We arrived at one of China's most popular scenic spots in the most popular period of October - November. This is the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou (Jiu Zhai Valley) and over 30,000 tourists enter daily.
For more on Jiuzhaigou, there is a bit of background reading: http://wikitravel.org/en/Jiuzhaigou_Nature_Reserve
We also have a post on Huanglong which is another amazing attraction in the area.
When we arrived, we found that the most popular way to spend a day in the park was to take the bus up the left valley, come back down, then take the bus up the right valley. This is what was recommended to us and it was what we did on our first day. While the scenery was amazing, the crowds really spoiled the experience. Yeah, the crowds were expected, but it was still a shock to us. Considering we paid for expensive flights to get out of the cities, it was not the way we wanted to enjoy this beautiful landscape.
Luckily we had another day here and with the lessons learnt the day before, we were back with a plan. This may be obvious but tourists tend to go to the most popular attraction via the easiest routes. Due to the linear park trails, big groups create bottlenecks and people inevitably clump up into a big slow ball.
The park is well developed and maintained. We have never been on any walking trail like this one. Everything is well marked with English signs. Everything is on wooden boardwalks and going off the walkway is prohibited. Roads run parallel to most paths so shuttle buses are always close by. This may seem strange to western travelers but I guess this is the only way they can accommodate this many people without the place getting wrecked. Plus, Chinese tourists like to enjoy their holidays from the safety of man made infrastructure.
A note on the boardwalks to photographers: when you set up your tripod to photograph those beautiful waterfalls, you will need to make sure nobody is walk about nearby because vibrations from their footsteps will spoil your photo. Very annoying.
The Tinker Itinerary
Our itinerary involves 20-30km of walking over 9-10 hours. It will cover all the sites that people typically go to see, and more. When we went in October, the place opened at 7am and the last bus was at 6pm. It may be different for other seasons.
Have breakfast at a local noodle joint. Remember to grab some extra food to take into the park. Steamed buns, fruits and tea eggs are great. When you are in the park, don't take a detour to get overpriced food, there are plenty of places to sit down for a picnic (or just eat while walking).
When you are done, make your way to the park entrance.
6:45 - 7:15
|Government raking it in|
Ignore the man-made "decorations" around the entrance. Go straight to the ticket office and get the park pass.
DO NOT BUY THE BUS PASS!
The key to beating the crowds is not to get caught in one in the first place. And that means not starting your day at the top of the valley by bus. Did I mention the bus queues? Chinese tourists don't like walking and they don't like lining up for the bus either so best not to get caught in the middle. The shuttle buses only drop off at a couple of locations in the morning so everyone must get off at the same stop. What to do instead is walk the first section of the park.
Don't worry, you will still get to use the buses once you reach Nuorilang even if you don't have a bus pass.
7:15 - 11:30
Hike to Nuorilang
Isn't it great to get away from the queues? You will likely not see anybody for a while so enjoy the tranquility and fresh air.
|Double Dragon Falls|
People skip this part of the park because the more famous lakes and waterfalls are higher up. But in my opinion, this is not to be missed. The path takes you upstream along the river which turn in to rapids, shoals, swamps and small waterfalls. You experience the full array of landscapes and vegetation.
The path is straight forward and well sign posted. Keep to the left side of the river / lake for the most part (the other side of the lake is the road). Sometimes, you will have to cross to the other side to see sights. For example, the Tibetan villages and the Double Dragon falls.
The walk to the middle of the Y intersection is a bit over 15km.
11:30 - 14:00
From the intersection up the valley
As you approach the middle of the Y intersection, you will pass the majestic Nuorilang falls. Resist stopping to take photos because you will come back later when the crowds are gone. Follow the signs and you will get to Nuorilang bus terminal and shopping area.
From here on, bus passes are not needed. Getting on the bus may take a while because this area is a bottleneck during lunch. Be patient. Don't attempt to walk up the valley because you will end up bumping into the crowds going down the valley.
There are two bus routes (one for each fork of the Y intersection). Look out for signs to find the correct bus stop. For the next 2 hours or so, here are some things you can do. It is flexible. Do all of it or none of it. Just as long as you are at Arrow Bamboo Lake at 2pm.
Touristy stuff at Nuorilang
For a break, you can do some shopping and grab some Tibetan snacks. There is no food anywhere else in the park.
Long Lake to Multi Coloured pool walk (left fork)
Allow 60 to 90 minutes for this including travel time. This is the highest point of the valley at 3060m and the coloured pool is one of the main attractions. The bus up the left fork will drop everyone off at Long Lake. Then it's a one way walk to Multi Coloured Lake, ending at the bus stop back to Nuorilang.
Once you are back in Nuorilang, go to the bus stop bound the Primitive Forest.
Primitive Forest (right fork)
Catch a bus up to the end of the right fork and get off at the Primitive Forest (last stop). Allow 20 minutes to walk the circuit that takes you around the woods. Afterwards, catch a bus down to Arrow Bamboo Lake.
I recommend skipping the forest walk and going straight to Arrow Bamboo Lake or Swan Lake. There are no sights to see except for the trees. It hardly felt like we were walking through an ancient forest when we were surrounded by man-made boardwalks.
Catch a bus up to the Primitive Forest and walk down to Swan lake. I can't say about this option because the path was closed when we were there. Afterwards, catch a bus down to Arrow Bamboo Lake.
14:00 - 17:00
Down the right fork
Get off the bus at the Arrow Bamboo Lake bus stop. Cross to the other side of the shoals to begin the walk. This is the most picturesque section of the park and you will pass through Panda Lake -> Colorful Lake -> Pearl Shoal Falls. This is a popular route and many groups aim to finish the day at the Pearl Shoal Falls at 4pm. Trust me, you don't want to be caught in that pack. So if you find yourself at the Colorful Lake before 3.30, take it slow and drop back a bit.
For the hikers, be aware that towards closing time, they will barricade walking tracks one by one from top down. When that happens, don't panic because buses will continue running. When we were there, they closed the path out of Colorful Lake at around 4:45pm so we just spent the time taking more photos until the guy with a megaphone came to usher us down the park. Oh, make sure you allow sufficient time at the Pearl Shoal Falls (the last stop) because it is amazing. We stayed there until the last call for buses which was at around 5:30.
|Pearl Shoal Waterfall|
At the end of the Pearl Waterfall walk, look for the sign to the Mirror Lake carpark bus stop. Don't go to Mirror Lake, it is nothing you haven't already seen. Plus the track is probably closed by this time. Take the bus and get off at Nuorilang Waterfall.
17:30 - 18:00
Nuorilang waterfall and bus back to entrance
The big waterfall we skipped earlier, now it looks even better. If you want to take a panoramic photo of the falls, there is an observation deck across the road.
When you are done, get back on the bus. It will take you to the park entrance but you can get off along the way to revisit areas from the morning. Just make sure you don't miss the last bus.
That's it. Hopefully this guide was helpful and you enjoy the beautiful tranquility of the park as we did.
To wrap up, here are some more photos from our trip...