Pristine alpine lakes in vivid shades of blue, dramatic waterfalls and striking geological formations bejewel a forested valley in Sichuan's northern Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is also home to the nine ancient mountain villages that give Jiuzhaigou its name, which means "Nine Village Valley;" to the south, Huanglong ("Yellow Dragon") enchants visitors with mineral-laden crystalline pools and remarkable travertine formations set against a backdrop of green-clad mountains.
Jiuzhaigou National Park (Jiǔzhàigōu, 九寨沟), or Jiuzhai Valley National Park, retains the primeval beauty of its famed multicolored lakes, stair-step waterfalls and mixed evergreen and deciduous forests while also prioritizing access and accommodation—hotel rooms for some 20,000 peak-season visitors stand by just outside of the protected zone. It's no longer permissible to go backcountry camping, leaving regulated day visits the only legal option, and that means that you'll have plenty of company if you visit between late spring and early autumn. Crowds notwithstanding, the uncanny colors of Jiuzhaigou's waters set against the evergreen slopes of the southern reaches of the Minshan Mountains are well worth the effort.
The park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is of particular note for not only preserving the valley's natural splendor but also for providing protection for its centuries-old namesake nine Tibetan and Qiang villages. The part of the park open to tourists is only a tiny part of the full reserve but includes unforgettable scenes. The visitor route through the park is plied by environmentally friendly buses; there are also well-marked walkways, trails directing tourists along the way (most signs are in Chinese and English). Give yourself a full day to explore.
Park entrance fees include bus tickets, which are a must for day-trippers trying to squeeze as much as possible into a limited time. Many visitors take the bus from the entrance gate at the northern end of park to Long Lake ;and Five-Colored Pool and work their back down the southeast fork of the Y-shaped valley; you'll likely be going against heavy foot traffic if you choose to start at the park entrance and work your way up the valley.
The southwestern spur of the valley features a string of small lakes linked by stretches of fast-running river punctuated by waterfalls. The lake furthest south—Swan Lake—is connected by the Rize River to the chain that runs from Arrow Bamboo Lake to Panda Lake, Multi-Colored Lake, Pearl Shoal Waterfall, Mirror Lake, Nuorilang Waterfall, Rhinocerous Lake, Tiger Lake, Shuzheng Waterfall and Huohua Lake before emptying into the Zechawa River. As for the villages, the most-visited are Heye Stockade, which is about 4 km (3 mi) from the park entrance, Shuzheng Stockade, another 4 km (3 mi) or so south, opposite Shuzheng Falls. Rize Stockade, up the southwestern spur of the valley, and Zechawa, up the southeastern arm, are also popular and easily accessible.
A bus change is required at Nuorilang Falls, which involves a lengthy line wait—a good time to apply liberal amounts of sunscreen. Buses heading towards Long Lake or the Primeval Forest leave frequently from the town of Nuorilang. There are also restroom facilities and an overpriced restaurant at this half-way point.
During peak season (Apr 1-Nov 15), tickets run RMB 220 for adults and RMB 170 for students with international IDs; one day bus tickets are RMB 90. Between Nov 16 and Mar 31, the off season, tickets for adults run a much cheaper RMB 80 while student tickets run RMB 70; one day bus tickets are RMB 80. Travelers can buy a ticket for a second consecutive day in the park during off season for RMB 20. Part of the reason behind the cheaper price is that some trails and areas are closed during the winter. The entrance ticket covers most park attractions. On the bus, children under 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) ride for free.
Park hours also vary by season, but with a different time frame from ticket prices. From May 1-Nov 15, the park is open 7am-7pm; from Nov 16-Mar 31, the park is open 8am-6pm.
The name Huanglong (Huánglóng, 黄龙) resonates for Chinese with the same kind of vibrancy as "Yellowstone" does for Americans, signifying such rugged alpine purity and spectacular natural beauty that it's more than just a gorgeous destination—it's a national treasure (and UNESCO World Heritage Site).
As such, long with nearby Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong National Park has become an enormously popular destination for urban Chinese eager to experience something of what's left of China's western wilderness. And Huanglong's snow-capped peaks, dramatic waterfalls, mineral-laden hot springs, multi-hued calcite-infused pools, thick forests and wildlife do not disappoint.
Of course, "wilderness" may be a considerable overstatement for a popular Chinese tourist attraction, especially if you fancy yourself anything more than a weekend outdoorsman (or woman).
In return for the hefty RMB 200 (RMB 150 for students) Apr 1-Nov 15 peak season admission (RMB 60, RMB 50 for students, all other times) you get easy access to the most scenic parts of the park via boardwalks and well-maintained trails. Children under 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) get in for free. Tickets are available from 7:30am-10pm; the park opens along with the arrival of the first guests and closes along with the departure of the last guests.
Peak season travelers may also avail themselves of the inevitable cable car (an extra RMB 80 charge going up and RMB 40 going down) for a quick lift to a high-altitude dropoff point that would otherwise take about five hours to hike up to.
Regardless of how you go about it, Huanglong's amazing assortment of geological formations and bodies of brightly colored water are sure to please, the product of a long history of glacial carving, erosion and limestone deposits created by mineral-laden hot springs water known as travertine.