We’ve got Taiwan’s position on the Pacific Ring of Fire to thank not only for its hot springs, spooky, steaming fumaroles and volcanic peaks, but for its very existence! The island was created as the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate met, pushing the first under the second. Of course it’s not always peachy living on the scenic collision point of two massive chunks of the Earth’s crust, and earthquakes (most, thankfully, only big enough to jolt rather than do any real damage) happen several times each year, even in Taipei.
The benefits, of course, generally far outweigh the potential for violent natural mayhem, however. Taiwan probably wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful, as mountainous, or as enchanting if it were created any other way, and the chilly, rainy weather that descends on the northeast corner of the island every winter from December to about April (thanks to the prevailing northeast monsoon winds) would make life in the capital a lot more dreary if we didn’t have a choice of hot springs (to the north, east and south!) to head for during those long, cold, wet evenings.
Taiwan’s hot springs were generally only enjoyed by the island’s aboriginal population until the Japanese introduced hot spring culture to the island during the colonial era (1895-1945). The ensuing popularity has since seen most of the island’s hot spring sources (many in beautiful, wild spots, deep in the mountains) developed, robbing them of their former wild beauty. The last decade or two has seen a huge growth in more aesthetically pleasing hot spring spas, and while most of them make no attempt to blend into their surroundings, they do at least look less of an eyesore than the horrible, purely functional concrete-box designs that once seemed to be the default for hot spring developments island-wide.
For the nature lover, however, the relatively few completely unspoilt, undeveloped hot springs sources that can still be found around Taiwan can’t be beat. Just a couple, such as Wenshan Hot Springs (文山溫泉) in Taroko Gorge and that wonderful gift to Taipei-dwelling nature lovers, Bayan Hot Spring (八煙溫泉) lie just a short walk from the road, and can be enjoyed by just about any able-bodied person. The real charm of most of Taiwan’s undeveloped hot springs, however, is in getting to them. Getting to several of the island’s remoter springs takes several days, which is too big a commitment for most explorers. A number of others, however, are day hikes – remote enough to keep the crowds (and the developers) away, but within the range of reasonably fit hikers. Over the last few years I’ve started exploring more of the island’s natural hot springs, and a goal for the approaching winter/spring season (2016-7) is to get to some of the others. Meanwhile I’m hoping, in a series of blog entries, to write up those I’ve already visited. As I explore the others, I’ll add them to the blog.
To start with, then, here’s four of the closest natural hot springs to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and both feasible (if rather long) day trips from the city. All four lie on the North Cross-island Highway, which crosses from Fuxing in Taoyuan City to Luodong in Yilan County onthe east coast of the island. It’s a thoroughly scenic ride in its own right, with plenty of other fascinating attractions (including waterfalls and several groves of very ancient cypress trees). It would be easy to spend a full weekend exploring.
Sileng Hot Spring (四稜溫泉)
Northern Taiwan has around eight or ten natural, undeveloped hot springs, including a couple (Bayan and Houshan in Yangmingshan, Xiuluan in Hsinchu, Paiguxi and Fanfan in Yilan) that are well worth visiting. Pick of the bunch though is definitely Sileng, a hot spring waterfall reached by a short but very steep scramble down from the scenic North Cross-island Highway, near the border between Taoyuan City and Yilan County.
Sileng Hot Spring (四稜溫泉) is a ten meter-high cascade of hot water secreted in a deep, wooded gorge with a fast-flowing river of pure, sapphire-colored water rushing past. The forty-minute hike from the road down to the spring is steep and tricky in places (although the only really hard bit is the rock face right at the very bottom), and this relative inaccessibility is the only reason this slice of paradise isn’t overrun with families on weekends.
The trailhead is on the scenic highway 7 (also known as the North Cross-island Highway), at the 58.4 kilometer road marker sign – there are several places beside the road to park a car nearby. At first the trail (marked with those familiar plastic trail-marking ribbons that indicate countless trails in Taiwan) is level or even occasionally uphill for about twenty minutes. Pass two large, flat clearings (both good for camping), and then the trail finally descends, soon getting steeper, into the deep gorge. The final five minutes is very steep, with several small rock faces to clamber down (fixed ropes are provided), and at the bottom a final sheer cliff (with footholds) about ten meters high, which needs great care. Once safely down, the hot spring waterfall is directly opposite. Wade across the stream (which would be impassable after heavy rain – come here only during the winter or spring, and never after heavy rain), and enjoy! While the remote location and strenuous climb down may make you want to bathe in the buff, bring your swimwear; this place might be a bit difficult to reach, but it still attracts a steady stream of more adventurous hot spring lovers!
Xinxing Hot Spring (新興溫泉)
Almost as beautiful as Sileng, and quite a bit easier to reach, nearby Xinxing Hot Spring (新興溫泉) is a good choice for bathers who don’t mind a steep hike, yet aren’t keen on negotiating intimidating rock faces. Since it’s a safer hike down there, it sometimes gets busy on weekends, so for the best chance of getting them to yourself, visit in the morning, or (of course) during the week.
The hot spring lies below the Atayal aboriginal village of Galahe (嘎拉賀; known as Xinxing (新興) in Chinese), which is reached by turning off highway 7 at Xiabaling into route 60-1 (signposted to Yiehang; 爺亨). At the junction 1.5 kilometers up this road turn left and it’s ten kilometers to Xinxing village. Now take a narrow concrete lane on the left, winding steeply down into the gorge. It ends in a kilometer, where a stone-stepped trail accomplishes the final six hundred meters to the hot spring. At the very bottom an iron ladder climbs down a rock face to the bank of the stream, and the hot spring is immediately opposite, fed by a small hot spring waterfall.
Fanfan Hot Spring (梵梵溫泉) and Paiguxi Hot Spring (排骨溪溫泉)
These two springs nestle at the foot of the central mountains at the eastern end of the North Cross-island Highway, across the border in Yilan County. The larger and more popular of the two, Fanfan Hot Springs, is beside the river about ten minutes’ walk upstream from the aboriginal village of Fanfan (known in Chinese as Yingshi; 英十), on route seven as it follows the great valley of the Lanyang River northeast towards Luodong and Yilan. There’s a large car park between the highway and the village. Walk up onto the levee and follow it until it becomes a trail which leads onto the wide stony riverbed below the hot springs. You’ll need to ford the river to reach the hot spring pools, below a low cliff face on the left bank of the river.
Paiguxi Hot Springs has become a lot better known in recent years, but attracts far fewer people than Fanfan because it’s a lot smaller. For the trailhead, turn off highway seven beside a small shrine, just a few hundred meters before it descends to the big junction beside the wide Lanyang River at the eastern end of its crossing of the central mountains. This narrow road soon descends to a homestead and a pedestrian suspension bridge. The road crosses the Paigu Stream here by a ford. If the water level is low it’s easy to cross by car or scooter. If the water is high, turn back, as the hot spring will be submerged.
Follow the road as it runs upstream along the far bank, and park near a house a few minutes’ drive up the road. Take a dirt trail leaving the road here, and in less than five minutes it joins the riverbank, from where a very short scramble upstream leads to the small pools on the left bank of the attractively whitewater mountain stream.