The Karst Peaks of Zhangjiajie

We avoided Zhangjiajie for a long time. We knew it was known for big crowds and suspected it was just too commercialized for our taste. And how different could it really be from Yangshuo/Guilin or any number of the other beautiful karst mountains we’ve already been to?

Well, now we know. It is different. Not different in some mind-blowing way, but different enough to make us smile and feel content that we decided to make the trip. Zhangjiajie’s karst peaks are unique in terms of how they’re clustered and the vantage point you get of them from the walkways. If you throw in some mist and low hanging clouds (which we didn’t get to experience), then you’ll even get the Avatar-like scenes that inspired the movie’s landscape.

At some point I’ll come up with a personal ranking for all the mountains we’ve been to in China. For now, let’s just say Zhangjiajie is somewhere in the upper-middle. Despite it’s unique beauty, the main reason it’s not at the top of the list is because the most beautiful parts are accessible only by the walkways, which means if you want to see the good stuff you’ve got to submit yourself to crowds (of course being accessible to everyone is great, but for us, we tend to like beautiful places that require a somewhat difficult hike, because that weeds out a lot of people).

On the plus side, the park is huge, which means you can easily spend 2-3 days hiking around. For a detailed itinerary and map of our day 1 and 2 routes, see the bottom of the post.


Fast Facts:

Name: 张家界 / Zhāngjiājiè

Where: 武陵源 (Wǔlíng Yuán), located about 40 minutes by bus outside of downtown Zhangjiajie

Tickets: There are lots of tickets inside the park. Here’s the breakdown and our grand total – Main entrance ticket (good for 3 days): RMB 245 | 天子山索道 (Tiānzǐshān Cable car): RMB 67 | 百龙天梯 (Bǎilóng tiāntī, glass elevator) RMB 72 | 黄石寨 (Huángshí zhài) RMB 65. Grand total ticket price per person: RMB 449    

Where to Stay: Depends on whether you want to stay in Zhangjiajie city or closer to Wulingyuan, which is about 40 minutes from the city. We stayed in the city a the 一家亲宾馆, which was a very pleasant, super cheap, and clean family run place walking distance to the Tianmen mountain cable car. However, some people might want to stay closer to Wulingyuan to avoid the morning and night bus ride.

What to Do: Much like in Lushan, it seems like there’s a whole city up in the mountains of Wulingyuan. You can easily spend 2 days+ hiking and walking around the numerous paths. Buses within the park (included in the ticket price) can take you from one scenic area to another.

Day 1

We did Wulingyuan after we’d already done Tianmen mountain. Needless to say, the views in Wulingyuan are different and even more stunning than Tianmen mountain. As you ride up the gondola you know you’re in a special place.

Unless you happen to have great light or some nice clouds, it’s nonetheless a challenge to capture images that communicate the feeling you have when you’re actually there. Most of these were shot in fairly flat hazy light, which is to say, they don’t do the real place justice at all.

At the top of the gondola you’ll circle around the 黄石寨景区 area.

aDSC_0279 a_DSC0062 aDSC_0304 a_DSC0043 a_DSC0058 a_DSC0061 a_DSC0073 aa_DSC0085

After circling the first set of karst peaks, we made our way down the mountain. The long flight of stairs down the mountain takes you through a forest of pines and friendly if not occasionally aggressive monkeys.

These monkeys live it up on crackers, hot dogs, and whatever else the thousands of tourists feed them as they pass by. The monkeys are very used to humans, so they are generally friendly. However, be careful around the mothers with young babies, as teasing them could prompt them to go into defense mode.

a_DSC0095 a_DSC0104a_DSC0103

At the bottom of the mountain you’ll meet up with the main drag that takes you towards 水绕四门. This section is basically a very well made flat walkway through the woods. It’s a very pleasant stroll, though there’s nothing really spectacular to see along the way. Although coming from a polluted city, it all looks pretty spectacular.

a_DSC0108 aDSC_0352 aDSC_0360 aDSC_0375a_DSC0109

At 水绕四门 you can catch one of the public buses to 十里画廊. At the entrance to 十里画廊 you have the option of walking in or taking a short electric train. If you do decide to walk, just know that the pay-off view is the above three pillars, The Three Sisters, i.e. 三姐妹.

On the day we were there it was quite cloudy and the view of the Three Sister was, well, somewhat underwhelming. We took the train, so it wasn’t like we wasted a lot of time. The walkway looked quite narrow, especially with tons of people walking in either direction.

Basically, if you’re short on time, don’t feel like you need to go in and check out the Three Sisters. Otherwise, don’t be expecting an ‘Avatar hallelujah’ moment (which is an area we explored on the second day).

From the Three Sisters we made our way back to the train station and then back into the city. Again, scroll down to the bottom for a full itinerary of our day 1 walk.


Day 2

Day 2 was a bit stressful to begin with, but got better and better as the views began to surpass what we saw on day 1. The stress came from the line for the glass elevator. You’re basically cramped into a tunnel under a mountain for an hour+ being smushed from behind while you wait to get in the short elevator ride up the mountain. I’m not sure if you can avoid this by hiking up the mountain, but it’s worth investigating if there’s a particularly long line at the elevator.

