Huanglong National Scenic Area, China


Huanglong (32°37'-32°54'N, 103°37'-104°08'E) is a World Heritage Site located in the northern Sichuan Province that has outstanding travertine formations, 3300 cascading terraced pools, hot springs and waterfalls lying beneath snow-capped mountains which carry the easternmost Chinese glacier. The region is rich in forests and unspoiled habitats, rare plants and rare animals including the giant panda and the Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey.

Geographical Location

caption Colorful pools. (Source: Scottish Information Center)

In northern Sichuan Province, west-central China, in the southern part of the Min Shan Range about 230 kilometers (km) north of Chengdu. The Scenic Area is divided between two sites: Huanglong valley, 45 km northeast of Songpan town, which also includes the whole Fujiang river catchment above Shijiabao village; and the Muni valley, 15 km south-west of Songpan, which includes the catchments of the Zhaga travertine waterfall and the Erdaohai mineral lakes. Huanglong: 32°37'-32°54'N, 103°37'-104°08'E; Muni valley: 32°30'-32°42N, 103°25'-103°32'E.

Date and History of Establishment

For many centuries, even millennia, much of the area has been protected either by being revered in Taoist and Lamaist religious traditions, or by inaccessibility

  • 1982: The site was listed as a state scenic district;
  • 1987: The entire site given legal protection by the Sichuan provincial government;
  • 2000: Designated a Biosphere Reserve in UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme.


70,000 hectares (ha). Huanglong: 60,000 ha, with a 58,000ha buffer zone. Muni valley: 10,000 ha, plus a 6,000 ha buffer zone. There are two other major protected areas in the region: Wanglang Nature Reserve (27,700 ha) to the northeast, and Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area (72,000 ha + 60,000 ha) to the northwest.

Land Tenure

State, in Songpan county. Since 2001, within the jurisdiction of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Region. Managed by the Administrative Bureau of the Huanglong Nature Reserve (H.A.B.).


1,700 meters (m) (Shanzidong, Fan Cave) to 5,588 m (Xuebaoding , Snow-Treasure Peak).

Physical Features

caption Body-rinsing caves such as this are said to have healing preperties in Huanglong. (Source: Scottish Information Center)

This is an outstanding karst landscape within the southern part of the Min Shan range which runs from the eastern Qinghai-Tibetan plateau down to the Sichuan basin. The Huanglong section of the reserve covers the catchment of 22 tributaries of the upper Fujiang River which has its source in Snow Mountain Ridge. The Huanglong valley itself is one of these tributaries. The slopes above the valleys are forested and steep, a spectacular example being the 15 km 700 m deep Danyun Gorge of the Fujiang near Huanglong valley. Above the tree line the site is surrounded by mountains, their strata tilted into jagged peaks, three bearing glaciers, seven over 5,000 m high and all snow-covered for much of the year. The pyramidal summit of Xuebaoding (Snow-Treasure Peak) is permanently snow-covered and carries the easternmost glacier in China.

Geologically, the Huanglong site is within the Qinling-Kunlun tectonic zone and the Snow Mountain Great Fault. The Muni valley site incorporates the Minjiang River Fault and the Zhaga Mountain Fault. Earthquakes are fairly frequent. The tilted rock strata are comprised of largely carbonate Palaeozoic deposits over 4,000 m thick, Mesozoic deposits at least 1,000 m thick with a variety of sedimentary rocks in a cataclastic sedimentation; and recent Cenozoic deposits of glacial moraines, alluvial gravels and carbonate sediments.

Scenically the major attraction is the 3.6 km-long travertine formations of Huanglong Gou: Valley of the Yellow Dragon. These consist of clusters of over 3,300 brightly colored pools cascading over travertine terraces, travertine shoals, rapids and waterfalls. Caves also extend beneath the valley. The intense colors of the pools which vary between blue, green, yellow and milky are caused by the high calcium bicarbonate content of the water which is precipitated biologically through the presence of great numbers of microscopic mosses which under certain conditions of temperature and turbulence attract the precipitation of calcite in underwater sills which grow upwards to form natural weirs. But the biggest formation in the valley is Jinsha Pudi (Golden Sand Beach), an extensive sloping shoal of yellowish tufa (porous calcium carbonate) 1.3 km long and 125 m at its widest which is the site of active limestone deposition under a thin layer of flowing water. This long uninterrupted limestone slope is thought to be the largest such formation in the world, and its color gave rise to the name Yellow Dragon.

