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Best way to see the Avatar Mountains and Golden Whip Stream in a day?
Zhangjiajie is a National Park in the Hunan province of China. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and has recently become very popular because its geography was used to create the setting of the Avatar movies. Zhangjiajie's increase in popularity has made it crowded and touristy. We spent two days in the park with the intent of getting the full experience without spending all our time fighting the crowds. The first of these two days was spent exploring the Avatar Mountains and the Golden Whip Stream.
The National Park is a fairly long (~45 min to an hour) bus ride from the city of Zhangjiajie. It also takes a couple of days to explore properly. To beat the crowds it is best to stay somewhere closer to the park. We stayed at a hostel just outside the west entrance of the park and were able to easily walk to the entrance each day as soon as the park opened at 7:30 am (which helped beat the crowds). Getting inside the gate is only the first part of the process of getting to the desired trail(s). The park has a free shuttle bus system that can get you from place to place but it is not a continuous system and some sections must be traversed with cable cars (not free) or hiking trails. Depending on your starting point, the route to your destination can vary significantly. From the west entrance of the park, we took the Yangjiajie cable car (65 rmb ~$10) and then the mountain top bus line to the stop at the visitors center or "The First Bridge of the World". It cost 258 rmb (~$36) to enter the park.
The hike started in a crowded touristy area with a plethora of restaurants and shops. There were signs clearly pointing you to the start of the trail.
All the paths were clearly marked and paved. For the less populous areas the gps app maps.me was used in offline mode (had reasonably accurate maps of the area)
We did this hike at the very end of August. The weather a bit hazy, very humid, and hot. It was not unpleasant but lightweight clothes and sunscreen were a must. I am told that later in the fall is the rainy season so spring may be the best time of year to visit this area.
Paved with lots of steps, there were occasional sections where the paving was wet and slick so some care was required on these portions.
General Comments and Musings
As you hike along you will come across various landmarks and viewpoints. The natural bridge was festooned with locks and red ribbons that were sold at nearby stands. There was also a Chinese Zodiac display and temple at the end/top of the natural bridge. All these spots were well populated with tourists but it was not too difficult to get out on the viewpoints and take a few pictures. The crowds increased in concentration as the day progressed and as you approached the "Avatar Mountain" a site that was made famous by the first Avatar movie. There was a life size model of an Avatar creature on display that was the focal point of much of the crowd. Further along was a second site spanned by a footbridge which was claimed to be used as the setting for the second movie (no idea how accurate that claim is but they were certainly capitalizing on it). There were a few other pretty locations that were not Avatar themed or influenced which were generally less crowded and nicer. Towards the end of the section there was a koi pond (artificially stocked by tourists) that apparently runs down to the Golden Whip Stream. We would later see an escaped koi with other, clearly native, fish.
This portion of the hike ran west to east parallel to the shuttle bus route. At intervals, there were short paths back to the bus route, which also had shops and such. Once past the Avatar related attractions the majority of the crowds took the bus a short way to the Bailong Elevator. We had had our fill of the crowds at this point and after a quick lunch continued west along the trail taking the more challenging route down.
The trail cleared out almost immediately, in ~1/4 of a mile we went from people everywhere to having the place entirely to ourselves. Ironically, some of the best viewpoints were in this section and they were made more enjoyable by the peace and quiet.
The trail then starts to head south down the mountain and becomes very steep with lots of steps. There were several natural points of interest; a small cave, a waterfall, and several "oxygen bars" i.e. sections of extremely dense jungle that are apparently thick enough to have a naturally higher than normal oxygen concentration. This section was beautiful and secluded. Curiously, there were several spots with derelict food and souvenir stands along the descent. It is possible that this section was once more popular prior to the Avatar related popularity surge.
As we descended, we began to see more wildlife. The park is home to a sizable population of Rhesus monkeys and in this section they seemed to be wilder and kept some distance away. Once we reached the Golden Whip Stream trailhead the number of monkeys increased significantly and they were less wild i.e. they would come very close. Despite the regular signs warning not to feed the monkeys (in several languages and pictograms) a good number of tourists apparently ignore this rule and suffer the consequences. The monkeys are very aggressive when offered food and had no objection to scratching or biting to get it. On our hike along the stream, we ran into a traumatized tourist that had offered a monkey a snack and lost her entire lunch as a result. We offered her some snacks (there were no monkeys in sight at the time) and then resolved to leave every edible thing safely zippered up in our packs whenever there were monkeys about.
After the descent the trail intersected with the path following the Golden Whip Stream which we followed downstream. The scenery here was excellent with the sound of water adding to the serenity of the jungle and mountains towering overhead. There were occasional bridges over the creek and as we approached the beginning of the trail there were some entertaining obstacle courses running along the path (most of the group was too tired to partake this late in the day). As we approached the beginning of the Golden Whip Stream trail, the population of people and monkeys began to increase noticeably.
After reaching the trailhead we took the mountain bottom bus line west to a short but steep uphill walking section and then the bus again to the west entrance of the park where we started our day.
This was an excellent hike. We were able to see the popular places when they were less crowded get off the beaten path during the parts of the day when the crowds would be the worst. The strategy of deliberately taking a path contradictory to the typical tour guide's recommendation paid off. There were several areas that we did not explore due to time constrains and the capabilities of the group as a whole. The Huangshi Village area we passed by and is probably worth visiting (though it is almost certainly another crowded spot). I also would have liked to hike up (or down) the trail that follows the path of the cable car in. This would have certainly been a challenging hike and probably would have taken up a large portion of the day but the views would probably have been worth it. Oh well there is always next time...
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.