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Exploring Yosemite’s Sister Parks in China

by Pete Devine

September 19, 2018 Adventure Experts

A trail side sign in Sichuan, China reads: “When one tugs at a beautiful thing in nature it is connected to the rest of the world–John Muir.”

As a Yosemite National Park employee and park expert for the past 30 years, it’s no surprise that I love Yosemite. It’s where the world’s national park concept began–eight years before Yellowstone–and it attracts over 4 million people a year. The park’s spectacular glaciated granite cliffs, tall waterfalls, and giant sequoias make it a scenic jewel of the West. There is nowhere like Yosemite.

But, what if there is? Yosemite’s international significance in public lands conservation spurred the establishment of sister park relationships in other countries back in 2006. Two parks in China became Yosemite’s first siblings: Huangshan and Jiuzhaigou.

Soon after their formation as Yosemite’s sister parks, I became curious about the landscapes, natural history, hiking opportunities, and management of these reserves.  Since 2006, I’ve made several trips to explore, hike, photograph, and birdwatch there.  Sharing these little-known secrets with American visitors has been a special treat. Those that appreciate outdoor beauty are astounded by Yosemite’s Chinese sister parks.

While popular with Chinese people, very few Westerners see these parks, or even know of their existence. There are many reasons to go. Here are some of my favorite things about Huangshan and Jiuzhaigou:

UNESCO Wonders

Both reserves are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as is Yosemite. Jiuzhaigou was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997. Huangshan was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015.

We also visit Huanglong, another UNESCO-listed scenic and historic area. It is well know for its striking pools made by calcite deposits.

These prayer flags can be seen at a high mountain pass en route between Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong. There are many such remarkable cultural and historic sites throughout the region.

Hiking Trails

Huangshan has the most astonishing hiking trails I’ve ever seen. They’re highly engineered and very safe, but they deliver one to inaccessible places in the most unlikely ways.

Majestic Waterfalls

Jiuzhaigou’s waterfalls are at least as photogenic as Yosemite’s.  The karst topography plays with water in ways that are exotically different from in our granite landscape.  Water pours out of travertine pools, sluices through forests, and drops from ledges that can be hundreds of yards across. Below are the pretty Nourilang Falls, reported to be the widest in China at over 1,000 feet across.

Artistic Landscapes

Like Yosemite, Huangshan’s landscape inspires artists. Even Avatar’s floating mountains were based on this Chinese park. More than 20,000 poems have been written in praise of the region.


Jiuzhaigou includes panda habitat; we’ll guarantee sightings at a panda conservation center.

Expert Park Rangers

Chinese park rangers care as deeply about their parks as American park rangers do. Here I am at Jiuzhaigou’s visitor center with Jack and Jay, readying for a hike.

If you’d like to join me in China, I am teaming up with MT Sobek to lead two special departures in May and September 2019.  (Editor’s note: These were the first two departures. The trip is available for 2020 and 2021.) This will be an astounding journey into the mountains of the Middle Kingdom to explore these beautiful parks. Please click on this link to find out more about the trip.

Pete Devine

Trip leader Pete Devine is a career expert and resident of Yosemite, and he serves as an official liaison with their two sister parks in China.  Pete led both adventures in China’s Sister Parks in 2019 and will continue to lead them in 2020 and 2021.