Wulingyuan: The Avatar Forest


Avatar is one of the most visually stunning movies of the 21st-century, so when we found out that James Cameron based his floating islands on Wulingyuan National Forest…we had to see them for ourselves. The quartz-sandstone spires towering throughout Wulingyuan, formerly known as Zhangjiajie, were formed over 400-million years ago through a series of unique geological events leaving behind one of the most unique rock formations on earth…inspiring a 280-million dollar movie and our two-day journey.

 

Avatar Forest


While the film is chock full of CGI, the opening photograph of this blog is unaltered yet has a striking resemblance to the movie poster. A little geology lesson as we novices understood it: Under extreme pressure from an ocean that once called this region home, the combination of hematite (iron), quartz and sandstone formed an incredibly dense layer at the bottom of the sea. After the ocean moved on, a series of earthquakes, tectonic shifts, glacial carving, and massive erosion shifted and shaved these layers, leaving behind thousands of spindly towers.

 

Tianzi Mountain Cable Car


We had great ambitions to hike to the top but a huge rainstorm pushed our 8am start time closer to mid-afternoon, leaving the gondola as our only option. We always like to hike to feel the sense of accomplishment, the burn, and the money saved, but to be honest…this gondola added to the visit. Soaring through the clouds and coming eye to eye with the rock spires is what experiencing this forest is all about.

 

One of the unique features of Wulingyuan is that the entire park is set over a thousand feet above the forest floor. A series of cliff-side walkways and bridges connect visitors to the tops of the quartz-limestone towers and viewpoints that will make your stomach drop.

 

A Long Way Down


Leaning over the railing in search of the origin of these floating towers, we had to be careful not to take flight ourselves.

 


Watching the mist unveil the mountains was like seeing a landscape painting develop before our eyes. Mountains would grow more defined and then with a new gust of wind, erase like an Etch-A-Sketch and start again. Stand there for five minutes and you were bestowed with five new paintings.

 


However, the beauty of the fog started to wane as it got thicker and thicker. We walked to the valley viewpoints, supposedly looking out over a sea of spires, and all we could see was a wall of white. With that, we decided to explore the lesser appreciated interior forest. We found this curious cantilevered rock “supported” by the sticks visitors have wedged underneath it. We hypothesized it was a way to show respect to nature or possibly something to do with Buddhism (as we saw something similar again at a few Wats in Northern Thailand). Thoughts anyone?

 

Avatar Eyes


So Avatar may be on brain here…but don’t those look like the eyes of the blue Na’vi natives?

 

Battle of the Chestnut Vendors


Now this was a sight to behold. Not because there were twelve food vendors all selling the EXACT same one item (chestnuts), but because of the fervor with which these ladies sold them–practically attacking tourists (and each other) in the process. One moment they would be chatting and laughing amongst themselves, and then screaming at the top of their lungs why their chestnuts were the absolute best, and literally jumping Dukes-of-Hazard style over their concrete table to close a deal.

 

Not ready to go back down the mountain we shacked up for the night at one of the two guest houses in the park. Wulingyuan is packed with tourists by day so having the evening and early morning hours is well worth the overnight in the bare bones bunk rooms. We shot this video from a secret lookout off a trail leading from the hostel.

 

Descending to the Forest Floor


To get to the root of these mysterious towers, we decided to descend into the valley. Walking amongst the huge spires, we were in awe as they erupted from the earth in perfectly straight lines, always capped with a few beautiful pine trees.

 

Tian Xia Di Yi Qiao: “The First Bridge of the World”


Aside from the famed towers, the Tian Xia Di Yi Qiao rock bridge is the park’s next biggest draw. Perched at a height of 984 feet, this archway is one of the tallest natural bridges in the world–but what’s cooler is that walking its rocky frame is the only way to get across.

 


It was a battle getting this shot without any other snap-happy tourists in the frame, but completely worth it.

 


We’ve seen some incredible natural wonders in our 400 days across South America, Africa, and Asia…and Wulingyuan National Forest is on our–and we now hope everyone’s–shortlist.

 

Wulingyuan China Avatar Forest
SEE MORE PHOTOS IN OUR
WULINGYUAN AVATAR FOREST SLIDESHOW >>

 

50 thoughts on “Wulingyuan: The Avatar Forest

  • March 12, 2013 at 1:54 am
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    Sold! Updating bucketlist.

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    • March 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm
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      You better stop following our blog David, your bucket list is getting too long!!!! (**joking of course, you are one of most active commenters and an awesome one at that!**) – thanks for all the love!!!!!!!!!

