Hiking in Zhangjiajie with no crowds + Tianmen

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

Ever since the first time I saw images of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (yes, let’s blame Avatar) I knew I had to go there someday and when I decided to spend a couple of months in China this was one of only two locations that I absolutely had to visit, the rest could be improvised. Hiking in Zhangjiajie was definitely one of the most magical experiences of my time in China!

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Zhangjiajie is an Unesco World Heritage Site since 1992 and was the first protected land in China when it was named a National Forest Park back in 1982.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Getting there

China is huge as we know, but it’s relatively easy to move around as it’s well connected by trains and airports pretty much everywhere.

NOTE: if you’re planning to go to China you need a VPN to keep using the internet as you know it (with Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc). There are lots of VPN providers out there. Some of them free. I got mine with Surfshark after doing some research and it worked really well for me and it was pretty cheap. Feel free to contact me if you have further questions on this 🙂

I did almost all my journeys by train as it’s normally the same price as buses and cheaper than flying.

One very important thing when in China is to try to book train tickets in advance as they normally sell out quickly.

As I tended to buy tickets just on the same day of departure, more than once I only found “standing” tickets left.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

If you have not sorted a VPN for China yet, trip.com works really well to check trains and flights. They charge commissions though, so check the timetables there and try to find a ticketing agency as you can save some money that way. 12Go.Asia also works really well across most Asian countries to find bus, trains, flights, ferries, etc.

Booking.com
Where to stay

It’s worth noticing that the town of Zhangjiajie is about 45-70 minutes away from the different entrances to the National Park. I stayed at Zhangjiajie Cloud Youth Hostel. The accommodation was ok for the cheapest hostel in town and the lady that runs it was very sweet.

The hostel is walking distance from the local bus station where you can catch rides to the different entry points of the park. The buses normally cost between 12-17 RMB each way.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

There’s also the option to find accommodation close to these entry gates, however it tends to be a little bit more expensive and crowded. It’s also easier to go to the different sections each day from Zhangjiajie city.

Hiking in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

The National Park is huge, hence aim to set aside at least a couple of days to explore it. The entry ticket is valid for 4 days and it costs 228 RMB. You cannot get a one-day ticket.

We ended up using three of the days and spent another at Tianmen Mountain. The maps of the park can be rather confusing so be prepared to waste some time trying to find your way around.

MY HIKING ESSENTIALS

To stay away from the crowds (and save money!) we didn’t use any of the cablecars or elevators. We did use the free buses available inside the park to move around the sections that “couldn’t” be walked.

There are 3 main gates in Zhangjiajie. On our first day we entered by the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park Gate.

As we arrived right on time at the opening time (7:30am) there were no crowds at all.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

After a 10 minute walk we started walking uphill towards Huangshi village. By this time, the path was only ours.

It’s a really nice pathway with several viewpoints to enjoy the scenery and rest a bit. This is a constant set of steps which if you do later in the day would be rather boring as when we were coming down on the same way there was a lot more people going up.

Very quickly you will not need to reassure yourself that you did well in coming all the way here.

The rock formations are simply out of this world and I couldn’t help but wonder about everything that need to happen in nature for this place to exist. Hiking in Zhangjiajie will leave you speechless.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

It takes about 90 minutes to climb up. When you arrive to the top of the mountain you sadly get your first glimpse of crowds as there’s one cable car that brings people straight up to Huangshi village. Nothing unbearable though.

Although you will find a few shops selling food and drinks, it’s better if you bring your own as they are of course overpriced.

From this summit you will be able to reach several viewpoints, each of them with fantastic views and some surprisingly empty!

After quite a while and lots of photos we had to re-trace our steps downhill as at the moment there were no other paths open (apparently a landslide blocked one of them)

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

Back down, we took one of the free shuttle buses towards the lower Huangshi Village cable car station.

Here we found a trail which seemed kind of abandoned. It didn’t have the best views of all but it was a hiking day after all! after about 90 minutes going up and down we attempted to try to go towards the Tianzi Mountain section via the Longfen Temples of the park but got discouraged by the huge queues for the buses which I calculated it was going to take at least 2 hours of waiting.

So, as we had quite a few hours already on our legs we went back to the gate where we started our day and headed back to Zhangjiajie city.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Day 2: hiking in Zhangjiajie from Yangjiajie gate

We started the second day at the park at the less visited and less developed section of the park.

The Yangjiajie gate is the farthest away from Zhangjiajie city and it took us about 90 minutes to reach it by bus. Calculate these timings when you’re planning your day. The bus costs 17 RMB each way.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

Just as you cross the gate (no queues at all!) there are some shuttle buses towards the top of the mountain. We thought it may be a nice idea to just walk it all the way instead of catching yet another bus.

And it was! however, it’s a twisty paved road going uphill, you get a couple of viewpoints but to be honest is not mind-blowing, so I’d suggest to catch the bus if you’re not feeling like walking all the way up for about one and a half hours as at the top you will find more areas to fill up your hiking day in Zhangjiajie!

Once we made it to the top we started walking towards the “God Chicken Pecking” viewpoint, and quickly found the well-signalled path that takes towards “One Dangerous Step” and a few more viewpoints with similarly “poethic” names.

This path, although man-made is beautiful and there’s not many people at all! we may have seen less than 30 people on the entire day. This is mainly because there are no cable-cars in that section so all the lazy tourists go somewhere else.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

The section from the Yangjiajie Gate was definitely my favourite day hiking in Zhangjiajie. The views are incredible and you really get the feel of being alone in this magical creation of nature. Thank you Planet!

