Cycling is a great way to explore interesting places, and Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge is no exception. Regarded as Taiwan’s number one tourist attraction, Taroko Gorge is an impressive 19-km long marble-walled canyon. It lies beside Taiwan’s east coast where the mountains fall sharply into the Pacific Ocean.
Taroko means “magnificent and splendid” in the language of the aboriginal Truku tribe. Enough said.
Carved into the side of the gorge is a section of the Central Cross-Island Highway. This narrow and winding mountain road affords spectacular views of the river below and towering cliffs and mountains above. Radiating from the road are numerous hiking trails and paths leading to a variety of scenic treasures. Several bridges offer additional vantage points from which to admire the striking landscape. It’s the perfect place to “actively” experience one of the scenic wonders of Asia.
Upon the recommendation of friends, I booked accommodation at Taroko Lodge on the outskirts of Taroko National Park. One of the advantages of Taroko Lodge is access to bike-and-hike services. For the modest fee of NT$1050 ($33 USD), the owner Rihang Su provides bike rental and transportation to the top of the gorge, and suggestions on which trails to incorporate in the time one has available. If the weather cooperates, Rihang’s self-guided bike-and-hike tour has all the ingredients of a perfect day.
As luck would have it, the only other guests at Taroko Lodge on my first night were a brother and sister travelling duo from Germany – Birte and Kai Schulz. At breakfast on the deck of the lodge the next day, I was delighted to learn Birte and Kai were also taking the bike-and-hike option.
Rihang set out a selection of bikes and after we made our choices, he helped adjust the seats before loading them on the bike carrier on the van. On Rihang’s recommendation, we started at the trailhead for Wenshan Hot Springs.
Wenshan Hot Springs is easily accessed via a suspension bridge, a few switchbacks and many flights of steps down to river level. The slight smell of sulphur in the mountain air, the bearably hot water to the touch and the steam rising from the spring water as it emptied into the Liwu River pleasingly invaded the senses.
Starting at the top of the gorge (or close to the top) feels cheating in a way. It essentially translates into freewheeling twenty kilometres or so down to the entrance of the park followed by a short three-kilometre ride to Taroko Lodge. We passed about a dozen cyclists biking the gorge in the opposite direction and waved and shouted in admiration at their level of fitness and fortitude for tackling such a feat. We had it easy, with more than 90 percent of our journey downhill.
Of all the ways to experience the spectacle of Taroko Gorge, cycling and cyclists were definitely in the minority. We passed gigantic tour buses overflowing with tourists, charter vans, taxis, cars, motorcycles and scooters – all vying for the limited space in the tunnels and on the narrow winding road chiselled out of the side of the gorge.
As Rihang drove us up the gorge, my anticipation and excitement at experiencing Taroko gradually turned to trepidation as I realized just how narrow the road actually was. There were certainly no bike lanes, and barely enough room for the huge tour buses and trucks to claim the space each one needed. I pictured David and Goliath, and I wasn’t looking forward to taking on those mechanical giants on such a narrow ribbon of highway.
Hooking up with other travellers has definite advantages. The camaraderie and conversation notwithstanding, the security of travelling in a small group on such a challenging road was comforting. Besides, each person brought handy travel aids that were useful in different situations. Kai had a headlamp Birta wore as the lead cyclist, I had a flashlight for hiking in tunnels, and Kai had a waterproof camera for taking pictures when conditions were such that other cameras needed to stay safely stowed. I had mosquito repellant and Kai had sunscreen that in both cases weren’t needed. I also had an unlocked phone with a Taiwan plan in case we needed it. When we stopped for lunch, we shared what was in our respective backpack pantries.
At the entrance to the Baiyang Waterfall Trail, the sign offered tips for a successful hike. Safety helmet? Check. Surely, our cycling helmets fit the bill. Flashlight? Check. Venomous WHAAAT? A quick consultation of our park brochure revealed that snakes and wasps were only an issue in summer and autumn. I was visiting during the northern spring. Whew.
We parked our bikes at the trailhead of the two-kilometre-long Baiyang Waterfall trail winding its way along the river through seven tunnels. Several were long and curved with an absence of natural light. I was thankful we had a flashlight.
The Baiyang Waterfall Trail brought an unexpected treat. On our maps the Water Curtain Cave (Shuiliandong) was indicated as being closed so we were delighted to find it open. Considerate visitors before us had left several waterproof ponchos at the entrance so it was off with the shoes and on with the capes for one of the most exhilarating experiences of the day.
Water poured though the roof of the cave, sometimes in drips and at other places in torrents. The original trail was built by Taipower in 1984 for a hydroelectric power project shelved shortly after. The Water Curtain Cave came into being after the power company accidentally hit an underground water vein during tunnel excavation work, resulting in water continuously flowing from the roof of the tunnel. Walking barefooted along the wet narrow path was invigorating.
On the return hike to the trailhead, we encountered a Formosan macaque (rock monkey) occupying a strategic position in the middle of the trail. I’d read about the unpredictability of monkeys and the possibility of an attack without warning so it was with a great deal of care I gingerly walked around it.
Our next stop was the small village of Tianxiang to visit the Xiangde Temple, accessed via a suspension bridge across the river. The temple features what is claimed to be the world’s tallest Bodhisativa statue.
