Mountain Goat and Xiaoyao Caves, Shiding – a great alternative route to a well-loved summit

Xiaoyao Cave, from below

It’s only the beginning of October, and the northeast monsoon season has already claimed its first hike-plan victim! The original destination for our hike yesterday, to the awesome (and rather tough) Fengtou Peak ridge was postponed when the weather promised showers – not good conditions for walking the more precarious, knife-edge sections of this route.

The replacement hike, hurriedly put together for the six of us that braved the uncertain-looking weather, was a trip to two small caves in the hills west of Shiding (石碇) which I’d known of (from hiking maps) for several years, but which seemed too small and uninteresting to make the subject of a whole hike. The vague plan was to hike out from Shiding to these, then try to find a way up onto the wonderful Mount Bijia ridge  (a personal fave and one of the finest ridgewalks in the Taipei area), and then follow that either back to Shiding, to complete the circle, or on to Muzha. It turned out to be a great choice, with several excellent new discoveries!

An attractive riverside path connects the center of Shiding with the start of the trails that climb to the two caves, passing this beautiful Ficus tree, soon after leaving the village

The curiously numbered 666 bus from Jingmei MRT station is the one to the enormously popular Huangdidian (one of the most famous hiking routes in northern Taiwan), yet the bus – unusually – was almost empty when it pulled up just after 8 am. Big difference from when we tried to catch the exact same service (passing through about five minutes after eight) a year ago, and found the bus so packed with standing passengers we couldn’t even get in the door and had to wait half an hour for the next one.

The bus actually runs (after a quick detour up to the Huangdidian trailhead) all the way to Wutuku (烏塗窟), start of the little road up to the trailhead for the first destination of today’s hike, Mountain Goat Cave (山羊洞), but a newish path, constructed a couple of years back, now connects the center of pretty, old Shiding village with Wutuku, following the Wututan Stream,  making an easy and scenic start to the hike.

It’s about half an hour or so to the road bridge across the stream in the little settlement of Wutuku. The side road on the right, passes a small temple and climbs stiffly into the hills above; in a few hundred meters a trail on the right at a sharp bend in the road follows a tiny stream quite steeply uphill through the rock-strewn woodland, below a rockface, to emerge on another lane beside a second small temple. Turn right here and it’s a short, gentle walk to the signposted trailhead for Mountain Goat Cave.

Despite the signposted trailhead, this trail doesn’t actually lead to the caves, but gives access to a road then another trail that do.

In one of those seemingly pointless yet ubiquitous gestures , the local authorities have paved the first hundred meters or so of the path (which is now overgrown), but in a few minutes the neatly faced stone slabs give out at a fork in the path, and twin ribbons of rough dirt trail slink (unsignposted) off into  the wooded hills. We chose the left-hand trail, which climbs quite steeply over a small hill, then dives down the other side. The going, after recent rain, seemed exceptionally slippery underfoot  – probably the most treacherous and unpleasant length of trail I’ve followed in many months, and it was partly luck that I (and the other five, who surprisingly seemed to have less trouble) made it to the bottom without a nasty slip.

A practical (and surprisingly attractive) use of old junk on the trail

Getting to the bottom wasn’t such good news either, as we reached the next road with no sign of either cave that my hiking map assured me lay on this trail. We also had a pair of barking and rather intimidating dogs rushing much too close for comfort – threatening dogs have very rarely been a problem during hikes in the Taipei area, yet today we had two rather tense run-ins with half-wild mutts. Sad to say a big stick (purely for show, mind) would be a good idea when walking this way. The dogs did at least give us the opportunity to ask the way from a farmer working nearby, and turning left down the lane,  as he directed, we soon found the (signposted) trail climbing the wooded hillside to the Xiaoyao Cave (逍遙洞) and Mountain Goat Cave (山羊洞).

