In case you haven’t caught on yet, we like to hike. And with only about a month to go before starting on the PCT we were on the hunt for good training hikes. In many countries, we found that hikes were often too short and required a guide. Taiwan is more known for hikes, and we had some good outings, but it was still difficult to find good long hikes. Ultimately the best hikes we found were around Taipei.
We were unable to hike in the high mountains during our visit. The notable hikes require permits obtained weeks in advance, and the weather/snowpack was not conducive to our visiting anyway. So we did shorter hikes around Taipei, Taroko Gorge, and Alishan. We also did long walks on bike paths in Hualien on the East Coast and Tainan in the West.
Hiking Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge is stunningly beautiful and definitely worth a visit. The nearby city of Tainan is well-connected to Taipei by train, so you can visit even on a short trip. Buses run up and down the canyon, allowing visitors to hop on and off to see different sights. Unfortunately most of the long trails are closed due to storm damage from a typhoon several years ago, and the most popular trail requires a reservation over a week in advance. So, for the most part, we enjoyed piecing together shorter trails . . .
We started at the uphill end of the gorge furthest from the park entrance, hiking a short hike to the Baiyang Waterfalls. It’s a wide and well-graded path out to a viewpoint. A map showed a toilet at the end — we think this is a myth. Note: the hike begins in a tunnel that starts along the highway under an overhang. It’s sort of hard to describe, so here’s a picture:
As you can see, there were lots of other visitors. Luckily for us, we got an early start and the visitors all arrived as we were wrapping up the trail. There were even more tourists at the Swallow Grotto, though we still managed to get some good pictures:
I said we did short hikes “for the most part” in Taroko. That’s because we eventually made our way to the trail toward the hillside village of Datong. We knew that the trail required a permit to hike. We tried to get one at the visitor center, where we were told that the permit must be issued days in advance. Not workable. So we went to the nearby police station (where the permit is issued) and asked again. There the officer warned us that we were trying to do an all-day hike starting in the afternoon (it was 1pm). We said we would be cautious and turn back if necessary, but we knew the mileage. We were sure we would make it. We didn’t.
Trails in Taiwan often go straight up a hill on steps. So our pace was much slower than we expected.
Because we were behind pace, we turned around about 1 km past the top of the stairs. Going down was slippery due to the recent rain. I managed to slip and fall, picking up a decent amount of mud. Good thing our hotel had a washer and dryer. It might have been a nice hike to Datong town from there — I guess we will have to go back.
Conclusion: Tarako Gorge is a must-do stop but not a great place for long hikes. Also, weather in Taroko is unpredictable. We had a good day, but given the risk, maybe short hikes are better.
Walking in Hualien
The city of Hualien is the place to stay when visiting Taroko overnight. It has good food (subject of another post) and a nice bicycle and walking path along the ocean. Along the walk, we had a nice talk with an older Taiwanese man, who, upon learning we were Americans, volunteered to sing El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon & Garfunkel.
Conclusion: walking in Hualien is a good half-day activity.
Walking in Tainan
After Hualien, we took the train to Tainan. After some sightseeing there, we found a similar biking and walking path along a levy in Tainan. The terrain and climate are very different on opposite sides of the island, with a mangrove-filled estuary along the path. It was a nice walk for a city, and almost perfectly flat.
Conclusion: walking in Tainan is a nice way to spend part of an afternoon, but not a must-do since it’s away from the sights that draw tourists.
Our next hiking destination was the Alishan National Scenic Area. Finding lodging and transport were tricky. We booked ahead paying NT 3,000 (US 100) for a spartan room at a Catholic hostel — everything else was much more expensive. This surprised us since hotels in Taiwan were typically under NT 1,000 (US 33). The famous Alishan Forest Train was fully booked in advance, so we took the bus instead. We heard you buy tickets at/on the bus, but apparently many passengers already had tickets. Fortunately they ran extra buses since it was a busy Saturday. Honestly if you are going, you should do some research on this because our research was insufficient. At least we were able to leave Alishan via a not-full bus to Sun Moon Lake, which leaves from in front of the 7-11 by the lower parking lot (yes there are multiple 7-11’s so I had to clarify).
Also, the Catholic Hostel had a cat that enjoyed rolling on the hot water tank.
The park itself is busy on the main paths, but once you head out on something longer, there are fewer people. Our first day we hiked to Tashan, following the trail all the way out, then the trail half way back before walking on the out-of-service railroad track to return. It’s not a particularly hard hike, but you’ll break a sweat and it’s very nice in the forest and on the mountaintop. Once again, stairs were prevalent. How else would you get up a hill?
We also walked some of the shorter, more touristed trails. There were cherry blossoms out in full force and it was beautiful.
We even saw the famous stump that looks like a pig. Of course this exists in a country that eats so much pork:
Our first day at Alishan was foggy, but our second day was clear in the morning. The weather varies so that’s probably a good reason to stay overnight, even with the high price. The views the next day were great.
We did another walk in the morning out another railway spur before catching our bus to Sun Moon Lake. It was not crowded on our way out, but it sure was on the way back. Go early!
You can continue from Alishan to Yushan National Park, with Taiwan’s tallest peak. We didn’t have permits or winter hiking gear, and the Yushan Park may have been closed (unclear, language barrier). So we didn’t go.
Conclusion: Alishan fits the same pattern as Toroko. There are beautiful hikes in Taiwan, and you can get some distance, but getting something longer is tricky. There are also lots of stairs. If your trip is long enough, go. And do try to get off the main paths. But don’t expect long trails like California or Slovenia.
Note: we did not hike at Sun Moon Lake, so that is covered in another post.
Hiking Around Taipei
Taipei has mountains in most directions, so there are many hikes. As far as we could tell, there were no permit requirements, and trails connected to each other and to towns, so they could be connected for longer hikes. We did two fun days in the outdoors around Taipei.
During our first stop in Taipei, we went to Yangmingshan National Park, just a metro and bus ride from Taipei. We hiked up one side and down the other of Mt. Qixing, which had a stone staircase trail (of course). Somehow, despite lots of fog, we always had good grip on the trail. Then we took a trail around the mountain back to the visitor center and bus stop, which consisted of very slippery moss-covered stones. Probably better to go back up and over or take the bus back.
When we returned to Taipei at the end of our visit, we hiked from Jiufen to Houtong Cat Village, and then on from the cat village to some local waterfalls. The cat village merits its own post, but the hikes are a worthwhile attraction on their own.
The trail from Jiufen (a touristy little hillside town) to the cat village (also touristy) takes you up and over a mountain ridge, with great views of the northern Taiwan coastline.
It also goes past some temples and old walls. I thought the views were better than the few old things, contrary to the reviews I had read online.
The trail from the cat village to the waterfalls via Fusing Temple was longer and had multiple climbs and descents (though none too long or strenuous). It also featured one of the best waterfalls that we’d seen on our trip. This trail ended up being Elizabeth’s favorite trail in Taiwan because of its gorgeous views and walkable trail (that included something other than stairs). There are several trails in this area that connect to towns, so I would recommend this area for a longer hike.
Conclusion: the hikes around Taipei were some of the best and longest day hikes of our trip. There are lots of write-ups better than ours that you can find online (in both English and Chinese). I highly recommend them even if you are only in Taiwan for a few days.
Overall Conclusion: hiking in Taiwan was fun. We didn’t get what we expected, and probably didn’t do as many miles as we should have for PCT prep. And the weather is tricky — often you have to plan your days based on it. Also, have I mentioned that there are a lot of stairs? But it’s a lot of fun.
[This blog post describes our experiences hiking and walking in Taiwan, March 9-24, 2017.]