In May this year, we visited Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – more famously known in western countries as ‘Avatar Mountains’, as the popular movie Avatar’s landscapes were inspired by this ACTUAL, REAL place in China.
YES GUYS, Avatar is REAL. And it was one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen! It’s only when you arrive, that you realise the monstrosity of it all. This National Park is like the size of an entire city and people can spend days covering it all. So here’s a travel guide for those who wish to visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park!
There are two parts to the ZhangJiaJie tourist route: TianMenShan (it’s own separate ticket, and situated in ZhangJiaJie city) and ZhangJiaJie National Forest Park (another ticket, situated in WuLingYuan.
TianMenShan ticket costs 258RMB per person, valid for one day. This includes transport within the park consisting of a one-way cableway, shuttle bus ride and the upper escalator between Tianmen Cave and the mountain top.
ZhangJiaJie National Forest Park ticket costs 228RMB per person, and is valid for 4 days.
Note: the website says that the park opens at 8am, but I swear it opens unofficially much earlier. I’m not sure at what time, but I feel like at least at 7am it was open. Suspicious..
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND THERE
We spent 3 days in the area and would recommend 2-4 days. I have put together below an itinerary for 3 days and suggestions for if you only want to go 1,2 or 4 days.
WHERE TO STAY
When visiting the area, there are two main cities to be familiar with. Zhangjiajie city which is where Tianmenshan is and Wulingyuan city which is where the main entrance to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is. I recommend staying one night at Zhangjiajie city to visit Tianmenshan, and the remainder of the nights at Wulingyuan, to visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
WHEN TO VISIT
Generally, April to October is the best time to visit this area. From April to June especially, it is the rainy season which means there is a higher chance of viewing the sought after ‘yun hai’ – sea of clouds amongst the mountains.
We visited in May which was meant to be low season. Whilst we did see yun hai, it’s also quite a difficult time due to the rainy season as it indeed rained quite a bit!
Before we get started, here is a cheat sheet of all the names and locations (because we found this really confusing when planning our trip).
- There are 2 cities, about 45 minutes drive apart: Zhangjiajie city and Wulingyuan city.
- Zhangjiajie city is where Tianmenshan (aka Tianmen Mountain, because shan = mountain) is.
- Wulingyuan city is where Zhangjiajie National Park’s main entrance is. Note there is also another entrance on the other side of the national park but most people don’t use it as it’s really far away.
- Tianmenshan is where the famous Stairway to Heaven Gate is, and a separate area in itself. Worth visiting.
- Zhangjiajie National Park (in Wulingyuan) consists of the following main viewing areas:
- Yuanjiajie (Avatar Mountains): most famous, most beautiful. Easy walk around paved footpaths to see everything.
- Tianzishan (Tianzi Mountain): also a very popular, beautiful area. Easy walk around paved footpaths to see everything.
- Yangjiajie: a more newly discovered area which consists of a 2-3 different hikes you can take to see various viewpoints. Each hike takes some time – anywhere from 1-3 hours return.
- Huangshi??: We didn’t visit.
- Also in Wulingyuan city: Baofeng Lake.
- Another place people often visit: Glass Bridge – we didn’t visit.
- NOTE: Tianmenshan is NOT the same as Tianzishan
- NOTE: Yuanjiajie is NOT the same place as Yangjiajie
3 DAY ITINERARY
This is how we spent our 3 days, self guided which is much easier if you speak mandarin (we do), but still doable even if you don’t. However, if you don’t read or speak any mandarin and want a stress-free experience, I would highly recommend you find a local english speaking guide, because it is definitely quite a complicated park to visit. However SO worth the effort. One of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen.
Note our Day 2+3 itinerary at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park kind of covers some areas twice – this is because it’s common to get bad weather so there’s a chance you need to visit places twice!
DAY 1: TianMenShan (Tianmen Mountain)
Dedicate a full day to exploring Tianmen Mountain. We did just that though unfortunately was met with bad weather meaning we hardly saw anything from the top!
However, from what we did see, I knew this place would be amazing to visit again one day. The cablecar ride up for us was somewhat clear and it was absolutely breathtaking. You get to see the 1000 bend road which is so cool from afar!
During our walk at Tianmenshan, we didn’t see much. However heading back down, we were able to see the Stairway to Heaven. These two sights alone made our trip worthwhile!
DAY 2: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (Tianzishan aka Tianzi Mountain + Yangjiajie + Yuanjiajie)
Tip 1: Start early.
We’re starting the first day at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park going against the crowds. Most people visit the national park in the following order: Yuanjiajie (closest to park entrance) > other stops > Tianzishan. Today we’re going to start at Tianzishan, simply to try and avoid crowds!
So! Take the bus to Tianzishan (Tianzi Mountain). When you arrive at Tianzishan, buy a cable car ticket (72RMB for adults) so that you can take the cable car to Tianzishan viewing area.
Note: get your cameras out, this will be your first glimpse of the stunning formations of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and your jaw will drop. Be composed, you are gonna take a billion photos and it’s only going to get better!
Once you arrive at Tianzishan viewing area, check out the various platforms to see some absolutely RIDICULOUS views. Unfortunately when we visited it was mainly covered in cloud so we didn’t get to fully see what it looked like. But we still saw enough to be impressed.
NOTE! Once you cover all these areas here, you haven’t actually finished visiting Tianzishan! Look out for the shuttle buses and ask to be taken to He Long Park. This is another of Tianzishan which I fear people will miss because they don’t know about it.
This is where some of the most beautiful viewing decks are found! At He Long Park, visit all the viewing decks and be blown away by the view! If anywhere is covered in cloud, give it 10-15 minutes just in case it clears – we found that the clouds moved fast here and sometimes, for a good 30 seconds, you would get a magical breathtaking glimpse of a truly mesmerising view. I saw one of my favourite viewpoints here.
