Hehuanshan, Taiwan

Click for directions on my waterfall guide website

Hehuanshan is the highest point on the highest road in Eastern Asia and one of the only places that you can cross over the central mountain range by car.  It also has five Baiyue peaks if you count Shimenshan which is only a 1 hour hike from the main road.  The Baiyue are Taiwan’s 100 best (not highest) mountains to climb and each of them are over 3000 meters.  Some hikers know how many Baiyue peaks they have summited.  I’m hoping to do a couple every year but I don’t really have summit fever.  I enjoy good hikes regardless of whether or not they involve a summit.  Just in case you are wondering I have 6 Baiyue peaks.  I don’t even care about the number but I still know.

It almost seems like cheating to be able to hike multiple Baiyue peaks as dayhikes.  There is elevation to deal with but overall 3 of the peaks are relatively easy (relative for 3000 meter peaks).  The North Peak is a little more difficult but most hikers shouldn’t have a problem as a dayhike.  The West Peak however presents more of a challenge.  The hike shares the trail with the North Peak but then goes 5+ kms past it on an undulating ridgeline.  It’s possible as a dayhike but it is a really long day.

Some stats

Main Peak – 3417 meters – 1.5-2 hour hike – 2 kms each way – 190 meter ascent

East Peak – 3421 meters – 1.5-2 hour hike – 1 km each way – 290 meter ascent

North Peak – 3422 meters – 4-5 hour hike – 2.5 kms each way – 475 meter ascent

West Peak – 3145 meters – all day (very long day) – 8 kms each way (estimate)

Shimenshan – 3237 – 1+ hours (estimate)

This is the easiest place in Taiwan for city dwellers to see snow and if there is a chance of snow the road is absolutely packed with drivers that have never seen ice or snow.  I know that sometimes they close the road and that is likely to save Taiwanese from themselves.  They would stand no chance on windy ice/snow covered roads.

Part of the ski lift on Hehuanshan East Peak

Hehuanshan East Peak was once used as a ski hill but it has been closed for many years and is incredibly unlikely to ever reopen.  I had found an old article (written in 1983) at Taiwan Review but the link and article are gone now. Here is part of that article.

During our stay on the mountain, the cable lift had broken down. Ski meis­ters and green hands alike had to spend 15 minutes climbing the 150-meter slope, just to slide down in 15 seconds. Most of the novices, not knowing how to stop or change directions, would fall on their backs to break their speed. When one of them crashed into one of our colleagues, we broke into cold sweat. He turned a somersault and lay flat for several minutes before we finally got him up.

Hehuanshan Ski Resort is almost like a myth in Taiwan now.  It’s hard to believe that it ever existed but every once in awhile it gets brought up by tourist or recent expat as something they have heard of and want to do.

The weather can change quickly at high elevations.  In one hour it went from perfectly sunny in every direction to heavy cloud cover by the time we hiked Main Peak.  I found the Main Peak to be an uninspiring hike up an old military road.  There are some nice views but there are nice views everywhere in this region.  The biggest reason to hike this is if you want something easy and if you are really interested in adding to your Baiyue number (top 100 peaks).

We hiked about halfway up the North Peak trail at dusk and setup camp in the last light (barely) of the evening.  In March the temperatures are perfect during the day but nighttime temps are still quite cool.  It’s not exactly pleasant to sit around and chat in camp.

The following morning we woke up in heavy fog and ascended the North Peak completely viewless.  Between 1 and 1.5 kms from the trailhead there are many good spots to camp and there were 15-20 tents set up.  Plan on carrying all of the water up from the trailhead though.  There might be a source but I wouldn’t depend on it.   I think it might be officially against the rules to camp up there but it doesn’t seem to be enforced.

North Peak is the highest (by 1 meter) of the 4 Hehuanshan peaks and in theory offers great views.

The fog started to lift on the descent.  We were told that typically it is clearer in the morning and in the afternoon clouds roll in.  This might be true but current weather systems will also be a factor.  If you are going to Hehuanshan (or the other high mountains) then expect overcast but be pleasantly surprised with clear skies.

If you look very carefully this is the same campsite and view as the photo above (3 photos up) in this blog.  This was actually a second group of foreigners but I didn’t recognize anyone and we didn’t stop to chat.  The fog had completely burned off and we were lucky to have great weather both days.

The view from our makeshift campsite.

The North Peak Trail is everything you want in a hiking trail.  It’s constructed out of dirt and rock.  It offers great views and varied terrain.  It isn’t easy with about 200 meters of elevation gain for every kilometer but it’s not really long.  The East Peak Trail was nice but it is mostly a staircase to the top while the Main Peak Trail is just an old military road.  I will be back sometime to complete the hike to the West Peak (goes over the North Peak).