Yellow orchids (?) blooming beside the trail

The entrance to Xiaoyao Cave lies, rather attractively, at the top of a small, moss-covered rock face

Rough steps climb the steep hillside, and in about ten minutes, dirt paths on the right climb up towards the first of several natural cavities in the rock faces here. The first, up on the rock face probably would only be accessible by a mountain goat, but the first of the two ‘official,’ named caves lies a few minutes further up the path. Xiaoyao Cave can’t be missed, to the right of the path, at the top of a moss-covered rock face. Footholds carved into the rock give access up the small bluff to a small, flat terrace at the top, and the cave entrance. It’s a tight squeeze to get in …

The entrance to the cave itself

… but inside the rock opens out into a surprisingly sizeable chamber, with bats dozing on the roof.

Xiaoyao Cave is home to a small colony of bats

The main trail continues to climb the hillside, soon passing below a large, sloping face of bare, light-colored sandstone. Shortly after this there’s a cluster of rock formations to the right of the trail. Passing these and following a faint trail into them and through a small cleft, we passed through the first of the natural passages known as Mountain Goat Cave; this one is a small, narrow crack in the rock.

The first (and smallest) of the several clefts and natural passages that make up Mountain Goat Cave

Just after it there’s a larger and higher passage through the bluff…

At the end, two cracks continue through the rocks. The one to the left features an impassable, deep hole, but the cleft on the right is doable, although a tight squeeze, and after clambering under a boulder which blocks the way, we emerged back into the open air.

Inside Mountain Goat Cave – it’s a tight squeeze in a few places!

The trail continues to the top of the little ridge where (apparently – only one, especially curious, member of our little group went up there) trails strike off in several directions – lots of scope for exploration there on later trips.

It took only about 90 minutes (perhaps less) to get here from Shiding village, so since it wasn’t even midday yet, we continued onwards, towards the Mount Bijia Ridge, which stretches from Shiding all the way to Muzha and beyond. Turning right and walking back long the road and past the dogs (still unfriendly – they even tried to nip one of us), in a minute or two, an idyllic trail to the left of the little house-like temple at the end of the road follows a tiny stream through woodland, emerging at a small farmhouse at Neisizijiao (內楒子腳) and more unfriendly dogs. Walking up the house access road, it soon joins a larger lane. Directly opposite a small tarmac track immediately becomes a trail, passing an attractive old Earth God shrine (another trail marked on the map, further up the road, climbing to Mt Yanzitou, seems to have been abandoned and is hard to locate) .

Earth God shrine beside the trail from Neisizijiao up to Mt Bijia

A little further up the trail is a stand of huge bamboo of a beautiful variety I don’t remember seeing before. Most eye-catching though were the huge bamboo shoots, larger and more handsome than any I’ve noticed before.

Giant bamboo shoots on the Neisizijiao-Mt Bijia trail

Soon, the trail (a gentle walk so far) becomes steeper, and the second half is a very interesting scramble, with lots of rocky bits, up the jungle-covered slopes. Eventually, steamy, hot and thirsty after the climb, we emerged just below the summit of Mt Bijia (the ‘pen stand’ peak; 580 meters) just as the sun emerged from behind the clouds; a short scramble up rock-cut steps and we were on the little knob of sandstone that crowns the summit, enjoying the fabulous 360° view and sunbathing in the short bursts of warm sunshine that shone gloriously through breaks in the cloud cover. Ignore the modest height of Mount Bijia: this peak is surely one of the finest summits in the Taipei area! As exciting and panoramic a viewpoint as Huangdidian but far less popular, and much more rugged and wild than the popular peaks on Yangmingshan.

The summit of Mount Bijia

With four hours of daylight still left, we finished off an unexpectedly fine (and satisfyingly lengthy) hike by turning southwest and following the familiar ridge-top trail towards Mount Erge, then heading north along other trails all the way to the top of the fun Monkey Mountain (猴山岳), and down its cliff-bound northern face with the help of fixed ropes.

The trail finally emerges just a few minutes’ walk from Zhinan Temple, where we finished the day in style with a ride down to the MRT, on the Maokong Gondola.

A great finish to a really fine day…

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