      Reply
      • March 13, 2013 at 1:54 am
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        Haha, it is pretty long…I have a text document full of places and notes. Going to start working on visiting some of them though later this year.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 2:03 am
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    Amazing, incredible, unreal.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 9:47 am
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    “Wow” doesn’t begin to cover it! Reminds me of some of the places in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, too. Great shots of the spider webs–those are always hard to capture.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm
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    Wow, wow & wow. I think the fog adds a mystical aura to the pillars. I believe these shots are some of the best so far. I get a surreal feeling looking at them! Love & miss you!!

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    • March 13, 2013 at 10:59 pm
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      oh the fog was so great, to see it roll through the valleys and over the pillars….wow, quite the show. thanks for the love on the photos, it was quite a battle getting some of those shots.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm
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    “Otherworldly” is the only word that comes to mind! It looks cold too…is it? Your excellent lighting continues to amaze me…like the train station and the sun peeking out from behind the mountain!

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    • March 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm
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      oh otherworldly it was, such a unique landscape at Wulingyuan, truly amazing. thanks for the love on the lighting, i also liked that train shot (almost went inline). the trains in china were so great to ride.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 9:13 pm
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    Fantastic dreamy landscape!

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  • March 12, 2013 at 10:35 pm
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    Fantastic! Thanks for putting this posting together!

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  • March 12, 2013 at 10:42 pm
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    Incredible! I love the mist, makes it look like a magical mystery land…

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    • March 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm
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      yeah the first day there was so much mist it was hard to see, but the second day was the perfect amount of mist, magical mystery land, and floating avatar rocks….awesome.

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  • March 12, 2013 at 11:33 pm
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    This was my favorite insert from you guys so far. That place looks amazing.

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  • March 13, 2013 at 4:56 pm
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    I literally just watched Avatar the other day and was wondering where inspired that part of the movie. Awesome timing for your post as you saved me the Google research. Now absolutely adding Wulingyuan to my RTW #3 wishlist 🙂

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  • March 16, 2013 at 8:45 am
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    I had heard that before! And also last time I was in Puerto Rico there is real life bioluminescence in the rainforest, at first glance it appears that light is shining throw the forest onto leaves or whatever but when you pick them up they still glow! Magical<3

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    • March 30, 2013 at 8:48 pm
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      oh you guys went, that is AWESOME. we must have similar minds, we are all going to same places as each other. did you stay up on the mountain at the HI guest house?

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  • May 10, 2013 at 8:51 pm
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    Guys, thanks so much for sharing your incredible photos of this place with all of us! It has now just soared up there as one of the places I’m desperate to get to. I see what you mean by leaning over and wanting to just take flight (although I would just get hideous vertigo and have to be dragged off to more stable ground!) Really enjoyable post 🙂

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    • July 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm
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      why thanks so much @twitter-255164829:disqus it means a lot to hear some kind words from you….have you been on a RTW yet? thinking about one?…..man you really should, its the best way to get to see places like this that are hard to reach in a normal 10-day vacation.

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  • May 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm
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    What a magical place. Havent seen the movie Avatar. Guess you guys will make a movie of all of your travels!!!

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    • July 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm
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      it was so magical @carollaager:disqus….you should totally rent Avatar, it was such a great movie, combining action, ridiculous scenery, and a great environmental message (loved that part the most). let us know what you think of it.

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  • July 12, 2013 at 2:50 am
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    Delightful~ Enjoyed your blog. We are planning a trip to Wulingyuan in October….

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    • July 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm
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      so great @398627ba5fee4b2a6479c5746bbb460c:disqus we are so glad to have you along for the journey. you guys are going to have an absolute blast at Wulingyuan…just be ready for LOTS of tourists (all chinese, barely any westerners)….and i can not stress this enough. do not do a tour and sleep at the top at the hostel, then wake up for sunset and just hike around….also go down in the valley, its very cool down there, and zero tourists. did you read our post on Emei Shan yet? you need to get there if you can….

      Reply
  • April 10, 2014 at 1:09 am
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    Heythere! Will be making a trip next week, I wanted to ask how you got to the guesthouses?

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    • April 10, 2014 at 9:06 am
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      Hey Felicia, there is an awesome YHA at the top. We left our big bags at hostel in town then hiked up with an overnight bag/small backpack so we could be in the heart of it when we woke up–with no crowds! totally the way to go! Enjoy it!

      Reply
  • April 21, 2015 at 7:29 pm
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    I am so glad I found your blog. My family is planning a 5 week trip to China this summer. My oldest son lives and works there and we are so looking forward to traveling to the “Avatar Forest”. How many days would you recommend being there? We all enjoy hiking.

    Reply

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