Wulingyuan Scenic Area is comprised of several national parks, the most famous of which is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a 243 sq mi (630 km2) park is full of stunning karst pillars of sandstone, covered with sub-tropical rainforest. The park is often covered in fog, adding to the mystery but obscuring views. The mountains in director James Cameron's movie, Avatar, may have been inspired by the scenery here. Park officials have renamed one of the peaks "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain" (阿凡达-哈利路亚山; Āfándá hālìlùyà shān).
Wulingyuan was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Flora and fauna
Wulingyuan covers 3 natural reserves, and contains over 500 tree species, including dawn redwood, believed extinct until it was re-identified in 1948. There are also giant salamanders, rhesus monkeys, and many bird types. The monkeys have become accustomed to human visitors, and have been known to grab white plastic shopping bags from visitors to look for food.
There is extensive fog in the park at times, and summers are very humid. Temperatures vary greatly between early morning and late afternoon. In May, mornings can be a temperate 18°C but rapidly reaching 30°C by noon. Occasional snowfalls in winter make for beautiful landscapes, but walkways may be very slippery.
Generally, you'll first arrive in Zhangjiajie city.
A taxi from Zhangjiajie city to Wulingyuan entrance should cost about ¥100. You can also get a taxi directly from the Zhangjiajie airport.
A bus from Zhangjiajie city is a cheaper option, costing ¥20. Buses run every 10 minutes or so from the Zhangjiajie central bus station (张家界中心汽车站, just beside the train station, about 3 km east of the airport as a bird flies) to two locations:
- "Zhangjiajie National Forest Park" (the southern entrance of the park)
- "Wulingyuan" (武陵源), which is a town whose west end also has an entrance to the park (about 1 km due west of Wulingyuan bus station) .
Travel time is 45-60 minutes. These routes do not have numbers - arrive in the bus station, go out to the outdoor platforms on the left, and ask for the route.
Fees and permits
As of April 2017, the only option available from the ticket office at the main entrance is the comprehensive ticket, which costs ¥248 and includes a 4 day park pass, free rides on the internal bus system, and some sort of insurance (¥3, included).
For students under 24 (age proof and student ID requested) the entrance costs ¥160. The cashiers tend to be suspicious about foreign student ID, and one even said the discount does not apply to foreign students.
A ticket valid for 1 year costs ¥301 (July 2016).
These tickets include admission to the park and use of the internal bus system. They do not include the cable cars or scenic elevator. Each of these requires an addition ticket costing around ¥70.
Payment must be in cash; credit cards are not accepted.
You can find different maps of the site online. The most comprehensive one (of which a paper copy can be bought for ¥5 at the site) is available here. Beware, though, that it is geographically quite inaccurate in its details. For a more accurate but less complete map, see OpenStreetMap.
There are three cable cars in the park - Yuangjiajie (in the west), Huangshizai (in the south), and Tianzi Mountain (in the east). Many other roads go across the park, and many hiking trails go in between those. There is also a scenic glass elevator (hundreds of meters high), and a "mini train". All of them cost extra in the range of ¥80-90 (April 2017) one way.
There are two main ticketing gates, one at Zhangjiajie (south side) and one at Wulingyuan (east side). From each of those gates, there are buses that take you into the actual park for free.
It may be difficult to find a bus going counterclockwise around the park as opposed to clockwise. Buses particularly on the north side may not stop frequently. Queuing is common but park managers apparently try to put enough buses into circulation to limit wait times at any major stop to 20 minutes.
The main highlight is following the many paths through the stunning sandstone landscape. Some paths are short and easy, while others are long and involve hundreds of meters of exhausting climbing. The main sights are easily reachable from the bus stops but walkways will be clogged with tourist. As soon as you venture out to a 'minor' track, you'll be alone.
The park is enormous and there is no way you can see it all, even in two days, so it's important to plan ahead and know which areas you want to visit. The signage in the park is not always adequate, so buy a map from a vendor in the village before you go in (some maps are in both Chinese and English). The buses and cable cars are quite useful for getting from one hiking area to another.
Keep in mind that every part of the park has stunning terrain. While many particular locations in the park have been given fanciful names which are marked on maps, if you miss any particular rock feature you can still get the park experience from similar features located elsewhere.
