I’m acutely aware that my enthusiastic, glowing descriptions of many of the places in Taiwan that I write about could all too easily read like the exaggerated ravings of an over-zealous soul who’s seen too little of the rest of the world, and in my defence I can only say that the reason is perhaps that Taiwan not only has an abundance of amazing landscapes to brag about, but that most of them are also accessible to a degree that is rarely found in other mountainous corners of the world.
And now I’m going to skate on really thin ice by saying that of all the places I’ve been on this island, the Stone Dream Valley (石夢谷; or rather the area around it) is one of the most magical places I’ve visited on all my ramblings around this fabulously scenic island. (Once again) my photos simply don’t do this almost other-worldly landscape justice. Whether it was my mood that day, the weather, the fine company of my hiking buddies, the fact that the location is far more spectacular than I was expecting, or a combination of all of these, the day we did the Stone Dream Valley walk was one of those rare conjunctions of moon and stars that made for a quite unforgettable hike.
Stone Dream Valley lies on a hanging valley above the sheer cliffs that loom over the village of Fengshan (豐山), often described as Taiwan’s remotest farming settlement. Fengshan remains a very out-of-the-way kind of place, sitting at the foot of the breath-taking cliffs of Tashan (塔山; ‘tower mountain’) just north of Alishan. Typhoon Morakot brought devastation to the area four years ago, sending a vast wall of mud and stones down the river valley past the village. Thankfully the settlement was largely spared, but a the disaster left a vast wasteland of stone, dirt and huge boulders of astonishing size (as in the size of a house) which still scars the once magnificently beautiful valley. The typhoon also laid waste to several of the area’s best known beauty spots: the Shipangu Waterfalls (石盤谷瀑布群, which can still be seen but now fall through a desert of bare dirt and stone), and the strange and beautiful petrified formations of the Huagang Waterfall (花岡水上青), now partly buried. Luckily several of the most famous sights here remain, including Jiaolung Waterfall (蛟龍瀑布, Taiwan’s highest; estimates of its height vary between 450 and 800 meters, depending on how where the measurements start and end) and the magnificent looming eminence of Mount Dafo (大佛), which when viewed from the Rulli road to the west is probably one of Taiwan’s most shapely peaks, begging to be climbed. Sadly the trail that once apparently did just that was wiped out years ago, possibly by the 921 earthquake.
With hindsight, it’s fortunate that one of the places I visited the year I came to Taiwan back in 1993 was Fengshan, and the now destroyed Huagang and Dadianyu (大點雨) Waterfalls. However neither on that visit to Fengshan, nor on my second, the year before Morakot struck, did I make the climb up to Stone Dream Valley, so thank goodness that one of the area’s most unforgettable landscapes was entirely spared by both earthquake and typhoon. The hike up there is ample enough reason by itself to make the trek out to Fengshan.
Getting to Fengshan these days is pretty straightforward (if you take the main route in, anyway; the southern half of the loop road that connects the village with the outside world is still a bit of an adventure – narrow and very steep and slippery in parts), but the route further up the great gorge to the trailhead for Stone Dream Valley is a bit of an adventure. The legacy of Typhoon Morakot is plain to see while heading upstream beyond the village – the massive strip of pulverized dirt and boulders is not a pretty sight. Eventually (past the turnoff for the usually wispy but very lofty Tianyungu Waterfalls (天雲谷瀑布)) the road veers right, plunges briefly but very steeply down to cross the stream, and then continues up along the far bank. The condition of the unsurfaced road is far too rough to chance on a scooter, so it’s best to park before crossing, walk down, cross the river, and follow the track uphill on the other side. The asphalt is covered in places with a thin film of algae, which makes for very slow and precarious going on the way back, downhill; we had to walk on the vegetation (mainly sting nettles!) on the verge of the road to save ourselves from slipping.
At a junction in a few hundred meters keep right, uphill (the road on the left soon reaches a long suspension bridge across the gorge, accessing the remains of Dadianyu Waterfall and an overgrown, prickle-infested trail that eventually climbs to the Thousand People Cave (千人洞), Taiwan’s largest cave mouth (although like most of Taiwan’s ‘caves’ it’s more of an overhanging rock formation than a true cavern). The track on the right climbs a bit more and soon reaches the trailhead for Stone Dream Valley, marked by a board map.
The trailhead is now actually blocked off, with a sign forbidding hikers to enter, although (a common sight this, in Taiwan), a well-trodden path skirts round the blockage to re-join the stone steps beyond. The trail is officially closed due to two landslides (neither of which are difficult to negotiate), and the authorities are unwilling to repair the trail in order to make the illegal logging of ancient cypress trees along the trail more difficult; the sawn-off stumps of several once probably magnificent giants can be seen beside the trail in several spots.
