Tianmen Mountain: Heaven’s Gate in Hunan

Tianmen Mountain, located in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, is one of China’s most impressive national parks. The mountain is home to a number of geological mysteries, such as a massive hole in the rock known as ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ and Guigu Cave, a seemingly manmade yet natural square cavern. The large and colorful Tianmenshan Temple complex, meanwhile, is a feast for the eyes. 

More recently, Tianmen has become known for technological innovations like its cable car, glass walkway and escalator through the mountain. But as impressive as they are, these gimmicks somewhat overshadow Tianmen Mountain’s real magic. The true highlight of the national park is walking along the tranquil cliff-side paths and taking in the fantastic scenery all around you. Just be sure to get there early to beat the crowds!

In this guide, we’ll cover practical information on how to get up and down Tianmen Mountain in addition to a walkthrough of the most common route which visitors take to get around.

Tianmen Mountain's Ticketing System

Entry to Tianmen Mountain National Park costs ¥261 RMB.

This includes both entry to the scenic area itself and transportation up and down the mountain. With your ticket, you can also ride a long escalator which connects the Tianmen Cave area with the upper part of the mountain. The total price also includes a ¥3 mandatory insurance fee.

(Note that students can present their student ID cards for a significant discount.)

When buying a ticket, you have the choice between 3 different transportation options.

A Line: Take the cable car up the mountain and the bus back down (the course that’s detailed below)

B Line: The bus up the mountain and the cable car back down

C Line: Going up and down the same way you came (this would require a lot of extra walking. It only makes sense for those who really want to avoid the bus ride and its 99 sharp turns.)

Once you’re on the mountain, there are a few places that charge extra for transport, but these are all optional. There’s an additional elevator for those who want to avoid the steep staircase in between the buses and Tianmen Cave (¥32).

And there’s also a smaller cable car ride (¥25) connecting the main temple and highest peak. And if you want to walk on the glass walkway, this costs an additional ¥5 that you pay once you’re there.

The park is officially open from 8:00 – 16:30 in the summer months and 8:30 – 16:00 in the winter. However, in summer, cable cars may start going up the amount even earlier. In any case, be sure to get to the ticket office before 8:00 to avoid long lines. Tickets can be purchased from 7:00 right at the cable car station itself. Buses also depart from this same area.

Learn more about getting to Zhangjiajie City and the best place to stay at the end of the article.

The Way Up

As with any major tourist attraction in China, timing is everything if you want to avoid the crowds at Tianmen Mountain. Who wants to be out in nature stuck between large tour groups and their megaphone-touting guides? That’s why you should show up to purchase your ticket as early as possible.

The park officially opens at 8:00, and from 8 onward, the line to buy tickets can get incredibly long. I’ve even read accounts of people who were stuck waiting for hours. Not many people are aware of this, but the ticket booth for the park actually opens at 7:00.

I arrived there around 7:10 and bought an 8:00 cable car ticket. Unsure of how I’d pass the time, I went to over to check out the queue area to see if anyone was lined up yet. I saw a few people, but rather than waiting, they were walking right into the station area. And so I followed them.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

I went past some ticket checkers who saw my ticket for 8:00 and let me through. I walked up some steps within the building and then kept on walking. Before I knew it, I was right in front of the cable car departure point and they let me on. Somehow, I was on my way up the mountain as early as 7:20am!

I don’t know if this was a fluke and that I just happened to get lucky, or if the early departures are a regular but secret thing that park officials won’t tell you about. But thanks to the early ride, I ended up having much of the mountain entirely to myself for my first few hours there.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

The cable car up the mountain is one of the longest in the world, and is widely considered one of the main highlights of the Tianmen Mountain experience. We passed over the rural outskirts of Zhangjiajie City and then over a lake which reflected the distant mountains.

The ride, which lasts for 30 minutes, does indeed live up to the hype. But as we got closer to the top, I was eager to get out, breathe in some fresh air and start walking around. 

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Walking the West Line

Arriving at the top, I started my walk along the West Line trail. In total, this trail stretches out for about 2.8km, culminating at the Tianmenshan Temple. (Here’s a helpful map for reference.)

For those arriving by cable car, you also have the option of hiking the other way for a bit and going up to the Yunmengxian Peak. Then you can walk back down and start the West Line trail afterward. But as covered down below, I saved this for the end of my time on the mountain instead.

