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Three Day Hiking Guide and Maps to China's Zhangjiajie 张家界 National Park

Three Day Hiking Guide and Maps to China's Zhangjiajie 张家界 National Park

Zhangjiajie National Park features over 3,000 free standing karst peaks soaring to nearly 1,000 foot heights. When clouds gather along the river valley below, they can look as if they are floating, as depicted in Avatar. It's one of the most popular tourist areas in China and accessible to everyone via buses, cable cars, an elevator, and a monorail (in addition to nearly-empty hiking trails). Although the park spans 150 square miles, it can get pretty crowded. Take along a dose of patience and enjoy the solitude of the hiking trails.

Visitors to Zhangjiajie National park stay in Wulingyuan District, which is actually about a 1.5 hour bus or taxi ride from Zhangjiajie City. Your $40 (248 yuan) park pass is good for four days, so why not make the most of it? We met a few people who had allocated just a day or a day and half to visit Zhangjiajie National Park. That's just not enough time to hike and see everything the park has to offer. In this post, we share the itinerary that Walishanfang Guest House owner and former park guide, Wally, helped craft for us in June, 2018. 

We utilized the various transportation facilities in the park, but spent the majority of time on the hiking trails. We hiked an average of 28,500+ steps (yes, "steps", as in "stairs") per day, both up and down and all around the park. Weather in June was unbelievably humid and very hot (around 32-35 degrees C / 90-95 degrees F). Bring your water bottle or hydration pack!! Despite the heat and humidity in June, we were lucky to have expansive, clear views with little fog or rain.

Zhanjiajie park is divided into four main scenic areas, with over 450 designated sightseeing spots: Tianzi Mountain and 10 Mile Gallery, Yuanjiajie (Avatar film location and Huang Shi village), Golden Whip Stream (along the valley floor), and Yangjiajie (Tianbo Mansion and the Great Wall area). Buses at the main entrance area in Wulingyuan transport tourists about 30 minutes to the various scenic areas.

Day 1 Hike Up Tianzi Mountain, Hike Down 10 Mile Gallery

Be at the ticket office by 7:00 a.m. to purchase your park pass (bring your passport). Ride the bus bound for Tianzi Mountain. When you board, tell the bus driver to let you off at the Sansuo Fire Station, which is the hiking trailhead. Buses typically do not stop there unless you tell them. You will likely be the only person/people to get off the bus at the hiking trail. Just go with it and enjoy the cacophony of tree frogs that greet you. The trail is lush, green, moss-covered, a bit slippery, and oh-so-quiet! It is a roughly four mile uphill climb to the Tianzi Mountain area, where you will enter near the pagoda. Follow the sidewalk past the McDonald's (yep, the golden arches) to the cable car station. The cliffside trails with various viewing points lie below the ridge line (top left area of the map below shows little red "fingers"; these are the viewing points). We almost missed the viewing areas because when we arrived at the pagoda, we thought that was the end. You have to keep going for the good views. :-)

When you have had your fill of photos and selfies, return to the pagoda and follow the 10 Mile Gallery trail to the valley floor. This trail is more scenic than the morning's climb up to the top. When you reach the bottom, take the monorail or follow the trail beside the monorail to the parking area and bus zone. Round trip hike up, around, and down was 11 miles.

Tianzi Mountain and Ten Mile Gallery map - red lines denote walking trail

Day 2 Yuanjiajie Avatar Scenic Area: Ride Bailong Elevator Up, Hike Down to Golden Whip Stream (Optional Yangjiajie Tianbo Mansion Add-On)

This is NOT the view you want!

Most people rush to Yuanjiajie on their first day to see the Avatar scenes. If you do this, you will bumble around all morning getting tickets, learning the bus system, finding your way around -- and arrive at the top late in the morning only to see a throng of heads blocking the view. Be patient and wait for the second day.

On the second day, your mission is to be the first to the top at Yuanjiajie (read that 10 times, see tips below). If you want good photos, do not hike to the top of Yuanjiajie because you will arrive after the crowds gather. Instead, ride the Bailong Elevator. The elevator is worth every penny of the extra $12 ticket fee IF you are the first to get on in the morning. When you arrive at the top, hop on the bus to the viewing area. If the majority of people on the bus are in blue uniforms, that is a good sign. You are arriving first. We arrived with just a handful of other early birds and had the entire Avatar cliff walk to ourselves for at least an hour before the tour groups arrived. We reached the end of the Avatar area cliff walk (just past the Natural Bridge) as tour groups began streaming into the scenic area.