Once you finish visiting He Long Park, you can head to Yangjiajie for a gander. Yangjiajie isn’t for everyone. It consists of 2 lookouts which require a bit of hiking to get to. Tianbo Mansion lookout here is a 2 hour return hike and One Step to Heaven is a 3 hour return trip. I didn’t believe they were actual hikes til we arrived so we were dressed in the wrong attire for it. However, if you’re an adventure seeker and you like to work for the view, then this place is for you and you could easily spend a whole day here if you wanted to do all the hikes. For us, we didn’t end up hiking all the way. We didn’t have time to, and we didn’t have the right shoes.
The views are also really similar to Tianzishan and Yuanjiajie which are much more accessible to get to, so it’s up to you as to whether this is somewhere you want to visit!
Finish your day with a stopover at Yuanjiajie (Avatar Mountains). It’s along the way back to the main gate, so why not! When we visited in the afternoon, unfortunately we didn’t see anything because of thick cloud. However, this was no problems as we were planning to visit Yuanjiajie twice!
Take the Bailong Elevator down, the shuttle bus to the entrance, and head back home after a big day.
DAY 3: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (Yuanjiajie + Golden Whip Stream) + Baofeng Lake
Tip 1: Start early as soon as the park opens.
Starting at the main gate in Wulingyuan city, take one of the shuttle buses to Bailong Elevator. Here, purchase a ticket for Bailong Elevator (about 65RMB). Once at the top, enjoy the beautiful views at Yuanjiajie viewing area (also known as Avatar Mountains).
Follow the signs around this area to visit each viewpoint here.
For almost every viewpoint, there are numerous viewing deck areas where you can see the exact same, general view. So the signs often split you into two different directions, one to a downstairs viewing deck, and another for example, an higher upstairs viewing deck. Don’t get confused like us wondering which way is the correct way to go, this is simply for crowd control as there are so many people visiting the park. All of the viewing decks essentially give you the same view, as the view is just so large it doesn’t really matter whether you visit the left side, right side, upper side or lower side!
I think it should take around 2 hours to walk the entire Yuanjiajie area, with time for photos, jaw dropping and all. Once you finish visiting Yuanjiajie (Avatar Mountains), you’ll arrive at the other end of Yuanjiajie (note the area is really big!). Look out for a shuttle bus to drive you back to the start of Yuanjiajie (where the Bailong elevator is). Buy another ticket and take the Bailong elevator down.
From here, look for a bus that will take you to Golden Whip Stream. From memory the buses are not labelled and the park staff fill buses up with people who want to go the same place/direction and then they drive off when they’re full. So they kind of operate on demand to where you want to go. Make sure you tell the driver where you want to get off as well if it’s an obscure location, or else they might not stop at your stop.
Enjoy an hour wandering around Golden Whip Stream. You can follow the whole track for a few hours to get you to Huangshi village (Yellow Stone Village), however we didn’t have time for this. We just meandered around the start of the track.
Catch a cab (very cheap, I think 20RMB) to Baofeng Lake. Enjoy a much more relaxing, peaceful afternoon on a short cruise around this lake. There are toilets here, but they are pretty basic from memory.
IF YOU HAVE 2 DAYS
Spend one day at TianMenShan and one day at Zhangjiajie ForestNational Park – cover the spots YuanJiaJie and TianZiShan on this day at least.
IF YOU HAVE 4 DAYS
Space your time out! Day 1: TianMenShan Day 2-4: Zhangjiajie National Park, check out every single spot at your leisure! Perhaps a visit to Baofeng Lake or Glass Bridge if you wish too?
There are food stalls and shops at every viewpoint and stop you can think of. So no need to pack your own food, you definitely won’t go hungry looking for food. They sell everything from drinks, main meals, snacks and souvenirs. Slightly overpriced though nothing ridiculous. Just bring cash!
I was very impressed by the fact that there are now western toilets at most major tourist attractions in China! If you prefer a western toilet, head to the larger toilet blocks. Don’t forget to BYO toilet paper.
This park is extremely crowded even in off season (when we visited) but there are often smaller lookout platforms near the big ones. If you see smaller platforms (ones that fit 10 people max) head there, because the tour groups only head to the bigger platforms (that fit 50-100 people) and you essentially get the same view from both.
What to wear
The park is humungous and you will be on your feet all day with lots of stairs. Hence, definitely a good pair of walking shoes and if you plan to hike, then a good pair of hiking shoes are highly recommended.
For an indication of park size, the shuttle bus from Wulingyuan entrance to Bailong Elevator takes 35 minutes! The shuttle bus from Wulingyuan entrance to the cable car at Tianzishan takes 25 minutes. The entire bus loop around the park I reckon could take like 2-3 hours so it is a really big area to cover and definitely one you need to allocate multiple days to see.
How many days:
The ticket to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park covers you for 4 days, and it’s recommended you spend at least 2 days to account for the weather. To see everything, I think you’d definitely need the whole 4 days.
It says the park opens at 8am but I swear it opens at 7am, if not earlier. It’s a bit confusing and I still don’t know the right answer to this.
Should I join a tour / do I need a private guide?
Visiting this area self-guided takes effort and research (but this travel guide is going to save you heaps of research!). If you don’t read or speak any mandarin, it might get a little difficult when trying to get around at the park. However it is definitely doable.
But! If you want a stress-fress experience, then I would highly recommend you find a local english speaking guide, because it is definitely quite a complicated park to visit.
No matter how you visit, it is SO worth the effort. One of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen.
Hope you find this guide helpful!