Jiuzhaigou National Park

National Park in Sichuan
Image by Ng Hock How / Getty Images

The raw mountain beauty and sparkling lakes of Jiuzhaigou National Park was, for many, a highlight of China. However, in August 2017 a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Jiuzhaigou, affecting the parks infrastructure. At the time of research the park was closed to independent travellers while renovation work takes place. Check with hostel staff in Chengdu as to whether the park has reopened before venturing up here.

The park has three main branches: the Zechawa, Rize and Shuzheng valleys. Additionally, the restricted Zharu Valley is open to those willing to pay a premium for an immersive ecotourism experience. Most travellers should visit the Zechawa Valley (则查洼沟) first, since buses stop heading to the top around 2pm to 3pm. Ride for one hour and the full 18km to the foot of the 4350m length of Long Lake (长海, Cháng Hǎi), then walk back to Five-Coloured Pool (五彩池, Wǔcǎi Chí). It's possible to walk from here all the way back to the Nuorilang Junction (诺日朗中心站, Nuòrìlǎng Zhōngxīn Zhàn) but travellers with limited time would be best advised to take the bus, especially during the low season when water levels are low in the rest of the lakes on this fork.

From Nuorilang Bus Station, catch a shuttle for the roughly 19km ride to the Primeval Forest (原生森林, Yuánshēng Sēnlín) at the top of the Rize Valley (日则沟). Though not the most stunning section of the park, the 8km-long stretch of trail down from here to Bamboo Arrow Lake (箭竹海, Jiànzhú Hăi) has some of the least-trodden trails. From here it's a short hike to Panda Lake (熊猫海, Xióngmāo Hǎi), Five-Flower Lake (五花海, Wŭhuā Hǎi) and Pearl Shoals (珍珠滩, Zhēnzhūtán); three of the park's most popular attractions for their crystal-clear water, variety of colourful hues and, at the last, booming waterfalls with snowy peaks in the background. On the way keep an eye out for the path up to the Tiger Mouth (老虎嘴,Lăohŭzuĭ), a cliff-top overlook of Five-Flower Lake that shows better than perhaps anywhere else in Jiuzhaigou the astounding array of colours that are possible in a single small lake.

It's around 3km from Pearl Shoals back to the Nuorilang Junction and Waterfall (诺日朗瀑布, Nuòrìlǎng Pùbù), and the top of the Shuzheng Valley (树正沟). Most will skip the majority of this 14km valley, largely because buses tend to stop between 5pm and 6pm, after which the only option is to walk out or hire one of the very rare private vehicles as a taxi. There are a number of pretty lakes and three small Tibetan villages, however, and those with the legs to keep walking will find the paths largely free of visitors. Note that in some of the villages, especially Shuzheng (树正寨, Shùzhèng), travellers may be approached by local families offering homestays from ¥100. This is officially against park regulations, and therefore is not recommended by Lonely Planet.

On the way out of the park, shuttles stop a few kilometres before the exit at Zharu Temple (扎如寺, Zhārú Sì), a large Buddhist temple open to visitors from 2pm to 6pm, beyond which lies Zharu Village and the restricted Zharu Valley Ecotourism base. From the temple, it's a pleasant 15-minute walk back to the visitors centre.

Inside the park, overpriced snacks are available at any of the Tibetan villages and many of the shuttle-bus stops. For a full meal head to the pricey buffet of the Nuorilang Junction Tourist Service Center, or walk uphill about 400m to a row of small restaurants with mains from ¥18 to ¥58.

Seniors 70 and over and kids get in free but are required to purchase ¥10 visitor insurance. A ¥90 hop-on-hop-off bus fee is automatically included in admission for all visitors. During the low season (16 November to 31 March), admission tickets are valid for a second day of entry to the park.