Hunan Province, 269km (167 miles) NW of Changsha, 480km (298 miles) SW of Wuhan

"O soul, go not to the south! In the south are a hundred leagues of flaming fire and coiling cobras; the mountains rise sheer and steep; tigers and leopards slink; the cow-fish is there, and the spit-sand, and the rearing python. O soul, go not to the south! There are monsters there that will harm you." -- from the 3rd-century poem "Great Summons," Songs of Chu

Wulingyuan's landscape might well have inspired the shamanistic poems of the classic collection Songs of Chu. Unlike most famous sights in China, the area remained remote and little visited until relatively late. To the ancients, that part of northwestern Hunan (at the southern periphery of the Chu Kingdom) was an inhospitable wilderness -- mountainous terrain populated by wild animals. And unlike the sacred Buddhist and Daoist mountains, it did not draw pilgrims.

But that's all changed. Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area (also called Zhangjiajie) became China's first National Forest Park in 1983, and in 1992, its core zone was inscribed as a World Heritage Site. Prior to that, whatever damage humans inadvertently spared this wild region over the centuries, they undid in a few decades of poaching, land clearing, tree felling, and polluting. Despite that, the natural beauty of the region -- dominated by quartzite sandstone peaks and pillars -- remains stunning and unusual; and opportunities to see rare plants and insects in this dense, subtropical forest still abound. What's more, restrictions on construction and pollution, as well as a total fire ban, are just a few of the measures now in place to protect this singular environment.