Beside a temple in upper Huanglonggou surrounded by a cluster of 660 colorful pools, a large karst cave extends under the valley. The cave is about 70 m long, 30 m wide and up to 15 m high. Five smaller caves are known from the valley, some containing attractive calcite deposits, but most are filled with water. Several warm geothermal mineral springs emerge at 3,650m above sea level directly above the temple at a temperature of 6°C and an average annual air temperature of 3°C which feed the travertine system of Huanglonggou. The stream flow varies through the year, with peak flows during and shortly after the monsoon from July to September. Most of the soils on site are derived from limestone and are neutral to slightly alkaline. The mountain soils are skeletal.

The Muni valley site consists of two small parallel valleys, Zhaga and Erdaohai, which drain to the Minjiang river. There are two important areas of warm mineral springs here: Feicui Kuangquan (Jadeite Mineral Spring) with a discharge of 0.58 liters per second (L/s) at a temperature of 9.5-9.8°C; and the Zhuzhuhu springs (Pearl Boiling Lake) at 21°C which bubble into a 400 square meter (m2) pool. The waters of both springs have a high mineral content and are said to have important medicinal properties. Erdohai also contains a number of very attractive mineral lakes. The main attraction of Zhaga is the travertine waterfall. This is 93 m high, 35m wide and is stepped, with a series of semicircular travertine pools at its base.


Conditions are cool-temperate: damp and cold in the high mountains, and cool and dry in the river valleys. Winters are cold, dry and sunny, summers warm and wet with over 70% of the precipitation falling between May and September; autumns are wet and cloudy. The mean annual temperature at Fuyan Bridge at the mouth of Huanglonggou (3,160 meters above sea level), is 4°C, ranging from -24.7°C to 30.6°C. Annual precipitation at this site is 717.4 millimeters (mm), but for the whole area it is given as 758.9 mm.


Huanglong lies close to the intersection of four floristic regions: Eastern Asia, Himalaya, and the subtropical and tropical zones of the Palaearctic. It is situated at the transition between the eastern damp forest and the zone of mountainous coniferous woods with meadow grassland and shrubs of Qing-Zang Plateau. More than 1,500 higher plants are recorded for the site. About 65.8% of the site is forest covered, with much of the remainder being above the tree line. Part of the area is used for agriculture by the local people, mainly pasture with a few fields, although the extent is uncertain.

From 1,700 m to 2,300 m, there is a belt of mixed forest with Chinese hemlock Tsuga chinensis, pines Pinus tabulaeformis and P. armandii, three species of maple Acer yui, A. erianthum and A. davidii with Alnus nepalensis, Juglans sigillata and Betula alnoides and an understorey of arrow bamboo. Between 2,300 m and 3,600 m, the forest is largely coniferous and subalpine in character, dominated by spruces Picea asperata, P. purpurea and P. wilsonii; firs, Abies recurvata and A. faxoniana; spruce Picea asperata, pine Pinus armandii, larch Larix potaninii and birches Betula platyphylla and B. utilis. Between 3,600 m and 3,900 m, the forest gives way to a dense layer of Rhododendron species and mountain shrubs eg: Sibiraea spp., Lonicera hispida, Salix spp., Festuca ovina, Polygonum spp., Kobresia macracantha, Anaphalis lactea and Leontopodium dedekensii mixed above 3,800 m with alpine meadows which are dominated by the sedge Kobresia macracantha and form the only vegetation above 3,900 m. From 4,200 m to 4,800 m, vegetation consists of high-alpine species e.g: Saussurea medusa, Rhodiola spp., Soroseris gillii and Saxifraga tangutica in drift stone formations. Above 4,800 m, there is permanent snow and ice.

Orchids are prominent features of the herbaceous flora of Huanglong. In the warm temperate zone members of the genera Cymbidium, Calanthe and Bletilla are not uncommon. In higher regions several species of genera such as Amitostigma, Calypso, Cypripedium, Epipactis, Galearis, Goodyera, Habenaria, Herminium, Listera, Malaxis, Neottia, Neottianthe, Oreorchis, Platanthera, Poneorchis and Tipularia are abundant, with some slipper orchid species: Cypripedium flavum, C. tibeticum and C. bardolphianum forming vast populations of several thousand specimens in the Huanglong valley. 15 orchid taxa were first described in science from the Huanglong valley.