It’s less than an hour’s climb along a good, stepped path (with an impressive but safe area of landslide to negotiate en-route) to the Immortals Dream Garden (仙夢園). This place sounds magical on paper, but when the steeply sloping, densely wooded mountainside gives way to tall wire fences with plantations of shrubs and whatnot behind, the reality is far less attractive. It’s not quite as bad as first feared though; above the fenced off ‘garden’ is a cluster of small rustic cottages and buildings in a sublime position clinging to the mountainside at an altitude of 1,300 meters and commanding a magnificent view over the great valley below. It’s possible to spend the night here and trek on to Stone Dream Valley (a further 90 rough minutes each way) the following morning.
Beyond the Immortals Dream Garden the trail becomes narrow and rough, climbing steadily to reach a junction on the edge of the cliffs just after a large landslip which looks dangerous to cross at first glance but is actually pretty simple and safe-going if you take it carefully.
The right fork here is the shorter route to Stone Dream Valley – it’s worth leaving the more spectacular lower trail (the two forks meet up at the Valley) for the return trip. At first it’s just very nice; the trail passes through a cavity in a small rock formation, and there are several fine views looking backwards, down the mountainside. Then the trail reaches the first of the cliffs, and a huge old tree miraculously growing out of bare rock on the brink of an impressively chiselled bluff. It’s a stunning place, and makes a great prelude to the extraordinary landscapes further in. Beside the tree a signposted branch trail (overgrown and very slippery – we didn’t chance it) climbs the hillside to a bunch of ancient trees, while the main trail keeps close to the edge of the cliff-face, climbing a bit and then dropping to cross the wide, flat stone bed of a tiny stream just before it leaps over a mind-bendingly high sheer cliff. My two companions got down on their bellies and gingerly peered over the brink, but it was far too high and scary for me.
It’s just a few more minutes before the trail meets a second, larger stream, flowing over a much wider, smooth bed of bare rock, just below Stone Dream Valley. Ugly metal handrails disfigure the scene a bit, but the smooth, exposed bedrock is dangerously slippery in places and the iron is a pretty welcome safety measure. It’s only a hundred meters or so upstream before the stream swings 90 degrees to the left and the Stone Dream itself, but it’s slippery and precarious work. At one point, and completely without warning, my feet shot out from below me and fell hard onto the rock – the bruising on my thigh has still not gone over two weeks after the event and I’m beginning to wonder if I cracked a bone inside there somewhere….
The gorge itself is small but memorably unusual, as the stream flows over smooth bedrock, carving out a series of deep, beautifully rounded rock pools of crystal clear water. These would be perfect for a cold dip, but the smooth sides are far too slippery to attempt without river tracing booties and probably a rope.
The trail crosses the stream below the Valley, and once across the best part of the whole hike is reached. It’s still not very apparent, but this place is a hanging valley atop a long and very high, sheer cliff, and the little top soil that supported greenery earlier on the walk disappears completely after crossing the steam. Somehow a forest of stunted trees, dripping with beard-like lichen and moss, manages to grow on the flat, table-like surface of the rock, their snaky, moss-covered roots almost covering the surface of the rock. This is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever seen in Taiwan; the nearest comparison is the slopes surrounding Songluo Lake in Yilan County, but this is even more fairytale than that wonderful place – straight out of Lord of the Rings.
After a distance, the trail branches left and starts descending the great cliffs. It’s an amazing feat that the route finds a way down the rugged bluff, and an amazing stretch of trail, although the slightly precarious wooden ladders and walkways are already rotting and will be dangerous to use in a few years, probably making this area inaccessible. Halfway down a huge ancient tree sits in a small glade below the sheer cliffs, and a bit further down the trail rejoins the stream below Stone Dream Valley at Lovers Glen (情人谷) where the cascading stream drops off moss-covered cliffs and carves more deep, rounded pools in the wide, smooth sandstone streambed.
After another steep descent, the trail veers back round to meet the stream one last time, at the foot of a tall and very impressive waterfall, where, below Lovers’ Glen, the stream drops maybe 50 meters off a sheer cliff, carving a small overhang behind, very reminiscent of the wonderful Water Curtain Cave (水濂洞) at Caoling (草嶺), just half an hour down the road from Fengshan.
Leaving the stream behind to continue its unseen drop into the great gorge below, the trail also leaves behind the best scenery of the hike, following a boardwalk fastened into the precipitous, densely wooded cliff face, to rejoin the outward route at the fork near the big landslide. It’s still over two hours’ walk back to the trailhead, and then a slow and precarious edge along the slippery algae covered road to the scooters, but wow! It’s worth it! On the way up I had been astonished to see trail ribbons from a hiking club based in distant Taipei fastened to trees beside the trail up to Immortals Dream Garden, but now it was clear what attracted hikers from the capital to this spot. It’s certainly one of the very finest day (or rather half-day) hikes that I’ve had the pleasure of discovering in Taiwan so far – but don’t take my word for it – try it and see!