As a relatively unknown destination for Westerners, Zhangjiajie is a small city in China that is the gateway to some of the most stunning natural wonders in the world. If you are like us and enjoy the beauty of nature, then Zhangjiajie definitely needs to be on your bucket list.

Zhangjiajie is located in the Hunan Province of China and takes about 21 hours to get there by overnight train from Shanghai. There’s also an airport for those who prefer to get there faster. The two main attractions, that each deserve a minimum full-day trip, are the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and Tianmen Mountain.

Zhangjiajie, Tianmen Mountain, China, Travel, Backpacking, Hiking, Avatar, Landscape, Photography,

First we visited the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, which is about an hour out of the city. We knew about this place only because it was one of the filming locations for the film Avatar, and upon arriving we could see why. Unique sandstone pillars rise high from the ground with lush green plants growing on and all around them.

The entrance of the park starts at the bottom of the valley with hiking paths leading up to viewpoints of the impressive pillars. The first part of the hike runs along the Golden Whip Stream, which is home to many wild monkeys who are quick to steal and eat visitors’ food if they get the chance.

After crossing the stream we had the option of either taking the high-rise elevator or climb up thousands of stone stairs. Of course we chose the stairs! As we started to go up we saw some people take advantage of a third transportation option, having two men carry them in a chair hoisted on bamboo sticks upon their shoulders. Being so hot and humid, it was hard to imagine being one of those men carrying a person up the mountain as it was hard enough just getting ourselves to the top.

Zhangjiajie, Tianmen Mountain, China, Travel, Backpacking, Hiking, Avatar, Landscape, Photography,After an hour of climbing up the stone stairs and admiring the strength of the men carrying people, we finally reached the popular viewpoints of the park. They were all spectacular but some of the highlights included Hallelujah Mountain, the main pillar featured in Avatar, and the Grand Natural Bridge, which was a thin arch connecting two pillars for people to nerve-wrackingly cross.

We continued onto the other side of the park called Tianzi Mountain, which featured more unusual rock formations as well as a cable car which we descended on. Our pass was actually good for three days, but unfortunately we only had a day to explore Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. We met others who were staying at a hostel inside the park boundary, allowing them more time to spend at places such as Wulong Village and Daguangdai.

The next day we visited Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park. To get there the only option was riding in the world’s longest cable car ride that steeply climbs up mountains as high as 1,500 meters. The cable car station is in Zhangjiajie so it was easy to just walk or take the local bus to it from our hostel. There are two cable-car stations on Tianmen, one at the very top of it and another that stops at the middle station for Tianmen Cave.

Zhangjiajie, Tianmen Mountain, China, Travel, Backpacking, Hiking, Avatar, Landscape, Photography,At the top of Tianmen Mountain we walked on hanging paths built into the mountain cliffside. If walking on a hanging path isn’t bad enough, one section of it was made out of glass so we could see thousands of feet directly below us. Another part of the path was a long swaying bridge that crossed over an enormous gorge. This bridge led us to the quaint Cherry Village built on top of this mountain, home to a colorful Buddhist temple.

After exploring the top we headed back into the cable car to return to the middle station. Once there we had to take a bus ride on a narrow, windy road along cliffs called the Tongtian Highway to get to the trailhead of Tianmen Cave. The Tongtian Highway is named on several “most dangerous roads” lists since it has to make 99 sharp turns from the station to the trailhead.

Zhangjiajie, Tianmen Mountain, China, Travel, Backpacking, Hiking, Avatar, Landscape, Photography,

We survived the stomach-churning ride to get to the base of Tianmen Cave where we then had to walk up 999 steep stairs to the top. We almost didn’t do it as we were pretty beat by that point, but seeing old folk and women with platform heels climbing up gave us all the motivation we needed to make the round trip. Although it’s called a cave, it is actually a huge arch in the rock that lets you peer into the next valley over. It was well worth the trek up.

The trip to Tianmen Mountain is not for the faint of heart or for those with a fear of heights. Mark described it best at the end of our trip to Tianmen, “Next time let’s do something safer…like rock climbing.”

4 Responses

  1. Peter

    Sounds amazing? Do you know if, assuming you had longer to explore, you could do backcountry backpacking in these parks? Or is that illegal / ill advised?

    • Mark Johnston

      Not sure. We did pass two young men on the trail hauling larger packs, sleeping pads and bags etc, so I assume there’s places to camp. Just not sure how “backcountry” one can get there as it seems like every trail has dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants along the way.

  2. Zhangjiajie Tours

    Zhangjiajie is really beautiful! I did enjoy my trip there in this April and had impressive trip when exploring the Tianmen cave, glass sky walk, Bailong Elevator and of course including the famous Avatar Hallelujah Mountain!