A Guide to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
One of China’s highlights is the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a national park within the Hunan Province’s Wulingyuan Scenic Area. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is maybe best known for being the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains on the movie Avatar’s fictional planet of Pandora. Yes indeed, those beautifully overgrown sandstone pillars actually exist and while they are not floating in the sky like their movie counterparts, they are still pretty hard to climb. There are a couple of cable cars, which are immensely popular with the locals, but, as it often is the case, some of the best spots can only be reached by good old hiking. It isn’t surprising that most people choose the easy way up the mountains, as it is can be hard getting to the top of the 200 meter high pillars, and often the viewpoints are so far away, that you can only see endless steps making their way skywards. Accordingly, away from the cable cars, the park which gets a staggering 20 million visitors a year, is often pleasantly deserted.
Also Read: Arches National Park
A view from Wulong Village.
As hard as the climbs can be, the views are worth it thousand times over – when you can actually see anything, that is. The climate around the Avatar Mountains is wet and misty almost all year round. This, while making visits sometimes a bit frustrating when you can’t see anything but a wall of white, also makes the park even more stunning. When it clears up a bit, the mythical layers of mist wafting around the mountains make for beautiful photos. The moisture also helps plants grow in the cracks formed by expanding ice and in the end, creates the lush landscape you see.
I visited the park for four days, two of which I could barely see the road in front of the hostel and accordingly just stayed home working and two fairly clear and sunny days. Both weather conditions weren’t exactly ideal for photography, but I still immensely enjoyed the days spent in the park. It turned out to be a good decision to spend at least a couple days in the area, not only because the weather can be literally hit or miss, but also because the national park is big.
The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park covers over 12,000 acres, and there is a lot to see. I only managed to cover about half of it during my two days inside the park, but to get you an idea of what the attractions are like, I’m going to show you a few of my favorite spots. You can find them all on the map, which you can pick up at your hostel/hotel or the entrance of the park.
Avatar Hallelujah Mountain / Southern Sky Column
The Avatar Hallelujah Mountain was formerly named Southern Sky Column and is a pillar that got renamed after the movie Avatar skyrocketed in popularity. It is probably the most famous view in the park. You can find the mountain along the Yuanjiajie Route right after the Greatest Natural Bridge and before the Bailong Elevator. The best view can be had from the metal bridge, which is located after the official viewpoint with its avatar statues and crowds – so move down the path a little and enjoy some elbow space.
Photography Tip: If you own one, make sure to bring along a super-wide lens, as the pillar is so tall, that otherwise, you’ll have to take several photos and later merge them together panorama-style.
Golden Whip Stream – with Bonus Monkeys!
The Golden Whip Stream is a little river that winds its way through the lush landscapes with tall cliffs and the sandstone pillars rising up on each side. The trees surrounding the stream are also home to a sizable monkey population, which is a favorite with visitors. Make sure to not visibly carry any food with you though, as the monkeys will see it and attack. The trail along the water can get a bit crowded near the bus stop at the Suoxiyu Scenic Zone, but the further along the trail you go, the fewer people you will see. Walking the whole trail takes about two hours, which I can highly recommend and if you do, you will end up near the Bailong Elevator.
Yaozizai Route to Yaozi Village
The Yaozizai Route is where you should head after walking along the Golden Whip Stream. It is a trail heading up the cliffs and through some incredibly lush forest next to the river. When you reach the top of this specific pillar, you can enjoy absolutely stunning 360 views of the landscape. An added bonus is, that it is completely deserted. Since the trail involves some walking (another 2-3 hours to complete the whole thing), most visitors skip it and instead choose easier routes with cablecars. If you want to get away from the huge crowds though and enjoy nature in peace and silence, this hike is for you.
There are two paths going up, one is extremely steep and the other one is easier and flatter. The easy one starts at the very end of the Golden Whip Stream trail near the Bailong Elevator. You can find the entrance next to the statue of a golden, heart-shaped lock. I recommend you go up this way and follow the hard route on the way down, which reconnects roughly in the middle of the Golden Whip Stream trail.
The viewpoints on Tianzi Mountain are another crowd favorite, not only because the views are spectacular, but probably because it is easy to get to and the cablecar station is basically located right next to the entrance to the park. There is a McDonalds up there as well, so you can imagine the masses of people going there for it to warrant a fast-food chain. The rule here is to show up as early as possible, spend 2 hours checking out the different viewpoints, and move on as soon as the crowds start to get bad.
Another cool thing to check out up there is the red pagoda. Inside, you can climb to the top for good views, and watch an old man draw some beautiful calligraphy.
Photography Tip: If you don’t plan on doing much hiking that day and since you get there by cable car, you might as well bring along as much photography equipment as you want. I found zoom lenses to work best in this landscape, as you shoot from above and it’s more flat compared to other places in the park. Also, there are some cool details to pick out.
I found the Wulong Village viewpoint pretty much by accident. I had planned to go straight to the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain but got off the shuttle bus one stop earlier because a couple of raucous kids were being little demons and all I wanted was to get as far away from them as possible. The trail starts near the Yuanjiajie Administration Committee and from there descends down into a valley before it heads up to the peak of one of the sandstone pillars. This hike was pretty hard and involved climbing through narrow cracks in the rock and up some steep stairs, but was also one of the most fun ones for sure. Getting to the top took about 30 minutes and it proved to be a perfect little side excursion between the bigger, busy viewpoints at Tianzi Mountain and the area around Avatar Mountain.
The Bailong Elevator was another highlight I stumbled upon while exploring. I had just visited the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain and the surrounding viewpoints and simply followed the trail, hoping it would take me to the bus. Turns out, the only way to get down from those viewpoints is by taking the elevator – which costs an additional 56 Yuan. You can’t walk, you can’t take the bus and you’re basically stuck on that mountain with no other way down. Not having counted on taking that elevator, we barely scraped together enough money to get home that night, but the experience was pretty cool. The elevator is a huge glass construction built right into the rock of one of the pillar mountains. Claiming to be the highest outdoor elevator in the world, it takes visitors 330 meters up or down the cliff.
Baofeng Lake isn’t technically inside the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, but right outside of it. The lake is the perfect place to visit if you have some additional time to waste in Wulingyuan, or if the weather isn’t good enough to spend a day in the park. I dropped by the lake when it was incredibly misty and rainy out and the sandstone pillars of the national park were hidden behind a wall of white. You can find Baofeng Lake right outside the village of Wulingyuan and from the parking area, it’s only a short 10-15 minute hike up to where the water is. There, you can go on a little cruise with one of the wooden boats, which takes passengers on a loop around the lake. The boat is included in the ticket and since it has a roof, it is perfect even for rainy days.
Photography Tip: The rock formations around Baofeng Lake aren’t as high or pronounced as the ones inside the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. A regular zoom will probably serve you best, although super-wide works as well. If you bring a tripod, there is a little waterfall on the walk to the lake you can use for longer exposures.