The first time we saw images of the “Rainbow Mountains of China” was in one of those Buzzfeed-type posts, titled something along the lines of ‘Places You Never Knew Existed’, featuring photo after photo of other-worldly natural environments and formations around the world. The images of the candy coloured mountains jumped out at us – did a place like this really exist?!
The only way to find out, would be to visit it ourselves. When we began planning our trip to China, we quickly came to realise that a visit to Zhangye – home of the Rainbow Mountains – would be a significant detour on our trip, involving two long train trips and a flight – taking up precious days and also costing a significant amount of money. But we were determined to make it work, and rearranged our trip so that we’d have two full days in Zhangye to explore this incredible phenomenon for ourselves.
What we couldn’t believe though was how LITTLE information we could find online about visiting these mountains. The Lonely Planet itself only has a small ‘Worth A Trip’ box mention of them. A lot of what we read on various websites was outdated, or in very basic English. That’s why we made the trip out to the mountains not once, but twice, to make sense of how the park worked. We’ve compiled all our findings together in this complete guide so that you can also plan your own stress-free trip to the Rainbow Mountains of China.
Rainbow Mountains of China: A Complete Guide
GETTING TO ZHANGYE
To explore the Rainbow Mountains, you’ll want to base yourself in the town of Zhangye, located in the province of Gansu.
The easiest way to get to Zhangye is via train from Lanzhou, the capital of the province. Trains depart several times a day and take 5-6 hours depending on the type of train.
You can fly into Lanzhou from most major cities in China – Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, or you can also take a train. The time you have available and the money you wish to spend will greatly influence how you wish to travel.
We took a train from Xi’an to Zhangye via Lanzhou, paying 629 RMB each for a soft sleeper bunk for the 14 hour journey.
WHERE TO STAY IN ZHANGYE
It appears that several resorts are in the process of being built around the National Park, however it’s easy to commute from Zhangye, where you’ll have more options for eating and shopping.
We stayed at 7 Days Premium Zhangye Passengers Station, a small yet well-kept hotel located not far from Zhangye West Railway Station. With a large room, comfortable bed, ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning, wi-fi, amenities like a TV, hairdryer and kettle, plus staff who spoke a little English – it made our stay in Zhangye super comfortable and at 134 RMB per night it was incredibly affordable!
GETTING TO THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS
Officially called the ‘Zhangye Danxia Geological Park’, the Rainbow Mountains are located a 40 minute drive outside of Zhangye. Whilst we read that there is a public bus available from Zhangye to the park, the bus apparently doesn’t stop exactly where you need to go, and a taxi is also required for the last part of the journey. With our limited Mandarin, our phones often losing signal whilst out of town – therefore not being able to translate anything – we didn’t want to run the risk of not getting to where we wanted.
We arranged a driver through our hotel – most in Zhangye can do this for you – and for a return trip to the park, including waiting, the going rate is 180 – 200 RMB.
On our first visit to the park, we left at 2.30PM, returning at 8.30PM and paid 180 RMB. On our second visit to the park, we left at 1PM, returned at 9.30PM, and paid 200 RMB. When you consider the per hour cost – a taxi is actually an incredibly affordable way to visit the park and guarantees that you get to and from your destination!
ENTRY COSTS FOR THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS
If arriving by taxi, you’ll likely be taken to the NORTH entrance. This is where you’ll purchase your entrance tickets to the park, which are currently priced at 60 RMB per person (May 2016) – 40 RMB is for the park, and 20 RMB is for the sightseeing bus to take you around the park. You don’t have an option to not pay for the bus.
Take your two tickets (one is for the park, one for the bus) to the ticket checkpoint by the turnstiles, where they’ll stamp your ticket and allow you to board the sightseeing bus. The buses leave fairly frequently – they don’t have set times, but rather are dependant on the amount of tourists around. The more tourists, the more buses will be running.
INSIDE THE PARK – EXPLORING THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS
This is where things can get confusing. There are four different scenic spots within the park that the sightseeing bus will drop you at – numbered 1 to 5. Yes, you’ve read that right!
Bus Stop #1 – Scenic Site #2
If you enter via the North entrance, this will be your first stop on the bus. There are several directions in which you can walk around and view the mountains from different platforms, including the tallest viewing platform in the park with 666 steps to the top. Unfortunately it was closed on both days we visited, but there is a panoramic view of the whole park from the top.
Bus Stop #2 – Scenic Site #1
This is the largest scenic site in the whole park, and one of the most impressive, with mountains of all shapes and sizes in every direction. 176 steps will take you to the viewing plateau, where you can then climb further stairs in multiple directions for different viewpoints.