At this point, we rode the bus over to Yangjiajie scenic area for a little more exploring. There's a cool cliff climb through an area that used to be inhabited by thieves. You'll see why it was such a perfect hide-out as you squeeze through narrow crevices and shimmy up a rickety steel ladder to Tianbo Mansion, a peak with expansive views. 

After lunch, we made our way back to the beginning of the Avatar area cliff walk. Look for the Golden Whip Stream trail sign - it's a little hard to find. It's just past a food stall on the left hand side, plunging into a forested area. After a lovely cliff side stroll, you'll plunge down stone stairs for the next four miles to the valley floor below. Monkeys will welcome you to Golden Whip Stream. Follow the stream to the left to Four Streams Crossing, where you can catch a bus back to the main park entrance. Round trip hike up, around, and down was 11 miles.

Yuanjiajie Avatar cliff walk and descending hike - red lines denote walking trails

Day 3 Hike Full Length of Golden Whip Stream and Ascend on Foot to Huang Shi Village, Descend by Cable Car 

On the third day of hiking, start where you finished on day 2 at Four Streams Crossing. Follow the Golden Whip Stream trail all the way to the Yellow Village (Huangshizhai) entrance. The Golden Whip Stream trail is shady and cool, peaceful (if you arrive early), and full of monkeys that are really cute until tourists start feeding them. If you pack snacks in your bag, make sure they are inside your pack (not visible in a side pocket). And do not attempt to eat snacks where monkeys are gathered. The monkeys can get aggressive; we had one bold fellow grab our water bottle right from our backpack pocket! Little stinker. We also saw a guy lose his Snickers bar to a swift-moving opportunist and we watched a gang of monkeys steal two women's entire picnic lunch! 

When you reach Huangshizhai scenic area, the trail becomes a set of stone stairs to the top (sans monkeys). The ascending trail has several nice rest areas with viewing platforms. There is a five kilometer loop trail at the top of Huangshi Village with some of the best views in all of Zhangjiajie (in my opinion). The stream trail + the hike up + the 5k loop was about 12 miles. Tired from three days of stair stepping, we rode the cable car down...and were so glad we did! It was a very cool experience to drift above and then down through the karst peaks. 

Yuanjiajie Huang Shi Zhai and Golden Whip Stream - red lines denote walking trails

Tips to Beat the Crowd, Avoid the Masses

Tip #1: Bring your alarm clock and running shoes. 

Early to bed, early to rise. We were out the door, eating breakfast by 6:00 a.m. and sprinting to the park entrance in time for gate opening at 7:00 a.m. You do not want to get caught in the rush of tourist groups that will arrive around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

Tip #2: Tell the bus driver where you want to get off. Bring a map and point. 

After passing through the security check point, hustle to the bus. Know where you are going; tell the bus driver where you want to get off (take a map and point). Each scenic area is about a 30 minute bus ride and the bus does not always stop at hiking trail heads. You have to tell the bus driver ahead of time.

Tip #3: Swallow your pride. Take the elevator at Yuanjiajie. Hike down later.

The best karst peaks are clustered around Yuanjiajie Mountain. It is THE MOST popular scenic area in the entire park. Unless you arrive earliest and first, you will have crowds of strangers in all of your photos. There is a scenic hiking trail at Yuanjiajie, but save it for the descent. Your mission at Yuanjiajie is to beat everyone else. We were at the gates at 7:00 a.m. sharp and rode the elevator up the mountain with the park's workers reporting for duty. We arrived on the Yuanjiajie cliff walk with just a handful of other tourists and had the entire cliff top to ourselves for about an hour. It was truly priceless!!!!!

Tip #4: Ride a cable car at least once. I suggest the one leading down from Huang Shi Village.

It's fun! Don't be such a hiking purist! :-) And, if you're lucky, you'll have the whole gondola all to yourself on the ride down. 


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