Landlocked Nantou County lies at the heart of Taiwan in several senses. It’s the island’s geographical center, has a rich aboriginal culture, and is a showcase of much traditional Chinese and Taiwanese heritage too. For hikers, it has also some of the island’s most stunning scenery. Forget the over-rated charms of Sun Moon Lake, which is lovely, but way too developed. Instead, head for the county’s true scenic wonders, including Batongguan Historic Trail (八通關古道) and (if the trail into the best part of it ever re-opens) Taiji Gorge (太極峽谷); both are magnificent.
Up there among Nantou County’s greatest destinations, although a lot less well-known than most, Huisun Hot Spring (惠蓀溫泉) is possibly unique among Taiwan’s natural hot spring sources, since it lies in a small cave set into a sheer cliff face about eight meters above the surface of a fast-flowing river. The hot spring itself is fascinating, but the real highlight is the tough journey to it, which, although a bit problematical, is a real adventure, and a stunningly scenic one.
The hot springs are impossible to reach from the first plum rains (usually in May) until the beginning of the following year, and even during the dry season there’s no guarantee of making it. We succeeded on our second crack, in February, although even then the water was uncomfortably deep and fast-flowing in places. A couple of weeks later a group of friends tried, and couldn’t even start the river trace because the water was too high.
The jumping-off place for the hot springs is Huisun Forest Recreation Area (惠蓀林場), and a lane branching sharply off the main road through it, six hundred meters after the service center. Walk up this road, pass around the gate at the top, and follow the wide track downhill into the deep river valley beyond. The track is carved into sheer cliffs, so watch out for falling rocks! A group of Atayal aborigine locals we met here warned us of monkeys throwing rocks down on people as they walked along the road. It sounded like a joke, but we had exactly the same warning from some Truku aboriginal guides when entering another of Taiwan’s great scenic wonders, the Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷) in Hualien County, so they might just have been serious!
The road crosses the river by a very large bridge, and after it narrows to a trail, descending to the river, and the start of the exciting river trace up to the hot spring.
You’ll need to cross the river immediately, and if this first river crossing feels at all unsteady or risky, turn back immediately – the river crossings get trickier further up!
The scenery is already very impressive, with huge crumbling cliffs rising several hundred meters above the river in places. Look out for several small hot spring pools on the riverbank as you make your way upstream.
After about an hour, the trip really starts getting exciting, as the gorge narrows greatly, and the water is squeezed into the first of a series of awesome canyons (photo above), flowing deep and fast through them. Expect to be wading waist deep in many places.
Further upstream rock faces are stained by tiny trickles of hot spring water oozing out, and further tight, awesomely sheer gorges, through which the river runs swift and deep, make it a spectacular trip. A magnificent waterfall – a tall, narrow plume of water the better part of a hundred meters high plunging straight into the river – is a highlight.
After the waterfall, the hardest part is over. More startlingly bright colors stain the rock faces of the gorge in several places as small hot spring sources seep out of the cliffs. The gorge widens, and becomes far less impressive. In another couple of hundred meters, however, the river narrows and becomes more rugged again, and on the right a small cave in the cliff conceals Huisun Hot Spring. Climb up the short rock face, and the cave holds a pool of bright green, bath-hot water, which trickles out of cracks in the back of the cavity. On our visit a colony of tiny bees had set up residence here, and buzzed harmlessly around our heads as we soaked, trying not to think of the long, tough river trace back to civilization!
Huisun Hot Springs is a tough and slightly risky place to get to these days; don’t underestimate the trip, and be sure to check the weather forecast before you go. Don’t even think of attempting to go before early February, when the water level has (usually) receded enough to make an attempt safe, and be prepared to cancel the trip if the going looks dodgy early on. The trip normally becomes impassible once again a couple of months later, in mid April, as the first rains of the plum season begin. Start early!! It’s a long way out and back in one day, and camping or carrying heavy, bulky backpacks in the narrow canyon is a bad idea. A gravel track which once made the trip relatively easy (it was even used by mountain bikes!) has long since been washed away by typhoon floods. A few short, overgrown stretches remain (look out for these – they’re all on the right as you work your way upstream), and you’ll need to use them all to reach the hot spring and get back in one (long) day.
Get an early start by camping in or near Huisun Forest Recreation Area. Officially camping isn’t allowed inside the FRA, but in practice campers set up in car parks or quiet spots near the road after dark, and as long as they’re gone soon after dawn, there’s rarely a problem. It’s best to do this in fact, because the Recreation Area (which isn’t open 24 hours) opens at 8:30 am for day-trippers, making it a rather late start for a tiring day.