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.
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?
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.
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.