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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 cablecars, 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.

Zhangjiajie National Forest park view

A view from Wulong Village.

As hard as the climbs can be, the views are worth it a 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 what the attractions are like, I’m going to show you a few of my favourite 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 it’s 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.

Avatar Hallelujah Mountain

The Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.

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 are a favourite 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 less 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.

Photography Tip: Bring a tripod if you plan on shooting the moving water of the stream, as well as a zoom lens for the monkeys.

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The Golden Whip Stream.

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The monkeys, lots of them cute babies, all hang our near the path, hoping to snatch some food from the screaming tourists.

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 incredible 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 the 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.

Path in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

A beautiful forest and a deserted trail – what more could you want?

Tianzi Mountain

The viewpoints on Tianzi Mountain are another crowd favourite, 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 moving 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 cablecar, 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.

cable car to tianzi mountain

The cablecar to Tianzi Mountain takes visitors straight through the beautiful landscape.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park view

The layers in the landscape are amazing: a view from Tianzi Mountain.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park Pagoda

The red pagoda. If I guessed right, is called Tianzi Pavillion.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park calligraphy

Calligraphy inside the red pagoda.

Wulong Village

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 shuttlebus 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 the Avatar Mountain.

Photography Tip: There are some awesome tall pillars to see on the hike up to Wulong Village which warrant a super-wide lens. When you get to the top, once again zoom lenses allow for more variety in the shots.

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A pillar seen on the walk up to Wulong Village.

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The view from the top.

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The walk up involves some crazy stairs and tight squeezes.

Bailong Elevator

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.

Bailong Elevator

Travellers in front of the Bailong Elevator.

Baofeng Lake

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, 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.

Baofeng Lake

A wooden boat on Baofeng Lake.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

18 Responses

  1. Dale

    I love that you were able to not only enter the Red Pagoda, but also to stay, watch and grab a fantastic shot of the man doing calligraphy. Also, I love that you leave little photography tips, especially as an amateur they’re really handy for me.

    Reply
  2. Agness

    I was there once and believe me, these Mountains looked much better live than they do in the pictures. They are massive and look like they were floating in the air! Something incredible. I’ve written so many guest posts about the Hallelujah Mountains recommending everyone to make it there when visiting the Land of Dragons.

    Your photos are breath-taking!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks a lot 🙂 They do look much much better live though, you are right. You can never quite capture the beauty of the real thing.

      Reply
  3. Charlie

    Ohh maaaan, I want to go so badly! Angess wrote a short guest post on this for my blog and I was just totally amazed, before reading it I hadn’t even known where the mountains were. So incredible.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      The mountains aren’t very well known and there are barely any overseas tourists there. I only learned about it when researching China and was so surprised that I had never heard of them before. Definitely go there when you get the chance, they are the coolest place ever 😀

      Reply
  4. Amy

    Those photos are just amazing! I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be in person. This park has been on my “must visit” ever since I learned about it, so I appreciate all the tips. Hopefully I’ll get there someday soon!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      It’s always a lot more impressive in person, photos just can’t capture the whole beauty of these mountains. I hope you make it there one day 🙂

      Reply
  5. Pamela

    Wow, the forest park looks so magnificent and seems like there is a lot to cover! Avatar Hallelujah Mountain looks too good to be true, must be a wonderful experience in the park and the caged staircase looks pretty scary!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Haha yeah the park is fairly big, but if you’re in there all day, you can probably do most of it in three days.

      Reply
  6. Pamela

    Wow, the forest park is HUGE! Pretty magnificent Avatar Hallelujah Mountain you have there and the cages staircase looks scary. Is that how you climb up and down the mountains?

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      The hiking trails are mostly paved and consist of lots and lots of stairs. When it’s especially steep like in the pictures, you have to clim ladders. It’s a lot of fun!

      Reply
  7. Katie

    Fantastic shots! I also loved the photography tips – I am an amateur, and always looking to improve. How much gear do you bring with you when traveling? I imagine it takes up it’s fair share in your luggage! Avatar mountains look stunning, definitely on my list (as is a wide lens!).

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I’m very glad I could help! I sadly can’t bring as much gear as I want since I always have to drag it around. I have a Canon 700D and share the lenses (two 18-55m, 50mm, two super-wide 10-20mm and a 70-200mm) with my boyfriend to distribute the weight. Well and the tripods, those things are heavy 😉
      But so far, all the photography gear we have fits into two small backpacks.

      Reply
  8. Dave Cole

    Beautiful shots, Tiffany! I really like the one of the trail, it conveys a sense of exploration ahead. I would love to see this part of the world, thanks for taking me there!

    Reply

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