I often find myself saying rude things about the government’s development of northern Taiwan’s amazing system of trails, but when it comes to Ilan, they almost always seem to get it right. Ilan County’s ecological awareness has been notable for many years, and after the ‘open-as-many-trails-up-to the-public-even-if-they’re-unsuitable-and-the-environment-be-damned’ attitude that appears to be favored by many local authorities around Taipei, it’s a refreshing change to see their counterparts in Ilan are generally keen to emphasize the value of keeping the countryside pristine while allowing the masses in to marvel at the incredible beauty of this part of Taiwan. The trails to Xinliao Waterfall (新寮瀑布) south of Luodong and Yulan Waterfall (玉蘭 瀑布), two of the most scenic short walks in the Taipei area, immediately come to mind.
Like me, the Ilan County authorities seem to have a soft spot for waterfalls, because several of their finest recently developed trails have opened up beautiful waterfalls that were previously either little-known or inaccessible. Certainly before the authorities built the discreet series of raised walkways and stairs leading up the gorge to Linmei Shipan Waterfall (林美石盤瀑布) a four or five years ago, the enchanting landscape of this, one of the most beautiful wood-and-water landscapes I know of around Taipei, must have been known to very few.
Thanks to Hsuehshan Tunnel, a fast new bus service along the freeway connecting Taipei and the hot spring resort of Jiaoxi (礁溪), and an even newer (and presently free) bus service linking the town with Linmei Shipan Trail trailhead, what a few years ago would have taken a full day has become an easy and relaxing half-day trip.
Arriving at Taipei City Hall MRT station, exit 3 by seven-thirty one hot Sunday morning in June , we were on a bus within a couple of minutes, and had got through the tunnel and to Jiaoxi in just 50 minutes, before the majority of day-trippers had even got up. From the bus stop, near the town’s public outdoor hot spring park, it’s a ten-minute walk to Jiaoxi train station; we arrived just as the white minibus with a ‘Jiaoxi Shuttle Bus’ sticker on the front windscreen pulled up. This new service only started a couple of months ago, and it seems the word isn’t out yet, as there was only one or two other people on board, despite the fact that the service is absolutely free until the end of the year!
In about ten minutes, the bus pulled up at the first stop outside the town: Wufengchi Waterfall. This magnificent series of three waterfalls has long been a tourist hotspot, and although it hardly shows the local authorities in their most environmentally sensitive lightt (the painted cement lion statue growling at the foot of the second fall is an especially low point) it’s still a magnificent place, particularly the topmost waterfall, which is one of the highest single drops in northern Taiwan.
Beautiful as Wufengchi is, however, it’s a popular place, so today we walked away from the waterfall trailhead, down steps to the wide stream below the waterfalls, crossed it by an ugly but practical ‘bridge’ made of huge cement tubes covered in compacted earth, and followed the trail upstream.
This is the Shipan Old Trail, and it soon leaves the bank of the little river, climbing gently for about ten minutes to pass a Land God Shrine. Keeping left at the fork after the shrine, the trail winds uphill for some distance, and in about half an hour, rejoins the crowds at the entrance of Linmei Shipan Trail. This place has become Jiaoxi’s fourth hot tourist attraction (after the town’s hot springs, the Wufengchi waterfalls, and the easy but very scenic Running Horse Old Trail), and each time I go it seems to be even more busy with noisy groups. Despite not being the easiest place hereabouts to get to by road (the road up from Jiaoxi is long and windy, although clearly signposted), there were already droves of people here at barely 10 am. Most had arrived on tour buses as part of a popular weekend package trip which also includes taking the thermal springs in town. Thankfully numbers on the trail are limited to 350 at any one time, with a card system (which we neatly bypassed by arriving through this back door route, which emerges onto the trail inside the control point). Much of the noise was coming from groups held back at the entrance, waiting for a entrance card, and we left the worst of the commotion behind after walking a minute or two along the trail, which contours the side of deep gorge, its sides covered in thick jungle.
In about ten minutes, the trail follows the stream, which is amazingly pure, running over a series of small cascades and rills into pools which shone blue-green in the dappled sunlight. We half expected to see visitors having barbecues on rocks beside the stream and paddling in the cold waters, but they seemed to be behaving themselves; certainly the whole route along the stream looked pristine.
Crossing the stream, the path climbs up a set of steps fastened into the side of a deep cleft, through which the stream cascades in thunderous but only glimpsed waterfalls, and at an observation platform, there’s a view from above down onto the main waterfall of the series. It’s a midget compared to the much bigger falls at Wufengchi and Yuemeikang nearby, but this is an ensemble performance, the waterfall being but one of a series of beautiful vistas and scenes which combine to make something far much more impressive than the sum of its parts.
The trail crosses the stream again above the waterfall, passes the large, flat sheet of rock after which the fall (which means ‘stone slab waterfall’) is named, and comes full circle via a trail which keeps high above the stream before descending gently back to the control point at the entrance.
The crowds were even bigger by the time we got back, and it was a relief to get back onto Shipan Old Trail and leave the noise behind. It was still only 11am, and rather than returning home so early (plus it really was too hot to have a hot spring!) , we cooled off by returning to one of my favorite places: the nearby Yuemeikang Waterfall, as fine as ever today, even though the water was a little lower than usual; the wade upstream to get there was really refreshing in the midday heat!
Getting there: buses run by Capital Star from outside Taipei City Hall MRT station exit 3, run every 10 minutes or so throughout the day to Jiaoxi. Check their website at: http://188.8.131.52/businfo.html
A new minibus service run by Taiwan Tourism Bureau runs every 30 minutes at weekends (once an hour during the week) from Jiaoxi train station to Wufengchi and on to the entrance to Linmei Shipan Trail. Details (in Chinese) are on the website at: http://www.taiwantrip.com.tw//Besttour/Info/?id=1
Date of Hike: June 27th, 2010