China is vast and beautiful. The third-largest country on Earth, it encompasses just about every type of landscape and wildlife species imaginable, from tropical jungle to Himalayan plateau. These massive ecosystems are home to an incredible wealth of biodiversity, including rare plant life and popular species like the beloved giant panda.
China has had a form of scenic-parks system since 1994, with 244 National Scenic and Historic Interest Areas. However, in 2016 the country began a pilot project to bring several large ecosystems under unified national management, and in 2021, China’s first five national parks were created. Here is our guide to these five national parks, along with our top picks of China’s best national scenic areas.
China’s new national parks system
Five pilot parks, which have variously been operating since 2016, were officially incorporated into China’s new national parks system in October 2021. Previously, these wildlife areas extended into multiple counties or provinces and were managed as a series of separate reserves. The new system brings them all under unified national management. The aim of the new national parks system is for the holistic protection of large habitats that extend into multiple regions. The full national parks system is marked for completion by 2035.
Three-River-Source National Park – Qinghai & Tibet
The first national park to be trialed as part of the new system was Sanjiangyuan, or ‘Source of the Three Rivers’ National Park – the source of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong (Lancang) rivers. Situated in Qinghai province in far northwest China, the park covers 123,000 sq km (47,490 sq mi) of high-altitude wilderness on the Tibetan Plateau.
Protected species include snow leopards, wild yaks, and Tibetan gazelles and antelope. There are few tourist facilities yet, but travelers can arrange treks to the source of the Yellow River at Zhaling Lake – the town of Maduo is the jumping-off point.
Wuyi Mountain National Park – Fujian
Both a Biosphere Reserve and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Wuyi Shan is one of the world's largest subtropical primordial forest systems. Its dramatic gorges and rivers are home to thousands of types of protected wildlife like migratory birds and rare amphibians.
Bamboo rafting along the Jiuqiu (Nine Bends) River is a popular activity, and many visitors come to explore the 1st-century archaeological remains of Han City as well as numerous 11th-century Daoist temples and shrines.
Giant Panda National Park, Sichuan – Shaanxi & Gansu
China has been working hard in recent decades to reestablish the endangered giant panda, creating 67 panda reserves across Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The new Giant Panda National Park encompasses these reserves and is home to 1631 wild pandas. Also living within the borders of the park are numerous other protected species like the snub-nosed monkey.
The park incorporates several existing panda breeding and research centers, including the Wolong Giant Panda Garden (rebuilt after a 2008 earthquake) and Ya'an Bifengxia Panda Base, both of which are open to visitors and offer the best chances to spot the elusive bears, plus learn about conservation and breeding efforts.
Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park – Heilongjiang & Jilin
Situated in the Changbai Mountains along China’s border with Russia, this park covers the wild habitats of endemic big cats and has seen success in encouraging leopards and tigers to repopulate.
Since 2017, 12 Siberian tiger cubs and 11 Amur leopard cubs have been born here. Nearby is Jingpo Lake National Geopark near Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang province, with lakes, volcanic craters and ancient lava flows, and the Diaoshuilou Waterfall, which freezes into an otherworldly ice curtain during the winter.
Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park – Hainan
Preserving the tropical ecosystem of Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, this national park is home to 20% of the country's amphibians and 39% of its birds, as well as the world's rarest primate, the critically endangered Hainan gibbon.
The national park encompasses a number of existing reserves, including Jianfengling National Forest Park, where hiking trails lead around lakes and up peaks, offering visitors the chance to be immersed in the rainforest and spot rare flora and fauna in the wild.
Existing parks & scenic areas
Beyond the new unified national parks system, China has hundreds of scenic sites and nature reserves, sometimes confusingly titled ‘national parks’. These often have well-developed tourism infrastructures, offering visitors the easiest access to some of the country's most splendid landscapes.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – Hunan
As part of the larger Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Zhangjiajie is one of the most iconic national parks in China, mainly because its pillar-like sandstone peaks were used as inspiration for the film Avatar. The park is huge and crisscrossed by walking trails, and served by shuttle buses and all manner of bridges and lifts.
The most Avatar-esque views can be found at the very popular Yuanjiajie (Hallelujah Mountains), accessible via a glass elevator. To get away from the crowds, head for the caves and cliffs of Binglang Valley.
Jiuzhaigou National Park – Sichuan
A Unesco World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, Jiuzhaigou’s sparkling turquoise lakes and craggy mountains make it one of the most photogenic parks in China. Though it suffered damage from an earthquake in 2017, it reopened in 2019 with new hiking trails that lead through the astonishing panorama of waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and teal lakes.