Xitou Recreation Area, Nantou, Taiwan

Xitou is one of Taiwan’s most popular National Recreation Areas.  However that is both a blessing and a curse in Taiwan.  It is an incredibly beautiful forest with some excellent hiking trails.  There are enough trails to keep the typical hiker occupied all day.  We didn’t have time to hike the Fenghuangshan (Phoenix Mountain) trail but that looks like a nice trail to get away from the crowds.  That is the lead in to the mixed reviews.  Xitou is a very popular place to visit on the weekends.  Traffic becomes terrible going up the mountain and there will be people everywhere. This can be remedied by going on a weekday if possible.

Another interesting aspect of Xitou is that it is an experimental forest for National Taiwan University and you can visit several different types of sub forests including cedars, bamboo and gingko.  The other part that wows you at first but unsettles you is that everything is a little bit too manicured.  Many probably won’t even notice this and some will enjoy that everything is kept tidy but I enjoy the the natural forest with down trees and random undergrowth. Also the area must have also have been logged by the Japanese and replanted with Japanese cedars since the spacing is a little too perfect.  Despite Xitou being stunningly beautiful I prefer a more natural environment and a little off of the beaten path.  This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a great time or that I won’t return though.

One of the many pavilions to rest at.  The interesting part of the Xitou pavilions is that the wood is not really wood including the roof.  Most of the mountainous areas in Taiwan are continually damp and wood rots very quickly in this environment.  It is very common for trails and pavilions to be made from concrete but made to look like wood.  I was fairly certain that the roof was concrete but I had to touch it because it looks so real.

I believe this is Fenghuangshan (Phoenix Mountain) but the actual peak could be on this ridgeline to the right.  That looks like a worthy hike to do sometime and you should be able to escape most of the crowds.

The cedar forest was huge.  This trail was only 1.5kms long but I loved the trees.  Overall there must be about 15-20 kms of trail in the forest.

Adrian brought along Arthur and he was fascinated by everything.

One of the most popular things to do at Xitou is to walk on the skywalk.  The skywalk is basically a 22.6m high bridge (180 meters long) that makes a loop.  It takes you right next to trees but doesn’t touch any of them and is instead suspended on massive stilts.  I found change in perspective interesting but I preferred to view the forest from ground level.  It’s not scary but I find the plant life at ground level fascinating.

Fenghuanggu Bird Aviary, Nantou

Nantou’s national bird aviary is one of those places that has its moments but overall is a little disappointing.  It’s located in a stunningly beautiful area in the Nantou mountains but many of the buildings are an eyesore.  They have assembled a beautiful collection of birds but some of the habitats are small and inadequate.  They have built a nice trail to a waterfall but it’s only viewable from a distance.   Overall the aviary has huge potential but it needs to feel less like a subpar zoo and more like a natural habitat for the birds.  They are located in an outstanding area for natural habitats.

Cassowaries greet visitors at the main parking lot.  They are one of the largest birds in the world similar in size to the ostrich and emu.  They have a reputation for being dangerous but there is only one recorded death.  Never the less they look unfriendly.

There are dozens of friendlier macaws in one of the first exhibits.

A blue crowned pigeon in one of the nicer habitats.  The pigeon habitat is larger and visitors are able to walk through the habitat.

A Golden Pheasant in the second walk through habitat.

A small bee that was more interesting than most of the bird habitats.

Another flower on the walk

The Stork Center at Fenghuang is quite different than the rest of the aviary.  It’s a spectacular and new building with some well done displays.  There didn’t seem to be any storks but they have an impressive habitat at the back of the building.  This building gives an idea of the type of potential that Fenghuang Aviary has.

Two years ago I visited the aviary but the waterfall was still inaccessible.  Considerable effort has been expended to reopen a trail back to the waterfall and it is now finished.  It’s a short easy hike but you are not allowed to travel to the base of the waterfall.

Directions to Fenghuang Waterfall from my waterfall website

Nenggao Hiking Trail, Taiwan

Taiwan offers some great hiking at the base of the central mountain range but there is some truly special areas in the high mountains.  The Nenggao Trail is one of my six mountains trails that are at the top my list to hike.  I have already hiked Yushan and now I can check the Nenggao trail off of that list also.  The Nenggao Trail is one of few trails that crosses completely over the central mountain range connecting Nantou County to Hualien County.  The Nenggao Trail not only contains amazing forests, a 200 meter waterfall and a mountain cabin but it also connects to a vast network of spectacular mountain trails in central Taiwan.  To the north a hiker can connect to Hehuanshan, to the south a hiker can exit at Aowanda and to the east a hiker can reach Hualien.

