Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Taroko Gorge was a place that surprised me with rugged natural beauty on the island of Taiwan.

A view of a narrow section of Taroko Gorge, looking up towards the central mountain range in Taiwan.

Prior to visiting Taipei for work in 1995, I’d only thought of Taiwan’s manufacturing fame – one of the East Asian tiger economies that has grown exponentially since the 1970s. A weekend journey to the spectacular Taroko Gorge on Taiwan’s east coast made me realise that this country has some amazing geological wonders and well managed national parks of immense beauty. If you have been to Yosemite in the USA, you get an idea of the immense scale of Taiwan’s mountain ranges along the wild Pacific coastline. It took another 22 years, but I returned to Taroko in 2017 for three day hiking break (while staying in a B&B on each night).

Narrow gorge scenery in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge

The vast majority of Taiwan’s population live on the relatively flat coastal plain on the western side of the island, while most of the east coast is earthquake prone with deep gorges and cliffs that plunge thousands of feet into the deep blue Pacific Ocean. Despite the geographical challenges, the east coast of Taiwan is well served by a fast, reliable and frequent railway service. The east coast national highway also clings onto the edge of cliffs along the Pacific, in addition to passing through small seaside villages and long narrow tunnels through the mountains.

Qingshui Cliff on Taiwan’s rugged East Coast. The main East Coast Highway and railway line have been built at different levels on the cliff face, as there is inadequate space for them to be on the same level.

Taroko Gorge is Taiwan’s most famous natural wonder, situated 145 kilometres south of Taipei on the east coast of the island. Frequent tectonic movements over recent geological time, combined with the fast flowing Liwu River have created the world’s deepest marble canyon. The gorge stretches from near the Pacific coast, through to snow covered mountains of over 3,000 metres high within 60 kilometres. The roads are steep and dramatic, as the gorge is only a few metres wide in places, although the canyons can be thousands of feet deep.

Clear mountain water passes through Taroko Gorge on it’s rapid journey to the Pacific Ocean, on Taiwan’s Eas Coast.

Given the sub-tropical climate and large differences in elevation, there are many varied habitats for plants, animals and hikers. I spent three days in the park with a hiking buddy and every day was quite unique. We stayed in Taroko Mountain Dream Lodge on the edge of the park, which I’d highly recommend – as this maximises your time in the park each day. We hired a car from Hualien City, which is about 23 kilometres from the entrance to the national park. Driving from Hualien to the park was relatively easy, as the roads are good and the maximum speed limit on the highways is 60 kilometres per hour. It would be difficult to have a bad accident here. Once in the park, you should be OK with driving if you are comfortable with mountain passes and narrow concrete car parks that have twists and turns. Many roads in the park pass through long narrow tunnels that have been bored through the deep mountain canyons. The road in itself is a marvel of engineering, while the bus drivers who manage to pull their buses through the tunnels without a scratch are everyday miracle workers.

Bus drivers defy the odds on a daily basis as they pass through the narrow tunnels in Taroko National Park.

Morning of Day One: Old Zhuili Trail

One of our main reasons for visiting Taroko Gorge was to hike the Old Zhuilu Trail. The Old Zhuilu Trail hike was a personal challenge for me, as I wanted to face up to my fear of heights. This fear has been with me from childhood – I recall fear when climbing down stairs at our local suburban railway station. When I first read about this 3 hour hike, I just couldn’t believe the logistics and potential danger of this trail. It would certainly be off limits to the public in Australia.

Old Zhuili Trail with blue marble cliff walls.

Zhuili Trail trail was built by forced labour when the Japanese occupied Taiwan around 1913. The Japanese used the trail to deploy military personnel across the Central Mountain Ranges, as there were no existing roads at the time. They needed to control local aboriginal communities that lived on either side the immense Central Mountain Ranges on the East Cost of Taiwan. The human cost of this trail was immense, as local aboriginal people were forced to scale down the cliffsides with explosives to carve a path through the mountain. Apparently, Japanese labourers quit their posting when they were faced with the task of building this pathway. To this day, parts of the trail have a sheer drop of 550 metres in the middle a marble cliff face. There are no safety barriers or fences. Just a metal rope on the cliff face.

Looking down from the Old Zhuili Trail clifftop – Highway 8 is 550 metres below the hikers on the trail,
with nothing to prevent any accidental fall.

At this point, I’d like to introduce some helpful advice from the local park authorities in Taroko when walking along an 80cm wide pathway where one slip could mean instant free fall down the equivalent of a 200 storey building:

Make sure every step is clear. If you are not confident of your balance, grab the rope that attaches the wall. You should feel more secured when you do this. 

Huge cliff wall on the Old Zhuili Trail.

This hike needs to be booked in advance, so upon arrival at the trail head, a park official checks your details. He also asks for your next of kin, before handing you a helmet that looks hopelessly inadequate if a 100 ton boulder is about to smash you like a ant against the cliff face. The walk begins with a tranquil stroll over a cute suspension bridge the crosses a reasonably wide part of the torrential Liwu River. After that, it’s an excellent staircase workout as the path’s elevation increases by hundreds of metres within a two kilometre length. You do need to be reasonably healthy. but no need to be a gym junkie – it’s not a race after all. The sub-tropical forest landscape changes as you get higher. Trees become less lush, and once your reach the 500 metre wide cliff face, it completely rocky.

Zhuilu Suspension Bridge (錐麓吊橋) – a gentle start to the Old Zhuili Trail, which will end up hundreds of metres on a sheer clifftop.

There is a small rest area at the end of the trail, and then you need to go back down the same route. Many years ago, it was possible to carry on through the mountain range, but recent typhoons caused the permanent closure of the trail at higher elevations in the park. The cliffside walk is a unforgettable experience, especially if you take a peek over the edge. I will never forget seeing cars and buses driving through the gorge, hundreds of metres below us – they looked like small matchbox vehicles. It was just like flying over a city in a plane, except you don’t have the safety of aeronautical engineering on your side.

Cliffside walking on the Old Zhuili Trail.

The walk down the mountain is a lot easier, and before you know it, the park ranger is checking your credentials without having to launch a recovery mission and inform your next of kin. It’s all very organised.

Day one afternoon: Driving through the Gorge

After the Old Zhuilu walk, we continued along the main road that passes through the gorge and the awesome scenery of this national park. This road is part of Zhongbu Cross Island Highway 8, which was one the three main highways that crossed from the east to west of Taiwan, prior to an earthquake in 1999 and a typhoon in 2004, which has more or less closed the road to normal traffic. The road through Taroko Gorge is quite busy and very well graded, in addition to being one of the most spectacularly engineered roads I have used. Large concrete covered viaducts pass through narrow parts of the gorge, which frequently experiences rock falls, but many sections of the road have been progressively drilled through long narrow tunnels. Although the tunnels are not scenic, I presume they are safer and allow for high traffic flows during the peak holiday season. When you exit many of the tunnels, you suddenly cross high concrete bridges that cross over the deep gorge with it’s wild river. You are certainly immersed in the immense scale of these mountains and the gorge, throughout the entire journey on Highway 8.

One of many long tunnels that now make up a large portion of the journey through Taroko Gorge. This particular tunnel also has a walkway, because one on the hiking trails begins in the tunnel, before breaking off into a side tunnel that emerges into a deep hidden gorge.

The national park also has a number of temples and a good service centre, where there are a wide variety of eating options – I’d describe the majority of these eating venues a “street food” these days. They are reasonably priced and it’s really easy to order even if you don’t speak a word of mandarin. The Chinese temples in the national park complement the natural surroundings, often perched precariously on the edge of a hillside overlooking the valley.

Xiangde Temple is near the service village of Tianxiang, in the upper reaches of Taroko National Park

We took the road all the way through Taroko National Park and started climbing the main mountain range that runs the length of Taiwan. The drive was spectacular and enjoyable, until we got to a point where large cracks could be seen on the road surface, which was running along the top of a huge cliff. It was definitely time to find a turning circle and head back down to the national park. I was subsequently advised by local Taiwanese friends that the safety standards on their island can be a little bit haphazard, so this was a good call.

Several crack running across the road surface tell us that this may be a good turning point
on this narrow precarious section of Cross Island Highway 8.

After a full day out and about, we earned some rest in our B&B in the late afternoon prior to dinner. Our B&B was a ten minute drive from the small coastal township of Xincheng, which is also the main railway station for Taroko Gorge. Although the town is quite pleasant, it is a very sleepy place where there are few restaurants, and you need to get to dinner by 7pm at the latest.

I’ll continue with more Taroko hiking options in a subsequent post.

Visiting Taroko Gorge – Practicalities

Cost: Entry to Taroko Gorge is free.

The park entrance is near the coastline, while the gorge heads inland to the west. Its about 40 minutes non-stop driving from the park entrance to the other end of the park at Tianxiang.

Several bright red bridges cross the gorge as the highway goes higher into Taroko National Park.

Taroko Gorge is reasonably well serviced by public transport to the park. Limited shuttle buses that go to all the major points of interest in the park, including all the trail heads for major walks. Many of these also to/from Hualien City. However, I’d hire a car if I did this trip again, as you have more freedom to cover more parts of the park at a time that suits you. If you stay close to the park, sometimes it seems you have the place to yourself in the early morning and late evening.

Car hire: We got a train to Hualien City and then hired a car from Formosa Car Hire, which was less than five minutes walk from the train station. Email communication was good, although we did need to call them on their mobile when we returned the car, as the shop front only opens when a customer is expected.

It is possible to visit this park using public transport within the park, as we saw regular shuttle buses throughout the day.

Accommodation: Hualien Taroko Mountain Dream B&B is located within a five minute drive of the entrance to the park and the hosts are really accommodating. The breakfasts are fantastic, including fresh locally produced food from the farm. The rooms are large with all the necessary amenities – the property is set in a quiet rural location with mountains surrounding it. I’d definitely stay here again.

Part of the main highway 8, through one of the wider sections of the gorge.

Interactive Maps: Taroko Trail List provides an interactive map with links to the various hiking trails and stop over points in the National Park.

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