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.
[slogan]The footage of the mountains was breathtaking. I had to see it for myself.[/slogan]
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
November 24, 2015 at 12:16 am
I’m totally into hiking, cable car is always last resort 🙂
Maybe, if I’ll be lucky enough, I’ll visit Zhangjiajie Park one day and I’m wondering if there are any dirt trails? I’m not a very big fan of hiking on concrete paths…
November 29, 2015 at 11:42 pm
Hi Joanna. I didn’t see any dirt trails, but there were some pockets of the park I didn’t explore.
December 7, 2016 at 7:22 am
I had no idea Avatar was filmed there! Looks like a truly stunning place, and that punk rock caterpillar is the coolest one I’ve seen ever. I’m very curious to find out now what the top looks like, or what the views look like anyway, would you ever go back to try it again you reckon?
December 7, 2016 at 7:23 am
When we lived in China I heard great things about this part of the country but we never made it over there. Gorgeous photos! I’m definitely going to have to go back to China someday!
December 7, 2016 at 1:59 pm
I’m actually headed to China in January and reading this made me even more excited about my upcoming trip!
December 8, 2016 at 3:20 am
You travel everywhere! I love it! Seriously hope you come by Seattle some time. Would love to link up!
December 10, 2016 at 7:51 am
I’m heading to China next year and I’m definitely looking forward to exploring some of the stunning national parks there. This one is being added to the list, it sounds like a grand adventure.
May 15, 2017 at 3:18 am
This looks like so much fun. I have never done a cable car but I really want to. Sounds like there is a lot to see, if we go we would take your advice and stay more than three days for sure. We would love to see as much of it as possible
May 15, 2017 at 4:31 am
I will use cable car because I love to see the whole view of downside from top. Hiking is beautiful but very hectic for me. I can climb down but goint up is a task. Nature here is superb and I like the photographs of pillar rocks.
June 12, 2017 at 12:08 pm
Thank you, Amit!
May 15, 2017 at 10:45 am
Looks absolutely amazing. I ridden on a similar cable car to the top of a mountain that had a trail you could hike instead. But like I said, I took the easy way by cable car. This park looks like it would be worth the hike.
June 12, 2017 at 12:08 pm
Yes, worth the hike! You will lose weight in China!
May 16, 2017 at 1:34 am
This is really the Avatar world! It looks unbelievable. You should have spent a week exploring this massive park. I think there are so many options to navigate this area. I would choose the cable car first. There are probably a variety of species that live here too.
Iza c/o (Fill My Passport)
June 12, 2017 at 12:07 pm
Thanks for reading, Marissa!
May 16, 2017 at 2:33 am
The landscape here is so incredible – even more so than the Avatar film it inspired. I can totally understand your desire to see it yourself. I hope to explore Zhangjiajie National Park myself one day. My China list just keeps getting longer and longer!
June 12, 2017 at 12:07 pm
Oh I know. So much of China to explore!
May 16, 2017 at 3:35 am
Whoa! I didn’t know you could visit those mountains. I have
seen the movie and had loved it. I didn’t know these existed in China. Like you
I would also prefer a hike over cable car. You observe and connect more that
May 16, 2017 at 8:49 pm
I’m impressed with the Avatar connection, I can see it in your pictures. I just IMDB’d Wingmen, it will be interesting to see this movie when it comes out. It sounds like fun working your way around the park with the Chinese maps!
June 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm
Oh, Chinese maps. They’re funny if nothing else.
May 18, 2017 at 3:41 am
I have been reading so much about Zhangjiajie National Forest Park after Avatar that I can’t just ignore this amazing place! Stunning pictures! The caterpillar totally rocks! My God 🙂
June 12, 2017 at 12:05 pm
Ha ha. Isn’t he cute?
May 20, 2017 at 10:19 am
Wow! Just wow!! We, too, love the visuals of the movie Avatar and I had no idea you could see such amazing things in real life! We have not visited China, but it is high on our list and wow – we can not visit China without seeing this magical place. The photos are nothing short of stunning!
June 12, 2017 at 12:03 pm
Thanks, Natalie. I hope you see it with your own eyes one day. Magical is right.
June 23, 2017 at 10:05 am
This has been extremely helpful! Getting information has been difficult as I am sure you know. I was already booked at the No. 5 Valley Inn and have been questioning that but you have re-affirmed that I absolutely made the right choice for me:) I had one question, it seems that you hiked the route of the cable car instead of taking the cable car, correct? How long did that hike take? I appreciate your insight, thanks!
June 25, 2017 at 3:20 pm
Hi Marc. So glad this was helpful. We took the cable car up and back, then did a separate hike for hours but never actually reached the top. It’s a long and steep hike. We spent three days in the park and didn’t see it all.
September 25, 2018 at 9:53 pm
I need help. I booked No.5 hotel, however I have literally only 1 day in Zhangjiajie. How can I get into the park, do the cable car and get to my train at 7pm? Please help! I’ve been researching it for hours and it looks like getting to the entrance alone will be over an hour!
September 25, 2018 at 9:55 pm
Have you called No. 5 hotel? They can usually provide a ride to the park entrance if a driver is available.