1. Wulingyuan National Park — Zhangjiajie’s Precipitous Pillars
Wulingyuan is usually the only one of China’s national parks to make it to a top-in-the-world list. It features some awesome towering geology, alongside rich wildlife. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park makes up most of it, alongside Suoxiyu Nature Reserve. Its inspiration for the floating rocks in Avatar has added to its fame.
●Popular activities: hiking, mountain climbing, photography, rafting, and Halleluyah Mountain dreams?!
● Access: From Zhangjiajie take a bus or private transport 1 hour north to Wulingyuan. From there hike or take local transport on park roads.
●Suitable for: able hikers, with enough to tire the fitter and more adventurous
●Best time(s) to visit: October is the best month, with cooler temperatures and fall foliage; but for summer activities like rafting go in the early summer to beat the rain.
●Popularity: Expect crowding at the major view points at peak times, otherwise there’s moderate to low visitor concentration.
●Facilities: two cableways, an elevator, and electric cart; farm houses and small tourist shops provide food and snacks inside the park
●Accommodation: The best hotels are in Zhangjiajie, otherwise there are some good hotels in Suoxiyu and the west gate, but farmers’ guesthouses inside the park can be quite rudimentary.
●Days needed for a classic tour: 3 days are needed to see the main attractions in the park.
2. Jiuzhaigou National Park — Multicolored Mountain Lakes
Jiuzhaigou (‘Nine-Village Valley’) National Park is known for its colorful lakes in high-altitude valleys, with waterfalls, snowy peaks, forested slopes, and Tibetan villages. It’s a classic national park.
●Popular activities: Hiking, photography, marveling at lakes and reflected mountains
●Access: flight or 8-hour bus ride from Chengdu; then 50 km of good park roads are plied by buses and hikers
●Suitable for: All who can tolerate mountain bus journeys will enjoy it. Altitudes over 3,000 m in the upper valleys shouldn’t trouble very fit hikers; others should be prepared to take it easy.
●Best time(s) to visit: The fall colors reflected in the lakes is when the park is at its prettiest. Winter is harsh there and travel is unadvisable.
●Popularity: Avoiding the Chinese holiday crowds (especially Oct. 1–7), when the park in overrun, it is still difficult to get away from tourists at the main speak times.
●Facilities: good valley roads, guest houses, and Tibetan-family-run shops/eateries
●Accommodation: better hotels outside the park gate; much simpler guest houses inside
●Days needed for a classic tour: 2+ days to hike the main sights, 1 day with transport
3. Guilin Li River National Park, Guangxi — Karst Landscapes
More of a scenic area, with not much of a national park feel, the Li River National Park has no entrance and fee to get in. It covers the 80-km (50-mile) stretch of river between Guilin and Yangshuo, bounded by classic sheer karst hills, which have inspired many a poem and ink painting.
●Top features: Nine Horse Fresco Hill, Yellow Cloth Shoal, 20-Yuan-Bill Hill, Xingping Ancient Town
●Popular activities: cruises, hiking, photography, hill climbing
●Access: from Guilin, take a Li River cruise, or visit villages along the river by mountain/rural roads
●Suitable for: Anyone can take a cruise or vehicle to see this amazing limestone and water scenery.
●Best time(s) to visit: summer for misty peak views after the rain; fall for drier, cooler weather
●Popularity: Immensely popular, dozens of tour boats ply the river daily, but you can find quieter villages and hills to enjoy relative peace
●Facilities: Cruise boats serve buffet lunches, bamboo rafts offer another way to see the river; Guilin and Yangshuo offer everything from Western food to local specialties, while farmer restaurants along the river provide simple local fare.
●Accommodation: hotels in Guilin and Yangshuo are the mainstay with all price ranges, though more modest lodging is offered in Xingping and other riverside resorts
●Days needed for a classic tour: 1 day for the main sights + 1/2 days to explore Guilin and Yangshuo
4. Huangshan National Park — the Legendary Yellow Mountains
Surrounded in myths of ancient immortals, the Yellow Mountains have some bizarrely charming geomorphology. Compact and complex, this National Park has it all in a small area. There are peaks to climb, gorges to hike, and ethereal sights to see.
●Top features: the seas of clouds, bizarre rocks like ‘Monkey Watching the Sea’, and strange pines like Welcoming Guest Pine
●Popular activities: trekking the mountain paths, photography, gazing out over the swirling mists and island-like peaks, getting up before dawn to see the sun rise
●Access: 3 hours by coach from Hangzhou or 1 hour from Huangshan to the main gate; there are taxis in the park to take you to the cableways, but from there it’s by foot on narrow concrete paths and steps.
●Suitable for: Avoiding the steepest climbs and the long hikes, most of the top sights are accessible even by those of low fitness.
●Best time(s) to visit: Summer is best for weather, but crowded; winter beautiful and peaceful, but treacherous underfoot and closed in places. The intermediate seasons offer a compromise.
●Popularity: Crowds peak in the summer, when the narrowest of passes become queuing places, as lines of tourists march up and down alternately, and Welcoming Guest Pine becomes clogged with hundreds trying to snap themselves in front of it.
●Facilities: Three cableways, including Asia’s longest telpher, and a monorail provide access from every side. The mountainside is well-signed, and there are plentiful (though expensive) restaurants and shops. There’s a hot-spring spa at the mountain foot.
●Accommodation: The mountain-top hotels offer everything from 4* to dorms, all at least twice the price of those at the mountain bottom. An overnight stay is recommended to catch the dawn and to save time going up and down.
●Days needed for a classic tour: Typically 2 days are spent on the mountain (though 3 or 4 days are needed to see everything)
5. Lijiang Yulong Xueshan National Park — with Tiger Leaping Gorge
Yulong Xueshan (‘Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’ 5,596m or 18,360 ft) National Park includes popular hiking route Tiger Leaping Gorge on its west side. The mountain has glaciers and a small ski resort, and the Yangtze thunders north in the gorge, one of the deepest and most spectacular in the world.
●Popular activities: hiking, photography; viewing glaciers, yaks, and snowy peaks, imagining tigers leaping the cataract?!
●Access: The gate is 15 km north of central Lijiang. Trams go up to 4,500 m (14,800 ft) where the glacier park is and to other mountain sights. Take the G214 to 40 km (25 mi) north of Lijiang to access 30-km-long Tiger Leaping Gorge.
●Suitable for: The gorge hike is strenuous but enjoyable for those of normal fitness. A trip up the mountain, especially with physical exertion, should be viewed with caution, due to altitude sickness, especially at Glacier Park.
●Best time(s) to visit: from February to June is the best time to visit the snow mountain.
●Popularity: you can visit Yunnan all year round, but avoid the Chinese holiday crowds (especially Oct. 1–7).
●Facilities: Tiger Leaping Gorge is well-developed for hiking tourists with plenty of shops and hostels. Trams, oxygen, and the usual range of day-visit facilities are available on Yulong Mountain.
●Accommodation: good hostels on the gorge hiking route, and plenty of hotels in Lijiang
●Days needed for a classic tour: The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is best done over two days. Take one day to explore Jade Dragon Mountain.