Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is one of China’s, and the world’s, most breathtaking natural scenic areas. First opened in 1982, it’s the country’s first ever national park. Zhangjiajie is known for its huge sandstone pillars formed by many years of water erosion, and there are a near countless number of them throughout the area. At over 11,900 acres, the park is so huge that it’s divided into several districts, the most popular being Yuanjiajie and Tianzi Mountain.
It would probably require at least 5 days to explore Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in full, though many spend 2 days here. I spent three full days hiking through the park, which felt like a good amount of time. Two should be plenty, though, if you choose your hiking routes wisely.
Before my visit, I could only find articles about the park’s main highlights. I really had no idea about which particular hiking courses I could fit into a single day, or the best order to see things in. The staff at my hotel gave me some great tips upon my arrival, but it still would’ve been nice to have access to this info in advance.
That’s why I decided to make a comprehensive guide, divided into three articles, which details some full-day walking routes you can go on during your time at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. After a day exploring Yuanjiajie and Yangjiajie, I dedicated my second day to Tianzi Mountain, the itinerary detailed down below. I’d also go on to see Golden Whip Stream and Huangshi Village on my third day.
These guides are intended to give visitors a comprehensive rundown of the important practical info you need to know when visiting the park, together with a virtual walkthrough of the trails and their various highlights.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park: Essential Info
The following guide is intended for those who like to hike, those who want to make efficient use of their time at the park and also those who like to save money. Before you visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, there are a number of important things you should know.
TICKETS: Park entry costs ¥248 RMB and is valid for four days (but double check before your trip, as this has changed in the past). To save time, ask your hotel to pick one up for you in advance so you don’t have to wait in line on your first morning. These are pretty high-tech cards which can only be activated by your fingerprint.
GETTING AROUND: Aside from walking, visitors can get around the park by hopping on free shuttle buses. This is often required to get from one area to another. The park, however, consists of two levels. The lower ground level and the upper mountaintop level. The free buses can only take you from one point to another within the same level. To move from one level to another, you only have two options: hiking or paying extra for cable cars or elevators.
EXTRA FEES: There are various cable cars that cost ¥76 per ride. The massive Bailong Elevator, meanwhile, costs ¥72. And there’s also a tram in the Tianzi area for ¥24. Over the course of three days, I only paid for transport one single time. This was due to time constraints, as visitors must leave the park in the evening.
GENERAL TIPS: The park opens at 7:00 each morning and you should start each day as early as possible. (When traveling in China, it’s amazing how many frustrations you can avoid by following this one simple tip.) It’s best to have some kind of rain jacket or umbrella with you in case of a downpour. And to save some money, buy some snacks in town the night before.
Learn more about transport to the Wulingyuan area and where to stay at the very end of the article.
Tianzi Mountain Itinerary Summary
Take the bus from the Wulingyuan Entrance to ‘Intersection of Ten Mile Natural Gallery’ (十里画廊). Walk alongside the Sightseeing Mini-Tram railway (or pay an extra ¥28 to ride it if you wish). Eventually, turn right at ‘Three Sisters Peak’ (三姐妹) to start the ascent up. Along the way up the Wolong Ridge, enjoy the views of the Pagoda Tower Peak and the Xihai Peak Forest. Near the top, make a slight detour for the Tiantai (天台) viewing platform and the return to the main trail.
Head over to the Tianzi Pavilion (天子阁) and enjoy the 360 degree views it offers. Then head over to Tianzi Mountain’s main hub area. Check out viewing platforms like Imperial Brush Peak (御笔峰) and see the statue of Xiang Dakun. Enjoy the views from Yunqing Rock (云青岩) and the Shentang Gulf (神堂湾) before heading to the Tianzi Mountain Bus Station.
Head west to the Intersection of Daguantai (大观台路口) stop. Walk the 20-minute trail to the Emperor’s Throne (天子座) viewing platform, and then walk all the way back again. Board a bus back to the Tianzi Mountain Bus stop.
