Lele Hot Springs

Lele Hot Springs

Nantou (南投縣), Taiwan’s only landlocked county, is where I first fell in love with the island, a few months after arriving here in 1993, when I got a job in an English cram school in a rural part of the county. It’s also one of the richest and most spectacular parts of the country for hikers, river tracers and other nature lovers.

For most tourists, the attractions of Nantou County start and end with Sun Moon Lake (日月潭), a lovely place that has become one of Taiwan’s top tourist draws. Some also get to the Forest Recreation Area at Xitou (溪頭), and since opening in 2005, the Heavenly Steps () suspension bridge at Zhushan (竹山) has been a huge draw among locals. It’s worth mentioning though that what we can see along the Heavenly Steps trail today is a very pale shadow of the true wonders of the (presently inaccessible) main part of Taiji Canyon (太極峽谷) a kilometer or two downstream.  When (or rather if) that awe-inspiring place ever reopens to hikers, it will be a major cause for celebration.

Among its other tourist draws, Nantou County has more than its fair share of hot springs, although they’ve taken a bit of a battering in recent years. The springs at Aowanda (奧萬大) near Wushe (霧社) in the north of the county) are now all but gone, and most of the crowds visiting the Forest Recreation Area are there either for the cool mountain air, or for the spectacular display of autumn colors (probably Taiwan’s finest), put on each winter by the forests of maple trees in the park. Lushan Hot Spring (盧山溫泉; Chiang Kai-shek’s favorite spa) survives, despite damage caused by a series of typhoons in recent years, and several other hot springs sources in this part of Nantou have been tapped to supply smaller-scale resorts and bath houses.  

For such a rugged part of the island, it’s quite surprising that so many of Nantou’s hot spring sources have been developed. Happily, a couple do survive in all their splendidly untouched, natural beauty.  Just below Lushan (the aboriginal village area, not the hot spring resort downstream), Jingying Hot Spring (精英溫泉), although never formally developed, can be reached by a bumpy one-track road, and is besieged on weekends. A short clamber upstream a couple of small sources have, however, escaped attention and remain attractively untouched, and a kilometer or two further upstream, the beautiful Yunhai Hot Spring (雲海溫泉) is unknown to all but keen hikers, as getting up there involves scaling a couple of vertical dam walls on fixed ropes. [Since my last visit to Yunhai in 2017, it seems, from photos I’ve seen recently, that access to the hot springs might be easier now before, as ladders and foot holds could have been added to the dam walls].

Easier to reach, yet still strenuous and awkward enough to keep all but fit hikers out, Lelegu Hot Spring (樂樂谷溫泉) lies in the deep gorge below Nantou’s second hot spring resort, Dongpu (東埔). The slightly odd name (which means “happy happy valley”) is in fact a transliteration of the original Bunan aboriginal name for the hot spring, Laku Laku, which represents the sound of the pressurized, boiling-hot water as it bubbles out of rock faces in the gorge, just above the river.

Before planning a trip to Lelegu Hot Springs, note that the place is one of many around the island that are officially off-limits to general visitors, yet remain very popular with hikers, so if you go, you do so at your own risk. The hot springs are accessible year-round, but the best time is December to late April, not only because of the cooler weather, but also because the river level will be lower, making the hike more straightforward. Definitely don’t attempt to visit for several weeks after a typhoon. 

Start the journey at Dongpu, the main drag of which is lined with hot spring hotels. Walk straight past these and follow the road, contouring the hillside, through a tunnel, and on to a residential area beyond, where fruit and veg are farmed on the flat alluvial plain at the foot of the gorge.

On the left is the modern trailhead of Batongguan Historic Trail (八通關古道), and for the first hour of the hike, follow it, first zigzagging steeply upwards, then round the sheer, severely eroded bluffs of Father and Son Cliff (父不知子斷崖). About twenty minutes after the cliff, there’s a fork, marked by a red warning sign familiar to anyone who hikes a lot along Taiwan’s less popular trails. Turn right.Officially there’s a NT$3,000 fine for going any further down this side path. In practice, many local (and foreign) hikers still visit the hot spring each year without incident. I’m not saying that you should ignore the sign, but let’s say similar signs stand at the start of the trails to many of Taiwan’s most fantastic places, and many hikers read them as warnings that trail conditions ahead are poor, and take appropriate care, rather than prohibitions banning anyone from using the trails. The trail that descends into the gorge. At first, it’s clear and wide, but soon narrows, and although easy enough to follow, it’s steep in parts, and the thick layer of loose leaf mold makes for slippery footing, so take care!

The trail zigzags down the precipitous face of the gorge, with one or two relatively easy scrambles. At the bottom the trail veers left and levels out, finally reaching the river bank just upstream from a rocky defile through which the water seethes, even during the dry season. 

Now simply follow the boulder-strewn left bank of the river. Cairns mark the best route through the maze of huge boulders, rock faces and thickets of tall grass. Keep high and well to the left as the river falls over a small waterfall and rages through a small gorge, and the first hot spring sources are in the rock face on the left just a little further upstream. The water emerges from the cliff at a perfect temperature for a bath, and there’s usually a pool or two, made from rocks, left by earlier hikers.

About a hundred meters upstream is a second area of hot spring sources, spluttering furiously out of the cliff, emitting large clouds of steam, and far too hot to dip even a toe into. Be careful where you tread in this area, as the water is close to boiling point in many places.

Continue another five minutes upstream (this last bit is impossible during the wet season), and more hot spring sources sputter out of the rock into a series of pools. You almost certainly won’t be alone here if you come on a weekend, but it’s a beautiful spot, and you’ll definitely feel happy happy!

Huisun Hot Springs

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.

Huisun Hot Springs lie, uniquely, in a small cave halfway up a cliff face!

   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 entrance to the little hot spring cave

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.