Zhangjiajie, China

Photo: chensiyuan (chensiyuan) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
China is big—make that enormous—in every single way. It covers more than 3.7 million square miles of East Asia. It’s home to nearly 1.4 billion—that’s billion with the letter B—people. It’s also where you find some of the largest cities (Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing) in the world. So it can be hard to find alone time, much less peace and relaxation, when you travel there.

Or maybe you just need to look a little harder. It’s time to leave all of the cities behind. It’s time to move away from the busy coast. And it’s finally time to find nature in China. Caves and gorges, lakes and waterfalls must be out there. National parks, too.

Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area is remote, quiet, and absolutely breathtaking. The UNESCO World Heritage Site sits in the Wuling Mountains of Central China. It covers not one, not two, not three, but four national parks. It’s famous for more than 3,000 sandstone pillars that pop up in its subtropical rainforest. High peaks (Mount Fanjing) and natural bridges (Xianrenqiao and Tianqiashengkong) stand in between them. Unique (long xia flowers) and endangered (dawn redwood trees) species live here, too. While fog usually hovers just feet above the ground.

You approach the area from Zhangjiajie, a city in the northwest corner of Hunan Province. First, cable cars, a train, and, surprisingly, an elevator will give you prospective. From Huangshi Village, you have a view of the Magic Needle, the South-Heaven Gate, and the Six Wonder Pavilion from the mountaintop. A small train runs along the Ten-mile Gallery, a scenic road that follows natural sculptures. While the Bailong Elevator brings you to Yuanjiajie, a naturally formed platform atop a mountain that’s surrounded by higher summits divided by deep valleys.

The hikes begin after that. A pathway along the Golden Whip Stream passes steep cliffs, amazing formations (Bajie Carrying His Wife on the Back), and Chinese giant salamanders. You’ll have panoramic views from the First Bridge Under the Sun if you aren’t afraid of heights (it’s between two high mountain peaks). Then you might just want to peek over the side of the chasm at the Bridge of the Immortals, since there’s no railing on the narrow rock bridge. Playful macaque monkeys will probably follow you along the trails. You’ll see fewer and fewer people as you go, though. It will make enormous China feel even bigger.

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