The pillars of Zhangjiajie are one of the most breathtaking sights we’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder the famous floating “Hallelujah mountains” from the movie Avatar were inspired by this natural phenomenon. The Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic area is home to thousands of quartzite sandstone towers where erosion by ice and water created the masterpiece we see today. The park is large and there are many different routes you can take to explore.
Our itinerary takes you to two beautiful sections of the park and includes hiking, which we believe is the best way to fully experience the surroundings. It’s also the best way to avoid the crowds!
Where to stay
We recommend staying three nights in the town of Wulingyuan, which is right beside the park. This will give you two full days to explore the park. Any more days you may start to go tower crazy. Don’t mistakenly stay in the city of Zhangjiajie, which is an hour drive away!
We stayed at Destination Youth Hostel, which is located only a 7-minute walk to the bus station that takes you right into the park. A private room with private washroom cost us $27 USD per night.
Our hostel organized us private transport to and from the Zhangiajie international airport for 150 RMB each way. The drive takes about an hour.
You will need to purchase a park entrance ticket, which is valid up to 4 days and includes all busses. We were able to buy these directly from our hostel. The ticket cost us 228 RMB ($32 USD) each. The park entrance ticket does not include the Bailong elevator, sightseeing mini-train, or Tianzi mountain cableway.
Day 1: Tianzi Mountain
Tianzi mountain provides stunning and expansive views of the park. It’s also where the cable car is located, which tops our list of best gondola rides in the world!
Walk from your hotel to the Wulingyuan bus station. Make sure you bring the map your hostel gave you to the park! This will help ensure you’re taking the right bus. Point to the stop “Ten Mile Natural Gallery” on your map and the bus driver will direct you to the correct bus. There may be a little chaos here, but just remember to ask someone and point to where you want to go on the map.
Once at the Ten Mile Natural Gallery, you will have the choice to take the sightseeing car train to the official start of your hike or to walk. We opted not to take the car train and regretted it. The path was right along the the tracks in the blazing sun and took 30 minutes to walk. No shade! It made it even worse when we found out the train was only 38 RMB ($5.50 USD) one way.
From where the train drops you off, take the trail up Wolong ridge. You’ll ascend about 600m to reach the top of Tianzi mountain. As you go up, you’ll get more and more perspective of the towers. There was barely anyone on the trail, so we had all of the stunning viewpoints to ourselves! The hike will take you about two hours.
Once we got to the top we couldn’t believe the hoards of tour groups and realized how lucky we were to have the park all to ourselves that day! The reason there are so many tourists at the top is because they can take a cable car up and down.
At the top you may be surprised to see a McDonalds. It was a rewarding and tasty meal after our hike; especially that cold vanilla ice cream. In the town of Wulingyuan there are no Western food options, so it was a nice treat.
Once you’re done at the top, take the cable car back down and save those knees! It costs 72 RMB ($10 USD) for a one-way ticket. The cable car was actually one of our favourite things we did in the park because the views were so beautiful. We’ve read complaints online about the price of the cable car ticket (144 CNY roundtrip), but it’s nothing compared to the cost of the gondola back home in Whistler, Canada (420 CNY roundtrip), so we were pleasantly surprised.
Day 2: Yuanjiajie & the Hallelujah Mountains
Yuanjiajie is arguably the most scenic part of the park and is where the famous “Heaven Pillar” is located. We saved this for Day 2, since we didn’t want the views to spoil the rest.
Take the bus to the stop called “Water Winding Four Gates”. It’s the stop right before the Bailong elevator. From here you’ll take a beautiful one-hour stroll along the Golden Whip Stream. This section of the park is busier since there is no uphill. Along the river you’ll see lots of monkeys swimming and diving in the water!
At the end of this section, you’ll take the stairs up the Luancuan slope to reach the Back Garden and the Hallelujah Mountains. It’s around a 300-meter ascent and a one-hour hike. Again, there was barely anyone on the trail until we got up to the very top where there were hoards of tour groups and tour guides shouting on megaphones. The Back Garden was our favourite viewpoint in the entire park. It provides an incredible view of the pillars, with barely anyone there.
After our hike we were excited to reward ourselves at the KFC that is located at the top. Fried chicken mmm!
To get back down to the bus station, take the Bailong elevator. It’s nothing special since they cram people into the elevator blocking the view, but it will save your knees from hiking back down! A one-way trip down costs 65 RMB ($9.25 USD). Once at the bottom there are busses that will take you back into town.