Return to the Tianzi Pavilion area and then take the other path back down the mountain. Walk through the ‘Southern Heavenly Gate’ (南天门) and then once at the bottom of the mountain, head to the lower Tianzi Mountain Cableway Station. Finally, take another bus back to the Wulingyuan Entrance.
Total time: 7 or 8 hours.
The Climb Up
After a long and eventful first day at the park, during which I explored both the Yuangjiajie and Yangjiajie districts, I’d be keeping things relatively simple for my second day of hiking. The plan was to stick to a single district this time, the Tianzi Mountain area. Located in the northern part of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Tianzi Mountain is the most visited area after Yuanjiajie (home to Avatar Hallelujah Mountain).
Hopping on the bus from the Wulingyuan Entrance, I got off at the ‘Intersection of Ten Mile Natural Gallery,’ about a ten minute ride away. Despite the park’s immense popularity among the Chinese, foreigners are still quite rare in these parts, and it wasn’t hard to notice the lone other Westerner who got off the bus. She was headed for Tianzi Mountain as well, and so we decided to hike up together.
It was a disappointingly gloomy day, and a light rain had already started to fall by the time we started walking. But visibility had also been poor the previous morning before things later cleared up, and so I hoped for the best. We passed by the ‘Sightseeing Mini-Tram’ which costs an extra ¥28, but opted for the free walking trail. It takes people along the exact same path for around a kilometer and a half.
Already drenched by the rain, we turned right at Three Sisters Peak (三姐妹) to start our ascent up the mountain. This path was called the Wolong Ridge, and it would take a couple hours to finally reach the Tianzi Pavilion atop the mountain. Fortunately, after around 15 minutes of hiking, the rain was already starting to diminish, with the view of the sandstone peaks becoming increasingly clear.
Stopping for a while at a small lookout platform, completely void of other visitors, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen the day before: mist. It reminded me of my trip to Huangshan in Anhui Province, where the fog-covered peaks looked like something straight out of a classical Chinese painting.
Coincidentally, this general area of the mountain was called the Xihai Peak Forest, quite similar to Huangshan’s Xihai Grand Canyon.
Peaking out through the mist, the pillars of Tianzi Mountain took on a different shape to those I’d seen the day before. Rather than being tall, narrow and straight, the pillars in this area came in a wider variety of shapes. Many of them seemed to have little limbs that reached up to the sky from a larger stone base at the bottom.
Roughly half-way up, we notice a viewing platform called ‘Tiantai.’ Getting there required a climb up a separate steep staircase which diverged from the main trail. We couldn’t tell how far up it went, and despite it not even appearing on our maps, we decided to go check it out anyway.
And it turned out to be the right choice. We reached the platform at the end after several minutes of climbing and were not disappointed with the views. We could even spot the next major landmark, the Tianzi Pavilion, far off in the distance.
As you may have noticed, the word ‘Tian’ (天) appears in many names for landmarks around China, especially in the mountains. But what exactly does it mean?
天 is commonly translated to English as ‘heaven.’ But from the Western perspective, heaven is simply an afterlife to which people go after they die. And what goes on in heaven has little to no bearing on events down here on earth.
Traditional Chinese culture, on the other hand, views 天 as a celestial realm that is constantly interacting with and influencing worldly events. 天 also represents the perfect harmonious order of the cosmos. And the better human society reflects this natural order, the more prosperous and harmonious the society becomes.
And of course, high places like mountains bring one closer to the heavens in a literal sense. Being out in nature, meanwhile, also helps remind one of the harmonious natural order exemplified by 天. It’s no wonder then, why mountains have always played such a major role in Chinese mythology and art.
Climbing back down from Tiantai platform, we reached Tianzi Pavilion after another half an hour or so of walking. The pavilion itself, it turned out, was nothing remarkable. You can immediately tell from up close that it’s a pretty recent construction, with much of it being comprised of concrete and glass. Be that as it may, the real highlights here are the vantage points offered by its multiple tiers.
