NOTE: This article was written in 2017, so conditions may have changed since
The little village of Pingxi (平溪) is synonymous with sky lanterns these days, so it’s only too easy to forget there’s actually a great deal more to do in the area, especially if you’re a walker! The three Pingxi Crags (Filial Son (孝子山), Loving Mother (慈母峰) and Mount Putuo (普陀山)) have also become very popular in recent years, as people discover this amazing adult adventure playground of rocky pinnacles and whaleback rocks and head out there to see if they are, indeed, real. For the reasonably fit hiker, however, the Pingxi Crags are just one of a whole range of excellent routes of varying difficulty in the mountains around Pingxi village, and a rather more environmentally friendly way to spend your day than releasing a sky lantern.
Standing in the center of Pingxi village and looking around, it’s already pretty clear that the local landscape is rugged, rocky, and densely wooded, and at first glance it might seem that much of the area is inaccessible to the average hiker. And indeed it is, which is why sky lanterns, when they finally float back to earth, usually stay there, often for years, as the wire frames slowly rust away. However, some surprisingly wild-looking places can be reached relatively easily from the village. The Stone Bamboo Shoot (石筍尖) is the toothy-looking chunk of rock that sticks conspicuously out of the ridge to the north of the village. At first it appears to be a very steep and possibly technical climb, but following “improvements” made to the trail over a decade ago, two formally rather tricky spots are now much easier to pass, and it’s a relatively simple hike to the top from Pingxi. The views from up there are extraordinary.
Some of the area’s finest summits, however, are invisible from the road, and take a bit more searching out. I hope to highlight a few of the finest hikes in the area in future Off the Beaten Track installments. First though, I’d like to introduce the short but mildly adventurous hike to one of the least-known yet most distinctive natural landmarks within easy reach of the village: the Stone Candle (石燭尖). It’s true that the Pingxi area may lack the huge, wide-open spaces of Yangmingshan National Park, or the dramatic mini-mountains of the area around Jinguashi (金瓜石) on the northeast coast, but with so many fun, exciting hikes like this one, few places in northern Taiwan can hold a candle (so to speak) to this little corner of New Taipei City.
The wonderful needle of rock known as the Stone Candle is the pointiest of the many arresting peaks of rock (or “pitons” as the Chinese is oddly translated on maps) that jut out of these forest-covered hills. Although little known, it’s not too far from the road. However, distance in Taiwan is often little help in determining how difficult or how long a hike will be. A signpost at the trailhead suggests the Stone Candle is just thirty minutes away, but for the average mortal soul, this timing (like several others in the area) is very inaccurate. Several fairly steep climbs and a narrow, rocky ledge or two make getting to the Stone Candle a fun but surprisingly rough short adventure, so allow about an hour each way.
The trail starts opposite Pingxi Lower High School, just west of the village center. Climb the steps that scale the bank beside the road, and at the top ignore a second set of steps, instead bearing right along a dirt trail through a wooded gorge, above a stream. Soon the gorge opens out, and the trail wanders past an area of allotments and a house. Re-entering the gorge, the trail crosses the stream at a small concrete dam. The small pool it creates is a great place for a quick cool-off on a hot summer day. Continue upstream through rather beautiful little glen, and in about five minutes the trail veers right up a very long flight of stone-slab steps, covered in a thick layer of bright green moss.
Now the fun begins as a slippery dirt trail continues upwards from the top of the steps, climbing through the jungle to the base of a long, vertical cliff, with three shallow caves artificially carved into its face. The trail now climbs steeply along the foot of this impressive rock face to connect with a short knife-edge ridge leading up onto the peak. It’s safer since several rough “steps” were cut into the blade of rock, but for less confident hikers there’s an alternative, easier route to the left along the bottom of the narrow ridge. The two trails rejoin just before the Stone Candle.
Finally, the jungle falls away to reveal a sloping rock face, dropping away vertically on the far side, at the summit of the peak immediately in front of the Stone Candle. The top of the spiky rock formation looms ahead, but to see the whole thing, wriggle up to the brink and peer over the edge. Beyond, looming out of the thick jungle ten or twenty meters away is a slim and very pointed tower of rock about 35 meters tall, the Stone Candle itself. A side trail around the foot of the ridge leads to the base of the pinnacle, but it looks much less impressive from below, so spend your time peering across at it from up on top, while not forgetting to enjoy the fantastic views over Pingxi, the shapely summits of Shulung Peak (薯榔尖) and the Stone Bamboo Shoot (石筍尖), and the verdant green valley of the upper Keelung River, far below.