-tale-like adornment.
The good news is that all the attractions in the area are within walking distance of each other and in fact, are linked along a specially built pathway. The fair-tale route weaves along the edge of the cliffs and stretches across the stone pillars. Throughout are observation decks and various points one can gaze in awe at the glorious scenery along the valleys.
For the easiest access to the area, you can take a ride on the Bailong Elevator. this will guide you into the heart of Zhangjiajie National Park. It’s a glass elevator which travels along the cliff edge, which also happens to be the largest and tallest outdoor elevator worldwide.
Though practically riding the elevator might not be the best idea. The queues will often be horrendously long outside of the early mornings, often taking close to 2 hours. Alternatively, you could take an hour and a half hike to get to the same destination.
Tianzi Mountain stands as the highest peak in the area and provides the best view back across the valleys. This area’s claim to fame would be the opportunity to view the landscape poking through the haze of misty clouds that surround the park. Obviously, this is down to your luck with the weather. For your best chance of a perfect view head there during spring and early autumn.
This area also has easy access with the inclusion of a cable car heading to the peak of the mountain. Of the number of cable cars on offer in the park, this provides the best views. A tremendous opportunity to gaze at the magnificent formations from a unique perspective as you slowly glide past.
Sadly hiking directly up the mountain isn’t an option, and would require going via Yuanjiajie anyway. From there, you have the option to continue hiking along the roadways that weave along the mountain edges. Alternatively, you can hop on a free shuttle bus which regularly transports travellers between Yuanjiajie and the mountain peak.
This is a newly developed region of the park and is surprisingly underutilised. Mostly this is down to its trails being much more challenging hike, although still retaining some of the most glorious scenery the park has to offer. The benefit of its difficult trek is having much fewer crowds, giving you the best opportunity for some peace to amerce yourself in the natural beauty.
The route is definitely one for the more experienced and determined hikers. There’s a lack of a carefully crafted walkway mostly consisting of slick stone steps and at times having inclines as steep as 70 degrees. There are even sections where hikers can only advance while walking sideways!
Despite the hardships, you will most definitely be rewarded for your efforts as you grace the peaceful unpopulated peaks and are provided with a view that reaches all the way back to the city. The area comes with its own unique attraction known as the Natural Great Wall, named after its resemblance to the expanse of China’s other big attraction.
The national park also includes a number of other areas which are worth just as much of a look if you have the time. For those wishing for a more leisurely stroll, the Gold Whip Stream is the ideal spot for you. The route leads along a river which runs along the base of the mountains allowing for a much more relaxed trek while marvelling mouth-agape upwards at the sheer size of the megalithic formations which surround you. Yellow Stone Village can also be found along the route, providing some unique views and landscapes.
The Old House Area is a little-known region of the park and is rarely visited. Partly due to the fact it’s outside the ordinary tourist route and requires a bit extra effort to get to. One such way is to utilise private tour companies, making it a costly extra step. The area is inhabited by local ethnic groups that maintain their paddy fields on the various peaks that surround the area, giving a completely unique view of Zhangjiajie, one that’s rarely seen by others.
Where to Stay in Zhangjiajie?
Above all else, when considering your choice of accommodation there are two main concerns; price (as always) but more importantly in this case; location. Accommodations in the area are essentially grouped into 3 main regions; The city, the Yangjiajie entrance and Wulingyuan.
Back in the city, there are plenty of bargain accommodations on offer from hostels to guesthouses, but the distance from the park makes it a terrible option. More than an hour each way wastes too much of your time and can be quite laborious 3-4 days in a row.
The second option that most people go for is staying in the nearby town of Wulingyuan. It’s right at the doorstep of the park and the natural launching off point. Despite its close proximity to the park, there are a plethora of cheap accommodations available making it a great option.
The third (and my choice) was to stay literally a stone’s-throw away from the park near the Yangjiajie entrance. Although typically the closer you are the more expensive it is, there are still amazing bargains to be found without sacrificing luxury. A big shoutout to my hotel of choice; One Step to Heaven, which was literally a 3-minute walk away from the ticket office while remaining one of the cheapest accommodations in all 3 areas.
How Long Should I Stay in Zhangjiajie?
This will be the hardest decision you have to make. With the vast size of Zhangjiajie National Park and the incredible number of things to see, it would take no less than 2 days to see all the biggest highlights. This would only be recommended for those on a time limit as the entire experience would have to be rushed and a number of things left out.
To truly explore the entire region would take a number of days, and beyond most people’s possible time frame. Therefore the recommended amount of time would be about 3-4 days to experience the area to the full. Luckily entrance tickets are valid for 4 days (can’t be any less by the way) so might as well make the most of it.
Tips For Surviving Zhangjiajie
Your biggest potential problem during your time at the park is the crowds. Believe me, when speaking from experience, Chinese attractions during peak season can be a fucking nightmare which can potentially ruin your experience. Of course, in certain circumstances, it’s hard to be avoided, yet it’s always worth keeping these things in mind.
Early morning will always be your best bet. Not only will the scenery look absolutely glorious with the rising sunshine, but the crowds will be next to nothing. In the same vein, to avoid vast lines of inpatient tourists and to save yourself some money (quite a lot really) then avoid using cable cars. And like any other tourist attraction, avoid the peak seasons (summer and spring) and especially Chinese national holidays.
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