Enjoying Taroko Gorge’s Fabled Beauty

The story of Taroko Gorge begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the accumulation of sediment and volcanic lava beneath what is now the Pacific Ocean.

These materials blended with calcium carbonate from the bones of sea organisms and hardened into limestone. In due course, tectonic pressure compressed the limestone until it metamorphosed into marble, gneiss, and schist.

Approximately 6.5 million years ago, as the Philippine tectonic plate began sliding under the Eurasian plate, these layers of metamorphic rock emerged from the ocean. Rivers formed and began carving through the bedrock, creating the gully that eventually became Taiwan’s best-known natural attraction. This spectacular geological feature is thus far younger than the Grand Canyon, which scientists believe to be around 70 million years old.

Taroko’s cliffs, smoothed by grit-carrying water, are made up of white, cream, gray, silver, and beige boulders, some as big as vans. Yet if just one color is chosen to represent Taroko National Park, it should be green. Natural forests cover four-fifths of the park, with manmade woodlands bringing total tree cover to just over 90%.

Erosion continues to deepen the abyss, but because this region’s rate of tectonic uplift is one of the world’s highest – over 0.5 centimeters annually during the last glacial period, and up to 0.2 centimeters per year in recent millennia – the bottom of the ravine is still rising compared to sea level. (Some observers joke that this seems impossible, since Taroko Gorge gets so many visitors that the combined weight of tourists and their vehicles must surely be pushing the area down.)

Taroko National Park recorded 6.28 million visitors in 2014, a large proportion of them mainland Chinese on group tours. This total is sure to grow. As soon as improvements to the Suao-Hualien Highway are completed, probably by the end of 2017, the national park will become much more accessible for those coming from Taipei.

Managing the crowds is a serious challenge, admits Taroko National Park Director Yang Mo-lin, who took up the post earlier this year. “Visitor numbers have been increasing year by year, and this does cause congestion in certain places,” he says. “I’m often asked which part of Taroko is the most beautiful. Personally, I think every corner of the national park is worth visiting and savoring.”

Taroko National Park is triple the size of Taipei City. Yet within its 920 square kilometers, just three roads are open to the public: Highway 8, Highway 9, and Highway 14甲. The first is the Central Cross-Island Highway linking Lishan in Greater Taichung with Taiwan’s Pacific coast via the gorge. Only a short section of Highway 9 lies within the park; from it, tourists can appreciate the Qingshui Cliffs, which plunge dramatically to the ocean. Highway 14甲 enters the park’s southwest via Wushe and Qingjing Farm in Nantou County. At Wuling it reaches an altitude of 3,275 meters, making it the highest stretch of paved road on the island.

Tourists who venture no further than 50 meters from one of these highways, or who stick to one of the park’s several unrestricted trails, need not apply for any permits or pay any admission charges. This policy may change, however. Back in August 2013, the Chinese-language Keng Sheng Daily News reported that Taroko National Park was soon going to start charging each 40-seater bus entering the park NT$3,000. Cars would have to pay NT$300, while individuals would be charged NT$100. A few months earlier, the Taipei Times quoted then Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan as saying all of Taiwan’s national parks would begin charging for admission by the end of 2013. Although that did not happen, the idea apparently is still being considered.

Free entrance to national parks is an anomaly when national forest recreation areas such as Alishan charge up to NT$200 per visitor. At several scenic spots where admission is free, such as Sanxiantai in Taitung County, visitors must pay to park their cars or motorcycles. Yet parking is free throughout Taroko National Park, even at exceptionally popular spots like the Eternal Spring Shrine, a memorial to the 225 construction workers who perished during the building of the Central Cross-Island Highway.

Yang declines to express a personal opinion on the issue of admission charges, but stresses that any such charges would be designed to enhance tourist satisfaction, safety, and recreational quality, rather than simply bringing in income. “Charging would reflect the ‘user pays’ principle, while revenues would be devoted to improving services and facilities within the park,” he says.

One frequent visitor is unconvinced that charging for admission would benefit the park. “If it cuts the number of tourists, great! Even if it doesn’t, if that money is earmarked for park improvements, I’d happily pay it,” says Matt Hopkins, owner and chief guide at Hualien Outdoors (www.hualienoutdoors.org), which organizes river tracing, hiking, and other expeditions in the Hualien area.

