Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area is famous for its approximately 3,100 tall quartzite sandstone pillars, some over 200 meters in height. They are a kind of karst formation.
Between the peaks lie ravines and gorges with streams, pools and waterfalls, and some 40 caves, as well as two large natural bridges. Remote from the outside world, the site is 85% covered with trees, and 99% covered with vegetation.
Map of WulingyuanLoad map
In June 2019, I joined a big group package tour for the first time with my family to Zhangjiajie. We spent 2 days exploring the Wulingyuan area and the last one for Tianmen. The plane from Shanghai arrived at the airport at night, so we stayed in a hotel in Zhangjiajie City, formerly Dayong, for the night before driving about half an hour to Wulingyuan in the morning. The drive, to me, was a highlight in its own right. Soon after coming out of a tunnel, the road emerged in a narrow valley surrounded by beautiful forested sandstone peaks. As the drive went on, the views became more and more dramatic as peaks started to become pillars, and at one point, a huge wall of sandstone looms over the highway. Finally, the town of Wulingyuan comes into sight as the valley widens into a basin, surrounded by fog-capped lush green mountains on all sides.
We were dropped off at the park entrance where everyone gets on the designated park tourist buses. Another maybe 20 minutes riding past an artificial lake and kilometers of pristine subtropical forest brought us to the end of the bus route at the Bailong lift. The flat valley we had been following was giving way to the huge mountains on either side, and as we got out of the bus, it was hard not to notice these mountains. They were exactly those forests of huge sandstone pillars that inspired the movies, but we were seeing them from below. Still, that was probably my favorite sight of the whole trip. From there, we took the Bailong lift and in the span of a few seconds, we watched those enormous columns of rock sink below us. From the lift, it's a short walk to yet another bus station. A different set of buses serves the plateau that the lift brings us to, and it is from this plateau where the most famous and beautiful views of the Zhangjiajie mountains can be seen. However, June was unfortunately the rainy season here, and with rain came fog, and we sure had a bit too much of both. When we got to the viewpoint (sorry, I don't even know the name of the viewpoint or the stop), fog obscured all but a few of the narrow peaks in front of us. It was a great place to just relax, with an atmosphere that reminded me of Machu Picchu, but without the interesting ruins and with the obnoxious crowds that come with almost every great site in China. We left the park for lunch, following the exact way used to get that far, and while the whole area was just amazing, I was a bit disappointed with the fog and the fact that we had only visited one site that morning when I was hoping that the tour would include Tianzishan and some other parts of the Wulingyuan complex.
After lunch, we continued on to Baofeng Lake. Our guide, says that it’s the most scenic place in the area, and it’s home to the Tujia minority group. We got on a boat with a Tujia guide and experienced their musical culture when we passed by small houses on the lakeshore, where young Tujia men and women would court passersby with songs. The lake, of course, is beautiful, surrounded by the same dramatic sandstone-karst landscape of peculiarly shaped mountains, some dropping steeply towards the lake. The narrowest section of the lake, where the cliffs are closest to each other, is actually the deepest part, over 100 meters deep. The lake is a beautiful, though murky, green color throughout, reminiscent of jade. It is, however, artificially created by a dam, which takes away a bit from its natural authenticity, but it is nevertheless a beautiful site. Personally, I don’t think it’s as great as our guide tried to sell it as, but I guess it’s better than wandering from viewpoint to foggy viewpoint for that rainy afternoon. Then again, better foggy viewpoints high in the mountains than having to sit through a tea selling as we did. We did also check out Xibu Street in the town center, where we found an interesting stall selling all kinds of insects to eat.
