New York Hudson Valley Autumn Leaf Peeping

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This past fall was my first full autumn experience since 2010. The previous three years I was living overseas so I missed out on the wonder that is American autumn. Granted the past two years were in South Korea, where their own fall is amazing. But it was nice to get back to the States where autumn is not just beautiful nature, but practically an industry in and of itself.

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There are so many wonderful places to see autumn in America, but I chose to visit the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. I had been wanting to visit it for years now after I read about all the things to see and do there. I mean, there is such a plethora of beautiful nature and of fun Halloween/autumn activities. I was in the area for a long four day weekend, and even then, I didn’t get to see everything I wished I could see.

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I was actually a bit surprised when I did my research and realized that the Hudson Valley is only about a 90 minute drive north from LaGuardia Airport. For some reason, I thought it would be farther north. Originally I had planned to fly into Albany, because I thought it would be closer to my destination. And while yeah, it technically was, but it also would have taken about twice the time and an airline ticket would have cost twice as much as flying into NYC.

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I flew into LaGuardia in the evening, and once I got off the utter madness and traffic jam of the Long Island Expressway, it was surprisingly easy to get on the right interstate highways. The Hudson Valley is well served by more than one interstate, so it is pretty easy to get around.

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I was absolutely lucky to hit the Hudson Valley in peak fall foliage. That is something that is nearly impossible to predict every year. I was there in mid October, but I heard the previous year, that by mid October 2013, the leaves were already on the ground, because the cold came early. But this year, the weather was (near) perfect and the trees were swollen with leaves in all shades of red, orange, and yellow.

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I had a very packed weekend schedule of local farms visits, winery tours, haunted houses, short hikes, and leaf peeping (all subject to future blog posts). There was just so much to do and so little time. When traveling on my own, I am a hardcore planner, and I spent a lot of time in advance of this trip researching different things to see and do and narrowing down what was possible in the time allowed. I even calculated all the driving times and directions in advance, and basically wrote out an itinerary that enabled me to maximize my time there, while still providing a variety of experiences.

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I had a few absolute must do’s, but everything else was evaluating what was possible. I mean, I was only there for four days, and given the distance between some of the places I originally wanted to visit, I had to let some things, so I didn’t spend a ton of time in the northern part of Hudson Valley, and sort of centered my activities within a reasonable driving distance of Poughkeepsie.

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There is so much beauty in this part of New York. So many times I was driving through the valley and wanted to pull over and gawk at the beauty around me. Sometimes I could do that, but other times, there was just no room, because some of the road lanes were rather narrow with no shoulder space.

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I will say this though. While driving around New York is beautiful, it is not exactly cheap. I haven’t been to every state in America, but I had never encountered a place that had as many road tolls as New York. It wasn’t every interstate, but it was definitely some key ones. Most of the tolls were calculated based on the distance traveled on the toll road, so it was not a flat fee.

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However, none of those upstate tolls compare to the tolls for driving into New York City. I chose the shortest route back to LaGuardia and didn’t make my choice based on tolls. So imagine my surprise when I got the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, and it cost $13 dollars to cross the bridge into New York City. And then about 15 minutes later, I was shelling out $7.50 to cross the RFK bridge. So yeah, I spent over $20 dollars in road tolls to basically skirt the city and drive back to the airport. Definitely know before you go, and make sure you had enough in cash, because the toll booths don’t accept credit cards. I nearly got the cops called on me, because I forgot I was carrying large bills and asked if I could use my credit card. The toll booth operator called the Port Authority on me (all while the traffic backed up behind me), before I remembered I had a $100 bill that she could thankfully break. Whew.

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All in all, this was one of the best weekend trips I have been on in America. There just was so much to see and do in upstate New  York. If you like beautiful autumn nature, you definitely want to make a visit to upstate New York at some point. Even though there are other places to see and do for American autumn, I am still highly tempted to go back to the Hudson Valley this year.

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Chena Hot Springs Resort Aurora Ice Museum

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On the grounds of the Chena Hot Springs Resort is also the Aurora Ice Museum. Because the resort is only 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, the resort is a frequent destination for day trippers. One of the big activities is a guided tour of the Ice Museum.

