The Rainbow Mountains of Zhangye, China

The Rainbow Mountains of Zhangye, China

The Rainbow Mountains within Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park are a spectacular display of Earth’s beauty. The mountains are famous for their bright palette of colors of alternating strips similar to a rainbow. The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 and it is very popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists.

Stripped Rainbow Mountains
This formation of stripped rocks was my favorite.

The Zhangye Danxia National Park is located in the Gansu province about one-hour car ride from the Zhangye train station. In recent years the site is very popular therefore access is a bit more controlled. You just cannot run around the hills and go wherever. Buses go around to the various viewing spots and at these sites, you should use the boardwalks and designated pathways. Overall, a visit to the park will take about three hours.

Tortoise formation sign and boardwalk
A supernatural Tortoise Looks up the Sky

How did the Rainbow Mountains Form?

Well, the short answer is, millions of years worth of silt depositing onto a lake/ocean floor. The alternating patterns are due to the mineral content over time switching and changing. At first, the layers were horizontal on the ocean floor and when the Himalaya mountains pushed up these mountains came with them. Most of the sandstone strata are at an angle now because of the geological uplift.

Something to keep in mind is, do not expect the colors to be dramatically eye-popping. Unfortunately, too many photos seen online are way oversaturated and photoshopped. The optimal time to see the mountains is at sunset just after a brief rain where the lighting and shininess are ideal. Most likely you will not see the mountains in such a way. But don’t let this deter you, the Rainbow Mountains are an amazing site to see and if you are at all interested in such things then the trip is worth the effort.

"Colorful Screen" formation
The Colorful Screen formation is one of the most popular and impressive. Also, it remains horizontal which is interesting.
Thin and sharply angled sandstone
An impressive display of the striations and upward lift causing angular formations.

How to get to Zhangye Danxia Geopark

In 2014, a new high-speed railway was completed from nearby Xining which has a major airport and train station. I was already staying in Xining and made a day-trip to Zhangye from there. The train ride was two hours and along the way the sights looking out across the landscape are spectacular.

Danxia National Geopark Tourist Service Center
Google Maps

My Itinerary

  1. Early morning, 09:20 train departing from Xining station
  2. Two hours later arrive in Zhangye
  3. Just outside the station are several restaurants to have lunch if you desire
  4. Take a taxi from the station to Danxia Park’s West Gate ← My driver offered to wait for me while I was inside the park  😀
  5. About one hour later arrive at the entrance and buy a ticket
  6. Go through the gate and get on west gate/yellow line bus
  7. Three hours later return to the taxi* and head back to Zhangye to catch the next train back to Xining

* For the five hours my taxi driver was with me totaled only 233 yuan including tip.