The next day, we went to Golden Whip Stream in the park, using the same bus we had taken to the Bailong lift. After the artificial lake, it stops at the 10-mile Gallery, which I guess wasn’t worth the stop, and then the Golden Whip Stream, before ending at the lift. When we got down for the stream, it was already pouring. The rain was at its worst today, but I looked up in surprise as I got off the bus. Sitting on the tree branches above my head was a big brown macaque who just didn’t mind getting soaked and pounded by the rain, so I braved the rain myself to look up to it. Golden Whip Stream was probably the place that felt closest to nature for me. We followed the trail with the gushing stream, strengthened by the rains, on one side and the lush forests, full of macaques and who knows what, on the other. And above all towered the breathtaking sandstone mountains, still visible despite the rain and fog. Even though I couldn’t really appreciate them from above the day before, I realized just how beautiful this landscape is that no matter which direction you view the mountains from, they look as great as ever. From down here, the fog only adds to their beauty instead of blocking the view. Because of the rain, though, we only walked less than a kilometer of the path before turning back and getting back on the bus, but not before I found another macaque posing on a garbage bin and a big friendly white butterfly. This experience took home the fact that Wulingyuan isn’t just scenic, but also a haven for wildlife as an almost untouched ecosystem outside the developed pathways and viewpoints.
For the final part of this WHS that I got to visit, we went to the Huanglong Dong, or Yellow Dragon Cave. It’s a bit farther away from the park entrance and the town, and it shows in the geology of the area as limestone replaces sandstone. This is a proper karst area, and the cave is the most impressive manifestation of that. It’s actually the longest cave in China, one of the most karst-rich countries yet lacking in impressive caves. It makes sense that the Chinese would develop this one into a massive tourist attraction, but they’ve definitely gone too far with this one. The second you enter into the underground caverns, it feels artificial, even more than the Baofeng Lake. Many surfaces were cemented and the ceilings and walking floors were all smoothened, leaving random stalagmites all over the small passages, which were all lit up by bright, almost neon, lights of all colors. Soon enough, it widens into a huge cathedral-like cavern, made more spacious by – you guessed it – the lack of stalactites. After this, we encounter the underground river, which is thankfully natural, and this is where the experience gets interesting. We take a boat ride up the river and see all the amazing stalagmites all forming interesting figures, but lit up with sharp purples and greens and reds. There’s even a part where the cave ceiling seems to disappear up into the darkness. The stalactites, however, continue to be missing. Eventually, the river narrows and we return the same way we came. While I can deal with the lights and the more accessibility for the paths, I can’t see past the total removal of the stalactites. Huanglong Dong is truly a wonder in China, and I really wish they developed it with more respect to its character. It was a great cave, with its impressive length, volume of chambers, rock formations, and even an underground river, but the modifications made are really too great to ignore. After this, we visit the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon and its famous glass bridge, but this isn’t part of the WHS, as is Tianmen, which we visit the day after, so I won’t discuss those in detail here. They are both, however, limestone areas, and along with being much farther away, don’t really have much to do with the Wulingyuan protected areas. They’re both beautiful, though, so given the time, I’d still highly recommend a visit to these sites.
Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area is truly one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and it has uniqueness in not being of the more common limestone karst, but not simply reflecting the usual erosion landscapes of sandstone that produce canyons, mesas, and the like, as well as being in a subtropical forest setting. It truly isn’t like anywhere else. Then again, there are many unique and amazing erosion landscapes in the world, so it is really hard to gauge how great one is compared to the others. While the great forested sandstone pillars, peaks, and walls are indeed extremely scenic, so are the snow-capped Dolomites, the monoliths and dunes of Wadi Rum, and the limestone karst of neighboring Guilin. It boils down to rarity of erosional formations, significant non-erosional aspects, and authenticity as a natural landscape. Sandstone columns like these are indeed at their greatest variety and scale in Wulingyuan when compared to other sites with similar formations, such as Tassili N’Ajjer or Meteora. It is also a habitat for Asiatic bears, deer, a diverse range of trees, and as we saw earlier, monkeys. It is, however, home to many human developments that make the landscape less natural and more commercial, including various lifts and cable cars, artificial lakes, and the extreme transformation of the cave. These undermine the site enough to make it feel a bit too commercial or unnatural at times, but at the end of the day, the wonder of the sandstone formations makes Wulingyuan an undeniable world-class natural treasure. And I didn’t even get to experience its famous views. I’d like to return one day in fall or winter, as the red or white scenery sounds extremely appealing, and the clearer views would definitely be a great reason to visit all of the amazing viewpoints. One really needs at least 2 whole days to satisfactorily explore the WHS area, and sadly, I didn’t get to do that with a big tour group. Well, that’s a lesson learned. I really hope to return one day without a package tour and in a better viewing season. Until then, that’s all I can conclude of this great site.
