I just have to say it: this was the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing in my twenty years. That didn’t make it my top trip, but seeing those sandstone pillars were nothing short of breath taking.
Because I wanted as much time there as I could manage, I set aside six days for this trip. Once I arrived, I realized I didn’t need all six days, but I stuck around just to stare at the same views I’d already seen – yes, the mountains were that beautiful.
My first three nights I stayed in a cute little hostel just outside the East entrance of the park. This area is actually called Wulingyuan and if you plan to make more than one day trip into the park, I suggest you stay here. Zhanjiajie is actually the closest city, so when booking, without careful research many people will book a hotel in this city and not realize it is actually about a 40 minute bus ride just to the closest entrance of the park. Don’t make this mistake. Just stay in Wulingyuan, it is a great town that will have all you need and is easily accessible to the Yellow Dragon Cave as well as Baofeng Lake.
The last two nights I stayed inside the park. This was a great decision to photograph the golden hours, as well as to be able to explore without so many people in the park. The first night I watched the sun set over the mountains from a secluded lookout behind my hostel.
The park is split into four major sections: Tianzi Mountain, Yanjiajie, Yuanjiajie, and the Golden Whip Stream. The views from Tianzi mountains are not as amazing as Yuanjiajie and Yanjiajie, but definitely worth checking out. Yanjiajie is much more challenging, but for that reason also much less crowded. Yuanjiajie has the best views in my opinion, including the popular Hallelujah Mountain, which inspired the mythical world of Pandora in Avatar, designed by Matthew McCormick. The Golden Whip Stream was a lovely and much easier walk where you’re bound to see plenty of adorable looking monkeys. I say adorable looking because they will surely scratch or bite you if you get too close.
Because I was hiking for a lot of this trip, I wanted to be comfy, but I knew it would get chilly at the top of those mountains. If you visit in the summer the weather will be different, but this is what I recommend for the winter and early spring time. While leggings specified for working out are always great for hiking, I get very cold easily and wanted to have cotton leggings to keep me a little warmer.
It’s also a very wet forest, no matter what time of year you visit. This necessitates a waterproof rain jacket, not water resistant because you’ll end up soaked and miserable!
I seemed to be constantly taking off and putting back on my sweatshirt underneath my rain jacket as I got hot from going up the stairs so quickly, then cold after resting for five minutes at such a high altitude, but I am still so glad I had it with me. I always like to take a hoodie, because the hood of your rain jacket will keep you dry, but usually not warm.
Each day I changed between three different colors of Uniqlo’s fitted ribbed mock neck long sleeve shirts. These kept me warm and were good under my sweatshirt and rain jacket without being too bulky.
I took a pair of gloves with me, and though I didn’t need them as badly as I thought I would, I was very glad to have them at times – like when I was casually walking around the top of Yuanjiajie on an especially wet day, which made it pretty cold. I also brought a beanie because it’s always good to have, and I was glad I did for the cooler days!
To save room in my backpack, I only brought the Nike Roshes that I wore the entire time there, though I know they’re not very good for you, my feet were still feeling just fine by the sixth day. I have yet to find a pair of hiking boots that are supportive and also lightweight when walking up steep inclines.
Remember that when visiting in the summer your attire may be different, but I would still recommend a waterproof rain jacket and maybe another layer, because higher altitudes are always a little colder!