[Apologies for the false alarm a few weeks ago when I accidentally posted an incomplete version of this blog up on the site and immediately took it down again; it’s now – finally – finished!]
Without a doubt, Taiwan’s finest hiking is in its astonishing high mountains, but with a very few exceptions (the peaks of Hohuanshan and the Southern Three Stars, which are still out-of-bounds over half a decade after Morakot destroyed the road leading to the trailheads) arranging the logistics of the trip (permits, transport, accommodation etc) is guaranteed to prove anything from a headache to a full-blown migraine.
However Taiwan (and especially the northern half!) has scores of outrageously good day hikes, most of which are free of such irritating hassles, and there are enough hikes of all grades to satisfy all but the most demanding of hikers. After all these years, I’ve not even begun to exhaust the day-hike resources of this amazing island, and I’m still discovering great new hikes almost every month. Even so I thought it would be fun – although this list is likely to be added to in the future as I discover more truly outstanding walks – to briefly describe (in no particular order) a couple of the very best Taiwanese day hikes. I could easily have added several others: the Pingxi Crags and the tough Fengtou Peak Ridge traverse (both in New Taipei City), the shortish but exciting scramble up to Xingang Waterfall in Taidong, the Stone Dream Valley hike in Chiayi County and more classic day hikes, but here’s what I consider the cream of the crop – five low-altitude hikes that are really something – and all of which are (mostly) hassle free!
Jiuhaocha abandoned Rukai village (Pingdong County)
Forget all the hype about Smangus. The oft repeated myth to the effect that this now-famous village in Hsinchu County was the last aboriginal settlement in Taiwan to be connected to the outside world (in the early 1990s) by road is hogwash! I know of at least three other aboriginal settlements that to this day can only be reached by a steep walk (and there are certainly others). the twin vllages of Dali and Datong, clinging to the side of a spectacular side canyon just off Taroko Gorge are reached by a magnificent hike that itself earns an honorable mention here. But that relatively popular walk pales in comparsion with the fascinating adventure entailed in getting to Jiuhaocha, perched high on a mountainside across from Mount Beidawu (one of Taiwan’s top hundred peaks), which rears up across the great valley. The mountain is sacred to the Rukai, which inhabited Jiuhaocha (‘old’ Haocha) until they moved down several decades ago to a new settlement beside the river far below. That village (called Xinhaocha; ‘new’ Haocha) was almost completely buried under many meters of gravel, rocks and sand when Typhoon Morakot struck in August 2009 (thankfully the inhabitants were all evacuated in advance), and now only the roof of the village church is visible amid a vast wasteland of bare rock and dirt that covers the broad, deep gorge.
Even before Morakot wiped out the original route to Jiuhaocha (the village somehow survived the catastrophic typhoon completely undamaged), the only way there was a 3-4 hour walk along a trail from the end of the nearest road. Now it takes twice that time to reach the village, along either of a pair of trails which together make one of the very finest low-level hikes in all Taiwan. Although the hike in and out could conceivably be completed in one very long day, the 11-12 hour return hike should really be done as a 2-day trip, staying the night in one of the traditional (and unforgettably atmospheric) Rukai stone-slab houses in the village overnight. OK, this means it’s no longer technically a day hike, but it’s fantastic, and has to go in here! There’s no electricity (grid or transformer-supplied) and no running water in the village (you probably won’t even have any company, as the village has long been abandoned), but that’s one of the many attractions of this hike – this place is remote. The hike is described in detail in another blog entry here. One suggestion though: when sorting out your guide (you must bring one – they’ll put you up in their house, and you’ll never find the way up there without one in any case) make sure it’s one who is prepared to follow the ‘cliff path’ up there, thus turning the hike into a loop walk. Some guides apparently won’t go that way because it’s very unstable and a little risky, and instead go out and back by the safer but less exciting trail that goes straight up to the village from the river below. This route is easier (and safer) but at the cost of missing some extremely impressive and wild scenery.
