Among China’s crop of surreal landscapes, Zhangjiajie has got to be a contender for one of the most impressive. A forest of spectacularly weathered spires rises up out of a verdant valley that's filled with dripping moss, fragrant blossoms and acrobatic monkeys. Come dusk, the ensemble is serenaded by a chorus of chirping insects.
The national park encompasses 690 sq km, and deciding where to go can be a daunting task. Your hotel should provide you with a map and also help you plan out a route best suited to your needs.
The first thing to know is that there are two primary entrances: the main gateway town of Wulingyuan (武陵源, Wǔlíngyuán) and the less-developed Forest Park (森林公园, Sēnlín Gōngyuán). There are other entrances as well, but you won’t use them unless you’ve booked lodging there.
Regardless of the entrance you take, all itineraries start on the valley floor and climb up to the top of the spires, where the main scenic areas are found. You can make use of cable cars, a glass elevator, a mini monorail and a network of free shuttle buses to get around, but however you do it, you’ll still need to walk a fair amount.
If you’re starting in Wulingyuan, you’ll need to queue for a bus to either the chairlift or the monorail (hikers go to the monorail) at the entrance – don’t get in the wrong line, and don’t get intimidated by the sheer chaos and theme park–like crowds here. The park is big enough to absorb vast numbers of people, and if you’re hiking most of the way, you’ll have no trouble finding solitude.
If you start at the Forest Park, you’ll need to hike roughly two hours along the flat valley floor to the elevator, or begin climbing up to the upper section after an hour.
In total, there are five main scenic areas: Tianzi Shan, Yangjiajie, Yuanjiajie, Golden Whip Stream and Huangshi Village. You can’t see all the areas in one day, so plan accordingly.
Weather wise, it's extremely hot and humid from April through September. Rain is common, so come prepared.