Forest of peaks

With its towering sandstone pillars, dizzying stone bridges and mysterious caves, the Wulingyuan Scenic Area is one of China’s most aesthetic natural sights.


When Hollywood film director James Cameron constructed the scenes of his successful 3D movie Avatar, he needed a fascinating, otherworldly habitat worthy of housing blue humanoid creatures. The result was a world in which huge stone peaks graced with waterfalls drift baselessly above a dreamy tropical forest. But while that safely ticked the boxes, its appearance differed little from its real-life inspiration; the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

Located in the north-west of China’s Hunan province, the forest is one of several national parks in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a 260-square-kilometre district rated AAAAA in visual beauty by the Chinese National Tourism Administration – its top category. UNESCO listed it in 1992. Glancing across the mystical forest, it is easy to see why.

The immediate outstanding and overwhelmingly captivating feature is the sandstone pillars, rising through the fog and above the sub-tropical vegetation. These quartzite rock formations look as if they can tip any minute, releasing a ground-shaking domino effect, but are in fact pitched solidly to the valley floor in high density. Roughly 15-20 metres separate each.

Astonishingly, there are roughly 3,100 of these peaks, with more than 1,000 being at least 200 metres tall. Some touch past 400 metres, and carry scenic points accessible to visitors; a suitable experience for acrophobia fighters. Many peaks have been named, with one baptised ‘Avatar Hallelujah Mountain’ based on the movie.

But these pillars are not alone in offering adrenaline-pumping height experiences. The park boasts of several natural bridges; thick arches of rock stretching from one mountain to the next. Two of these are particularly spectacular; the Xianrenqias bridge – ‘Bridge of the Immortals – and the 40-metre long Tianqiashengkong – ‘Bridge Across the Sky’. The latter’s name is apt enough; those walking it cross an abyss of 357 metres, a height taller than the Eiffel Tower.


Cable cars have been built to ensure visitors capture the might of the park’s nature. These dangle hundreds of meters up in the air, transporting visitors from mountain to mountain, supplemented by the less spectacular shuttle buses along the ground. Along the mountainsides, paths have been etched into the rock to allow visitors passage.

Elsewhere around the Wulingyuan Park, much further down, some 40 caves can be visited. The most famous is Huanglong – also known as the ‘Yellow Dragon Cave’ – though to be among China’s largest. Its appeal centres on its spectacular scenery of calcite deposits, 12-metre-deep rivers and a 50-metre waterfall; sights that consume as much as two hours of walking due to the cave’s length.

On the surface, the park’s vegetation is extraordinary. This owes much to the varied terrain, ample rainfall and the 60 underground streams connected to the Suoxi River that runs through the site, watering the fauna.

The park’s most famous stream is the so-called ‘Golden Whip Stream’, which starts near the Zhangjiajie park entrance on the west (the other is the Wulingyuan entrance on the east) and runs several kilometres through the site. A path follows its elegant, varied passage over picturesque rocks, pools and waterfalls; a journey many visitors choose to follow.

In this humid vegetation, the park estimates to house 3,000 species of plants, of which 600 are woody plants. Around 200 of these are valuable for medical purposes, with many globally threatened. Endangered animals live here too, most notably the Chinese giant salamander (the world’s largest), the Asiatic wild dog, the Asiatic black bear, the clouded leopard (of which only around 10,000 are thought to exist) and the Chinese water deer.


While animals have lived here for long, the site has a short human history. Regarded as remote and inaccessible in ancient times, it was practically untouched until the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949. From there it was put under administration by three separate county governments. Eventually, the Wulingyuan District Government was formed in 1988, designated to carefully protect the area.

After initial conservation standards fell in the run-up to the Millennium, new strict measures have been introduced. Buildings have been removed and inhabitants moved to its surrounding 127-square-kilometre ‘buffer zone’. Agriculture, tree-felling and sand dredging are now banned, while restrictions have been placed on water pollution and the use of coal and diesel oil. Noisy sightseeing helicopters are also forbidden.

To protect the park from weariness and increasing tourist traffic, care is taken when welcoming visitors. Vehicles are held in the buffer zone, with shuttle buses transferring people to and from. The zone has a small village with hotels, a hospitality centre, a post office, an internet café and food shops – facilities that should ensure a comfortable stay. That said, with a dream world to be visited straight next to it, you wouldn’t want to stay there too long.

Photos: Ruslylove, Wang LiQiang [both via], Dmitry Malyshev.

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