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The museum originally started as an ice hotel. However, as our tour guide told us, all hotels require sprinklers, even ice ones, and a sprinkler system was not part of the original design. So the resort turned it into an ice museum, though the venue can be rented out overnight and people can stay in it, sort of like an ice hotel, but not exactly.

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The only way the museum can be visited is by guided tour offered multiple times a day. The tour itself lasts around 45 minutes, and pretty much consists of the guide giving a quick overview of the museum, answering your questions, and then allowing you to wander freely.

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The museum is basically one big, open air exhibition with a variety of ice sculptures. The ice sculptures are regularly updated and refreshed to ensure they retain their shape and consistency. It also has some flowers frozen in ice.

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The sculptures are rather beautiful, and again, evoke the image of the White Witch’s frozen castle in Narnia (yes, this idea frequently popped into my head over this trip). The only thing missing was a scenery chewing Tilda Swinton (and I mean that in a good way since I thought she was one of the big highlights from the movie).

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An optional add on to the museum visit is an appletini in a hand carved ice glass, and of course Mom and I couldn’t pass that up. The appletini costs $15 per person (make sure all adults who drink one bring their ID to verify their age). Even though our trip was at 11 am, it is never too early to enjoy an appletini in a carved ice bar. It’s a great aperitif before lunch. If you have been to ice bars in other parts of the world (I have), it is a very similar set up, though it is much bigger than a typical ice bar.

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Chena Hot Springs Resort Activities

 

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As I mentioned in a previous blog post, while there are a lot of activities available at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, most of the activities are at your own pace, with the occasional scheduled tour. The first activity we did was a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum (a later blog post), but we also did some hiking of the grounds, and a dogsled ride. There were also some local reindeer kept on site, and a small ice skating pond, though it didn’t seem frozen enough to actually skate on.

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Nature trails abound on the resort, and they are kept fairly walkable during the winter, which I honestly didn’t expect, but was grateful for. While walking around, it was amazing to me how pristine the snow was, and how frozen it was. I often marveled that it was like being in the Winter Wonderland of Narnia (before those meddling Pevensie children arrived and brought spring with them). I live in a more temperate area, so even when it does snow, the temperature would not drop long enough for the snow to freeze, nor to remain on the branches, plus what snow does remain would often get slushy and dirty. But somehow, the snow at Chena Hot Springs Resort remained dazzling white. The white snow, combined with the bluish light, or salmon when the sun rose high enough, was a beautiful artistic palette.

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I had also hadn’t often seen snow that was so white and clean, even when people tramped all over it. It was refreshing to experience such amazing cold, but it wasn’t as obvious. The cold is a very dry cold, even with the wind, and it was easy for me to pile on multiple layers of clothes to stay warm and active outdoors.

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Mom and I also had the chance to enjoy a dogsled ride around a set track. The ride was about 1.5 miles, so about 10 minutes. The resort keeps dozens of sled dogs for the guests, trained dogs, but not as highly trained or skilled to be elite racing dogs. All the dogs were very energetic, and just seemed to love to run.

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But one of the most relaxing pursuits at the resort is to enjoy the natural hot spring pool. The resort keeps a chlorinated indoor pool open to families, but they also have an outdoor rock pool for adults only. The pool is natural and untreated and very pleasantly warm, with a regular infusion of geothermally heated water. It reminded me of similar pools from New Zealand and Iceland. The pool is open from 7 am-midnight, so there are hours and hours to enjoy the pool if you so desired. The pool was great during the day, but it was a special treat at night, when it was dark, the moon was out and the sky was clear and cold. My body stayed wonderfully warm under the surface, and bracingly cold above the surface. Stay in the pool long enough, and your wet hair will literally start to freeze and turn white with the accumulation of ice crystals. I felt so relaxed, so languid after the pool, and it was a perfect complement to the extremely cold winter weather.

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While there plenty of activities at the resort, you could also choose to stay indoors and relax if you so desired. Basically there is something for everybody who enjoys outdoor or relaxing indoor activities at Chena Hot Springs Resort.

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Fairbanks Chena Hot Springs Resort in Winter

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I have always been a fan of very cold winters. I elected to go to Iceland in March one year, specifically because I wanted to see the country in winter, and hopefully see the Northern Lights. While I did see the Northern Lights, they certainly weren’t bright like the pictures. So I did some more research to discover that Fairbanks, Alaska is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, at least in the United States. It took me a few years, because I was living overseas for a couple years, but I finally had the opportunity to go up to Fairbanks in January 2015. I figured New Years would be a great time to visit Fairbanks, since it is pretty cold and dark, and would provide a great opportunity to (hopefully, since the auroras can never be predicted) see some beautiful Northern Lights.