“However, I don’t think admission charges will reduce visitor numbers, as the park has gotten much too famous. Also, I’m a little worried that some tourists may arrive feeling ‘entitled’ – the ‘I paid to get in here so I’d better get something back’ mentality,” says the Canadian. “It may lead to more complaints and, I fear, damage to the park itself. Already some fools have started taking pieces of stalagmites from the tunnels on the Baiyang Waterfall Trail. If they’re paying to get in, that kind of behavior might get worse. That said, raw numbers are the problem.”

Hopkins proposes an alternative: “Charge only those who go inland of Eternal Spring Shrine. That would bring in some money, and the gorge itself would be less jammed.”

He urges those heading to Taroko to start out as early in the day as possible, and to look beyond the gorge and spend some time exploring other spots nearby.

“It’s really hard to avoid tourists altogether, as there aren’t many secret spots left. Nonetheless, if you can reach the gorge before 8 a.m., you can stay one step ahead of the buses and get all the nice hikes to yourself. If your time is limited, avoid Eternal Spring Shrine and head up to the Bell Tower and Taroko Tower on the hillside nearby. From there, you can look down over the tourist hordes,” he advises.

“Sanzhan is a great spot for river swimming in the summer,” he says, referring to a waterway just 4 kilometers south of the hubbub on Highway 8. “The entire Hualien area has the perfect mix of clean water, evening rainfall, steep geography, and marble canyons that make it a river-tracing mecca,” he says.

“Because of typhoons, development is impossible in many of the valleys. This means that if you’re willing to hike a bit, you can get to some of the cleanest, wildest, and most accessible river gems in the world. And there is no catch! Most rivers have no flash-flood risk. There are no malarial mosquitoes and no insurgents in the mountains – just clean, pure rivers through massive, beautiful marble canyons,” Hopkins gushes.

Equidistant between the national park’s headquarters and Eternal Spring Shrine, a set of metal stairs leads down from Highway 8 to the Shakadang Trail. Named after and hugging the left bank of the Shakadang Creek, this path is perhaps the park’s most popular, in part because it is relatively flat. No permit is needed for those going as far as 3D Cabin, 4.4 kilometers north of the trailhead. Shakadang is a pleasant leg-stretcher, yet Hopkins thinks visitors would do well to skip it altogether and head inland on Highway 8.

He recommends two attractions east of Swallow Grotto and the currently closed Tunnel of Nine Turns. “Wenshan Hot Springs is often deserted, and hardly anyone does the hike to Lianhua Pond, perhaps because it’s fairly hard – though very safe – and takes half a day,” he says.

The Wenshan Hot Springs were made known to the outside world in 1914, when the Japanese used military might to subdue the gorge’s indigenous inhabitants. Admission is free and changing rooms are available. Lianhua Pond is hardly breathtaking, but the climb to 1,180 meters above sea level provides fine views of the park’s highlands.

The trail to Lianhua Pond starts at Huitouwan, about six kilometers east of Tianxiang, the little village where more affluent travelers enjoy a stay at the Regent Group’s Silks Place Taroko (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw; Tel: 03-869-1280) while backpackers sleep at the Catholic hostel (Tel: 03-869-1122).

A choice of treks

Huitouwan is also the jumping-off point for treks to Meiyuan and Zhucun. Until some years ago, both places were inhabited by aboriginal families who grew high-mountain fruits and vegetables. The area’s native inhabitants, formerly lumped together with the Atayal tribe, have since 2004 been recognized as a distinct group known as the Truku or Taroko. As of this spring, the tribe had 29,847 members.

Contrary to what the park website (www.taroko.gov.tw) implies, the “agricultural road” linking Meiyuan and Zhucun to Highway 8 is no longer in good condition. Veteran hiker Richard Saunders calls it “by a long way the riskiest trail I’ve ever done in Taiwan.”