The distance of the sandstone formations and the gloomy weather combined to form scenery that looked like more like a minimalist ink painting than real life. We lingered for awhile at the pavilion, taking in the uncanny scenery from many different angles. Over time, the subtle movement of the clouds would gradually cover up some pillars and reveal new ones.
Around the Top of Tianzi Mountain
As with Yuanjiajie, Tianzi Mountain consists of a large central hub on the mountaintop from which visitors can access various viewing platforms. And the first scenic area we went over to see was the ‘Imperial Brush Peak,’ so named because the rock formations resemble traditional Chinese writing brushes.
The area was crowded, but I wasn’t all that surprised after seeing the crowds the previous day. As we hardly passed anyone on the way up, it would be safe to say that at least 90% of Zhangjiajie’s visitors use cable cars to get up and down the mountain. All the more reason to climb!
We also checked out Yunqing Rock (云青岩), which offers more excellent views of the pillars down below.
Before long, we spotted the McDonald’s, which for some reason, is promoted on many Chinese web sites as an “attraction” of the national park. It does, at least, serve as a convenient landmark.
I was more intrigued by a cat that was just hanging out among the hustle and bustle of Tianzi Mountain’s main square. With nobody residing on the mountain permanently, it was unclear who its owner was, but it did at least seemed happy and well fed.
Another major landmark on Tianzi Mountain is that of Xiang Dakun, a local ruler of the Tujia people in the 14th century. In fact, it’s after him that Tianzi Mountain was named!
The Tujia, one of China’s largest ethnic minorities, have long inhabited this part of Hunan (read more here). And during the 14th century, a local ruler named Xiang Dakun staged a revolt against the ruling Ming dynasty, after which he set up his headquarters on the mountain and proclaimed himself Tianzi, or ‘Son of Heaven (天).’
This was a fairly common name for rulers in ancient China, including those of imperial dynasties, as leaders saw themselves as intermediaries between heaven and earth.
Xiang Dakun and his men would not experience peace for long, as they were soon tasked with fighting off 10,000 Ming soldiers approaching the mountain. Unable to withstand the onslaught, they plummeted to their deaths in the area known as the Shentang Gulf. As tragic as the story is, Shentang Gulf is now one of Tianzi Mountain’s prominent scenic areas.
Finished with our tour of central Tianzi Mountain, we headed over to the nearest bus station (Tianzi Mountain Stop). Our destination was a trail that would take us to a platform called Emperor’s Throne, situated in between Tianzi Mountain and Yangjiajie.
While the bus was full, it was only me, my companion and a solo Chinese traveler who got off at the Intersection of Daguantai (大观台路口) stop. He spoke a little bit of English, and so we decided to make the journey over together. The trek over to Emperor’s Throne was supposed to take about 20 minutes one way, after which we’d turn back and return to the bus stop. But soon into our journey, it was evident that things might not go according to plan.
The entire area was covered in some of the densest fog I’ve ever walked through. We couldn’t even make out a single pillar in the distance. And with no other hikers on the path with us, the whole atmosphere felt plain eerie. And then the next thing we knew, we heard what sounded like the cries of a large group of children off in the distance! What the hell was going on?
Goats! It was one of the last things we expected to see around these parts. There were well over a dozen of them hanging out in the misty forest, talking to each other in a language that sounded eerily human. Some of them stopped to stare at us, clearly as confused by our presence as we were with theirs.
Passing the goats, the trail consisted of a lot of up and downs steep stairways. We still couldn’t see a thing, but decided to keep going anyway as we were doing fine on time. And slightly out of breath, we made it to the Emperor’s Throne viewing platform. But there wouldn’t be a whole lot to view.
Stepping onto the platform, we found ourselves totally surrounded by a thick gray void. It felt like we were on a floating island. As anticlimactic as this portion of the hike was at first, the surreal experience ended up being one of the most memorable moments of my time at Zhangjiajie.