Chufengbi Coastal Hike (Pingdong County)
This little-known route, which isn’t really a trail at all, follows a dramatically scenic stretch of coastline in Pingdong County, at the far southeast of the island. Only two significant stretches of the coastline of Taiwan (they’re close together on the east coast, north of Kenting) remain completely undeveloped, with no road or formal trail to spoil the natural scenery. The northern stretch (the name of which escapes me at the mo) – has become hugely popular during the last few years, and requires aboriginal guides, a permit and whatnot. The southern stretch, from the settlement of Jiupeng south for about 12 kilometers to Jialeshui, a popular beauty spot north of Kenting, seems to be officially off-limits to the public, but since there’s no-one around to check and access is completely unimpeded (there are no fences to climb, and no obvious warning signs to turn a blind eye to) it’s worth the small risk of getting told off to walk a magnificent stretch of coastline. For me this is a clear first choice for a day hike in a region of Taiwan that so far at least has otherwise offered no truly memorable hikes (the only really recommendable hikes I’ve done in the south are the exciting scramble/climb/river trace up to Xingang Waterfall in northern Taidong County and of course Big Sharp Mountain above Kenting; Mount Beidawu is still on my to-do list.
It’s a very simple route to follow – get down to the coast at Jiupeng, at the end of a winding minor road (one of those wonderful hidden, out-of-the-way seaside spots with which the East Coast rewards those who take the time to really explore), and start walking south. There are a few scraps of trail in places, but most of the way it’s simply a case of following the foreshore, which consists of large, flat stones, areas of pebble beach, and amazing outcrops of flat sedimentary rock eroded into some of the most amazing shapes and patterns to be seen anywhere in Taiwan. Behind the foreshore the ground rises in steep, lushly foliaged hillsides, turning to sheer cliffs in some places such as at Chufengbi point itself, where incredible cliff formations greet the eye every few meters. It’s around 6 hours from Jiupeng to Jialeshui, so it’s an easy day hike. The northern half as far as (and just beyond) Chufengbi itself is possibly the best half for those that have to go in and back out the same way to return to their own car or scooter.
The Chufengbi hike is unique in Taiwan for its combination of pristine wilderness (so far it seems to be all but unknown – we met not a single other soul walking it on a fine-weather Sunday), beautiful, wide panoramas along the coast and out to sea, and rock formations which I found far more absorbing even than the famed formations at Yehliu on the northeast coast. Sealing the deal for me (although the walk would have appeared on this list even without this final cherry on top of the cake) is the awesome wreck of the Aviva Cairo, a ship that grounded here on September 22nd this year (2014) and presently lists alarmingly to one side, stuck firmly on one of this coastline’s many awesome flat rock formations. Coming upon such a big, dramatic wreck with no inkling that it was there was an unforgettable, one-off experience on our visit, but, even when it’s gone (or, like the other ship that was also wrecked here, a couple of decades before, has been broken into rusting pieces by a series of typhoons) the hike will still be a classic. Hoping to return myself in the spring, and camp the night in the old army post about halfway along the route.
Jhuilu Historic Trail (Hualien County)
If you’re a hiker and you’re in Taiwan, Jhuilu should need no introduction. Since reopening after a prolonged closure due to damage caused by the great 1999 earthquake, Jhuilu has become one of the most sought-after day hikes in Taiwan, and with reason. The famous portion (of which there are actually several, although the most dramatic is the first, coming from Swallow’s Grotto) is cut into a vertical cliff in the side of mighty Taroko Gorge, almost 500 meters above the road and river through the gorge far below. Fall off the trail and you’d only hit the cliffs in a couple of places before slamming into the road nearly half a kilometer below – it’s that vertical! Despite its alarming position the trail is pretty safe these days (it’s apparently been widened considerably), and can be seen as the “Yushan” of greatest day hikes in Taiwan – an absolute ‘must’ for all hikers, but (like the island’s highest mountain) also one of the easiest to do, and suitable for any walker with a reasonable head for heights. There’s a longer description of the hike here. The full route from Zimu Bridge to Swallows Grotto is a fantastic walk, but if the western side of the trail is closed (as it seems to be at times), the eastern part, from Swallows Grotto to the end of the first (and best) cliff section is the highlight of the walk. This is the only hike that does require a permit, which should be obtained in advance, although it appears that getting these is easier for foreigners these days, and it’s certainly a great deal easier than trying to secure a permit and camping/bed space on one of the popular big mountains!
