I’ve just written this piece for a Korean magazine, and while most of the places here have already been put on the Blog, it’s probably worth putting the whole thing up here – Taiwan really is an extraordinary place!
This list is only a start, and on another day I might have come up with a completely different ‘top 10,’ but these are wonderful places, and all are great personal favorites. I’ve uploaded new photos and expanded the write-up on the spectacular Taiji Canyon, which is not covered elsewhere here.
The secret’s finally out: more and more tourists are discovering that Taiwan is an island of quite extraordinary natural beauty. But whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to the big tourist draw cards such as Sun Moon Lake, Alishan and Kenting. The island’s popular sights are great of course, but be sure to make time for at least a couple of the countless little-known gems that lie scattered around the island and on the outlying islets.
There are enough enchanting spots to keep a weekend explorer going for decades, and any ‘top ten’ list is bound to be highly subjective, but here’s a personal list of ten places – all feasible day trips from one or other of the island’s big cities – that may well prove to leave more lasting memories than lying on the beach in Kenting or zooming through Taroko Gorge in a bus.
1. Loyal Son Mountain and
2. Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, Taipei County
The 12 kilometer-long Pingxi Branch Railway Line, an hour’s ride from Taipei city center, is one of the most beautiful train rides in northern Taiwan, but the real attraction of coming here is the host of natural and cultural attractions easily accessible from the tracks. The area is dotted with atmospheric reminders of the area’s coal mining past, and the valley (which boasts the wettest place in Taiwan) features well over twenty waterfalls. The most famous (and touristy) of these is forty meter-broad Shifen Waterfall (十分瀑布), the widest waterfall in Taiwan, but waterfall lovers can’t do better than take the stunningly scenic, 3-hour Sandiaoling Waterfall (三貂嶺瀑布) Walk nearby. Named for an impressive 30-meter high fall which plunges over a huge overhang behind which hikers can stand, the walk also features a further two beautiful waterfalls, and several exciting but safe climbs up cliff faces on chunky rope ladders.
If hiding behind waterfalls isn’t enough adventure for you, take the train two stops further up the valley to the quaint old coal mining village of Pingxi (平溪) and explore the extraordinary scenery of bare rocky crags that surround the settlement. Hikers intent on longer walks should tackle the three rocky summits known as the Pingxi Three Peaks (平溪三尖), but for a short, sharp adrenaline boost, it’s hard to beat Loyal Son (孝子山), Loving Mother (慈母峰) and Putuo (普陀峰) Peaks, which loom above the village.
The first is a sharp needle of bare rock that looks impossible to climb at first, but is in fact easily scaled by a sequence of ladders and very steep, foothold-like steps cut into the rock. The two remaining peaks are broader but also a lot higher, and each is scaled by dizzying flights of ‘steps’ cut into the solid rock. Definitely not a place for sufferers of vertigo.
3. Wushanding Mud Volcano, Kaohsiung County
Mud volcanoes are fascinating geological curiosities, and Taiwan is one of only twenty-odd countries in the world where they are found. Unrelated to the classic magma-spewing volcano of which the peaks of Yangmingshan (north of the Taiwanese capital) are long-dormant examples, about fifteen can be found around Taiwan. Easily the finest of these is the extraordinary Wushanding Mud Volcano (烏山頂泥火山), near the village of Yanchiao (燕巢), about twenty kilometers northeast of Kaohsiung City. Protected since 1992 as part of Taiwan’s smallest nature reserve (less than five hectares in area), the mud volcano changes in appearance according to weather conditions and whether or not there’s been an ‘eruption’ recently, but generally forms a striking cone that looms several meters above the heads of curious visitors.
Nearby lies Yangu (or Yangnyu) Mud Pond (養女湖), the most impressive of a series of mud pots that bubble up to the surface in this part of Taiwan. Visit on a weekend, and there’s a good chance someone will be around to light the methane gas that bubbles up from the depths; the resulting flames can reach several meters in height, and are an impressive sight.
4. Xiao Liuqiu Island, Pingdong County
This tiny islet (小琉球), lying 15 kilometers off the west coast of Pingdong County, just south of Kaohsiung City, was until a few years ago a largely forgotten backwater. Now it’s been well and truly discovered, and coming here on a weekend is not recommended unless you like big crowds. During the week, however, the island is still a haven of peace and beauty.