This is one of the best spots to view the ‘candy stripes’ on the mountains, where on a sunny day you van see hues of reds, oranges, yellows, purples, greys and whites. The winding road in amongst the mountains makes for some gorgeous photos.
A toilet is located at this stop.
Bus Stop #3 – Scenic Site #5
Less colourful than the other scenic sites in the park, this site has a large viewing platform where on a clear day, you can see much further into the distance and depending on the time of year – snow capped mountain peaks. The rocks surrounding the boardwalk are much darker in colour.
Bus Stop #4 – Scenic Site #4
This was our favourite scenic site in the whole park and for good reason – the colours on the mountains here are ASTOUNDING. They pop more so than anywhere else in the park. This stop is one of the best spots in the park to view the sunset, the colours on the rocks changing as sun goes down.
Whilst there is a road that continues east to other viewpoints, it appears that this is not able to be visited at this point in time – I tried to walk down the road to the viewpoint and got stopped several times. Mike had already gone off ahead and out of site so managed to walk about 500m down this road, where a paved pathway and stairs on the right lead up to a platform overlooking arguably one of the most beautiful areas in the park, with not a soul around. Given the lack of chastisement when someone eventually found him, its probably worth an attempt!
The viewpoints at the main site however are quite large and can handle quite a crowd – no matter where you look, you can’t find a bad view anywhere!
A toilet is located at this stop.
FIGURING OUT THE BUSES
We had read that the sightseeing buses only come by each scenic site once per hour – this is no longer the case, as it appears a huge amount of work has been done recently to progress the park as a tourist attraction. We found that the buses were as frequent as they needed to be. You needn’t worry about sticking with the same bus that you arrived on – if you do this, you’ll find that you’ve barely gotten up the stairs before they toot their horn and you have to turn around! More buses will arrive soon enough, and you can hop onto any one of these to continue around the park.
If you visit during peak season, you might find that whilst the buses are frequent, the amount of people in the park means a longer wait time to jump on a bus. Remember you can walk in between each scenic site, however it can be a long walk, the longest stretch being about 4km.
The main thing you want to be sure of is the time of the last bus to the exit from the last scenic site – this depends entirely on what time sunset is, so this will change from day to day. You can check with the conductor when you’re visiting the last site.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS?
The best time of year to visit the Rainbow Mountains of China is during summer, when the days are sunnier, brighter and the sky is clear – these are the best conditions for viewing the rocks. However, this also means peak season – when many other tourists will also be visiting.
We visited late May, and gave ourselves two days to visit the Rainbow Mountains in case we had any issues with the weather. We’re so glad we did. On our first visit, it was overcast, cloudy and grey and incredibly cold and windy up in the mountains. We still enjoyed every minute of the visit and made the most of it though, unsure as to whether we’d see a change in the weather the following day.
On our second visit, the weather did a complete 180 – the sky was blue, the sun was shining – and if we thought the Rainbow Mountains were incredible the day before – well, they were ASTOUNDING in the natural sunlight.
If you can arrange your visit just outside of peak season and give yourself a few days to explore Zhangye Danxia, this will be the best way to ensure you avoid the crowds, and that you get at least one bright sunny day!
OTHER TIPS FOR VISITING THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS OF CHINA
Zhangye Danxia Geological Park is completely out in the open – with no protection from the elements. Be sure to dress for the weather – it can get extremely cold and windy, so layers are key. If you’re visiting on a warmer day, be sure to pack a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
There is nowhere to purchase food within the park, but there are a few drink stalls so if you’re visiting for several hours be sure to pack plenty of snacks and water to stay hydrated.
The most atmospheric time to visit is sunset (provided its a clear day), so we’d suggest visiting early afternoon and staying until the end of the day. To really appreciate the park from every view point and take it all in, as well as capture some incredible photos, you’ll want to give it at least 5 hours to explore thoroughly.
If you’re visiting China, do consider making a trip to see it’s famous Rainbow Mountains. There are not many landforms like this in the world, and they truly were astounding. We also loved that the infrastructure around the park has been built in a way that made sightseeing easy, without disturbing the views – it all seemed to blend in with the natural landforms around it. It might be a long trip to make, and a detour off a more typical route through China, but seeing the Rainbow Mountains with your very own eyes is a sight you won’t forget in a hurry.
Have we inspired you to add the Rainbow Mountains of China to your bucket list? Have you been yourself? If you have, and have any tips or updates to our guide above, please share your knowledge in the comments below to help our readers!