Flowing westwards down from the mighty central mountains towards Taichung city and the coast, the Dajia River (one of Taiwan’s major waterways) cuts a magnificent gorge through the foothills of the Snow Mountain Range, threaded by highway eight (the Central Cross-island Highway). Before part of the road was severely damaged during the great 921 Earthquake in 1999, the highway connected Taichung with Hualien on the east coast, climbing over the Snow and Central Mountain Ranges. Once one of Taiwan’s best road trips, part of the western half of the highway remains closed in early 2016, although there are persistent rumors that the road may eventually reopen.
Until that day, heading eastwards from Dongshih (東勢), just east of Taichung city, highway eight can be followed for only about 35 kilometers, till just after the hot spring resort village of Guguan (谷關), beyond which a roadblock bars further progress. It’s a very scenic drive out there, however, and Guguan itself (apart from the charms of its hot spring resorts and hot spring park) has a magnificent setting, deep in the Dajia River gorge.
For hikers, Guguan is famed for the Seven Heroes (谷關七雄), a set of nearby peaks that are popular (although fairly strenuous) day hikes, all starting in or near Guguan. The seven peaks, which have both Japanese and Chinese names (Guguan was one of the three main logging areas in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era), range in height from 1,300 meters to over 2,300 meters high. All seven are reached by well-maintained, easy-to-follow trails, but most are steep and strenuous climbs (with a vertical ascent on each of between 700 and 1,200 meters), and should only attempted by reasonably fit hikers. Other trails connect several of the peaks together, and connect the peaks to the north of highway eight with the Daxueshan Forest Road further north, but most of these are in poor shape, and several have a reputation for being badly eroded and dangerous, so check the conditions before attempting any of these other trails.
No. 7: Mount Tangmadan
The seventh and lowest of the seven heroes, Mt. Tangmadan (唐麻丹山; 1,305 meters) is the shortest hike (just over 5 kilometers return; allow 3-4 hours), and with the least vertical ascent, but because the trail is so short it’s among the steepest and rockiest. There are two trailheads, the main one starting at Tongxin Bridge (同心橋), just south of highway 8, eight kilometers west of Guguan village. Right from the start it’s a steep, rocky climb as the trail threads a narrow ridge with precipitous drops on either side and passes fine old trees with gnarled roots snaking over the exposed rock. Keep straight ahead at the junction and the trail continues steeply upwards to the compact summit, with partial but impressive views.
Follow the trail ahead down the other side and it descends to another junction. The short (but also steep) side trail on the right drops down to the Songhe Stream, where a raised wooden boardwalk leads up the short gorge to the small but lovely Butterfly Valley Waterfall (蝴蝶谷瀑布). A deep pool at the base is great for swimming, but remember there’s still a steep climb back to the main path (and a steep, knee-jarring descent back to the trailhead!). Tangmadan is the shortest trail, both time- and distance-wise, of the seven, but it’s quite a tough walk. It’s often said to be the easiest of the seven to climb, but this is not the case – the unremittingly steep, rocky conditions make it among the more tiring peaks to summit.
No. 6: Mount Baimao
Mt. Baimao (白毛山; 1,522 meters) is one of the finest of the seven peaks, with great views from the summit, and a short but interesting (and oft-photographed) stretch just before the top along a knife-edge ridge, giving incredible views in clear weather. It’s also an easier climb than Mt. Tangmadan, even though the hike takes considerably longer; allow 5-6 hours return. Once again there are two routes, although most hikers approach from the north, crossing Ma-anba (馬鞍霸) dam. Scooter riders can cross the dam and follow the narrow road downstream on the far side, past the trail that cuts off a long bend as it winds uphill, almost to the trailhead itself. By car, stop either on highway eight, or cross the dam and park on the far side, then walk from there, turning left at the signposted path that short-cuts the road up to the true trailhead.
From the summit a much shorter (and less interesting) trail connects with the second trailhead, down a series of narrow roads way south of highway eight, and probably only accessible by scooter drivers.
No. 5: Mount Dongmao
Easily the easiest of the Seven Heroes to climb, Mt. Dongmao (東卯山; 1,690 meters) is reached by a long but amazingly gentle trail (especially since it’s the sharpest and shapeliest of the seven peaks, with 900 meters of vertical ascent). The trail ascends gently almost the whole way from the trailhead, which lies next to Guguan Monastery (see below), where most hikers doing a couple of the seven peaks stay the night. The boulder-strewn summit also commands the finest view of the seven.
