Travel Plan: Zhangjiajie National Park
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. 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 which beggars’ belief and answers the question as to why this is considered such a magical place. This is what makes Zhangjiajie National Park so special.
Where Is It?
The city and the expansive natural beauty that surrounds it are found on the Eastern edge of Hunan province in the south-east of 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 regions 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 article we’ll only be focusing on Zhangjiajie National Park.
How to Get There?
The city of Zhangjiajie isn’t the most accessible one. Geographically speaking its located quite far from any other nearby must-see destinations. Even then there are still a limited number of flights, mostly only heading from cities to the south such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
Trains are far more numerous leaving daily from most major cities and by far the most economical option. However they will come with an excruciatingly long travel time. For example
Beijing – 25 hours
Shanghai – 20 hours
Shenzhen – 18 hours
Buses are also an option, however they are very limited in their departure destinations. They solely leave from Shanghai, Wuhan and Changsha. This option has the added benefit of being faster than the trains.
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 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 a number of buses, all of which will be headed to different destinations throughout the park.
Which bus you pick depends on where exactly you want to go. This will depend on 1) where you’re staying 2) which entrance you want to use. There are actually 5 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 2 possible bus routes to take to get to the entrances. 1) 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. 2) Another bus heads for Wulingyuan (武陵源) 3) 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 destinations 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.
Entrance fees are as such and are valid for a total of 4 days:
March 1 to November 30: CNY 248
December 1 to end of February: CNY 139
Opening Hours: 7am- 6pm
What’s To See
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 makes 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 attractions 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 on the cliffs and stretches across the stone pillars. Throughout are observation decks and various points which 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, which in itself is quite the attraction. It’s a glass elevator which travels along the cliffs 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 queue’s 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 an unique perspective as you slowly glides 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 surprisingly underutilised. Mostly this is down to its trails being much more of a 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 less 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 stones 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 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 the 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 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?
Above all else, when considering your choice accommodation there are two main concerns; price (as always) but more importantly in this case; location. Accommodations in the area is essentially grouped into 3 main regions; The city, the Yangjiajie entrance and Wulingyuan.
Back in the city there are plenty on 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 which 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 it’s 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?
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.
Your biggest potential problem during your time at the park are 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 the cable cars. And like any other tourist attraction, avoid the peak seasons (summer and spring) and especially Chinese national holidays.