Nearby, though, we noticed that the trail continued on for awhile, despite it ending after the viewing platform on my map. It was blocked off by a small piece of rope that could easily be stepped over. Clearly, park authorities didn’t want people walking there. But if it were really that dangerous, wouldn’t they have erected a gate, barbed wire, or even a warning sign?
Eager for more adventure, we mulled over the possibilities for awhile. The worst case scenario, of course, would be plunging to our deaths. But even if it wasn’t that dangerous, it’s not like we’d end up seeing anything. And so we returned to the bus stop.
The Other Way Down
We walked all the way back to the Tianzi Pavilion. It was from around this point that the trail split into two, and we chose the other way down. We were surprised to see that things had cleared back up again. But as tempting as it was to return to the upper level, we figured that visibility that day was likely relative depending on how high we were.
The main landmark on this other trail is the ‘Southern Heavenly Gate.’ This impressive and imposing gate is actually a sandstone pillar. At one point, countless years ago, erosion caused a hole to form in the middle, which eventually caused the entire lower portion to collapse.
Closer to the bottom, we passed through a scenic forested area that featured an arched bridge over a small stream of water. And then before long, we made it to the bottom. Note that if you choose to hike the ‘Southern Heavenly Gate’ path up first, you’ll want to get off outside the Tianzi Mountain Cableway station.
The area was jam-packed with people, and it took us around 30 minutes of waiting before we could get on the bus. And finally, we got to rest out legs for a bit before returning to Wulingyuan and calling it a day.
Though I was tired, it was overall a much easier day than my first day at the park. And I had just enough energy, I felt, for one more full-day adventure.
Planning a trip to see Hunan Province’s various national parks can be confusing. In addition to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, there’s also Tianmen Mountain which 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, it’s best to stay in the town of Wulingyuan and not Zhangjiajie City when visiting Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
I stayed at Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel during my trip and would recommend it. While I normally avoid staying in shared dorm rooms, I make exceptions for national park areas. I was able to sleep pretty well each night and met a number of friendly Chinese and foreign tourists alike.
Other positives include the staff being quite helpful with setting guests up with a park pass and explaining the best routes to take. And most importantly, the hostel is an easy walk from the Wulingyuan Entrance of the park so you’ll have no issues getting there and back each day.
But some of the downsides include booking a room that was advertised as 4 people max, only to check-in and discover 8 beds! Fortunately, though, this didn’t turn out to be a big deal, as it wasn’t always full and the other guests were friendly. Another annoying issue was the lack of a washing machine in the building. They actually make you walk all the way to one of their sister establishments if you need to wash your clothes.
Note that this place also has private rooms if you’re alone or traveling as a couple. And there are of course many other accommodation options around Wulingyuan, a town that pretty much just exists for visitors to the park.
But what about staying inside the park itself? Apparently this used to be possible several years ago, but this was no longer the case at the time of my visit. (Rumor has it that authorities banned park accommodation after part of a trail collapsed.)
With that said, there do appear to be some hotels still secretly operating within the park, which I came across by accident during one of my hikes. Furthermore, there were a number of elderly ladies along the trails mentioning that they had places where I could sleep, but due to the language barrier, I couldn’t get much detail.
So while it may technically possible to stay in the park, I’m not sure how you could arrange this without speaking Chinese.
Wulingyuan has a small bus station. It’s possible to ride there directly from Changsha, which takes 4 hours. However, there are only a few buses running a day. You can also ride directly to and from Fenghuang, but again, there are only a couple buses a day.
Most people will be getting to Wulingyuan via Zhangjiajie City. Buses run very frequently, around every 10 minutes or so, from early morning until 20:30 at night. The ride lasts 70 minutes and costs ¥20 RMB. There’s no need to wait in line at the ticket counter, as you can just pay on the bus.
How to Get to Zhangjiajie City:
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.