The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was the first national park in China, and its stunning scenery inspired filmmaker James Cameron when making his acclaimed 2009 epic, Avatar. Despite common belief, however, the movie was not filmed there, but rather Zhangjiajie served as the inspiration for the distant world of Pandora.
Located in China’s Hunan Province, the park is in fact one of seven that comprise the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Though the Zhangjiajie National Forest was the first to be recognized as a national park, the entire area was officially classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. Zhangjiajie Park itself, measuring 1,400 square miles, was also designated a UNESCO Global Geopark, when the classification was first established at a summit in 2004.
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A large part of what makes Zhangjiajie so spectacular is its mountainous pillars, jutting up from the ground and almost appearing to float – as they do in Pandora. The formations are formed over thousands of years of erosion, the rock’s unique shapes a result of expanding ice in the winters, the moisture also allows plants to grow on their surface. The Wulingyuan Scenic Area is a wet environment year-round, and the foliage this produces is another key component of the park’s appeal.
It is easy to see why Cameron took inspiration for his new galaxy from Zhangjiajie. He created a sweeping 360-degree panorama of the jagged mountains, and used them as virtual sets during Avatar’s extensive motion-capture scenes.
“The best way to show that they are floating is by having a nice sense of atmosphere or a cloud between the mountain and the ground,” Dylan Cole, the production designer, told Gizmodo at the time of the movie’s release.
After the movie – and not without some controversy from locals who were against Western influence in the region – one of the park’s distinctive, 3,500-foot tall pillars was officially named the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.
The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is also home to the world’s tallest outdoor elevator, known as the Bailong elevator. It consists of three separate glass elevators, each of which transports visitors 1,070 feet high and can carry up to 50 people at a time. The Bailong name translates to “Hundred Dragons Sky Lift”.
Since 2016, Zhangjiajie has also boasted the “world’s highest and longest” glass-bottomed bridge in the world. Connecting two mountain cliffs in the park, it opened to visitors after extensive news coverage during construction. In total, the bridge is over 1,400 feet long, nearly 1,000 feet high, and paved with 99 panes of triple-layered transparent glass. It cost $3.4m according to the state news agency Xinhua reported.
It was not all plain sailing with the bridge, however. It was forced to close just two weeks after opening for urgent maintenance, before reopening again less than two months later.