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Some quick research of potential places to visit in Fairbanks yielded me Chena Hot Springs Resort. It’s located about 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, basically in the middle of nowhere, and therefore a great opportunity to indulge in some (really) cold winter activities and see some Northern Lights well outside the lights of the city. Chena Hot Springs offers up a wide variety of packages, and I selected the  four-day Aurora Odyssey package for my mom and me. The package offered up a selection of activities, including a night time Aurora Snowcoach tour and a dogsled ride. It was an opportunity to do some things I had never done before in a cold place I had never been before.

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Due to the timing of flights and the timing of check in at the resort, my mother and I flew into Fairbanks the night before our check in at Chena Hot Springs, and stayed the night at a very comfy lodge, the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, which is near the airport and right on the Chena River. The next morning we took a shuttle bus to the resort, which is about 90 minutes away from Fairbanks in winter weather.

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I knew that there wasn’t much daylight in Fairbanks during winter. Reading up on the sunrise and sunset times for Fairbanks, there was officially four hours per day of sunlight when we were visiting. So I expected to spend most of my vacation in darkness, and that appealed to me as well. If I ever get the opportunity, I want to go north of the Arctic Circle in winter time to experience polar night where the sun never rises, just like I experience midnight sun in the summer, when the sun never set. However, what surprised me is how much light there is on either side of sunrise and sunset. It started getting light about two hours before official sunrise and it stayed light about two hours after official sunset. But because of our location, I never actually saw the sun the first four days of our trip. Sure it was sunny and beautiful out most of the days and I enjoyed the brilliant light, but the sun just never rose high enough in the sky to actually see over the mountaintops.

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For the most part, there are limited scheduled activities at the resort. We had four days out at the resort, and the only scheduled activities we had were the Aurora Snowcoach trip one of the nights, a trip to the Aurora Ice Museum (a follow on blog post) and a dogsled ride. That left a whole lot of time to do whatever we wanted.

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We both walked around the resort on many of the nature trails. Sure there were inches of snow on the ground, but the resort took the time to ensure walking paths were available and packed the snow down. One morning I got up early (for the area anyway, since I started hiking about 0900, two hours before official sunrise) and did some hiking along the ridge trail. I hiked about one hour up the trail, before deciding to turn around because the snow was a lot more unpacked, deeper and harder to walk in (plus I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I was being stalked by wolves- which I wasn’t). The view from the trail was very beautiful. The air was clear and cold, the silence and absolute solitude was peaceful, the light was beautiful, changing from the blue of the pre-dawn to a gorgeous salmon light shining on the mountaintops (even though I still couldn’t see the actual sun).

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Fairbanks in the winter is also an opportunity to experience some serious cold. I have experienced single digit temperatures on occasion here and there, but winter in Fairbanks is frequently much, much colder, especially with wind chill. I was looking forward to it, so imagine my surprise and chagrin when we arrived our first night at the temperature was in the low 30s. Yes, the temperature rose to be around 32 degrees so it snowed. It sounds like it could be cold, but that temperature is basically spring thaw weather, and it was exceedingly out of character for Fairbanks in January. It actually snowed the first day we were there, but thankfully the temperature dropped into the single digits and the sun came out.

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That also meant clear nights out to see the auroras. The auroras would make their first appearance around 10 pm, but then disappear until around 1-2 am, when they would come dancing out over skies. Our first two nights were cloudy, because it was so warm so no auroras were visible, but the last two nights were dark, clear and cold. On the third night, we got the aurora call from the front desk at 10 pm and bundled up to hike up to the aurorium to see more aurora. I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, but luckily our stay coincided with the full moon, so we had enough light to hike up the hill in the middle of the night. We stayed up until about 12:30 am the third night, but after seeing nothing, and because I assumed we wouldn’t see anything, because the weather wasn’t perfectly clear, we went back to our rooms to sleep. Of course we found out later that day that the auroras came out around 2 am and were so bright, with colors of green, pink and purple.