It’s also extremely unusual for Taiwan, in that it’s made entirely of uplifted coral, which has weathered into a complicated system of cliffs, crack-like gorges and weird formations. The finest scenery is contained in three Scenic Areas (Beauty Cave,Black Dwarf Cave and Wild Boar Gully, all on the island’s west coast) and it’s easy enough to see the island in a day trip from Kaohsiung. If time allows though, it’s a very relaxing place to overnight – at least during the week.
Yuemeikeng Waterfall, Yilan County
Taiwan’s magic combination of extremely steep terrain, hard (often volcanic) rock and copious rainfall makes the island a waterfall-lover’s paradise. Apart from the occasional giant (such as 450 meter-high Jiaolung Waterfall (蛟龍瀑布) in Chiayi County) most of the island’s waterfalls aren’t especially high or mighty, but they’re often magical. It’s impossible to choose a favorite from among so many, but a prime candidate would be the secret Yuemeikeng Waterfall (月眉坑瀑布), close to the popular hot spring resort of Jiaosi in eastern Yilan County.
Although it’s a short and easy day trip from Taipei, this waterfall was until recently very little known. In the last year or so river tracers and hikers have discovered it, and the trail is improving, but the hour-long hike to the fall still involves wading upstream through a narrow gorge and several steep climbs on ropes, so it’s unlikely to ever become a family favorite.
Getting there is a short adventure, but well worth it upon seeing the of water plunging 40 meters over the cliff at the head of a narrow canyon in a broad, shimmering curtain, to fall into a large plunge pool. It’s a fabulous place on a hot summer day.
6. Lion’s Head Mountain, Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties
A wooded ridge studded with old and beautiful temples and monasteries inhabited by grizzled old monks, shrouded in a picturesque misty veil for much of the year, Lion’s Head Mountain (Shitoushan, 獅頭山) is Taiwan’s answer to those amazing Buddhist sacred mountains in China such as Mt. Emei and Mt. Jiuhua. Like those much larger Chinese giants, on sunny weekends Lion’s Head Mountain attracts hoards of visitors, who come to enjoy this important center of worship and the beautiful surroundings alike. Not even the crowds, however, can spoil and the beauty and unique atmosphere of this rather special place, straddling the borders of Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties.
Lion’s Head Mountain, about fifteen kilometers south of Hsinchu, is a rocky eminence and most of its ten or fifteen main temples are built into natural caves or overhangs in the rock. Sitting halfway up the steep, densely forested slopes is possibly the most visually impressive ensemble of temples and monasteries on Taiwan. The main structure of the group, Qinhua Tang (勤化堂), is a magnificent edifice of classical Chinese prayer halls, pagodas and gates, each crowned with bright orange-tiled roofs which shine in the sunlight. The main event is complimented by a series of smaller structures, including the Morality Gate (道德門), Kaishan Temple (開善寺), and Lingyun Cave (凌雲洞), which combine to create a truly impressive scene.
Jinguashi, Taipei County
Although its tragic associations continue to color this old mining town to this day (it’s the site of one of the most notorious Japanese PoW camps during the Second World War), Jinguashi (金瓜石) is one of the most characteristic old villages in the Taipei area, with the added benefit of being a bit less crowded than its wildly popular neighbor, Jiufen (九份).
Jinguashi owes its existence to rich seams of gold and copper in the surrounding hills, and today constitutes part of the very fine Gold Ecological Park, which preserves many old Chinese and Japanese structures and several mine shafts.
The village is surrounded by the craggy peaks of the petite Mount Keelung range. Although only 700 meters or so at its highest point, this cluster of peaks are real mountains in miniature, rocky, steep and photogenic. Mount Keelung (基隆山) itself is the easiest ascent, while Mount Banping (半平山) and the conspicuous Teapot Mountain (無耳茶壺山) both involve easy but fun rocky scrambles (with fixed ropes).
8. Taiji Canyon, Nantou County
One of Taiwan’s most awesome natural wonders, Taiji Canyon (太極峽谷) is another place long associated with tragedy. The canyon was long a hugely popular challenge hike until in May 1986 a landslide in the innermost part of the canyon killed thirty hikers and injured several score more. The canyon was officially closed to the public, signposts indicating the trailheads were removed, and although still accessible, the canyon was left to the few hikers that knew (or, like me, found!) the way in (it took me four separate attempts to find the trailhead!).
The gorge is divided into four parts. The lower canyon has been inaccessible for many years, since the trails to the one way down became overgrown – I tried it once and it’s a dangerous place to reach nowadays!) has the highest walls, which close in like pincers; a tall waterfall drops from a side stream into the main gorge.
