Hiking the stunning Zhangjiajie National Park

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
10
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
1
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
8
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
5
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
8
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
10
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
82 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
Asia
country
China
Length of time
3-4 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 350
Time of year visited
April
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
22nd/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 10% SUMMARY RATING: Unmissable

Summary

You’ve seen Avatar right?  Zhangjiajie is the inspiration for the landscape of the distant planet in the movie, and that’s exactly what the 3000 or so karst pinnacles rising up from the subtropical forest feel like.  Its a bit of a bugger to get to because you need to find flights to the local Zhangjiajie Hehua airport, or take the 5 hour drive from Changsha.  It can also get quite crowded because . . . well . . . this is China.   But, overall it is well worth the trip, especially because by making some very basic changes you can avoid the crowds and get to hike some beautiful sections of what, arguably, should be one of the natural wonders of the world

highlights

#1 Hiking to the top of some of the mini mountains around Yangjiajie (within Zhangjiajie National Park) - it's often a quite hard ascent, but the views from the top are truly magnificent

#2 Checking out the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain for some of the best views

#Taking the cable car down from Tianzi Shan at around 6pm when the tour groups had left, the pleasant piano music was on, and it felt like drifting through the islands in the clouds, magical

#4 Taking the cable car and 99 bends road up to Tianmen Mountain to see the famous giant hole up close

#5 Wandering along the valleys, some with mini trains for transport, and staring up at the otherworldly mountains all around you

#6 Chilling out after the hard day's hiking in the quite charming Wulingyuan

Travel Tips

  • The Park is bigger than you think –the Zhangjiajie with the famous karst peaks Zhanjiajie National Park, and is broken up into three separate pieces: Zhangjiajie, Tianzi Shan and the Suoxi Valley.  The other two pieces outside of the park are Tianmen Mountain (the mountain with the hole in it and the glass walkway, next to Zhangjiajie the town) and the Glass Bottomed Bridge (around 45mins drive to the East of Wulingyuan).  I would prioritise your time as follows:
    • #1 Zhangjiajie National Park – take 2 full days here
    • #2 Tianmen Mountain – take half a day
    • #3 Glass Bottomed Bridge – Couple of hours max, but cut if time is tight
  • #1 Zhangjiajie National Park tips:
    • The whole place is well mapped out – it’s a bit like a theme park, so it’s just a case of having a look at the map and seeing which routes and key spots you want to see.  The four things that I would super recommend are:
      • Hiking to the top of some of the mini mountains around Yangjiajie – its quite hard hiking with a lot of steps, including a vertical iron ladder with cage, but the views from the top are truly magnificent.  Plus, because the climb is hard, there are very few others there
      • Taking the cable car down from Tianzi Shan at around 6pm when the tour groups have left, the pleasant piano music is on, and it feels like drifting through islands in the clouds . . . magical
      • Checking out the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain for some of the best views.  It will likely be busy, but wander down some of the harder tracks for only 5mins or so to lose fellow tourists
      • The walk along the monorail – get the monorail up the valley, walk up the nearby hill and then walk back
    • The park is huge and, although they have buses linking up the key spots throughout the day, you don’t want to miss that last bus as that’s a lot of walking back to the hotel (there are no taxis in the park)
    • Avoiding the crowds – what you’re looking for is the magical, calm, natural feeling of the park.  What you ain’t looking for is trying to enjoy it with half of China all competing in the Megaphone version of the Olympics – I wanted to stab and maim all of them by the end.  To avoid, a few tips:
      • Aim for lunch at a time before or after 12-2, when the tour groups will descend like clockwork locusts on all food spots.  A perfect time as well to enjoy the park when it is a bit quieter
      • Hike some of the slightly tougher hikes that tour groups will avoid
      • Stay later in the day – we had the Tianzi Shan cable car largely to ourselves at 6pm, which was actually the highlight of the trip
    • You’ll buy a two day ticket that must be used on 2 consecutive days
  • #2 Tianmen Mountain tips:
      • The main attraction is the hole in the mountain, which although you can see it from afar (you can even see it from the airport), really is quite cool up close
      • There are some other fun things to check out, in particular the glass-walkway around the mountain; wandering around the top of the mountain looking across at the views from the various hidden viewpoints; and the ride to get there which includes the world’s longest cable car and the 99 bends road
      • You only really need half a day.  We got to the top at 10am and were all ready to go at 1pm
  • #3 The Glass Bottomed Bridge – around a 45min drive from Wulingyuan and ok.  If pressed for time, I’d skip simply because the park is far more spectacular.  If still keen, make sure you buy a ticket beforehand as, whilst they technically sell them at the entrance, the tour guides buy them up super quick
  • You want to stay in Wulingyaun rather than the town of Zhangjiajie, which is about an hour drive from the park and a small Chinese city, whereas Wulingyuan is at the entrance and has a bit more charm to it.  We stayed at the Pullman which was nice, although a tad expensive.  We also saw a series of backpackers nearby which I’m sure would be ok for those on a budget and, considering you’ll be out all day, the accommodation isn’t critical
  • Getting there – you want to fly into Zhangjiajie Hehua airport.  You have the option to fly to Changsha (the capital of Hunan province and main town in the area) and drive, but its still a 5 hour drive to Zhangjiajie and surprisingly expensive to arrange.  We didn’t find any flights on SkyScanner, but were able to organise through the hotel . . . with the safety-assured “OK Air”

 

Some words on travelling in China:

  • China is vastboth in terms of its sheer land area, population, economy, but also its history and culture.  You could spend a lifetime travelling China and still only scrape the surface.  Very much like a continent on its own and, in recommending a book to read or movie to watch, it’s a bit like recommending a book to read on “Europe”.  However, I did find that the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang, gave me good context on modern Chinese history.  The book tells the true story of 3 generations of women living in China from 1909 to modern day and I’d highly recommend
  • The Chinese peopleit’s often difficult to interact with locals in China – there are certainly strong cultural differences that go deeper than you would experience in most other parts of the world, but the main problem is of course the language.   Get out google translate for simultaneous translation.  You’ll be surprised how keen the locals will be to speak to you, and just how interesting you may find their stories
  • Frustrationstravelling in China can often be difficult . . . scream-out-loud, pull-all-your-hair-out, call everyone a c**t, never-ever-going-back style difficult.   The language barrier, the often radically different way of doing things, the combo of an often world leading digital country mixed in with archaically manual processes can all make it feel at times like a challenge rather than a joy.  I lived in China for 2 years and experienced a lot of these frustrations.  My advice is simply to go with it, its all part of the adventure, and above all don’t lose your temper.  Shouting at someone or generally showing frustration will just be viewed by the Chinese as embarrassing and, at worst, a loss of face for them, which means you’ve got very little chance of them helping you.  Patience, politeness and a smile will often see them wanting to help you.  They’re not trying to be difficult . . . most of the time 🙂

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone