With five nights booked in Taiwan, we were keen to supplement our city break in Taipei with a visit to somewhere altogether greener and prettier. Three nights in Taipei and two in Taroko Gorge was a perfect balance, and gave us a wonderful insight into Taiwan beyond its capital city.
This beautiful national park is a place of outstanding natural beauty, and almost impossible to describe without resorting to the most hackneyed of clichés! Be prepared for neck ache as you’ll spend quite a bit of your time looking up, up, up and around you at the impressive landscape!
Read on for our suggested itinerary for a full day in the park, plus some tips on transport and accommodation.
A Geological Marvel
The deep marble canyon of Taroko Gorge, carved by the Liwu River that winds through its depths, is both visually striking and geologically fascinating. Like much of Taiwan, its formation stems from the collision of two tectonic plates over four million years ago – the intense forces of the moving plates pushed up the ocean bed, warping and compressing the limestone of the sea floor into dense marble. As the island continued to lift, the river cut its insistent path through the rock, shaping the precipitously deep gorge we see today.
Journeying through the towering canyon cliffs, it is easy to see the evidence of these natural forces – undulating stripes of colour within the rockface tell the story of the land and sweeping curves and caves gauged out of the gorge walls speak of the erosive power of water.
The Japanese – who ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 – established an earlier park here in 1937, known then as Tsugitaka-Taroko National Park but it was abolished by the Republic of China in 1945. The current Taroko Gorge National Park was created in 1986, a significant step forward in the environmental protection of Taiwan after decades of damage to natural resources. The remit of the park is to preserve natural beauty and wildlife, maintain historic relics, protect the environment and provide education on conservation and environmental issues.
The Central Cross-Island Highway
In 1915, the Japanese created a mountain trail crossing Taiwan from East to West via the gorge, using it to establish communications with native tribal communities along the route. During the latter decades of their occupation they upgraded parts of the route to allow for better access to exploit natural resources including marble, minerals and wood.
It was not until the 1950s that an end-to-end road for vehicles was built on the orders of Chiang-Kai Shek, some of it upgrading the original Japanese road, and the rest newly built. Much of it was upgraded again during the eighties in preparation for the opening of a hydroelectric power station, a project that was cancelled in order to protect the gorge.
The road somewhat belies the rather grand title of Central Cross-Island Highway, winding its narrow way alongside the river via a series of bridges and tunnels carved out of the solid rock.
The road is a little hair-raising at times, especially with some lengths of it wide enough only for one-way traffic, most of which is large tourist coaches driving at startling speeds. Current building work (new tunnels and bridges) should convert these last narrow stretches to two-way fairly soon, but you’ll still have plenty of opportunity to appreciate the engineering feat of the original road. Taiwan suffers earthquakes and typhoons, both of which inflict serious damage on the road, washing away bits of the road itself or causing avalanches of rock that block the way – explaining the need for ugly but protective rock shelters along some of the road.
The Lushui Trail
One of the most popular activities within the national park is to walk one or more of the trails that allow you to get away from the road and enjoy the natural landscape and habitat of the park. Some trails within the park need permits, of which only limited numbers are available per day, but many are open to the public.
We walked the 2 km Lushui Trail starting at the Lushui end, next to the Lushui Geological Exhibition Center.
We made walking the trail our first stop of the itinerary so that we could avoid the rush of visitors that arrive later on, which meant we shared the beautiful path and views with only a handful of other walkers. The path meanders through the forest, offering glimpses of the road and the river from a few viewpoints including a vertiginous path carved out of the rock face. There’s also a short dark tunnel to navigate, and a rope suspension bridge over a little stream.
The trail is not just about the views and landscape but also the flora and fauna. Along the route we saw numerous birds (and heard many more), enjoyed the fluttering of many colourful butterflies and enjoyed the beautiful flowers and plants. Information panels along the path provided information on key local species including trees such as Taroko oak, camphor and jiangmo trees, and birds such as the Japanese White-eye, Black Bulbul, Bronzed Drogo and Himalayan Tree Pie.
Described as fairly flat, this is not a strenuous hike but as it’s above the road level, there are stairs to climb at the beginning and a long downwards sloping roadway down to the main road at the end. The trail is quite uneven in areas, and fairly narrow in parts. There are a few stretches that made my knees and ankles ache and my heart pump rather hard, but then again I’m dreadfully unfit and not used to this kind of exercise! There are also some parts of the path which are tricky for those with vertigo.
I’m glad I persevered though – walking the trail allowed us to see more of the national park than just the road, amazing though the views from the road are.
The Yue Fei Pavilion and Heliu Suspension Bridge
A very short walk from the Heliu end of the Lushui Trail, it’s well worth stopping at the suspension bridge just by the Yue Fei Pagoda.
I found it rather scary walking across the bridge, especially as Pete took gleeful delight in transferring his walking motion into the bridge. But the fright was worth it for the wonderful perspective looking down on a wide section of the river below.
The doorway at the opposite side of the bridge is the entrance to another walking trail, but it was closed when we visited because of damage during one of the recent typhoons. When it’s open, it needs a permit to walk it.
Cimu Bridge and The Frog Prince
Half a kilometer further along the road is the bright red Cimu Bridge, rebuilt in steel in 1995 after typhoon damage to the old bridge. The bridge is guarded at both ends by white marble Chinese lions
This spot is where Laoxi River feeds into the Liwu, and there are some strong and fast currents here. Cimu means motherly devotion and the name comes from a story of a mother who’s child was swept away; she visited every day afterwards to wish for her child’s safe return. The small pavilion next to the West end of the bridge was constructed as a memorial to President Chiang Ching-kuo’s mother.
If you look back from the right spot along the road, and squint a little bit, you can see the likeness of a rock formation that looks like a large squatting frog – the pavilion is perfectly located to give the appearance of a crown upon the frog’s head.
At the bend of the road at the Eastern end of the bridge is another pavilion, set a little back from the road. This one was constructed in memory of President Chiang Kai-shek’s mother.
The Swallow Grotto
It’s easy to park and access Swallow Grotto, as it’s on an old section of road that has since been bypassed by a new section. The old stretch of road has space for parking and visitors usually get out and walk along the road to view the scenery. As this trail is on the road itself, it’s very flat and even terrain, about 1.5 km in length.
Hard hats are available for those who want to be safe – rock falls are common in this area.
Walking through the tunnel, we were able to look directly out onto the impressively eroded marble rock of the canyon wall opposite, to see the sweeping curves cut by the water when it was at that level. There are also potholes in the wall that are created by ground water leaching through the rock; an information panel explains that after heavy rain these holes often have water pouring out and down into the river below.
The rock face once housed huge numbers of Pacific swallows, attracted by the insects and able to make their mud nests in the holes along the cliff face. They were all but driven away by the heavy traffic on the road but are starting to return now that the main road passes elsewhere and traffic is much reduced. The speed at which these birds dart through the canyon makes it hard to see them in any detail but they were still impressive to see – it put me in mind of the iconic flight chase scenes in Star Wars: A New Hope and Independence Day!
Lunch at Jinhang Park
There are only a few places to eat lunch inside the National Park, as there are strict rules on new building. After discussion with our guide, we decided on a quick, casual and inexpensive lunch at a cafe in Jinhang Park, close to the Swallow Grotto walk.
At TWD $290 (a little over £7), the set lunches were great value, offering a main dish, rice and a range of sides in a bento-style tray. Choices for mains included a local style of sausage, roast chicken leg in a tasty marinade, stewed beef, fried chicken etc.
The Buluowan Visitors Centre
Like most visitors, we came to Taroko Gorge for the amazing natural landscapes. But we were glad our guide took us to The Buluowan Visitors Centre, not far from Swallow Grotto, so we could learn more about the cultural significance of the region.
The area has been inhabited by different ethnic groups for more than a millennium. The Shisanhang Bulowan people are thought to have settled in the area about a thousand years ago, after first migrating to the mouth of Liwu River a few hundred years before that to search for gold. Far more recently, the Taroko tribe, for whom the gorge and park are named, migrated East from Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range, settling in the Liwu river basin. Today there are only a few older Taroko people living the traditional lifestyle.
We watched two wonderful educational films at the centre. The first was about the geological formation of the region, told through the personal story of a young local artist and his friendship with a visiting student of geology. The second gave an insight into the history and culture of the Taroko people by telling the story of a young couple from different villages. After watching the films, we stopped in to see the recreations of traditional Taroko homes.
There are also some walking paths starting here, if you have time, and a pretty garden where cultural events are held. The gardens are planted with native species as part of a restoration project.
The Eternal Shrine
Although the walking trail that leads to the shrine is currently closed after a recent landslide made stretches of it unsafe, the Eternal Shrine is still a very popular stop for visitors. Modelled after a Tang Dynasty temple, it was constructed in memory of the 212 workers who died during construction of the highway.
The shrine itself has also been destroyed by landslides, and has been rebuilt twice (in the same style) since then. With the mountains soaring behind and a small but pretty waterfall tumbling down below it, it’s a picturesque spot.
Park Entrance & Mountain Oolong Tea
Since many visitors overnight outside the park boundaries, their first stop when touring the park is the Taroko Archway at the entrance.
There’s a short row of small shops here, including the tea specialist we visited after letting our driver know of our interest in tea. The walls were covered in photos showing the tea being grown, harvested and processed, including some of the shop keeper working at the tea farm. She gave us a sit-down tasting of a number of their teas, our driver providing translation. We really appreciated the complete lack of hard sell to purchase and were happy to buy a pack of high mountain oolong before leaving; a nice souvenir to help us remember our trip to Taroko.
Next door to the tea seller is a shop selling fresh and preserved lemons, and some street food snacks to eat on the go.
The Quingshui Cliffs
Also spelled Ch’ing-shui, this famous beauty spot is listed by the government as one of Taiwan’s ‘Eight Wonders’ and it really is spectacular.
Access is via a stretch of vertiginous mountain road that was once the main route along the eastern coast of Taiwan. Modern tunnel boring allowed this section of the old road to be bypassed by a wider and faster highway, meaning there is far less traffic on this road today; just tourists and a little local traffic.
Viewing platforms and information plaques have been provided at a loop of the road with the best views, allowing visitors to stop and admire the towering cliffs and the startlingly turquoise waters of the sea below. Above the cliffs, Quingshui Mountain rises 2408 metres above sea level and the drop continues below the sea too – the waters at the edge of the cliff are several thousands of meters deep.
We stopped a while here, joining the small crowd of visitors taking photos of themselves in front of that beautiful view.
We stopped at most of the sites above on our journey outwards from our hotel base within the park.
The last stop on our way back in was at Shakadang Trail, the most popular of the park’s trails, not least because of its easy access not far from the park entrance and its wide flat walkway. The trail is 4.4 km in length but most visitors walk only a portion of it. The trail is quite a way below the road, down at the level of the Shakadang River itself, giving a unique view of the milky blue river and unusual rock formations.
My knees were too tired after our Lushui walk earlier in the day to face the multi-storey stairs down to the trail, so I sat this one out on benches in the parking area provided.
Transport & Accommodation
Like most visitors to Taroko, we flew into Taipei and made our way to Taroko from the capital. A fast train from Taipei to Hualien takes just two hours and is just over TWD $400 (about £10) each way, depending on date and time.
Many visitors to Taroko Gorge base themselves in Hualien, heading into Taroko National Park during the day.
We chose to stay inside the park itself at Silks Place Taroko Hotel; building is no longer permitted in the park, but this historic property was built before the park was established, giving it an enviable advantage over competitors outside the park boundary. There aren’t many options for accommodation inside the national park. As well as Silks Palace Hotel, there’s a hotel next to the Buluowan Visitor Center, a number of youth hostels in Tienhsiang and a camp site just by the Helui entrance to the Lushui Trail.
Silks Place Hotel has been refurbished with a modern style, and rooms are comfortable and attractive. The two restaurants on site offer a Western buffet and traditional Chinese – the buffet is a great choice for breakfast, but the Chinese offered the better experience in the evening. We didn’t attend the live entertainment put on by the hotel, but we loved the outdoor pool and hot tubs surrounded by the forested cliffs of the gorge; they are open late into the evening, making them a lovely place to unwind after a day exploring and walking in the park.
Liaising with hotel staff ahead of our visit, we booked their bus pickup from train station to hotel. We were able to shave a little time off our overall journey when the hotel suggested picking us up from Xincheng Station instead of Hualien, one of the smaller stations on the line and much closer to the park entrance. If your train doesn’t stop at Xincheng, it’s not too much farther to transfer from Hualien – indeed our return transfer was via Hualien station.
Two nights in the park gave us one full day to explore. We hired a private car and English-speaking driver who was also a knowledable guide and agreed an 8 hour itinerary in advance via the hotel. The cost was TD$ 6,500 – about £165 and was well worth it for us to maximise our sightseeing in the time we had available.
We covered a lot in our day, though it didn’t feel at all rushed.
Keen hikers may like to add an extra day or two to give them time to walk more of the many trails within the area.
Currency exchanges approximate, and based on date of publication.