Look closely at Zhangjiajie's vertical pillar mountains and they may appear somewhat familiar – that's because they're the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora, the iconic setting of the highest grossing film of all time – Avatar.
Located west of Hunan province, although you won't find any blue Na'vi people here, millions of tourists flock to the National Forest Park, Tianmen Mountain and Grand Canyon Glass Bridge each year and it's obvious why. You'll find a series of breathtaking geomorphologic landscapes including mountains, caves and waterfalls moulded over millions of years.
The National Forest Park, arguably Zhangjiajie's main attraction, is where you'll find the famed 'Avatar mountains', as well as other popular tourist sites including the Tianzi Mountains and Golden Whip Stream. Still, if you're looking to escape the crowds inside the park, the equally breathtaking Tianbo Mansion – also known as 'One Step to Heaven' – at Yuanjiajie Mountain Zone should be on your hit list. It's a steep climb up, but you'll be rewarded with a panoramic view of stone pillars engulfed by clouds.
View from Tianbo Mansion
A four-day ticket for the National Forest Park costs 248RMB and includes free bus rides within the park. Additional tickets are needed if you want to take the Bailong Elevator (the world's tallest outdoor elevator) and cable car rides. You'll need at least two days to explore the park properly, and navigation is relatively easy with bilingual maps and staff at all car parks. Don't forget to bring sturdy walking shoes and water – essentials for the tough inclines.
The best (and quickest) way to enter the the National Forest Park is through Wulingyuan, a small town next to the park – an 80 minute car journey from Zhangjiajie City – with an impressive night scene and plenty of restaurants and bars (check out Xipu Jie). Wulingyuan is also near attractions like the Grand Canyon and Huanglong Cave – Asia's longest cave with peculiar limestone formations and large colourfully lit caverns.
And, if you fancy a different kind of adventure (or are tired of looking at mountains), try whitewater rafting down the river in Wulingyuan – the waters are fast but safe enough for non-professionals to handle and it's 138RMB for a one-hour session.
Whitewater rafting at Wulingyuan
Flights from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie start from around 1,300RMB return on Ctrip.com. A taxi from Zhangjiajie City to the National Forest Park, Grand Canyon or Huanglong Cave is around 200RMB.
The 1982 Chujian International Hostel
(074 4555 5866) is just a stone's throw away from the ticketing booth in Wulingyuan. You can get a full map of the park and the bilingual (Chinese and English) crew offers advice for your trip and discounted tickets for attractions. It's a great place to stay and put up your feet after a day of exploring.