As opposed to steps at places like Huangshan or Zhangjiajie National Park, Tianmen Mountain’s trail sticks right out of the side of the mountain! It’s amazing that they’re somehow sturdy enough to support large groups of people at any given time. But I felt much safer being completely alone.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

If the regular trail makes you nervous, wait until you get to the Glass Skywalk. This is one of the most promoted areas of the park, and, just as the name suggests, the trail for this section consists entirely of transparent glass. It’s about 60 meters long and it allows you to look through the floor from 1,400m high. You don’t have to walk here if you don’t want to, though. In fact, you need to pay an additional ¥5 RMB to access it.

An informational sign near the entrance describes the walkway as “thrilling beyond compare.” But after trying it out, I’d argue that it’s really just a bit gimmicky. All visitors have to wear covering over their shoes to avoid damaging the glass, but the glass is already pretty foggy to begin with. While I don’t regret paying the extra fee for the experience, it was hardly one of the highlights of my day on Tianmen Mountain.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

The real highlights were not looking down, but over to the side. This is one of China’s most scenic mountain ranges, and, unsurprisingly, is the subject of much local folklore.

According to one local legend, this area was once the home of Shennong, an ancient Chinese folk deity who taught people agriculture and knowledge of medicinal herbs. Like Huangdi, he may have been a historical king who was later deified after his death.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

I soon found myself on the Guigu Cliffside path, the main scenic area of Tianmen’s western side. Continuing along the path, I arrived at the ‘Guigu Moat,’ a narrow gap in the side of the mountain. The trail curves all the way around it, but visitors can stand right in front of its narrowest point to look straight down the crack for hundreds of meters.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

‘Guigu’ translates to ‘Ghost Valley.’ Many parts of Tianmen probably appear as such on foggy days. There is, however, a historical figure and war strategist named Guiguzi, who lived in the region during the Warring States period (around the 6th century BC).  

According to another legend, Guiguzi, or ‘The Sage of Ghost Valley,’ tried out his neat flying and wall-walking skills in this area. That would’ve been quite some time before the cliff-side path was installed! Supposedly, he gained such abilities thanks to his austere Taoist practices.

I continued my walk, ever grateful that I managed to make it up to the mountain so early. Aside from a few cable car riders in the distance, I remained completely alone. I stopped for awhile to listen to the sounds of nature and admire the dramatic limestone rock formations in the distance. It was easy to see why someone like Guiguzi would’ve taken such a liking to the place.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

At one point, I arrived at a viewing platform which stuck straight out of the cliffside for several meters, with nothing at all supporting it underneath. Reluctantly walking to the edge, I felt like I was on a floating island. It was even more nerve-wracking than the glass walkway, but the views were worth it.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

I soon arrived at a bridge which led me to a viewpoint overlooking Guigu Cave. The cave, despite looking as if it had been carved out by humans, is actually a natural formation. Supposedly, Guigu himself studied the major Chinese divinational text, the I-Ching, here. 

It’s claimed that his personal seal can be seen on the stone walls. But there’s no way for the ordinary visitor to get down there for verification.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie Guigu Cave
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Before concluding the western portion of Tianmen National Park, there were still a few more interesting landmarks to see. The first was Bai He, a circular wooden structure that appears to be some kind of contemporary art piece at first. Various wooden panels glide about its interior in unconventional patterns, forming a miniature labyrinth.

But it turns out that the writing engraved on the exterior is the first part of the ancient Guiguzi text mentioned above, compiled by Master Guigu himself. The art piece is meant to symbolize the interplay between yang (outwardly expanding, male) and yin (contracting, female) energy. The movement of the wooden boards, meanwhile, represents principles of the I-Ching.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Lastly, I arrived at the Guan Yin Cave. The cave itself, at only 4 meters, wide, is not particularly impressive on its own. But according to local legend, the major Buddhist divinity Guan Yin herself once appeared at the spot. 

Nowadays, it’s a place where many Chinese people come to make a wish. Surrounding the hole are hundreds of locks, possibly as a way to ask for good luck. Or perhaps so couples can demonstrate their ‘unlockable love.’

