It’s worth spending several days in the region, but if your time is limited you can still get to grips with Zhangjiajie’s astounding natural beauty in as little as half a day: walk (or take the very short bus ride) to the cable car station (索道站, suŏdào zhàn; ¥118 return or ¥65 one-way) then ride up to Huangshi village (黄石寨, huángshí zhài), where the cable car terminates. From here hike the 2-hour circuit anticlockwise (most tour groups go the other way) around this minor, island-like plateau, surrounded by breathtaking views of the sea of pinnacles. Towards the end of the circuit, bearing left at the police post before Star Picking Tower will put you on the 45-minute trail back down to the park entrance.
For more of a hike, the left path from the park entrance follows a valley up to Huangshi, a trail which takes around two or three hours. Once at the top you can pick up the plateau circuit and walk or take the cable car back down. Alternatively, bearing right at the park entrance offers several more hiking loops, the shortest of which (around 4hr) runs along Golden Whip Stream, branching off to the right and returning to base through a particularly dense stand of crags below two facing outcrops known as the Yearning Couple (engraved tablets along the path identify many other formations). Alternatively, bearing left after a couple of kilometres – consult a map – takes you up past Bewitching Terrace (迷魂台, míhún tái) into the Shadao Valley. From here, basic trails continue through magnificent scenery around the western edge of the plateau to Black Dragon village (黑龙寨, hēilóng zhài), then circuit back to the park gates. This is a lengthy day’s walk, and you won’t see many other tourists along the way.