Several buses per day link Tianxiang with the Xincheng Railway Station and downtown Hualien, and tourists who use Tianxiang as a base have three attractive hiking options. From the village’s Protestant church (which has its own hostel; Tel: 03-869-1203), a short, steep clamber brings you to a small plateau where you can see a few traces of a Truku settlement called Tapido.

Behind the Tianxiang Youth Activity Center (an adequate mid-range accommodation option; Tel: 03-869-1111), a track climbs to Huoran Pavilion. The trail is just 1.9 kilometers long, but the going is tough, so rather than return the same way, many hikers wait at the pavilion, which is situated beside Highway 8, until they are able to hitch a ride back to Tianxiang.

Those put off by gradients but unafraid of dark tunnels will enjoy the Baiyang Waterfall Trail, which starts 900 meters from Tianxiang and leads to a narrow, pristine valley. This 2.1 kilometer-long road was constructed in the early 1980s to enable Taipower to build a hydroelectric station, a project abandoned when the national park was established in 1986.

Hikers are no longer allowed to proceed to the very end of the Baiyang Waterfall Trail because the final tunnel is unsafe. This is not the only place in the park where falling rocks pose a danger. According to a 2011 report, at Swallow Grotto an average of 3.48 rockfalls per day were detected over the previous five years.

The park authorities have been loaning hard hats to visitors since 2009, and spend NT$2.6 million per year on insurance to compensate tourists who suffer injury or death while on park trails. Coverage is up to NT$5 million per person.

As Yang points out, Taroko’s geology and climate make it especially prone to rockfalls and landslides. Even in the dry season, it is normal for a few paths and scenic spots to be out of commission, so those planning a visit would do well to check the park’s website beforehand.

“Safety is a priority, so after each typhoon or earthquake we assess the severity of any damage. Sometimes we don’t need to close an entire trail, only part,” he says, citing the Zhuilu Old Road as an example. At present, only 3.1 kilometers of this highly-regarded but hair-raising trail can be hiked. Repair work should be finished by this summer, Yang says, opening the entire 10.3 kilometer-long route once again to those who obtain the necessary park and mountain entry permits in advance. These permits can be applied for online, via the park’s website, but must include details of at least one ROC citizen as an emergency contact.

Those hoping to experience the Zhuilu Old Road must obtain permits in advance. There is a daily quota and the rules are strictly enforced. Yang says the park authorities are evaluating whether other locations should be managed in the same way.

For those who wish to see alpine scenery without the hassle of obtaining permits, Yang recommends the Mount Shimen Trail and the east and main peaks of Mount Hehuan. All lie in the park’s southwestern quarter and are well over 3,000 meters above sea level.

Engineering work on the Tunnel of Nine Turns should be completed early next year, allowing the trail there to be reopened, Yang adds.

“Sustainability is the national park’s core value, and we cooperate with local communities and civil society to promote community-based ecotourism and environmental education. We hope those who visit the park can have in-depth interactions with local residents, gain a profound understanding of Taiwan’s landscape, and become ecological guardians,” says Yang.

At least one project of this sort has been a notable success. Working since 2010 with the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (www.toaf.org.tw), the park has persuaded many of those living inland of the gorge to embrace chemical-free farming methods. Visitors to the hamlets of Xibao, Luoshao, and Xinbaiyang (between 915 and 1,644 meters above sea level) can see fields of organically grown cabbages, mustard greens, turnips, and tomatoes.

“The cloying smell of pesticides is becoming a thing of the past, and this benefits residents’ health as well as the environment,” says Yang. “The number of households involved has grown from two to 13, and the amount of land farmed organically has expanded from 0.23 hectares to 12.4 hectares. An innovative business and marketing action plan is balancing local livelihoods and the national park’s goals, creating sincere partnerships, and shaping a new model of environmental conservation.

Information for drivers

Motorists approaching the gorge from the east coast should fill up their gas tanks at the service station (open 7 a.m.-9 p.m.) on the right side of Highway 8, between Xincheng Railway Station and the national park headquarters. The next gas station (open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) is at Guanyuan, over an hour’s drive inland of Tianxiang. At 2,374 meters above sea level, this is likely the highest gas station in Taiwan. By law, headlights should be kept on at all times on Highway 8.

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