Tianmenshan Temple

Approaching Tianmenshan from a distance, I could already tell that the temple was much bigger than I was expecting. The temple complex, in fact, is as big as 20,000 square meters. But this isn’t just a recent construction built to boost tourism. It dates all the way back to the year 870 during the Tang dynasty. And that, of course, was well before there were anything like cable cars, roads, of cliff-side paths to maneuver about the mountain!

But like many ancient temples in Hunan Province, this temple was destroyed and later rebuilt in the 20th century.

Tianmenshan Temple
Tianmenshan Temple
Tianmenshan Temple

Stepping into the shanmen, or entrance gate, I encountered two fierce-looking temple guardians. These are known as Heng and Ha, mythological (but also possibly historical) generals who are often seen protecting Chinese temples.

Tianmenshan Temple
Tianmenshan Temple

It was only around 9:30am by this point. And while I spotted a number of other visitors, I still had most of this vast temple complex to myself. I entered ornate structures like the Hall of Four Heavenly Kings and the Mahavira Hall, which is typically the main building at Chinese temples.

Inside the hall, I encountered a large Buddha image with colorful arhats, or enlightened beings, seated in rows along the walls. The room was bursting with color, and the amount of detail in even the ceiling artwork was impressive.

Tianmenshan Temple

But the most remarkable building overall was the Guanyin Pavilion. The tall structure features a colorful, ridged and multitiered roof that forms different patterns depending on where you’re standing. All in all, it was one of the most impressive structures I encountered at a temple in China

Tianmenshan Temple sits at the dividing line between the western and eastern walking trails of the mountain. Shortly after leaving the temple, you’ll see people taking a small cable car over the valley to a high peak in the distance. Not only does this cost an extra ¥25, but you can eventually get to Yunmengxian Peak on foot, as covered down below.

Tianmenshan Temple

Walking the Eastern Route

Beginning the eastern route, it was clear that I was far from alone on the mountain trail anymore. Luckily, it still wasn’t all that crowded, as the temple area is the farthest point from either of Tianmen Mountain’s arrival points. While it was less quiet, the sky, which had been slightly hazy earlier in the morning, was at least starting to clear up.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

The eastern walking route provides a number of viewpoints from which to see Tianmen Cave – the giant opening which gives the mountain its ‘Heaven’s Gate’ moniker. The cave is the first thing people who take the bus up to the mountain see. But those like myself, who opted to take the bus down, will end up saving it for last. So more on Tianmen Cave later.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Waling along more cliff-side trails and stopping along the way to admire the gorgeous scenery, I arrived at another interesting landmark. The water of the Lingquan Basin pours out from a crack in the rock, eventually flowing over the entrance of Tianmen Cave.

Visitors now gather at the small pool for a quick drink, as the water is said to bring health and good luck. After seeing about ten people reach their hands right into the water, though, I decided to pass.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Nearby the spring I encountered Lingquan Courtyard. It was late morning now and I realized that I still hadn’t stopped to rest since my arrival on the mountain. I took out some snacks that I’d brought along for the hike as I did some reading about the courtyard.

Like Tianmenshan Temple, the original dates back to the Tang dynasty, although what we see today was built more recently. And in the 1970’s, archaeologists dug up four Guan Yin statues here in addition to a bronze sword, all of which date back to over 1,000 years ago. 

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Feeling recharged, I proceeded over to one of the eastern path’s major lookout points called the Cloud Bucking Barrier. The name is derived from a famous Qing dynasty poem. There were no clouds in sight during my visit, but supposedly this vantage point can be quite the spectacle if the timing is right.

Next I climbed Yu Hu Peak, which I’d been admiring from a distance for awhile thus far. The peak is named after a type of Chinese pot used to store alcohol. According to legend, the peak was once the very pot used by the goddess Ma Gu. 

Up until now, the paths I’d walked on were almost entirely flat. While not too difficult, the steep staircase up the peak was the most tiring part of the day. But, as one would expect, the views from the top are worth it.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Yu Hu Peak from a distance
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
ABOVE & BELOW: Views from the top of the peak

And walking back down, I got yet another view of Tianmen Cave, which I would go on to visit shortly. And I also got a clear view of the insane road I’d be taking back down to get to the city. The road has no less than 99 sharp bends and the journey lasts about 20 minutes. I was starting to feel some motion sickness just looking at it! 

