Climbing China’s Avatar Mountain in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Films often inspire my travels. I saw “Avatar” when it came out in 2009. Despite the obvious inspiration in the film, that wasn’t what moved me to visit China’s floating spires at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It was actually another film, a documentary, about BASE jumpers. BASE jumpers are those crazy people in squirrel suits who jump off of tall buildings and mountains. In the film “Wingmen“, three men jump off Tianmen Mountain, which is also in Zhangjiajie, China. I visited both parks, but this post is dedicated to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
The footage of the mountains was breathtaking. I had to see it for myself.
The park was established as China’s first national park in 1982 and in 1992 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 11,900 acres, there is tons to see. Though the park is popular with Chinese tourists, few Westerners make the trek. We were constantly asked to take selfies with Chinese tourists!
It wasn’t hard to get to Zhangjiajie from Guam. I took a four-hour flight to Shanghai, stayed overnight, then flew two hours to Zhangjiajie (for $50, yo). As a budget traveler, I’m always looking for ways to travel with miles. I spent 30,000 miles on this trip. You can also reach Zhangjiajie via Beijing.
We worked with China Highlights to get information about the area as well as a photography guide. We also hired an English guide. Our guides helped us purchase tickets, get the lay of the land, and find the best spots to take photos and shoot our travel film. China Highlights provides a multi-day tour package of Zhangjiajie. Rebecca He was our point of contact at the tour company and was incredibly helpful and flexible, providing info not just about the park, but about our next destination, Guilin.
After one day with the guides, we spent the next week exploring the park on our own, which was a challenge considering the lack of English speakers or information. If you have any questions about this area, ask in the comments below.
Getting to the Top
From the Yangjiajie entrance, take the cable car up the mountain to get a bird’s eye view.
Stairway to Heaven
Up for a gut-busting hike? Take the path under the cable way instead of getting on the cable car. We took the fork to the right and discovered a trickling stream, cows grazing, monkeys darting across the trees, and the most gorgeous canyon I’ve ever seen.
My sexy husband makes a rare photo cameo at a spooky abandoned building along the path.
Bonus points to anyone who can identify this punk rock caterpillar.
The path winds up the karst spires on “One Step to the Heaven.” All the paths have mystical Chinese names that reveal nothing about their difficulty level. As the atmosphere enveloped me and the wind got stronger, I knew “One Step to the Heaven” was a huge misnomer. Chinese tourists coming down the mountain were unable to understand our single question: What is at the top?!
Undismayed, we continued climbing the stone stairway to heaven for several hours. The stairs got steeper and the path narrower as we trod upward. The last sign we passed was a perplexing Chinglish warning and we decided not to go any further. We had climbed a couple thousand vertical feet and still had no idea how long it was to the top. It was hard to admit defeat and come back down the mountain, but it was nearly dark and we didn’t want to be stuck in the park overnight. My Yelp review would have read: “Less stairs, more monkeys.”
All joking aside, I am in love with these mountains. My knees felt like jelly, but my heart was full.
Know Before You Go*
- Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is about a 80-minute drive from Zhangjiajie city and airport. I recommend you stay at No. 5 Valley B&B just minutes from the Yangjiajie park entrance. Get 15% off accommodations!
- Park entry costs ¥298 Chinese Yuan ($47 USD) for a 1-year pass that includes bus transportation inside the park. You can also buy 1- and 4-day passes.
- Most tourists spend three days in the park. Even three days will not allow you to see the entire park. There are two entrances, so plan according to which sites you want to see.
- Chinese maps are notoriously hard to read for non-Chinese speakers. The park map gave us a general sense of the park, but didn’t indicate distances between sites.
- You have to pay for each cable car ride, which was ¥152 Chinese Yuan ($23.73 USD) one way.
- The lower stations of Tianzi Mountain Cableway is not served by the park bus. We were told it was “bad,” which made us think it was still under construction, though our map indicated it’s functional. For reference, that’s the cable way on the right of the map below.
- Tourist season was still in full force in November. There may be long lines for busses and cable cars during high season. Our guide arranged for a driver to transfer us between sites when bus lines were too long. It was worth the money.
- Higher altitudes mean colder temperatures. Wear warm layers that can be easily pealed off.
- Wear good, all-terrain walking boots if you plan to hike the lower trails. Comfortable shoes are essential for the entirety of the park which is concrete or stone.
- Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (and Tianzi Mountain) and shouldn’t be confused with Tianmen Mountain, which is a separate park in Zhangjiajie City.
- There are hostels in the park which are useful if you want to take photos at dawn.
*All prices circa November 2015
Map via bucketlistly.com