For a relatively small country, Taiwan has some truly amazing natural wonders. Due to the unfortunate fact that we had limited time, we couldn’t see everything; we had to be selective. One thing that was a must, however, was a visit to the stunning Taroko National Park.
We caught the train from Taipei to Hualien, which is where a lot of people base themselves for a trip to the park; the journey only took about 3 hours. Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan, is famous for only one thing – its proximity to the gorge.
We stayed in a rather small private room at one of the many hostels in the city. It wasn’t the Ritz but is was clean and comfortable enough for a short stay. We don’t tend to spend much time in rooms anyway, so it suited us fine.
Sights in Hualien
In Hualien there are a few minor sights worth seeing. As we’d arrived in the afternoon, there was no point in trying to get to the gorge, so we spent the rest of the day having a look around the city.
Nan Bin Seaside Park allows for a pleasant stroll beside the crashing ocean waves, with views of the city’s mountain backdrop. There are also a few small museums and the Hualien Far Glory Ocean Park, which is an aquarium/amusement park.
We had a look around the main area, went past many hotels and restaurants and found some dinner in the local night market. We then decided to get an early night, in preparation for the full day of exploration that awaited us.
Taroko National Park
Rising early the next morning, we caught one of the first buses at 7am that take day trippers from Hualien Railway Station to the national park headquarters. A mere 15 kilometers from Hualien, we made the journey in good time.
The park is not Taiwan’s top tourist attraction without good reason; it has 27 mountain peaks, marble walled canyons and lush vegetation that cover an area of 1200 square kilometers. The Liwu River cuts through the centre, having created deep valleys, and the gorge stretches for 18 kilometers.
The area has been inhabited by humans for 3,000 years. The local Taroko tribe lived here in isolation until 1874, when the Qing Dynasty decided to build a road to connect Suao to Hualien to aid Chinese settlers. Now, along that same road, runs the yellow Taroko Tourist Shuttle Bus that traverses the gorge, stopping at all the major sights and trailheads, as well as the Visitor Information Centre.
Buses run every 1-2 hours from Hualien to Tienhsiang; the first bus leaves Hualien train station at around 8am. You can simply hop-on and hop-off the bus wherever you please, paying for a full day pass or single journeys, depending on how much you plan to use it. The last bus leaves the park and returns to Hualien at 5pm, so starting early to cover as much as possible is advised.
The Hualien Bus Company also runs four buses a day between Hualien train station and Tienhsiang; the first leaves the city at 6:30am and the last bus from Tienhsiang departs at 6:30pm.
Within the gorge, as I mentioned, there are a number of sights and trailheads; we were selective in what we decided to do. Many of the walking trails are not long and are made very easy with stone paving and rails, so for avid trekkers like us we covered the ground easily. All of the trails have sign posts and, with a map from HQ, you can pick and choose the parts you’d like to visit.
Trails and Sights in Taroko Gorge
We started with the Shakadang Trail, which follows the river of the same name for a 4.4km stretch; the path is flat and strewn with boulders. The winding riverbed creates large pools of blueish-green water that are best seen in summer and autumn. The trail officially ends at 3D Cabin, though if you have a permit, you can continue on the Dali-Datung Trail to Dali and Datung, two isolated aboriginal villages.
We then moved on to the former mountain village, now scenic area, known as Bulowan, which allows you to view the gorge transition from steep marble cliff walls into dense forest. The area is divided into a lower park-like terrace and an upper-level resort.
The Swallow Grotto, our next stop, lies along a half-kilometre slice of the old highway. Twisting and towering high above the road, this is one of the parks narrowest and most colourful sections. It’s a great place for photo opportunities but aim to get here before midday as it quickly fills up with tour buses that fill the entire stretch of road.
Another short trail is the 2km-long Lushui-Heliu Trail, which runs above the highway along a cliff and offers views of the Liwu River. The trail is part of the Old Hehuan Mountain Road.
Lastly, we visited the Hsiangte Temple, accessed by a suspension bridge just before Tienhsiang. The temple is named after the Buddhist monk, who prayed for the safety of the workers during construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway. From its location atop a ledge, the temple offers views over the gorge.
There are plenty of other hiking trails within the park, some of which take a full day and require permits that must be applied for in advance. There are also waterfalls and hot springs to explore if you have the time.
Staying in Taroko National Park
With lots of people around and well-signed trails, it’s very difficult to get lost. It’s a good idea to start as early as possible though, especially at weekends when the park is at its busiest. After 6pm, however, once day-trippers have departed, those staying in the immediate area have the chance to experience a quieter side to the park and appreciate peaceful dusk walks or rides down the gorge.
Limited accommodation is possible in Tienhsiang, Bulowan and Taroko Village (just outside the park) though most options are pricey. Camping is also available for a fee at Holiu and Lushui, which have bathrooms with showers. Staying at these campgrounds, is, however, only realistically possible if you have your own transport, equipment and food supplies.
Eating Options in Taroko National Park
Taroko Gorge offers some sporadic eating options. There are a few sit-down places and stalls near the parking area at Tienhsiang selling Chinese and aboriginal fare; some more expensive options are also available in Tienhsiang and Bulowan.
If you’re looking to avoid paying more than necessary, it’s better to bring along your own water and snacks. If you’re really stuck, there is a convenience store near the visitor centre and in Tienhsiang.
The National Park Headquarters
The Visitor Information Centre at the park HQ has useful information on the condition of trails, as well as free maps and brochures of different hikes and beauty spots. This is the best place to ask for advice from someone who speaks English! A cafe and bookstore are also available. The office is open daily from 8:45am-4:45pm.
Taroko Gorge is, without doubt, a very beautiful area that offers picturesque views and easy access to some wonderful hiking trails. If you’re in Taiwan and enjoy being in nature, this famous jewel in Taiwan’s crown is certainly worth a visit.
Looking for some information about Taiwan’s capital? Check out: An Adventure in Taipei!