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

I finally arrived at the elevator which would take me down to Tianmen Cave. But I still had one more landmark to visit at the upper level of the mountain. At 1500 meters above sea level, the Yunmengxian Peak is the highest peak of Tianmen Mountain, and is therefore visible from all over the area. And at the top is an observatory offering 360 degree views of the surrounding scenery.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

I stopped for awhile to appreciate the views. And as it was finally starting to get quite crowded, I was grateful that this was one of my last major stops of the day. In addition to Yu Hu Peak, I could even see the entire Tianmenshan Temple complex in the distance. As mentioned, the temple is directly connected with Yunmengxian Peak by cable car, but I certainly didn’t regret walking the eastern trail!

Finished with the peak area, I had to climb back down and backtrack all the way to the escalator entrance, but it wasn’t that far of a walk. As mentioned earlier, you also have the option of walking up to this peak from the main cable car arrival point before heading back over to the western trail.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Tianmen Cave

Modern China really likes to integrate impressive engineering projects into its natural scenic spots. Tianmen Mountain is no exception. Separating the upper level of the mountain from Tianmen Cave is a massive escalator which cuts right through the rock.

Opened in 2014, this escalator is the longest which runs through a mountain in the entire world (but really, how many others are there?). It stretches out to an impressive 340 meters. And while it may be especially long, you pretty much know what to expect if you’ve ever ridden an escalator before.

(Understand that this elevator is included in the regular ticket price. There is, however, yet another elevator which people can take for an additional fee. That’s for people who want to avoid the long staircase in between Tianmen Cave and the bus arrival/departure point.)

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

And the next thing I knew, I was right inside of the massive cave opening. It’s around 130 meters high, 57m wide and 60m deep. But how did such a thing form?

It happened over the course of many many years due to falling water. In fact, it’s the world’s highest cave to have been eroded by water. And around a couple thousand years ago, the back of the cave completely collapsed, leaving the giant hole we see today.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Walking out of the hole, I was confronted with a staircase consisting of exactly 999 steps. I was glad I was walking down, and not up, as those arriving by bus have to. Nevertheless, after several minutes, my knees started to shake.

I’d been on my feet all day by this point, and my legs were not happy. Fortunately, there are plenty of handrails for support. Slipping on these steps would result in quite the fall, and it started to make sense why there’d be a mandatory insurance fee included in the ticket price.

Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie

Finally making it to the bottom, I hung out in the large plaza area for a bit, admiring Tianmen Cave. I also noticed the water flowing down the cliffside, which presumably originates at the Lingquan Basin I visited earlier.

And then I decided to grab the bus back to town. As someone prone to carsickness, I braced myself for 20 minutes of hell. But miraculously, I somehow survived all 99 turns without feeling nauseous. In fact, I hopped off the bus at the cable car station without feeling the slightest bit dizzy. I wondered why, but perhaps it had something to do with having just walked through heaven’s gate itself.

Tianmen Cave
Tianmen Cave
Tianmen Cave

Additional Info

Planning a trip to see Hunan Province’s various national parks can be confusing. There’s the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, but then Tianmen Mountain is accessible from Zhangjiajie the city. So which is which?

Zhangjiajie City is the largest city in the general area. It used to have a different name, but the Chinese government renamed it once Zhangjiajie National Forest Park started to become popular. However, the closest town to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park park is not Zhangjiajie City, but a small town called Wulingyuan.

The two towns are about an hour apart. And while I’d definitely recommend seeing both, you should book separate accommodation in each city to make the most of your time. At either park, it’s best to start your day as early as possible.

As mentioned above, getting to the cable car station on time is key. Overall, the city is not that big, and the bus station area is still definitely walkable to and from the cable car station. But as there’s a hotel right in front of the cable car station, why not just stay there?

I stayed at Dingding Inn. Not only was the location perfect, but I had a comfortable and clean private room with my own shower.

It was also nearby some restaurants and a large supermarket which came in handy for buying snacks before the hike.

Zhangjiajie is accessible from Changsha by either bus (West Bus Terminal) or by train, and the journey lasts about 4 hours. It costs around ¥120.

Zhangjiajie is also reachable by (normal speed) train from many other major cities in China, but given the country’s size, it could be a very long trip. It’s best to take a high-speed train to Changsha first, spend a couple days there, and then head to the national parks from there.

The city is also home to the Zhangjiajie Hehua Airport, which has flights to many major cities throughout China.

As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.

That is, unless, you have a VPN.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.

I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.

The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.

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