Some highlights of hiking include the following natural landmarks:
- Huang Shi Zhai（黄石寨） The highest area in the park at 3,450 ft (1,050 m), which can be climbed up a 3,878-step stairway, but you can take a cable car instead
- Kongzhong Tianyuan This garden sits on an outcropping surrounded by slender peaks
- Xianren Qiao (Bridge of the Immortals) This spectacular, narrow rock bridge is over a deep chasm, with no railings. Access to the bridge is blocked by barbed wire, but some daredevils choose to walk over it anyway. There are several amazing look-out points you can walk to nearby, including "Great Viewing Platform," "Emperor's Throne" and "Cock-Pecking."
- Golden Whip Stream This famous stream begins near the Zhangjiajie village park entrance and continues for several kilometres through the park. There is a walking path along the length of the stream, from where you can look up at the karsts all around you.
- At around the halfway point (200 m before Zicao Pool) you will come to a restaurant and souvenir shop. At this point there is a bridge across the stream, which leads to a different trail (about 4.5 km) through the Shadao Gully. The second half of the Shadao Gully trail is a steep flight of steps, but it leads to one of the most beautiful areas of the park. At the top of the staircase is a road with frequent buses that can take you to the First Bridge of the World (to the right) or to Xianren Qiao (to the left) and many other places. There is also Zhongtian International Youth Hostel (Yuanjiajie) 50 m to the right along the road (see Lodging below).
- If you continue along the Golden Whip Stream around 200 m after Zicao Pool you will come to "Meeting of Thousands of Ways" attraction point. Here you can turn to another trail which eventually leads you to the following attraction points with great view: Back Garden, Enchanting Terrace, First Bridge of the World (see below).
- After another 2 km of walking the Golden Whip Stream path ends by a bus station with souvenir shops and food outlets. From here you can take a bus to the lower stations of Bailong elevator (¥56 adult one-way), sightseeing mini-train, Tianzi Mountain cable car and also to the Wulingyuan park entrance.
- First Bridge of the World (天下第一桥 - Tian Xia Di Yi Qiao) This is a natural rock bridge similar to Xianren Qiao, but with guard rails that make it much safer to walk across. The bridge is really just a minor part of the incredible panoramic views to be seen along this short and easy trail. Not to be missed.
- Yupi Feng These thin, spiky columns hundreds of feet high are featured on stamps and resemble calligraphy letters
- Yaozizai Unlike the other attraction points with nice scenery this area is much less crowded. You may hardly encounter a few people here for hours of hiking. This area can be reached from either ends of the Golden Whip Stream path. There is a also a turn to the Yaozizai area near Zicao Pool at the Golden Whip Stream path.
Some other spectacular sites are located outside the main nature reserve, a short taxi ride away (there are rumored to be buses as well):
- 1 Baofeng Lake (宝峰湖, Baofeng Hu). A pristine artificial lake surrounded by more of the rock formations that make Wulingyuan famous. Has boat trips, additional hiking trails, and occasionally traditional performances of the Tujia minority which is native to the area. 2 km south of Wulingyuan village.
- 2 Huanglong Cave (黄龙洞, Huanglong Dong). A large cave with a total area of 120 acres, as well as underground rivers and waterfalls, and impressive rock formations lit up with colorful lights. The tour includes a boat cruise on one of the rivers. About 10 km east of Wulingyuan village.
- 3 Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon. A deep, beautiful canyon within an hour's bus ride (cost ¥12) or 18 km of Wulingyuan. In 2016, the world's longest and highest glass-bottomed bridge opened to connect the two sides at the top of the canyon. Tickets for the glass bridge only are called "C" tickets and are about half the price of the canyon/bridge combo tickets (which are "B" tickets) but C tickets (especially) may sell out well in advance of the date of your visit and if one is coming out this way anyway seeing the canyon as well is probably worth it as it includes waterfalls, caves, a zip line opportunity and a boat ride at the end. When exiting the bridge, C ticket holders will end up in a lane going straight to the parking lot while B ticket holders will have another ticket check and then descend down a 1-meter-wide staircase to the bottom of the canyon. The availability of walkup tickets is not assured even for "B" tickets given capacity limitations, it may be best to inquire with your hotel or a trusted local about booking in advance. The exit point after the canyon is well down the road from the glass bridge and although there are typically many waiting buses in a parking lot there, they are just for organized tours and the local bus back to Wulingyuan will have to be flagged down from the side of the road. Glass bridge tickets are for either prior to 13:00 or after 13:00 so don't arrive too early if you have an afternoon booking.
