Zhangjiajie National Forest Park: The Avatar Mountains in China
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is being promoted across China and around the world as the ‘Avatar Mountains’.
For a reason: The spectacular landscape of sandstone formations were featured in one of the biggest movie hits ever – Avatar.
Buried deep in the Hunan province, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, part of the greater Wulingyuan Scenic Area, holds the esteemed title of being China’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some 234 peaks and more than 3000 karst pinnacles and spires dominate the scenery. A stone forest found nowhere else in the world.
Absolutely breathtaking, like nothing I’ve ever have seen before. A place of awe and humility.
Therefore it’s little surprising that tourist development now sees the area attract millions of visitors every year. Primarily Chinese tourists.
Sadly this level of tourism has become unsustainable, and it’s not just from becoming overcrowded or failure to implement beneficial resources.
The type of people arriving at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park doesn’t seem to have an appreciation of nature and preservation.
One Piece of Advice
Be prepared that this is not a place to enjoy outdoors and the landscape. Not like other natural wonders you’ve seen before.
Embrace the fact that you will be lost in direction and translation, pushed by loud and aggressive crowds.
If you have the right mindset it’s really worth the trip.
In terms of ‘Best Time to Visit’, ‘Best Places to Visit’ and ‘Ticket Information’ the website Chinahighlights provides you with the most important information.
How to get there
Zhangjiajie Hehua Airport (DYG) is the closest airport, however relatively small and only served by a limited number of airlines. Other than Taiwan (Taipei) and Korea (Busan), no other country flies directly to Hehua.
You will have to connect to another Chinese city, which is most likely Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Xi’an.
China Southern Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, and Sichuan Airlines offer the most flights.
Where to stay
There are three areas where you can stay: Zhangjiajie City, Wulingyuan (just outside the park), or inside the park.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is about a 80-minute drive from Zhangjiajie city and airport.
Don’t stay In Zhangjiajie itself. If you focus on visiting the National Park, then you will be having to get hour long buses to and from the park twice a day.
Best would be to stay in the park itself, this way you can enjoy sunrise and sunset outside of opening hours. However it’s also the most expensive option.
I stayed in Wulingyuan and this proofed to be a great place to base myself.
The park has several entrances but the main ones are the Zhangjiajie forest park and Wulingyuan entrances. Wulingyuan entrance is walkable from the village of the same name.
I recommend to look out for a hotel that has English speaking staff (which is a rare find).
Read the reviews on booking.com beforehand and after you’ve made a booking, contact the hotel and ask some random questions to see if they are capable to respond in English.
I found it very useful to have hotel staff being able to answer questions and provide tips about the area and the park.
Exploring Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
You can certainly hire an English speaking guide, but I was determined to manage it by myself.
I always prefer the DIY option.
The area is absolutely HUGE, and people spend days and days coming back. For me, because I got extremely annoyed by the crowds, I only came for two days.
You really have to be careful about selecting your route or you’ll spend all day backtracking, or worse like me – getting lost.
Make sure to get a free location map from the entrance (sometimes, hotels have a map as well). Even though the map is in Chinese, it’ll give you a general sense of the park.
In addition to the map, I’d recommend downloading the app ‘maps.me’. It helps to get around and to calculate the distances between the view points and trails.
The trails are well marked out and easy to follow but can be a little confusing. Easiest is to just go with the flow. You’ll pass by several viewing platforms, natural bridges, glass-bottom bridges and even a few temples.
Like I said, it’s best to have a route planned out for your day ahead and check which transport you will use to complete each section.
How to get around
Purple colored buses run along routes on both the top and bottom sections of the park. These are free to use and will take you to great starting points.
Unfortunately they don’t have any English names or numbers so it is hard to figure out where they’re going. I got lost a couple of times, but it seems to be part of the game.
In addition to the buses there are cable cars, a tourist train and an elevator. These are not included in the entrance ticket and queues can be very long.
You can certainly skip those and hike up and down, but these hikes can easily take a couple of hours and unless you are in perfect shape, you’ll be pretty exhausted by the time you reach your destination.
It all comes down to how much time you have.
Food and Drinks
There are several vendors across the park selling local food. The food is fine if you are adventurous and don’t mind trying food without knowing what it is. But it wasn’t for me.
I brought some sandwiches and plenty of water with me. This way I was able to enjoy a picnic somewhere away from the crowds.
Oh, and there is a McDonald’s at Tianzi Mountain, if you fancy a change from Chinese food.
Dealing with massive crowds
I’ll be honest – I was completely shocked. And I’ve been to other attractions in China, but nothing compares to what I experienced at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
Dozens of enormous tour buses dropped off hordes of Chinese, who haphazardly followed their guides around, directed by a flag and megaphone. It was extremely noisy.
People were pushing to get into the bus. People were not waiting in line.
Especially around Yuanjiajie, the most popular area, it was impossible to stop and enjoy the view.
I can’t even count how many times I got hit by selfie sticks. It was insane. People were literally fighting for the best spot to take selfies.
At one point it got so overwhelming that I just wanted to leave.
Other RecommendationsThe famous Tianmen Mountain is located in Zhangjiajie city and is not part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Two complete different attractions with separate entrance fees. I recommend a full day for the Tianmen Mountain with a one night stay in Zhangjiajie City. I recommend planning 4 days for the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park itself. I was perfectly fine with 2 days, however it’s good to have some extra days in case of rainy or foggy weather (-> poor visibility).
The entrance ticket is valid for up to 4 days. You get a card (also a great keepsake) which stores your thumbprint on it and that’s how you get in each entrance. Since the park is visited mainly by domestic tourists (I only saw a few Westerners), it’s good to check for national holidays when you plan your trip and avoid those. Summer season is also best avoided. Get off the bus when others stay on. This way you avoid major crowds and can explore some view points that are usually pretty quiet but also great! Leave the flip flops at home. Exploring the area requires some good walking shoes, ideally hiking shoes. Due to the height, you should also take some sunscreen, sunglasses and an extra layer of clothes.
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