Batongguan Historic Trail: Dongpu to Yinu Waterfall (Nantou County)
Although the entire middle section of the magnificent Batongguan Historic Trail, which crosses the Central Mountain Range between Nantou and Hualien counties, is still closed following severe damage caused by Typhoon Morakot over five years ago, the two ends of the trail are both open for business as usual, and both are extremely popular. The eastern end, near Yuli in Hualien County, is usually called the Walami Trail, and is a very popular one- or two-day hike. For my money it’s it’s a bit underwhelming, considering the considerable effort it takes to reach the trailhead, although the wildlife you might see along it is pretty special. The eastern end of the Batongguan Trail, from Dongpu Hot Springs, however, is absolutely spellbinding in fine, clear weather, and is even accessible by public bus! Cut for much of its length into the sheer side of a canyon, with sheer drops below the trail and huge panoramas across the gorge and over towards the Yushan (Jade Mountain) range, it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful on a fine, sunny day. Add two dramatic waterfalls (nearly all daytrippers turn back by the second, Yinu Waterfall, or before) and it’s one of the best short hikes you can do in Taiwan.
Like Jhuilu, the trail conditions have been much improved (following Morakot damage) and the present path (as far as Cloud Dragon Waterfall) is accessible to just about all walkers. Beyond Cloud Dragon the trail condition deteriorates, with a couple of small landslide sections to get the blood racing a little, but nothing very difficult, and Yinu Waterfall is a beautiful spot (and a quiet one, as many hikers turn back at the first waterfall) to rest awhile before starting the 6 kilometers back to Dongpu, where a cluster of nicely modernized hot spring hotels (some very reasonably priced) make a perfect excuse for turning the trip into a weekend. There’s more info up on my earlier entry here.
Stegasaurus Ridge (New Taipei City)
Until I find an even better hiking area (and I’m doubtful that I will), the small sliver of countryside in eastern New Taipei City along the headwaters of the Keelung and out to the coast at Jiufen, Jinguashi and Shuinandong is, square kilometer for square kilometer, hands down the finest area in all Taiwan for magnificent day hikes.
Among quite a few other routes, there’s the Pingxi Crags, Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, Pingxi Three Peaks and the Fentou Ridge hike along the upper Keelung River valley, and the cluster of mountains and trails around Teapot/Banping Mountains, Mt Caiguangliao and Mt Nanziling above the coast at Shuinandong, which between them provide an astonishing range of great (and sometimes pretty challenging) day hikes.
Best of all though is probably the hike sometimes called Stegasaurus Ridge, after the line of pointy, rocky little peaks emerging from the ocean and marching skywards to end at Mount Banping above the old copper and gold mining town of Jinguashi on Taiwan’s northeast coast. The route is easy to follow – simply start at the old copper smelting plant on the coast road beside the ocean near Nanya (the western boundary of the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area), find the trail at the back of the plant through the tall silver grass up onto the ridge, and then follow it (usually keeping right on the knife-edge blade of the ridge itself, with serious drops on both sides) all the way until it rejoins civilization at Mount Banping where proper trails return. There’s a choice of routes here, but the only sensible way ahead is continue the excitement by descending the rocky northern face of Mt Banping by fixed rope, and scaling the conspicuous rocky knob of the Teapot before a final descent to Jinguashi. These last two peaks are one of the classic walks of northern Taiwan, and it’s a fairly simple and safe hike. For more experienced hikers though, Stegasaurus Ridge is a far more exciting and mildly challenging option, well off the beaten path (there’s no trail as such for most of the way), and on a clear, blue-sky day (head up between May and October for the best chance of good weather) day hikes simply don’t get more exhilarating than this!