China: Jiuzhaigou National Park（九寨沟）
Not to oversell it, but Jiuzhaigou National Park is in our opinion the single best natural area in China. This is not ‘Wild Hiking’ of course, but compared the the mostly paved paths of many of China’s natural areas the dirt trails of Jiuzhaigou and crystal clear lakes make for some really good walking through beautiful forests in the midst of pretty impressive mountains.
Jiuzhaigou National Park
Admission Costs [in RMB]: (Peak Season/Offseason)
Students, Handicapped, and 60-69 years (110/40)
Over 70 (Free/free)
Bus Tickets: (90/80) [Applies to all groups listed above.]
Peak Season [April 1 – Nov 15]: 7:00 – 19:00
Off Season [Nov 16 – March 31]: 8:00 – 18:00
This being China AND a National Park, entrance to Jiuzhaigou National Park isn’t exactly free. Not only do you have to pay an admission fee, but to get the most out of the park you really need to spring for the bus ticket as well. The distance from the main entrance to the top of the park is around 30km, which would be a stretch to go up and back in one day and in doing so you would miss a lot of the out of the way gems. One possible alternative is to walk about 10km to the first bus stop – from here many travelers report that tickets are rarely checked. Really, better just to pay for the bus unless you’re a very serious budget traveler.
Inside Jiuzhaigou National Park
Practically speaking, this place is too large to cover in one day completely by foot. The best advice is this: take the bus all the way up to the top of one of the two valleys (the right side of the split is generally agreed to be the more scenic if you don’t have time for both), then walk back down. In the areas that have lots of tourists (generally those that have wooden plank roads as opposed to proper trails) consider skipping past on the bus system to the next point.
When you get back down to the junction where the two valleys split, bus back to the top of the other side and repeat. Though there are officially closing times for the park, if you miss the last bus you will be expected to walk it out. This can make for a long day, but if you don’t mind the hike its also a great way to experience the valley without the massive crowds that show up during the peak season.
Most of the tourists you’ll meet in Jiuzhaigou, especially the domestic tourists, are there to see the waterfalls and lakes. These all have fanciful names and are some of the iconic ‘postcard shots’ of the park – but don’t let these define your entire experience there. Some of the most beautiful spots in the whole of Jiuzhaigou National Park are the quiet side valleys and small streams that see only a fraction of the tourists yet are equal to or more beautiful than the big famous bits.
The other best tip we know: get there early. Show up at 7am when the park opens (or 8a in the off-season) to catch the first bus up, and you may be able to avoid the rest of the tourists for several hours by catching the small trails from the top of one valley back to the central junction. If you plan to spend the entire day exploring the park by foot, also bring along something to eat and a few bottles of water. Most of the facilities in Jiuzhaigou are located either at the park entrance or at the point where the two valleys converge. Unless you want to have to backtrack to one or the other of these when you get hungry or thirsty throughout the day, it would be better to take the time to plan ahead and pick these up outside (you’ll save a fair bit of money by doing this as well). This also gives you the benefit of eating a nice picnic beside a quiet lake somewhere instead of surrounded by the masses that converge on the valley junction at midday!
Getting to Jiuzhaigou National Park
You can get to Jiuzhaigou National Park by flight (expensive but quick, from Chengdu and seasonally Xi’An or Chongqing) or by bus (most conveniently from Chengdu – though also possible along the backroads of Sichuan starting in Gansu province’s Lanzhou via Xiahe/MaTiSi/Zoige area). You’ll have to make the choice between expensive or inconvenient – probably depending on how much time you have to explore China and what your tolerance level is for rickety busses on bumpy roads.
Cultural Elements of Jiuzhaigou National Park
In addition to hiking, also be sure to visit some of the Tibetan villages in the valley. The name ‘Jiuzhaigou’ literally means ‘Nine Village Valley’ in Mandarin Chinese, a name which derives from the nine traditional Tibetan communities that have long lived here. We found people to be quite friendly and willing to engage with us, though very little English was spoken.
(Note that though you may be offered a place to stay in the villages, spending the night inside the park is *illegal* for tourists. It isn’t clear what the penalty is – probably a fine – but take that into account before you make a decision.)
Though no overnight stays are officially allowed in the National Park itself, there is a great Tibetan Homestay not far away. If price is your main concern, though, check out some of the cheap hostel beds in Zhangzha town just outside the park. Also, be sure to check out GetYourGuide to see travel ideas for the rest of China’s Sichuan province.
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