Wulingyuan, the first national protected forest park of China which most of the Chinese and tourist industry called it after the name of the nearby city, Zhangjiajie, is the world of countless bizarre shaped rock pillars, and, in my opinion, one of the most enchanting landscape that hardly believe to be existed in the real world except in the classic Chinese painting. Located deep in western Hunan, the land of mystery Tujia people, and even today it takes 4-5 hours for travelling from Changsha, the provincial capital, on superhighway to reach this place.
The park is very large and has many interesting places; it takes at least 3 days to see all the MUST sites inside the park and nearby. Most of tourists stay in the booming town of Wulingyuan which is located in the middle of the national park. The main attraction of the park is the Yangjiajie Scenic Zone; the area becomes famous after many scenic spots have been used in the film “Avatar” as the planet of Pandora, and you will see many advertisement billboard of the Avatar film in the area especially at the Hallelujah rock (very un-Chinese name), they even have the large statue of bird-liked creature that the Na’vi ride for photo. Apart from the much commercialized area, the scenic is truly wonderful.
Tianzishan and Marshal Helong Scenic areas are also worth mentioned. At Tianzishan we need to use cable car to admire the gorgeous landscape of numerous pillar rocks with pine trees (very classic view of Chinese mountain landscape) and at Marshal Helong park, the hundreds of pillar rocks will make the landscape like yoga needle bed! Wulingyuan is not only famous for pillar rocks, the Yellow Dragon cave is also nice to visit with pretty dripstones and underground water boat trip, but thousands of step inside the cavern may kill your knees. To admire some cultural elements of Tujia people who resided in the park, go to Bao Feng Lake and take a boat ride, some area of the lake landscape is breathtaking, but the main attraction is to hear Tujia song that sing by Tujia women who will sing every time the boat passing by.
Not part of WHS, the nearby Tianmenshan Park, a large mountain hole that look like a gate to heaven, is also a great place to visit, to reach the summit we need to take 7 kms cable car, claimed to be the longest cable car line in the world and we need to take a bus on the 99 turns road, a great experience for means of transportation. Transportation inside the park is quite interesting; during my visit I used buses, vans, cable cars, electric tram, boats and elevator to discover the place. Wulingyuan is certainly very well developed for travelling, but the entry price is also very high, to visit all attractions may need to spend at least 500-700 Yuan! But all in all, Wulingyuan with its outstanding beautiful landscape and very good tourist facilities is one of the best national parks in China in my opinion, and another great UNESCO World Heritage Site from this country.
This site is mostly of karst formations, hundres of them, if not thousands of towers of rock, with dense vegetation covering the towers due to the humidty and temperate weather. As opposed to Arches in Utah, where the dry weather kept the rocks red and bare. Do bring a wide-angle lense of 18mm minimum, telephoto of 200mm and and polarizing filter for the waterfall with your camera.
Cable cars and well laid out paths allow you to see most of the sites. It could get monotonous after 2 days, though. Due to lower elevation climbs and walks are not demanding asin Huanglong or Jiuzhaigou, the other two more sites in the region.
There is now a direct flight from Hong Kong, so you can be spared of the long drive from other provincial cities, if you have no interest in them. As it is just being developed as a tourist area, accommodations, especially restroom facilities in restaurants are primitive, and can be turn-off to US or EU visitors. Besides the national park, there is also interesting local ethnic minority villages and customs to take in.
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