As there’s not many people, there are pretty much no places to buy anything apart of a small stall we found at the beginning of the path so make sure to bring enough water and snacks for the day.

When we had over an hour walking on this path, it seemed as if it was the end of it as there were some branches blocking the way. Of course we had to keep going and explore more!

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

This extension of the path was completely abandoned but still walkable. After a couple hundred meters we found a cave that was cool to explore.

Moving on from the cave the man-made path was finally transformed into a proper trail! finally some full-on nature experience in Zhangjiajie!

This path can still be found on maps.me, search there for the “View to see the Tianzi Pillar” viewpoint and enjoy the walk!

At around the place that maps.me shows the viewpoint is located the trail was completely overgrown by trees and as it was starting to be a bit late we decided to head back.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

You should definitely put one day ask for this section of the park! I loved it!

Day 3 at Zhangjiajie: Wulingyuan Gate

We decided to leave for our final day the most developed of all the gates as I feared that doing it sooner would make me hate the park too much as to come back again.

The Wulingyuan entrance is the biggest of all and the one where we found the biggest crowds on our 3 days adventures in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

This entrance is located one hour away from Zhangjiajie city and the bus costs 14 RMB.

There are plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops just outside the park and there are also lots of hostels.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

As soon as we entered, I felt as I was in an animal farm. With just herds of people divided into 4 different shuttle bus routes. Not the most pleasant start…

We took the bus towards the “10 Mile Natural Gallery”. When we arrived we found quite a narrow passage where lots of people where slowly walking.

After about 20 minutes of trying to overtake all the tour groups we finally got some air to breath and space to walk.

In this narrow passage there are a few mountains with the typical philosophic names that Chinese people are so keen in using for natural formations and that I find both charming and creative as sometimes the names are very descriptive (“old man picking herbs”, “golden tortoise in the mist”, “pigsy looking in the mirror” and so on!)

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

After a couple of kilometres there’s a small tourist centre where almost everyone stays as from that point you can either go back or start climbing up a mountain.

It was a big relief for me to start climbing the rock steps.

This is a bit of a steep area but every now and then you get some viewpoints to rest and marvel at the scenery. This day however, started with a beautiful blue sky but slowly started to bring more and more clouds.

By the time we were reaching the top of the mountain we couldn’t see more than 3 meters away and stoping at the viewpoints was not much different than staring at a white wall.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

Although it was a shame to do all the climbing for no rewards of fantastic views, it was still a nice day out.

Back at the bottom of the hill we took a shuttle bus towards “Hundred Dragon Elevator” and took a trail that was heading towards the Zhangjiajie National Park gate which is the section we did on our first day via the “Golden Whip Stream”.

This walk was all flat, do not believe maps.me if you look at the route as the app shows quite a steep climb. The walk is very pleasant, mostly next to a river with a few beautiful spots for some more photos.

In 3 days we managed to see a lot of the park in different atmospheres and we avoided crowds most of the time.

Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China
Backpacking in Zhangjiajie China

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is without a doubt one of the most magical places I have ever been.

Although already quite developed, there are still plenty of things you can do independently and enjoy away from the overly crowded areas.

On the contrary from talking negatively, I very much encourage you to go there!

Day 4: bonus day at Tianmen Mountain

If you have an extra day in Zhangjiajie city, another popular spot to visit is Tianmen Mountain, which roughly translates as “Heaven’s Door” due to its wonderful arch formation.

You can reach the top of the mountain from the city centre by shuttle buses or cable car. The ticket costs 258 RMB no matter which transportation you use.

Backpacking in Tianmen Mountain China

When we arrived to the gates in town, we were advised to take the bus as there was a 2.5 hours waiting line for the cable car. Whilst for the bus it was of about 1 hour (!!!).

You should definitely prepare yourself for a crowded day.

Once we waited in line and took the 15-minute bus, we arrived to another gate which can also be reached by private car in case you’re driving. Another security control and once again to wait in line for a second bus that would take us to the top of the mountain.

Considering the two waiting times, I’d actually have preferred to go up with the cable car as the views would have been better.

Cablecar in Tianmen Mountain China
Tianmen Mountain China

However, from a route-planning point of view, the bus is better.

The bus will drop you off at the bottom of the steps going towards the arch. The climb is said to have 999 steps and some of them are pretty steep. I doubt there are so many, perhaps around 300…

Once you reach the top of the steps, another feeling of being part of a herd as it’ll be time to go higher up on the mountain via a series of escalators. Quite a few of them…

I’ve never took so many consecutive escalators in my life, and when you finally reach the top you get both rewarded by the views and welcomed by the biggest crowds as at this point all the people that comes up via bus merges with everyone that came up via the cable car. Way too much for my liking…

Backpacking in Tianmen Mountain China

There are a couple of routes to do from here towards different viewpoints and glass-bridges.

Although the place it’s really beautiful, I didn’t enjoy it at all as it was the opposite to the crowd-avoiding strategy that we had at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, so we decided to not stay much longer there but to go a once again (!!!) queue to experience the cable car ride down the mountain as it was already included in the entrance fee.

This ride was of course scenic!

Cablecar Tianmen Mountain China

If you’re doubting in between staying and extra day hiking in Zhangjiajie, leaving because you’re short of days or visiting Tianmen Mountain. I’d certainly not encourage you to go to the latter one as it was way too crowded. Stunning place for sure, but I definitely enjoyed a lot more hiking in Zhangjiajie.

Feel free to drop a line if you’re planning to go hiking in Zhangjiajie or if you have been, have you got any other tips to share? 🙂

Check out the rest of my posts about my time backpacking in China for more inspiration on your next adventure!

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