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I had to kick myself for not waiting, but the next night we went out on the Aurora Snowcoach tour that took us to a nearby hill out in the middle of nowhere. The aurora schedule mirrored the night before. They were initially out in force around 10 pm as we ascended the mountain. I kept straining my head for a good view, but by the time we reached the top, they had disappeared. The next three hours were filled with cold and disappointment (luckily they had heated tents with hot beverages so we weren’t outside for those three hours), and doubt they would appear. Just because the conditions are right for aurora, there is no guarantee they will actually appear. Of course, shortly before 2 am when we were supposed to come down the mountain, the auroras came out in force and were bright green, dancing overhead with long swirly streaks. While the guides kept trying to usher us back into the snowcoaches, we weren’t having any of that, and stayed as long as we could to enjoy the sights. I deliberately didn’t bring my camera with me, because I wanted to just take in the experience and see the lights, and not have to worry about camera settings or getting the best picture. I just wanted to treasure these memories, with the hope of coming back later to take pictures. I am very glad that I got to see the Northern Lights, though that engendered a desire to see more. I REALLY want to come back to Fairbanks in the winter (preferably around the new moon) to see more auroras. What I learned from this experience is to have patience. Sure there are no guarantees they will appear, but I can’t give up until around 3-4 am. I mean, that is one of the main reasons to come to Chena Hot Springs in the winter anyway, so take full advantage of it and stay up all night. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.

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This trip was one of the best winter trips I have ever taken. Sure I didn’t see as many auroras as I wanted, but I still did see them. I got some great hiking in, and enjoyed clear, pristine weather in a gorgeous location. Our final day, when we were at the airport getting ready to leave, I finally saw the actual sun for the first time in several days, as it rose beautifully above the horizon. Fairbanks is definitely not a place to be missed if you like cold winter and beautiful nature.

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Jiuzhai Valley- Huanglong Scenic Area

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My final day in the Jiuzhaigou area was a full one since my flight out of China wasn’t until 2130. I decided to hold off on seeing the Huanglong Scenic Area for this day. Huanglong is located about a three hours’ drive from Jiuzhaigou, and you actually pass the airport on the way to the area. Considering how long, tedious, and at times harrowing, the drive from Jiuzhaigou can be, I didn’t want to make it a day trip on my third day, and spend around six hours on the road.

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So the very helpful front desk manager at my hotel booked another day taxi for me. The cost for a day trip to Huanglong with a drop off at the airport on the way back cost me 600 yuan. Yeah, that is pretty pricey, but ultimately it was worth it for me, because it allowed me to go at my own pace and set my own independent schedule and stop off at the airport when I was done.

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Like I mentioned, the drive there was a bit tedious and at times, gut checking. The main roads in this part of the country are wide enough for two vehicles, maybe a bit wider. But the curves on this roads are numerous and at times, very windy. There also seems to be a very free wheeling attitude toward rules of the road. Truthfully, I don’t know what the rules of the road are in China, but judging what I experienced through a Western driving prism, I was often tense and at times afraid for my life. Passing on all sides of the road seemed de rigeur, passing on tight curves happened all the time, along with passing on narrow, mountain roads with a very steep drop off on one side, so more than once I imagined myself dying or being seriously injured on this trip. I hoped that my driver was skilled enough to avoid all that (even if his driving often scared the crap out of me), and thankfully he was.

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We left Jiuzhaigou around 0700 so we arrived at Huanglong around 1000. Thanks to him passing every bus and slow moving vehicle we found ourselves behind, I beat the tour groups. Sure there were people on site already, but the lines were very minimal. Admission fee for Huanglong is 210 yuan, plus an additional 80 yuan for the cable car up. Purchasing a ticket for the cable car is purely optional, though I elected to do so, and am glad I did. Sure you can walk up and down the Huanglong Valley, and I saw many groups do so. However, I wasn’t really in the mood to walk up 3.6 kilometers in the valley in that altitude, so I took the cable car up the mountain.

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To get to the cable car, you take a shuttle bus about 10 minutes away. Since it was still early in the morning, the line for the cable was nil, and I was able to immediately ascend the mountain. The cable car lets you off about 2.2 kilometers  from the Huanglong Valley, and it is an easy walk from the cable car station. Like everything else in the national parks in this area, the trails are well benched with wood planks and the trails are easy to walk. It makes for a very pleasant stroll to a beautiful lookout of the Huanglong Valley and the surrounding mountains.