The Middle Canyon is the usual way into the most spectacular part of the canyon, courtesy of a side stream which cuts through the otherwise sheer or overhanging walls of the mighty gorge, which elsewhere tower up to a hundred meters above the river.
Making a way carefully upstream through the Middle Canyon along a narrow ledge about five meters above the surface of the river, the lower waterfall is eventually reached, a long waterslide plunging into a deep plunge pool. The way ahead lies to the left, up a pair of long metal ladders, which were already rusting in 2001, when I was last there; they may be dangerously unsafe by now.
At the top of the ladders lies the most famous part of Taiji Canyon: the Inner Gorge (內坑). At first the canyon widens greatly, with a couple of gaping caverns in its walls; the bigger is (predictably) called the Bat Cave. Immediately past the Bat Cave, the canyon makes a sharp ‘S’ bend, narrowing greatly, and concealing the fantastic waterfall, plunging into a huge and very deep pool hidden in a secret and awesome cleft beyond. The waterfall isn’t visible until the last minute and makes a big impact. The sheer walls also make any further progress (into the upper gorge above) utterly impossible.
There’s been talk for years of possibly reopening the spectacular Middle and Inner parts of the gorge, but so far only the upper portion of the canyon (which was always its most accessible part) is open to casual hikers. Featuring a long suspension footbridge spanning the dizzying cleft and a couple of waterfalls, it’s a wonderful sight, but we can only hope that one day the wonders of the awesome central gorge some distance downstream will be thrown open to everyone once more.
Mount Niaozui (Beidelaman) Ancient Tree Grove, Hsinchu County
Groves of huge and very ancient trees (mostly red cypress) lie scattered throughout Taiwan’s mountainous interior, growing at altitudes of between about 1,000 and 2,500 meters and reaching mind-boggling ages (the oldest are estimated to be around 3,000 years in age). The four Beidelaman Ancient Trees (北得拉曼神木), lying at an altitude of 1,400 meters in mountainous eastern Hsinchu County, aren’t the easiest of these giants to reach, involving an hour or so driving over rough roads followed by several hours’ climb along a rough trail, but this relative inaccessibility ensures that they’re relatively little visited and their mountain home remains pristine.
The gnarled trunk of the biggest and most impressive of the four trees is curved, and looks like some monstrous stick of celery looming out of the forest floor. There’s ample room for a group of ten hikers to pose, side-by-side against the foot of the great tree, so it’s surprising to find that the tree doesn’t hold a place inTaiwan’s ten biggest specimens. One of those can be found in the far more popular Lalashan Ancient Tree Grove (拉拉山神木群) in Taoyuan County, but with ease of accessibility come crowds, and Lalashan’s twenty-plus ancient trees, for all their impressive size, lack the mysterious seclusion of those at Beidelaman.
10. Jhuilu Cliff Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien County
Taroko Gorge never fails to impress greatly during a first visit, and bits of it – the Tunnel of Nine Turns, Swallows’ Grotto, the Lyushui Trail – are always a delight, but after a couple of visits the area’s limitations soon become apparent. There’s little chance to get off the main road for long and enjoy the scenery away from the hoards of noisy tourists, cars and coaches, and it’s only by getting away from the road that the full beauty of this natural marvel can be really appreciated. All in all, Taroko really isn’t a great place for hiking.
There is, however, one astonishing exception. The Jhuilu Old Trail (錐麓古道) has always been Taroko Gorge’s most coveted hike, for the simple reason that it’s by far the most interesting hiking opportunity in the Gorge, offering some truly jaw-dropping views. The entire trail makes for a magnificent 6-7 hour hike, but it’s renowned for a 500 meter-long stretch near its eastern end which is, astonishingly, cut into Taroko Gorge’s highest and sheerest cliff face. The precipice plunges vertically for over 450 meters from the edge of the trail to the road and the Liwu River, far, far below. The trail is wider than it once was (the ledge was once only a foot or so in width!), but walking along this precarious perch nearly half a kilometer above the foot of Taroko Gorge remains an unforgettable experience.
Halfway along the cliff face, the trail dives into a short tunnel, near the end of which is a small shrine housed in a hollow carved out of the cliff. It’s not hard to imagine locals (who once used this route to travel between the east coast and the aboriginal settlements of the mountainous interior) stopping here to pray for a safe traverse along this, one of the most intense and spectacular trails in the whole of Taiwan.