Apart from the characteristic species mentioned above, MoC (1991) contains a list of 101 higher plant species of interest for their rarity, endemism, and ornamental and medicinal value. These include a number of species that are internationally threatened: Picea brachtyla (VU), Larix mastersiana (VU), Pterostylax psilophylla (VU), Tsuga chinensis, Eucommia ulmoides, Pteroceltis tagarinowii, Euptelea pleiospermum, Dipteronia sinensis, Kingdonia uniflora and Magnolia officinalis. The list includes 16 species of rhododendron. The panda's habitat which includes two food plants important to it, Fargesia denudata and F. scabrida, supports very high levels of biodiversity.


caption Notable Snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellanae roxellanae). (Source: University of Wisconsin)

Diversity is high due to the site's location within four floristic regions, its wide altitudinal range, and the extensive undisturbed forests. MoC records 59 mammals (six orders and 18 families); 155 birds (12 orders and 29 families); five reptiles (two orders and three families); five amphibians (two orders and four families) and two fish species. A large number of the species listed are threatened at the national and several at the international level. Mammals include such notable species as giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca (EN), lesser panda Ailurus fulgens (EN), golden snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus roxellanae roxellanae (VU), Asiatic black bear Selenarctos thibetanus (VU), brown bear Ursus arctos, Asiatic wild dog Cuon alpinus (VU), leopard Panthera pardus fusca, lynx Felis lynx, Pallas' cat Felis manul, Sichuan takin Budorcas taxicolor thibetana (VU), mainland serow Capricornis sumatraensis (VU), common goral Nemorhaedus goral, argali sheep Ovis ammon (VU) and three species of deer, one being the white-lipped deer, Cervus albirostris (VU). The area's Information Center site also lists clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa (EN). A preliminary list of birds is given in MoC which includes Pallas's fish-eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus (VU), five species of pheasant, notably Chinese monal Lophophorus lhuysii (VU), and a number of waterfowl species.

According to a recent estimate about two giant dozen pandas live within the site. In 1989 MoF/WWF included a distribution map which showed that pandas were then found at four to five distinct locations within the site. Such a population is not especially large, but it is important, not least because of its close proximity to other more important areas, notably Wanglang Nature Reserve which directly borders Huanglong on the northeast and Jiuzhaigou reserve. The existence of large, interconnected reserves is also of great importance for the continued survival of the golden snub-nosed monkey, which also requires large areas with an undisturbed environment.

Cultural Heritage

Much of the landscape, especially Xuebaoding peak and the Huanglong valley, is important in local Tibetan religion, culture and folklore in which the valley is known as Se'erzuo, the Golden Lake. Close to the top of the valley there is a Ming dynasty Taoist temple, usually referred to as the Huanglong temple, probably a place of worship since pre-Taoist times. The legendary DaYu, king of Shu - ancient Sichuan the historical existence of which is confirmed by many artifacts - who according to legend created the first flood control and irrigation systems on the Chengdu plateau, is said to have found illumination in the cave above which the temple was later erected. Nearby are the ruins of a much older temple, and a smaller Buddhist temple lies some hundred meters lower down the valley. A pair of small stone pagodas is found in the Wucai Zhi (colourful pools) behind the Huanglong temple. These are said to date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and to mark the burial place of Cheng Shichang, grandson of the founder of the Tang Dynasty, Cheng Yaoji.

In front of the current temple an annual fair is held by all the local ethnic groups to worship Dayu, the patron saint of Huanglong. Many legends and stories are associated with the various natural physical features of the area, like the Body-rinsing cave, a small depression in one of the travertine waterfalls. Its water is said to have healing properties and the ability to cure infertility. The Fujiang valley below Huanglonggou was called Donglougou (east road valley) in earlier times because an important trade road from east to west passed through it.