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Once I arrived at Huanglong, I walked further up the path to the apex of the trail which overlooks the Multi-Colored Pond. This was another set of travertine pools, very similar to what I saw at Fairy Pond Scenic Area. The water were shades of blue and green set among the golden travertines. The clouds were gray and overhead this day (though thankfully no rain), so the colors weren’t as bright as they would be on a sunny day, but they were still beautiful nonetheless.

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The trail down the valley is 3.6 kilometers and is another wood planked trail. The path heads downward and it passes some local temples and even more travertine pools. The trail is filled with viewpoints to stop and stare at the nature around you.

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The calcium deposits built up more and more as you descend the valley, and towards the bottom, it starts to resemble the Gold and Silver Beach at Fairy Pond.

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Waterfalls also become more numerous, with the most unusual looking waterfall to be Flying Waterfall very near the bottom. The waterfall reminded me of some of the waterfalls I saw in Jiuzhaigou National Park, such as Shu Zheng Waterfall .

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I took my time walking down the valley, since I had plenty of time and I was on my own schedule (the benefit of paying for independent travel rather than going with a tour group). Even then I had so much time at the end. My taxi driver dropped me off at the airport on the return journey, and the airport is about an hour’s drive from Huanglong.

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I think Huanglong is a must do when visiting the Jiuzhaigou area. If forced to choose between Fairy Pond and Huanglong, I recommend Huanglong, just because there is a bit more to see. If you choose to travel to Jiuzhaigou, I recommend staying no less than three days, which will allow you two full days in Jiuzhaigou National Park, and a trip to Huanglong. This will give you the greatest opportunity to see the astoundingly beautiful and unique nature in the area at a leisurely pace.  Also if possible, I recommend taking a late flight out of Jiuzhaigou, and there are plenty of opportunities, since there are about 23 flights a day to various Chinese cities during high season (basically spring through fall). This will allow you to visit Huanglong on your leaving day and go to airport on your way out. But if you love beautiful nature, this place is not to be missed.

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Jiuzhai Valley- Fairy Pond Scenic Area

 

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I made the deliberate plan to stay in the Jiuzhai Valley area for four full days, or basically four full days since my flight out was at 2130 at night on my fourth day in the valley. Since I had my activity planned for my final day, I had an open day for visiting something else in the area. When I was doing deeper research on the Jiuzhai Valley, I discovered the Fairy Pond Scenic Area, which wasn’t mentioned in my China guidebook. Upon further investigation, it sounded like a beautiful place to visit and an ideal day trip from the Jiuzhaigou village I was staying.

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The Fairy Pond Scenic Area is only about 49 kilometers (30 miles) from Jiuzhaiguou village, but it takes about 90  minutes to get there by car. It is certainly possible to take a bus to the area, but it honestly seems like more trouble than it is worth. So your two basic options to visit the Fairy Pond are to do a tour group trip, or hire a taxi on your own to take you. I chose the latter since it gave me freedom of movement and the ability to set my own schedule. Since I don’t speak Mandarin, the front desk manager was kind enough to book a taxi for me. She didn’t really speak English, but she spoke better English than I did Chinese, and combined with some basic phrases and Google Translate, we were able to communicate.

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So my taxi driver for the day showed up at the pre-arranged time (400 yuan for a full day) and we headed off for Fairy Pond Scenic Area. Even though the actual distance isn’t that far, it still takes a while to get there. The road is narrow and winding, and we had to cross a very high mountain pass (3604 meters or 11,825 feet) to get to the Fairy Pond on the other side of the mountain. We stopped for a few minutes at the top of the pass to marvel at the beautiful mountains below us. Some of them were laced with morning fog, and some of them were peeking out.

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Admission to the Fairy Pond Scenic Area is 100 yuan and then you are pretty much free to roam about. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the entrance area to the start of the scenic area. There are stairs on both side of the scenic area and you can walk up either side and walk down the other. At the base of the valley is the Gold and Silver Beach with is a wide trickling waterfall built up with calcium deposits and a blend of gold and silver colors, hence its name.

