For years, to reach the spectacular Jiuzhaigou National Nature Reserve, you had to fly to the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu, and then take an eight-hour bus ride north. But in 2003, Jiuhuang Airport opened 90 minutes from the reserve; flights from Chengdu and a few smaller cities followed. The airport was expanded this summer, and now it's able to accommodate nonstop flights from Beijing and Shanghai.
So what's the appeal? In Jiuzhaigou, streams and waterfalls connect a series of 114 blue and green glacial lakes. The 178,000-acre park is home to thousands of plant species (some are more than 100 million years old), as well as giant pandas and golden monkeys. Natural gas-powered buses take visitors from one scenic overlook to the next.
The ban on private cars has protected the park, but not the area that surrounds it. What was once a handful of hotels along the main road is fast becoming a full-blown tourist town called Zhangzha. And with new flights bringing long-weekenders from China's biggest cities, it's only a matter of time before the growth starts to affect Jiuzhaigou.
A taxi from the airport to Zhangzha costs about $25. Lodging options include a Sheraton (011-86/837-773-9988, sheraton.com, from $200) and the Heye Hotel (011-86/837-773-5555, dial 0 for reception, from $45). Jiuzhaigou is open 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. year-round (jiuzhaigouvalley.com/english). Admission is $28 ($10 in winter), and it's an additional $11 for a day pass that allows you to hop on and off the park's buses.