Ringed as it is on three sides by steep hill ranges, it’s easy to devise plenty of routes that start way out of Taipei, to finish (at the end of the day), on the edge of the city, so saving a long and uncomfortable ride back home for a much-needed shower. Riding back down to town in style on the Maokong Gondola is an especially attractive way to crown a day’s hike in the rugged, forest-covered hills to the southeast of the city. The wonderful Mount Bijia (筆架山) ridgewalk is the best-known (and one of the best, for that matter) of the routes that end within a stone’s throw of the cable car, but a quick look at a map of the area reveals plenty of other options of various distances.
For a shorter hike, the various routes from Shenkeng to Muzha are a great alternative to Mount Bijia, since the hike is only about half as long, and less rugged. At the same time, there’s plenty of natural beauty, several fine attractions en route, and a little fun at the end, courtesy of the rock faces at Houshanyue, above Muzha.
A look at a hiking map reveals a variety of routes much better than I can describe in this short blog entry. The whole area is conveniently covered by Sun River hiking map M44 (南港 深坑 石碇山彙), which can be easily found in hiking shops on Zhongshan North Road near the main station; look for a map in a bright yellow and pink cardboard folder).
To get our hike off to a good start, we chose Four Dragons Waterfall (四龍瀑布), by far the best of the two cascades near Shenkeng. On our last visit, the stream was low on water, and there was just a single thin ‘dragon’ pouring over the 20-meter-high cliff; normally two or three narrow spouts plunge side-by-side over the lip.
There are two ways to this lovely, still little-known place, both starting near Shenkeng’s famed ‘Old Street’. The easiest way is simply to follow the road from the western end of the Old Street down, across the river, follow it to the wide trunk road in a few hundred meters that connects Muzha and Shiding, and take the road on the opposite side, to the right of the gas station. At the top of the hill, about 30 minutes’ walk up this road (keep to the bigger road at junctions), turn left onto a trail just before the road crosses a stream (lying in an overgrown valley and easily missed if you’re driving). The waterfall is reached in about 10 minutes. A much more interesting way is a trail leaving the parallel road, on the other side of the same gas station. This way is a tadge complicated, and to find the route the first time you’ll really need detailed directions, since this trail isn’t marked on any hiking maps I’ve seen of the area (the route is described in detail in Taipei Escapes 1).
Once at Four Dragon’s Waterfall, climb steeply up the rocky side of the glen just below the falls, to the right (use the fixed ropes!), and then turn right again at the next junction, just before the trail crosses the stream at the head of the falls. This trail soon joins a surfaced stone path which climbs into the picturesque wooded foothills of the Mount Bijia ridge.
There are quite a few trails to follow around here; we just followed the signs (or trusted our sense of direction) and headed in what we assumed was the direction of Muzha. Before too long, the trail emerges into an idyllic little zone of flooded terraced fields, reflecting the overcast sky like a mirror, and studded with the young, tender shoots of recently planted rice seedlings. Ignoring a pair of noisily barking dogs, a few meters further down the path passes straight past a thoroughly unexpected sight – a beautiful old stone-built house with a roof of thick straw thatch. The house, owned by the Lin family for over a century, seems to have no electricity (large quantities of firewood are piled up in a corner for cooking and for heat in winter). We were invited in by the old lady, and enjoyed a leisurely cup of tea, together with various snacks donated by other hiking visitors (the lady is very friendly, and apparently entertains walkers passing through most days).
Beyond the Lin Old House, the trail becomes narrower and steeper for a spell, climbing onto the narrow ridge of Houshanyue (猴山岳), soon with steep drops through the woods on either side. The summit of Houshanyue would have offered quite a nice view if the weather had been better, but the main reason hikers come here (and this is a popular spot with local walkers!) is to scale its rocky front face, a fun scramble on fixed ropes. At the bottom turn left, uphill slightly along a narrow road, take the signposted trail on the right in a couple of minutes, and this surfaced path drops through tea fields to emerge just down the road from the Chinan Temple station of the Maokong Gondola.
The cable car ride down to Muzha Zoo and the MRT is a perfect way to round off the hike, save the potential embarrassment of being locked in a car with a family of clean, well-dressed, sweet-smelling locals… so it’s worth bringing a spare set of clothes!