There are standard tours which make use of the natural links between places. Tianzishan, Yuangjiajie and Bailong on the eastern side of the park make a natural full day's excursion. You get up by the cable-car and descend later in the day by the world's weirdest elevator. If you want to avoid the cable-car (RMB53 one-way) it is possible to walk up for free, taking around 2 hours 30 minutes if you are moderately fit. Note that the temperature and the humidity make strenuous walking unpleasant in the summer months unless you are well-adapted to the climate and have good quality clothing. The section at Yuangjiajie, from the car park at Yuangjiajie to Baeilong and the infamous elevator is a walk along the side of the huge ravine, and there is a constantly changing panorama of largely the same section of valley. It's not peaceful although there are one or two side turns where additional steps down a dead-end are empty for long periods, especially towards the end when everyone is shagged out and heading for the bus and the way home.
To be quite blunt, don't expect to come to Zhangjiajie and see much nature, although the wooded walks are lovely. Some knowledge of sub-tropical trees and plants adds immeasurably to the experience. The place is entirely fixated on views and panoramas and "I followed a tour guide round Wulingyuan" T-shirts; it's not natural heritage as much as a series of panoramas.
I prefer to guide myself around places in China, but Zhangjiajie is the kind of place where having things arranged for you and having a tour guide saves a lot of time and effort.
Local guided tours vary in quality. Tour guides generally know their way around, the names of key rock formations and not much else.
If you want to get off the beaten track, it is best contacting the park authorities in writing in advance to discuss the possibilities. Despite all that has happened at Zhangjiajie (or perhaps because of it all) the authorities are very amenable to arranging special tours. However, you should e prepared to pay high costs for any special arrangements, and these could run into thousands of RMB per day per person.
Most tour guides cost between RMB140 and RMB300 per day, and you should only pay the upper rates for a licenced guide who can speak your language. There are many unlicenced guides in the area but remember that you will have to pay for all their tickets (licenced tour guides are allowed to use all facilities free of charge and you should not pay for any tickets for them as a result), so taking an unlicenced guide can cost much more. If you do use an unlicenced guide, test them out first! Actually the unlicenced guides anywhere can be excellent because they have the complete freedom to interpret everything their own way rather then the official canned storylines that many licenced guides feel obliged to use. Caveat emptor, basically.
Fondest memory: Most local tour operators are difficult to deal with from afar because you can rarely get past the dopey receptionist who despite recognising a foreign voice on the phone, uses that trusty old trick of assuming that rather than find someone who can speak your language, foreigners will eventually understand if they just repeat what they are saying much more loudly. I can recommend one particular agency: good value, good guide, excellent car. RMB200 per day for the (licenced) guide, RMB800 for three days car-hire and RMB450 per night for four-star hotel and airport pick-up and set-down thrown in for free. I have had a lot worse deals in China, and Zhangjiajie is quite an expensive place. You have to pay for all the entrance tickets though. E-mail me for details and phone number.
Zhangjiajie sees simply huge numbers of visitors, probably averaging 50,000 each day, and most of these are 'bottle-necked' badly at the very start of the day at the cable-cars and the Bailong elevator (yes, there is an elevator up one of the cliffs). Basically, everyone needs to get up to the plateau level to look down and across the valleys, and there are few ways to do it except by these means. From 8.30am to around 10am, expect to queue for a long time (I queued in the heat for 90 minutes at the Tianzishan cable car) but after that the queues are much less. In fact if you can't get in early, then think about seeing another part of the park (or perhaps even a village outside the park) and then arrive after 10am. All along the plateau level, there is a regular hop-on, hop-off bus service between the different parts. The buses are driven at insane speeds along narrow slippery dusty roads. It is not allowed to take private vehicles into the central part of the park, which is probably a good thing, given the precipices.
Favorite thing: These monkeys are very smart! However, for some of them(like these reside along the Jinbian Stream), their appitites are destroyed by tourists who offered snacks to them. Monkeys should have hunted for their food from nature, instead of being fed by humans.
Note: It's not about Favorite thing, just some un-organized ideas.
In Zhangjiajie, 60% of the population is Tujia Minority.
And in this National Park, there are Tujia people living here for generations and generations.
They are one of those warmest people I have seen. At the beginning of the trip, I was very offensive by people swarming at me offering to help as tourist guide. But very slowly, I look under the surface, they are just trying to make some little money out of helping people. (They are not all money oriented. If you are determined that you don't need any help, just tell them genuinely and politly, and they won't impose on you. )
After all, this place relies a lot on tourism, these real natives well deserve sharing a part of the cake.
Fondest memory: A Tujia old granny ..
I came across this granny at the high rise of the Mt. We smiled to each other before any words, She was holding a big bag full of empty water-bottles which are thrown away by tourists. Obviously , she earns money from collecting these.. She's short, dark skin like every other mountain folks, she looks old, healthy, and she walks fast... (I bet she spends all her life in this Mt.) I just couldn't help striking up a word with her.
"Do you live here?"
"Up the Mt.." with her hand pointing to the Mt peak.. then before I continued words, she added, with her palm stretching, "I have five sons"
Wow, ...... is she proposing to me for her sons????? ;-)
I will never forget her proud and happy face of that moment. You know, that's one of those most beautiful faces in the world.
This links to a general large-scale topographical map of the wider Zhangjiajie area. It's not suitable for walking but gives an indication of the area.
Note that the town of Zhangjiajie is in the area where the railway line (red dotted line) crosses the road heading south-west. These maps place the 'name' at the geographical centre of the administrative area.