But the trail is much more significant historically than that.  It was originally built by the Japanese before WWII to control the local aboriginal tribes and to exploit Taiwan’s great forests.  Unhappy with this Japanese interference the Sediq aboriginal tribe attacked a Japanese sporting event killing over 100 people (The Wushe Incident).  The Japanese responded swiftly and crushed the rebellion with its far superior military.  Seediq Bale was a recent Taiwanese blockbuster movie and more in depth reading is available (The Wushe Uprising).

Our hike was much more pleasant than that.  Taiwan Adventures provided a first class trip and there was great weather all weekend.

There are two major landslides that need to be crossed on the way to Tianchi Cabin.  These landslides closed the trail for a long time after they occurred.

Rebecca and Evangeline hike on the well maintained trail.  Most of the trail is easily graded all the way to Tianchi Cabin.

The central mountain range extends to the south as far as the eye can see.

Cynthia, Rebecca and I admire Nenggao Waterfall in the misting rain.

I have added this waterfall to my waterfall website.

There are 88 bunk room spots available at Tianchi Cabin.  There is also a large camping area but they don’t restrict how many tents are allowed.  Without restriction this results in a very busy area on the weekends and considerable impact on the area.  Hopefully this is addressed in the future.

The evening started with a chilly drizzle but the sunset was quite spectacular.

We woke up at an absolutely ridiculous time to summit Cilai South Peak at sunrise.   We were unfortunately joined by an army of Taiwanese hikers (shown later).

There are numerous mountain trails crisscrossing this area giving hikers numerous hiking opportunities.

Martin went through one of the occasional pine sections of the trail.

Cynthia emerges from an overgrown spot on the trail.

I have long been completely frustrated by the standard Taiwanese hiking mentality.  This is a clump of at least 100 hikers that marches as a unit and this is common.  At least we were going the other way when we saw them.

Looking south planning future trips.

Hwy 16 and Shuanglong Waterfall

For the most part Taiwan’s central mountain range is impassable by roads.  The Central Cross Island highway was destroyed 13 years ago in the devastating 921 earthquake and the Southern Cross Island highway suffered a similar fate 3 years ago during Typhoon Morakot.  Indications are that neither highway will ever reconnect to cross Taiwan but at least you can take Hwy14 and Hwy8 to cross the central range.  Just because you can’t cross the central range doesn’t mean that you can’t drive high up into the mountains.  Most of the roads are poorly maintained county roads that beat up your car but there are a few roads that show up as highways on the map.  Hwy 16 in Nantou county is one of these roads that has been on my radar for quite awhile although I’ve always wondered what kind of condition it is in.  Using my limited resources I became reasonably confident of finding a waterfall and set off on the quest last weekend.

Dili is a small aboriginal village located along Hwy 16.  When I got out of my car to take statue pictures a grandmother working on her farm started waving me away.  I waved back and then I realized that she didn’t want me to take pictures of her.

Despite Taiwan’s close proximity the Chinese didn’t start settling the island until the 17th century.  Taiwan had been known to the Chinese for several hundred years but the Chinese were largely isolated during their history and lacked a navy or boats to settle and control Taiwan.  Instead Taiwan’s original inhabitants can be traced back to the Austronesian peoples that settled Polynesia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Oceania.  For thousands of years they lived without any interference from the Japanese or Chinese.

In many ways the history of Taiwan’s Aborigines is similar to America’s Native Americans.   At about the same time that Europeans started settling America the Chinese started settling Taiwan.  There had also been some contact and trading posts established with various European countries (notably the Dutch) but there had been very little European immigration before they were driven off.  During the 17th and 18th centuries however the Chinese began immigrating to Taiwan.  As more and more Chinese immigrated the aboriginal tribes either became assimilated (intermarried) into the Chinese agricultural villages or they retreated further and further into the mountains.  Now there are numerous aboriginal villages located in the mountains making up 2% of Taiwan’s population.  Most of the villages are poor with substandard schools but I have frequently driven through them since they are located in some stunning areas.  A more complete brief history of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes can be found at wikipedia.

My camping spot on an abandoned road above Shuanglong village.  My car might be a little broken pulling into this parking spot but I can handle the noise.

The morning view of the central mountain range from Shuanglong.

I really wanted to cross this but my quest for Shuanglong Waterfall (Double Dragon) ended here.  The road located above the bridge has been destroyed in a landslide and this bridge was not built for people.  There are two large plastic water pipes supplying water to the valley below.   It wasn’t marked in English as off limits but the walkway is narrower than it looks and the railing is located out of reach.  The other side of the bridge also looked to be very steep.  Or perhaps I’m just a chicken.

A butterfly near the bridge.

The heavens shined down on this small church that I believe held a short service while I was contemplating crossing the long bridge.  I could hear singing in the distance but it was closed up both before and after my short hike.