The summit peak presents the most impressive profile of the seven peaks, especially when viewed from the slopes of Mt. Baimao, when it looks like a steep-sided pyramid. Allow 5-6 hours for the return trip. The large concrete platform and cluster of aerials and whatnot on top are a bit of a letdown after the beautiful climb, but a few meters away the rest of the bolder-strewn ridge is magnificently untouched. A detour off the main trail to the left (marked with ribbons) towards the top follows a far more challenging and airy alternative approach to the summit, along the rocky spine of the ridge.
No. 4: Mount Pojinjia
In Taiwanese, Mount Pojinjia (波津加山; 1,772 meters) means “really steep mountain,” and it’s a sustained slog to the summit (about 6 hours return). The first part of the trail, up a steep, wooden boardwalk trail which starts in the hot spring resort area of Guguan, beside the Siji (Four Seasons) Hot Spring Resort, is very popular with local tourists at weekends. After this short but stiff climb, the route (now reverting to the usual rough dirt trail), descends to a narrow ridge between the main river and the Xiaolai Stream, then climbs stiffly all the way to the summit. Compensating for all that hard work though, it’s perhaps the most scenic of all the seven trails, and there are awesome views at several points along the trail and from the summit itself, crowned with a distinctive overhanging rock formation that makes a great photo op. My camera conked out at the beginning of this weekend trip, so I’ve had to borrow photos from Marco for this summit and Mount Baxian, below.
N0. 3: Mount Wuwowei
Along with Mounts Dongmao and Pojinjia the finest of the seven peaks, Mount Wuwowei (屋我尾山; 1,796 meters) once again has two trailheads. The steep and rough route that leaves highway eight two kilometers west of Guguan is officially closed (perhaps because local authorities fear hikers might injure themselves or worse on the rocky scrambles), but this is really the only way to go. After an easy, level kilometer at the start, it’s quite a rough route, with a few easy rocky clambers (with fixed ropes) in the early stages, and is extremely scenic and great fun.
There’s no great view from the summit, but the reason for climbing it (apart from completing the seven peaks) is to enjoy the ascent. The much easier route from the north, which leaves the Daxueshan Forest Road about 4.5 kilometers east of the trailhead for the famed (and very spectacular) Mount Yuanzui, goes down to the summit, rather than up, and is vastly less interesting. Despite this, because the southern route is relatively challenging (and since it’s officially closed), almost everyone takes this route from the north nowadays.
No. 2: Mount Maluan
The second highest Hero, Mt. Maluan (馬崙山, 2,305 meters) is a very fine hike, with a couple of good views, and the scant ruins of a Japanese-era logging village and railway at the half-way point. Reached by the longest trail of the seven (13 kms return; 6-7 hours), it’s a fairly straightforward climb, with just two very steep stretches, one near the start and another right at the end, which is cruelly trying at the last stages of a long upward hike. The trailhead lies several kilometers up Taidianxiang (台電巷), which leaves highway eight two kilometers east of Guguan village, and is too narrow for anything larger than a small minibus to get through.
No. 1: Mount Baxian
Although the tallest hero, Mt. Baxian (八仙山, 2,366 meters), is naturally the most popular of the seven, it’s probably also the least interesting. The trailhead is next to the tiny Jinghai Temple, at the back of Baxian Forest Recreation Area (for which there’s an admission charge). During the 6 kilometer-long climb there’s some lovely woodland (especially a small but magical area of forest dripping with mosses and lichens just before the top), but the summit itself is a huge, undefined plateau. There’s large, flat area of scrappy grass beside the summit plaque, surrounded by untidy thicket, and it’s a huge anticlimax, with no view whatsoever. For most of the way the climb isn’t too steep, apart from a long and punishingly tough stepped section about two-thirds of the way up.
There’s plenty of (expensive) accommodation in Guguan village; hikers doing the peaks, however, usually stay in the comfortable dorms at Guguan Monastery (谷關大道院), nine kilometers west. Phone in advance ((04)-2594-3555) to book spaces in the dorm. The dorms are simple but comfy and spacious, there’s a free vegetarian breakfast (of widely varying quality), and the views across and down the gorge are magnificent. There’s no set fee for spending the night, but be sure to make a small donation (perhaps NT$200 per person) at the temple office before you stay; also get a receipt to show you donated, which eases things if you want to return to stay here again.