The pagoda with its dual circular staircases and balconies at various levels afforded panoramic views of this “magnificent and splendid” slice of heaven.
Adjacent to one of the most narrow and colourful parts of the canyon, Swallow Grotto might be the most visited and photographed spot in Taroko Gorge. Beside the grotto is a former section of the highway now used for pedestrians and one-way vehicular traffic. Buses pull up at the lower (eastern) end of the grotto to disgorge tourists sporting safety hats before driving to the parking area at the other end to await their passengers. The grotto is named after the swallows nesting in the huge number of potholes etched into the grey-black marble of the steep walls of the canyon by the erosive forces of the Liwu River. Traffic and pedestrians move slowly along this half-kilometre slice of the old highway, so it’s possible to continue downhill and cycle through the grotto against the traffic, stopping occasionally to admire the strikingly beautiful twists and turns of the gorge.
The ride down the gorge in the fresh mountain air was a definite highlight of the day, and my short stay in Taroko. I felt for the hordes of tourists in those massive tour buses stopping at designated spots for the obligatory snapping of photographs before climbing back on board until the next stop on the itinerary (for more photographs). While travelling by bus is one of the few options for many people to see the gorge, I was grateful to have the opportunity to bike and hike Taroko. We had the luxury of stopping at trailheads of our choosing, and combining hiking and cycling for an active and enjoyable exploration of the national park.
For safety, Birte as the lead cyclist travelled at a slow and measured pace so it was possible to steal glimpses of the magnificent scenery along the way.
Returning to our bikes at each trailhead always found them exactly as we’d left them. There was no need to lock bikes or take out insurance against damage or theft. In the event of loss or damage, there was no liability on our part. Taiwan has to be one of the best places in the world when it comes to people respecting the property and safety of others. People just don’t take what doesn’t belong to them. Of all the countries I’ve visited, it’s the one where I’ve needed to take the least number of precautions to safeguard my possessions and personal safety.
About Taroko Lodge
Neither a hotel nor a hostel, Taroko Lodge is registered with the Taiwan Homestay Program. Rihang is an exceptional host who cannot do enough to satisfy the needs of his guests. He’s constantly on the move, preparing breakfast at times selected by each guest, or picking up and dropping off people at the railway station or at various points within the park. He will arrange for a hiking permit for the Old Jhuilu (Zhuliu) Trail, and he even picked up my train tickets for the return journey to Taipei.
Breakfast is a generous home-cooked meal out on the porch overlooking the grounds. Just prior to the time indicated by guests to have breakfast, the sound of the coffee grinder lures a person outdoors. The freshly brewed coffee (some of the best I’ve had) is followed by fruit, fried egg, toast and a selection of spreads (jams and peanut butter) providing a welcome start to the day.
A stop at a 7-11 on the way to the park permits the purchase of snacks and picnic items for lunch. For supper, Rihang takes guests to local eateries in Xincheng or Hualien, or volunteers to pick up provisions.
If you have the time, I’d recommend staying at least three nights to allow for a minimum of two full days to explore the park. This permits a full day for the bike-and-hike tour and another to comfortably enjoy the challenging hike of the Old Jhuilu Trail (and/or any others you can squeeze into the time available). For a description of the experience, check out Hiking Taroko’s Old Jhuilu Trail.
It’s a popular destination so visiting during the week might result in fewer tourists and less traffic.
If you’re looking for a convenient and hassle-free way to explore Taroko Gorge, place yourself in the attentive, responsive and helpful hands of Rihang Su and his family. The price of NT$2000 ($64 USD) per night includes breakfast, pickup and drop off at Xincheng station (about two kilometres from the lodge) and transportation to restaurants for supper. And those extras Rihang includes to ensure his guests are enjoying their stay.
Take the train to Xincheng. You may need to take an express train to Hualien (NT$440 or $14 USD from Taipei) and a local train a 15-minute journey to Xincheng (NT$24 or $0.75 USD). The digital screens on the trains display each stop in English, and announcements are also in English. The station is small so Rihang’s van will be right at the exit and Rihang standing at the ticket gate.
You’ll need a light daypack to carry a picnic lunch and rain jacket. If a dip at the Wenshan Hot Springs appeals to you, take a swimsuit and a quick-dry towel. Pack a poncho to fully experience the Water Curtain Cave without getting soaked, and an umbrella for taking pictures. Also, a lens cloth will come in handy. A flashlight is indispensable for safely navigating tunnels. If planning to hike the Old Jhuilu Trail, hiking poles will make the journey that much easier and shoes with a good tread that much safer. Wear light clothing. My three-quarter cycling knicks were perfect for both the bike-and-hike run down the gorge, and the hike of the Old Jhuliu Trail (in March). Long pants in a light fabric would be more practical in seasons when mosquitoes, wasps and leeches may be present. It’s very humid in this part of the world and my quick-dry shirts and underwear took two days to dry so pack with this in mind. Depending on the season, insect repellent will be a necessary travel aid.
Have you experienced the wonders of Taroko Gorge? If you’ve published a post or pictures, please provide a link in your comments.
Might you be interested in other posts on Taiwan? If so, check out:
- Include Taiwan in your travel plans
- Hiking Taroko’s Old Jhuilu Trail
- Yehliu Geopark – bizarre rocks and succulent seafood
- Visiting Beitou Hot Springs
- Taipei walking food tour
- Space Inn, Taipei