Local Human Population

The human population of the site numbers approximately 600 in the villages of Zhangjiagou some 3 km below the mouth of Huanglonggou and Huanglong village, which lies close to the center of this part of the reserve. The main ethnic groups in these villages are Han and Hui. From spring to autumn most of the 200 staff members of the reserve live in the administrative center in the main valley close to the mouth of Huanglonggou. The local Tibetan people graze their livestock during summer in high pastures within the reserve. The old walled town of Songpan lies between the main Huanglong section and the Muni valley section of the reserve. This ancient walled town is the seat of the county government but since 2001, the reserve is administratively responsible to the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Region. The countryside around Songpan is good agricultural land, with Tibetan villages and much new building evident. In contrast, the areas to the north and east of the Huanglong section, including the panda reserves, are places of lower human populations and more pristine landscape.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

The Aba Autonomous region gives high priority to tourism, most of which is domestic with only a few foreign visitors. The access road to Chengdu is being upgraded and this has reduced coach travel time from 12 to ten hours. In spite of the distance tourist numbers visiting Huanglonggou have increased dramatically, from 50,000 in 1989, 70,000 in 1990 and 160,000 in 1991 to 800 000 in 2001. During the recent years several hotels were constructed in Songpan and Chuanzhousi, 42 km west of Huanglong. In the Huanglong reserve two hotels within the administrative area in the Fujiang valley offer tourist accommodation. Most visitors come in coach tours which last up to a week and also include a visit to Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area. From November to March during the snowy winters the Huanglonggou is closed to mass tourism. In the valley itself a loop trail with wooden planks and gravelled paths allows visitors to climb the 500 meters between the entrance and the Huanglong temple without harming the still pristine environment. In total 10km of trails and plank ways have been built in the valley for tourists, along with facilities such as wooden pavilions, dry toilets and litter bins.

Scientific Research and Facilities

New administrative buildings currently under construction in the Fujiang valley will include an analytic laboratory for monitoring the water quality in Huanglong valley. The travertine formations of the valley are currently being studied and some work has been undertaken on the ecology in the nearby panda reserves. Since 2001 with the support of the German Ministry of Technical Cooperation (GTZ/CIM) two German specialists, one of whom is an ecologist, work temporarily as senior advisors for the Huanglong administration.

Conservation Value

The site has outstanding travertine formations, the most notable being the over 3300 travertine pools and limestone shoals of Huanglong valley which lies high within a forested snow-capped mountain region rich in rare plants, animals and unspoiled habitats, all of international importance.

Conservation Management

The Sichuan Provincial Commission for Construction assumes overall responsibility for the supervision and guidance of the preservation, development and management of the reserve. The management and administrative work is carried out by the Huanglong administration, which ranks as a county administration in the Aba Autonomous region. This administration has nine departments covering general administration, public relations, scenery protection, finance, construction and planning, staff education and training, fire prevention, scientific work and tourism. A squad of armed police has also been posted in the area to enhance security.

A general plan for the Huanglong Scenic Area has been drawn up, based on the principle of 'Preservation First', with restrictions on the nature and extent of construction, conversion of forest to agriculture and mining: all are forbidden without permission. MoC (1991) lists a number of other prohibitions, restrictions and proposals, including measures to control tourist and pilgrim numbers during peak periods and to improve staff training and take on better qualified personnel. A protection zone covers most of the area in both sections of the reserve, where stricter regulations are enforced. Currently an application has been made to the National Forest Department for the reserve to receive the rank of a National Nature Reserve.

In 1998 an IUCN mission team urged the Chinese authorities to implement the recommendation of the Committee, made in 1992, to link Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou World Heritage Sites into a single Minshan Mountain World Heritage Area together with some of the other reserves set aside for the protection of the giant panda in Sichuan. The authorities expressed an interest in implementing this recommendation.

Management Constraints

Problems include fire, pollution, and forest clearance for agriculture and for firewood. As tourist numbers increase, threats from pollution, possibly from erosion and the development of infrastructural facilities will increase. The management plan includes provisions to deal with these problems, and existing developments in Huanglonggou are well designed to control visitor use. For advanced tourism management, especially concerning environmentally friendly procedures, Huanglong follows the standards of Green Globe 21. However, poaching for fur is common. In 1999 and 2000 12 snow leopard pelts were seen for sale at Songpan, others were seen at Munigou, and tiger and bear parts find a ready sale.


170 full-time and 140 part-time, plus ten road maintenance staff.


Average Renminbi (RMB) 20,000,000 annually, including construction, maintenance and salaries.

IUCN Management Category

  • III (Natural Monument) Biosphere Reserve.
  • Natural World Heritage Site inscribed 1992. Natural Criterion iii

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2009). Huanglong National Scenic Area, China. Retrieved from


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