Tip: Try to find an elderly-looking man named Mr Zhou (周) who hangs out inside the Zhangjiajie park entrance. He offers to help carry bags using a bamboo stick. As it turns out, he knows the park inside-out, and he is also willing to work as a park guide. He is highly reliable, honest, and patient. On our last day, he even arranged transportation for us to Zhangjiajie and accompanied us all the way to make sure we would catch our flight.
At random points along the trails, you can find little stands selling food, water, and souvenirs. Try cooked eggs (¥3 each), fried tofu (¥10 a cup), cucumbers (¥10) that are sold everywhere in the park.
Wulingyuan is in Hunan province, a region known for its spicy cuisine. In Zhangjiajie Cun lots of little restaurants have exotic wildlife on display in cages outside - which turn out to constitute the menu. You can have turtle, snake, toad and a huge variety of interesting and obscure fish and shellfish. Definitely interesting. It has been suggested some of these are endangered species, however.
Warning: The restaurants inside Zhangjiajie National Forest Park may present menus printed with ridiculous tourist prices (for example, ¥388 = US$55 for a whole chicken dish). However, you can try to bargain. After some heated insistence, we were able to get more than 50% off the menu prices. It's better to save your appetite (and money) for the string of restaurants located outside the park entrance.
- E-Pino Bakery, next to bus station in Zhangjiejie city (From the bus station main entrance, walk away from the train station, large windows and large sign). Above average bakery with sweet and savoury treats. Good to stock up on food for a picnic before heading into the park as there not many restaurants or snack stalls once inside. Sit in or takeaway. Hot drinks ¥8-15. Tasty muffins, ¥10. ¥5-20.
If you are doing a serious hike, remember to bring lots of water! The more heavily travelled trails are lined periodically with vendors selling food and water. But in the more remote parts of the park, on the more difficult trails, vendors are unlikely to be found.
There are hotels in the main villages, Zhangjiajie Cun and Suoxiyu Cun, and there are simple inns throughout the reserve
- [formerly dead link] Yuanjiajie Zhongtian International Youth Hostel (袁家界中天国际青年旅舍), Wangqiaotai, Yuanjiajie, inside of Zhangjiajie National Park, ☎ . Simple dorms (around ¥60), double rooms (¥130-150), with laundry facilities. Also serves good, inexpensive hot food. This hostel is inside the park, making it a great place to base yourself if you don't want to return to Zhangjiajie village to sleep, assuming you don't have much luggage. The hostel isn't easy to find. The best way is to ask locals how to get to 望桥台 Wàngqiáotái. By foot, refer to the "Golden Whip Stream" subsection. By bus, take the park bus from Wulingyuan entrance for approximately 1 hour. There is a bus transfer area 20-30 minutes walking distance from the hostel. From there, walk 5 minutes to a minibus stop, which then stops directly in front of the hostel (again, ask for Wangqiaotai top). Be warned that it takes at least 2-3 hours to reach the hostel from the nearest Zhangjiajie or Wulingyuan park entrances, and bus services run only around 07:30 to 19:00.
- Railway Hotel (Tielu Binguan)- a budget hotel in Zhangjiajie village which can be booked online for ¥120 for a double room.
- The are several new and trendy midrange hotels in the northeast of town (that is, near the park entrance and on an alley just north of Jundi street (军邸路） about 500 m west-north-west of the bus station where buses from Zhangjiajie arrive).
Chinese-speaking touts offering rooms will meet visitors at the Zhangjiajie village bus or the train station. You can probably get a cheap room for about ¥50 for a double by following one of these guys, but be prepared to bargain.
Camping is not allowed in the parks.
The park is full of extremely steep cliffs. Generally these are safe since they are well guarded with railings (as long as you stick to the official trails), but those with fear of heights or dropoffs should stick to the roads or take a boat cruise.
- Tianmen Mountain, if you didn't go there already.