Five Color Lake is one popular photo op (the clue is in the name) as is the park’s namesake, Jiuzhaigou Waterfall. ‘Jiuzhai’ means ‘nine villages’, referring to the surrounding Tibetan villages, and inside the park you’ll find the intricate Zharu Temple, a Tibetan Bon monastery.
Zhangye Danxia National Geopark – Gansu
One of China’s most visually stunning landscapes is the rainbow-colored hills near the city of Zhangye. Stripes of rust-red, ochre, brown and purple sandstone form the danxia (red cloud) landform here.
It is a striking collection of streaked hills and bizarrely shaped rocky outcroppings that are incredibly photogenic. Boardwalks and viewing platforms allow you to get close to the hills without destroying their fragile ecosystem, and shuttle buses make it easy to get around the park.
Li River National Park – Guangxi
One of China’s most bucket-listed activities is floating down the Li River on a bamboo raft. The view of the river winding through sharp karst peaks is so iconic that it features on the back of the Chinese ¥20 banknote. The best slow travel option is to combine transport and sightseeing on a river cruise between Yangshuo and Guilin.
The journey takes a half-day and along the way passes craggily jade mountains and stone arches with imaginative names like Elephant Trunk Hill and Dragons Playing in the Water. Alternatively, rent a bike in Guilin and cycle along the riverside at your own pace, visiting small fishing villages and rice farms as you go.
Hong Kong Global Geopark – Hong Kong
Dozens of rocky islands, outcroppings and volcanic rock formations make up this Unesco-listed geopark dotted along Hong Kong’s northeast coast. The park is made up of eight named sites, the most visually impactful of which are the 140-million-year-old hexagonal columns at High Island and the Ung Kong Islands. There are also sandy beaches, rocky coves and a tidal spit to explore. The best way to see it all is by going on a kayaking tour around the park.
Huangshan National Park – Anhui
The most well-known and heavily visited of China’s mountains, Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is a top stop for visitors to China and probably the country’s most famous natural sight. Its granite peaks, often shrouded in fog, have inspired poets, writers and painters for centuries.
Today, the park is over-touristed, but for good reason – this is some of the most astonishing natural scenery you’ll find in the country, particularly if you make the effort to arrive at sunrise.
A maze of trails leads up and around the mountainside, and several hotels at the summit make an overnight possible. The best sunrise views are at Refreshing Terrace, where the morning rays highlight layers of rocky columns interlaced with clouds.
Ziyun Getu National Park – Guizhou
This river-cave system is home to deep underground streams and the biggest cave chamber in the world: Miao Room, a cavern so large it could hold four pyramids of Giza. The Gebihe cave system in remote Guizhou province was first discovered in 1989 and was formed 600 million years ago from limestone and dolomite.
Though non-professional spelunkers can’t enter Miao Room itself, visitors can explore other parts of the cave system and peaks, including Swallow Cave (home to many nesting swallows) and the underground river through Chuangshang Cave.
Lijiang Yulong National Park – Yunnan
This national park is home to the postcard-perfect massif Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and the most enduringly popular hiking destination in China, Tiger Leaping Gorge. Topping out at 5596m (18,360ft), Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (or Yulong Xueshan) towers magnificently over the city of Lijiang like a sentinel.
However, the lack of an extensive hiking-trail network has made overcrowding a problem on the few existing paths. Though perennially popular with backpackers, nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge is a less heavily trafficked hiking option, with a multi-day trekking trail leading along the canyon’s rim and overnight stays with serious gorge views.
Huashan – Shaanxi
One of the five sacred Daoist mountains of China, Huashan is one of the most thrilling mountains to climb in China, both for its views and its steep ascents. There are five peaks at Huashan, the highest of which is 2145-meter (7067-foot) Luoyan Feng on the south mountain.
Trails here can be incredibly dangerous, consisting of steep rocky stair climbs, via ferratas and a particularly vertiginous cliffside plank walk. With Huashan’s stark scenery and adrenaline-inducing trails come lots of visitors, which can cause overcrowding on the trails. Still, the views from the top are unmatched.
Qomolangma National Park – Tibet
Taking its indigenous Tibetan name, this national park in the Tibet Autonomous Region is the home of Mount Everest and neighboring Himalayan peaks Lhotse, Qowowuyag and Mayalu. The highest national park in the world, Qomolangma is a nature preserve designed to protect the delicate ecology of the high Tibetan plateau.
Though you can’t hike freely or wild camp here, visitors can stay overnight near Everest Base Camp at the Rongbuk Monastery guesthouse and wake up with views of Qomolangma herself. Multi-day treks can also be arranged through a travel agency.