Elevator line experience aside, Day 2’s walk was quite nice. We got views reminiscent of the prior day’s, though they were certainly different – perhaps more Avatar-esque?

aDSC_0391 aDSC_0396 aDSC_0408

One of the difficulties in photographing these karst peaks is that without fog or something dispersed in between them, it’s difficult to capture the depth and height of the peaks. As seen above, the peaks sort of dissolve into the background, and you lose that sense of awe and small vs. large. In person of course you can really feel it as you push your body up against the railings.

aDSC_0449 a_DSC0137a_DSC0112

How some of the these peaks were formed and are still standing seems improbable, as top heavy pillars create massive overhangs that are all too precarious.

Around 天波府 you’ll get to climb up and down some iron ladders, which adds a hint of excitement to the day.

aDSC_0420 aDSC_0437 aDSC_0472


Day 3

We had some time before our flight, so we decided to check out 黄龙洞 (a cave). From the 武陵源汽车站 just get on the #1 bus and it’ll take you right to the cave.

The cave was actually better than we expected as was the surrounding park. Typically, caves in China are super gaudy with an overabundance of fluorescent lights everywhere. While there certainly were fluorescent lights, they were installed somewhat more tastefully than in other places we’ve been to.

The cave itself is quite impressive and you can even go on a boat ride inside the cave. If you’ve got time to kill, and you’re a bit karsted-out, then 黄龙洞 really isn’t a bad option.

Below are some pictures from the cave (the cave is massive, so there is much more to see than what is shared below). I was sans tripod and had never tried to take cave pictures before, so my results aren’t exactly ideal. Without a tripod I was pushing such high ISOs that I made the images black and white so noise isn’t as much of a distraction.

黄龙洞 黄龙洞 黄龙洞 黄龙洞 黄龙洞黄龙洞


Route Explanations and Maps

Day 1 Route: (I promise this makes it sound a lot more complicated than it really is. As long as you know the name of your next checkpoint, it’s super easy to ask for directions as there are people everywhere. Here’s our day 1 route highlighted on a map (starting in the lower left of the map). Follow the black line. )

– Took bus from Zhangjiajie downtown bus station to 张家界森林公园 (RMB 12 per person)
– Got dropped off at 张家界公园门票站
– Walked into the park towards 黄石寨
– Took a free bus to 黄石寨 (got on the bus where the red dot is on the map)
– Took the chairlift from 黄石寨 up the mountain
– Walked around making a loop on the mountain top (this area is called 黄石寨景区)
– After making the loop, walked down the mountain towards 水绕四门
– After getting down the mountain, walked along the river, still towards 水绕四门
– At 水绕四门 got on a bus towards 十里画廊
– Got off at 十里画廊 and took the electric train to the end and then back again (you make a round-trip on the electric train, or just walk)
– Got on a bus to the 武陵源门票站
– At the 武陵源门票站 got on the #1 public bus to the 汽车站
– From the 汽车站 got on a bus back to the Zhangjiajie downtown bus station (last bus home is at 19:00)

This whole route takes about 8 hours.

Day 2 Route: Here’s a map. Follow the blue line starting at 武陵源汽车站. Locations mentioned below are underlined in blue. The black line is from day one (above). This hike is a bit shorter than day one, as there is more time on the bus and less walking.

– Took bus from Zhangjiajie downtown bus station to 武陵源汽车站. 
– Got on the #1 public bus to 武陵源门票站.
– Took the park bus to 百龙天梯 (the glass elevator).
– Took the glass elevator up, walked out and then to the parking lot. Took the bus to 迷魂台.
– Walked the small loop in this area.
– Got on a bus towards 天波府 and got off there.
– Walked to 天波府 and back (a loop taking about an hour).
– Got on a bus to 贺龙公园. Got off and walked along the walkway to the chairlift.
– Took the 天子山索道 down the mountain. From the bottom took a bus back to 武陵源汽车站.


Finding Zhangjiajie Forest Park on a Map

3 thoughts on “The Karst Peaks of Zhangjiajie

  1. Jon

    To the author of the article: I am curious as to what Chinese scenic area is your favourite? I haven’t been back to Guilin since 1993 but from the photos I have seen the area looks quite touristy with lots of infrastructure viewable from the mountain tops.

    As a photographer I have been to several Chinese national parks, many on multiple occasions and often for a week at a time. I’ve been to Huangshan (three times), Zhangjiajie (twice), Huashan, Sanqingshan and Jiuzhaigou. Zhangjiajie is easily my favourite but any of these places are worth a visit if coming to China. Some of the best parts of the park (e.g. Yaozizhai) have zero crowds. There are plenty of hiking trails where you can wander for hours without seeing many people. Most visitors stay 2-3 days max which is fine if you don’t want to see everything. If you go in mid November crowds the nights will be cold but crowds are not a problem 🙂 I stayed inside the park within half hour walk to Yuanjiajie and had the entire area to myself at sunrise.

    How good your experience in Zhangjiajie will be depends on several factors: season, weather/pollution, time spent in the park, and crowd levels – which are strongly correlated with the time of the year.

  2. Pingback: Greetings from China | Welcome, friend

Leave a Comment