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I elected to walk up the right side of the valley so I would walk down the left side of it and get the most comprehensive view of the valley’s sights. As I walked up the stairs, I followed the gently flowing water. The bottom of the valley was a very wide, golden calcium carbonate travertine and the water rippled slowly over it and produced a delicate, beautiful shimmering effect.

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The first travertine pool was Jasper Lake and it was easy to walk among and over the lake via the wood planked boardwalk. These pools weren’t the first travertines I’ve visited (that would be Pammukkale in Turkey), but that didn’t stop me from appreciating their unique beauty. The calcium deposits were a delicate golden color and the water was an iridescent turquoise blue, and I marveled that such stuff can exist in nature, and took thousands of years to get to the point they are at now.

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The path was a wood planked set of stairs and kept going up and up, with occasional stops for different sights. The path itself is very easy, and the ascent is rather gentle with plenty of sights to see along the way. The lakes were beautiful colors of blue and green and they were so clear. I imagine the area would be even more beautiful in full overhead sunlight, but even with the smattering of clouds, Fairy Pond was still colorful and beautiful. Blue Dragon Pool was a beautiful blue and the still water was  a perfect reflection of the trees resting underneath the water’s surface.

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About midway up the stairs, the view stops at Multi-Lotus Reflecting Pools. The travertines were a beautiful contrast of pure white or bright golden calcium deposits and very bright turquoise blue water, all set among the green trees and looking out over the faraway mountains.

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The path ends up at the top of a colorful flag pavilion. It’s a small open air pavilion festooned with colorful prayer flags. The pavilion provided some shade and welcome coolness from the hot air and a good place to rest.

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The path downward was easy with more sets of stairs. This way allows you to see the same sights as the hike up, but on the opposite side to provide a different perspective.

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All told, I was at the Fairy Pond Scenic Area for a leisurely couple of hours. All the sights you want to see are clustered in this valley and the park is set up real well to facilitate an easy visit.

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Fairy Pond Scenic Area makes for a great day trip from Jiuzhaigou village. Now if you are only in the area for a few days, I suggest you spend two days in Jiuzhaigou National Park and another day at the Huanglong Scenic Area. But if you have another free day, Fairy Pond is very much worth your time.

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Jiuzhaigou National Park- Peace and Solitude in Shu Zheng Valley

 

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Shu Zheng Waterfall

My second full day in Jiuzhaigou National Park dawned like the first day-early and crowded. Yep, another mad rush to the breakfast buffet and lots of crowds at the park. This day for crowds was even worse than the first day, because it was a Saturday. Rather than the orderly line to get entrance tickets, it was sort of a rugby scrum, with the numerous group tour guides pushing their way to the front and then hogging up the line getting 20+ entrance tickets. But soon enough I had my ticket in hand and boarded the bus for the long ride to the valley. This time I picked a different line for the bus, assuming that one side went to Ri Ze Valley and the other side went to Ze Cha Wa Valley, which was my first desired stop of the day. Nope. Yes, there are buses that go to different valleys, but the destination is labeled on the bus sign, which just happens to be in Mandarin with no English translation. But after some scrambling, I managed to get on the right bus and headed to Long Lake and Five Colored Pond, which were pictured in my first blog about Jiuzhaigou National Park.

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So after fighting the crowd up at the top, I started my next full walk of the day, which was Shu Zheng Valley. I had originally intended to walk Ri Ze and Shu Zheng Valleys the previous day, which is about a combined total of 20 miles of walking. Yeah, my body had a different view and I modified my plan to include just the first two sights in Ze Cha Wa Valley and then spend the rest of the day walking out of Shu Zheng Valley to the park entrance. Shu Zheng Valley is the long winding valley you see on the first part of the drive up through the park.

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Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall

The first stop of Shu Zheng Valley is Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall. This was actually my last stop the previous day before my body rebelled, but I decided to start here again, since it is technically the first stop in the Shu Zheng Valley walk, and I am glad I did. The previous day’s visit was around 1600, and it was hot with the sun high overhead, and the crowds were out in force. However, the crowds had not yet converged on this sight, since they all either had not yet arrived (it was around 0830), or they were located farther up the valley and still working their way down. So I practically had the waterfall to myself. It was such a blissful change from the previous day. I am not one for crowds, but I will fight them if I really want to see something. But this morning, the sun was still rising, so it was pleasantly cool, the waterfall was practically silent of human voices. I could take all the time I wanted drinking in the beautiful sight of this unique waterfall, and I didn’t have to block out the cacophony of human voices or be jostled out of my reverie so yet another person could pose like a model.

