A UNESCO World Heritage site in part since 2007, the Stone Forest (“Shilin” in Chinese) in the Yunnan province of China is considered to be a unique natural wonder and represents one of the best examples of karst rock formations in the world. Simply put, it is a magical, mystical place where culture, legend, and natural history share the stage with limestone rock formations that will delight visitors of any age.
Located approximately 85 kilometers (53 miles) southeast of Kunming in Shilin Yi County (1.5-2 hours by car, taxi or bus, depending on traffic and stops), the Stone Forest includes three unique areas – Major Stone Forest, Minor Stone Forest, and Naigu Stone Forest (about 8 kilometers, or 5 miles, from the main entrance). We did not visit Naigu (a separate tour), and it is not nearly as well known as is the Major and Minor areas.
Once covered by seawater, scientific research has pinpointed the age of the Stone Forest at more than 270 million years. Once the ocean subsided, giant rocks appeared and, through erosion from wind and water, the strange rock formations that we see now appeared.
The Major and Minor Stone Forests and their surrounding scenic areas comprise an area of approximately 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles) in size. We suspect that most visitors will find three to four hours is sufficient time to spend walking the winding passages and paths among the intricate stone formations of the Major Stone Forest. Plan on additional time (three additional hours or more) if you want to explore the Minor Stone Forest more fully as well as the Eternal Mushroom Scenic Area, Liziyuanqing Scenic Area and the Bushao Mountain Scenic Area, or take time for the on-site museum.
Once you are through the entrance gate and have made it past the Stone Forest Lake, you will enter the Major Stone Forest. The first mile, depending on crowds, may still feel a bit like an amusement park with the press of humanity and the festival-like atmosphere of Yi people dressed in traditional garb and selling souvenirs, guide services, and opportunities to dress up and be photographed. Breathe, relax, and take it in as you move along. If you are lucky, as we were, you may get to enjoy a musical and dance performance by the native Yi people, one that is wonderful in its expression of joy – and an advantage of the busy performance area. Enjoy, and then follow the paths to move deeper into the formations to slowly find the serenity the rocks deserve.
As you leave the more open areas, the passageways narrow and we suspect you will, as we did, become bewitched and bedazzled by the mystical, sometimes towering limestone formations in columns, spires, fins and cones. You often feel dwarfed by their enormity. Be sure to find your way to Sword Peak Pond that, legend has it, contains a stone sword broken off and standing with the hilt remaining visible.
Once you depart Sword Peak Pond the crowds will thin even more. Your destination is to the south and heading toward the Liziyuanquing Scenic Area. The path will wind upward and soon you will crest at an overlook, allowing a wonderful view out over the Stone Forest.
From here, explore to your heart’s content. We would absolutely recommend you find your way to the “Deep and Narrow Valley” – it’s a very special place, trust us, and only very few make it that far.
Getting There and Back: You can certainly check with your hotel regarding organized excursions to the Stone Forest from Kunming as there are many, if you prefer that option. However, you can do it on your own. (Full disclosure and a warning: We did not take public transit, and be very careful of directions you may find online since they change constantly. In addition, be VERY wary of anyone trying to hard sell you onto a special tourist bus since these stop at markets for shopping all along the way.) Here is what to do:
- Check with your hotel about their recommendations, any maps, signs or advice.
- Many recommendations say to take direct buses from the Kunming Eastern Bus Terminal (East Third Ring Road, Panlong District), which you will need a bus or taxi to reach (ask at your hotel); some sources note these direct buses also go from the main railway station in town. Check which option is best — or accurate.
- Once at either bus station, you will transfer to a regularly scheduled direct bus to the Stone Forest – ask for the bus to the Shilin Scenic Area (see HITT Tip, below).
- Price as of this writing for the bus trip was CNY 34 (USD $5). Once at the Stone Forest terminal, a shuttle (for an additional fee) will take you to the Stone Forest gate where you will purchase your admission ticket.
- To return to Kunming, just get on a bus to Kunming at the same spot you were dropped off when you arrived.
The Stone Forest entrance fee is a somewhat pricy CNY 175 (USD $26, at this writing), so enjoy the entire day there. The park is currently open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.