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That peace and solitude was found throughout the entire walk. I finally found out how you can get peace and quiet in this park- walk the Shu Zheng Valley starting in the morning. Sure I encountered groups of people, but they were all walking up the park from the entrance and not walking down. For the vast majority of my day, I had the path to myself and it was quiet. I loved it.

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Shu Zheng Valley is probably the second most beautiful valley in the park, after Ri Ze Valley, but not as many people seem to walk it. Like the other two valleys, the majority of the track is planked with wood, so the path is even and easy to walk. No worries about tripping over the stray tree roots or hopping from boulder to boulder like I often do when hiking in Korea. This is hiking as I love it-a well benched trail that allows me to focus more on the beautiful view surrounding me rather than staring at the ground so I don’t trip (which is a common problem with me).

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The valley is a winding trail of lakes connected to each other by rivers. In fact, if you look on the map, the water flows continually from the top to the bottom of the park. Yes, there are parts where the water widens into a lake, but the water ways are ultimately all connected so the water continues to flow.

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It is quite amazing how much the water does change throughout the course of the approximate 10 miles of the valley. Most of the lakes are iridescent blue and so clear, it is remarkable how deep you can see into the water. Much care has been taken to protect the park’s environment, and it is kept in pristine condition with no hint of pollution.

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About a quarter of the way through the walk, I arrived near Shu Zheng village, which is the busiest village in the Jiuzhai Valley. I had stopped in the actual village itself the day prior and enjoyed some local snacks and did some shopping as I waited for the bus to leave the park.

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This day I didn’t enter the village, but did venture out to Shu Zheng Waterfall. Like most of the waterfalls in this park, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. It is a round, multi-level waterfall with thousands and water streams running through the stems and trunks of the plant life that flourishes around it.

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That was actually a common theme in the waterways of this valley. It never ceased to amaze me how much vegetation seemed to thrive completely underwater and how the rivers would occasionally grow into basically thick wetlands before flowing into a waterfall and then into another clear lake.

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While there were plenty of people around Shu Zheng Waterfall, the crowds thinned out considerably once I got past the waterfall and further down the path. You might think you would get tired of looking at lakes, but I didn’t find that to be true. I have a personal love of natural running water like rivers and lakes since I was a child, so I couldn’t get enough of the crystalline colors of the water and just how much the land looked like a fairy tale land.

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As I got further and further down the path, the sights became further and further apart, with the final sights being Reed Lake, which is a semi-swamp lake with thick reeds throughout, and Bonsai Shoals, which is a stretch of travertine beaches, on which slow water blankets through the foliage until it runs down through the valley.

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I originally intended to walk the entire valley, but by late afternoon, I was hot and my legs were tired, even after a nap by an old water mill. Luckily this park is well set up with frequent bus stops positioned near scenic views, so you can walk as long and as far as you want. If there were more unique sights downstream, I would have kept walking, but the rest of the way (which was really only a couple kilometers, but my body was ready to quit on me) was just standard woods and river sights I have seen the world over.

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I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend visiting this park, and I highly recommend taking two full days to see as much of the park as possible. This is such a unique park, and it is stuffed to the brim with beautiful, awe inspiring sights. I have visited many places in the world, but some of the things I saw in this park, I hadn’t quite seen before, and it was just incredible to see more examples of unique natural beauty in this world.

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Even walking most of the sights, you can easily this park at a leisurely pace. The park is open from 0730-1900 in the summer, which is more than enough time to see a valley (more if you really want to walk fast) at your own pace. I will say this as a tip, but this is a common tip and not some insider knowledge. The entire park moves down, meaning that the end of the valleys are at a higher altitude than the beginning of the valley. So the easiest and most recommended way to see the valleys if you intend to walk them is to take the bus to the end of each valley and start at the first site (Virgin Forest for Ri Ze Valley, Long Lake for Ze Cha Wa Valley and Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall for Shu Zheng Valley). That way you spend the entire hike walking down, which is much easier, particularly since this park is already at a high altitude. Seeing it from a bus as it speeds by is pretty, but nothing can really replicate getting close to nature and experiencing it first hand, hopefully without TOO many tourists around.

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