On a level of difficulty, Taiwan Adventures gives hiking Taiwan’s Old Jhuilu (Zhuilu) Trail in the Taroko National Park a rating of 4 (out of 5). The reviews at TripAdvisor also gave fair warning and I thought, “How difficult can it be? I’ll have the whole day to complete the 6.2 kilometers and the cliff-top trail and view will be worth it.”
How difficult was it? In some sections it was brutal. Going up required frequent stops to catch my breath and coming down called for breaks to give my knees and thighs a rest. There were many times I lamented my inactive Canadian winter and a week of overindulging on Taiwanese street food. Needless to say, would I do it again? Definitely. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but only on a clear day with a strong likelihood of catching those spectacular cliff-top views for which Jhuilu is famous.
The trail started at a locked gate at Swallow Grotto. For environmental reasons, the number of hikers is limited to 60 per day regulated via an “Ecological Protection Area Entry Permit.” For safety purposes, the permit system keeps track of who enters and leaves the trail. My identification was checked at the roadside tent before entry was permitted, and upon my return my name was checked off the list.
From Swallow Grotto at an elevation of 274 metres, the Old Zhuilu Trail climbs to the Jhuilu Cliff at 1,100 metres, a trail distance of about 2.5 kilometres. With another 500 metres of trail carved into the Jhuilu Cliff to the rest area at the 3.1-kilometre marker, it promised to be a challenging hike. Crossing the suspension bridge across the Liwu River was the easiest part of the 6.2-kilometre hike.
Signs issued warnings to hikers who had perhaps not done the necessary research. The first one stated, “This trail has a high level of difficulty. Please check your equipment, and assess your physical capability before entering. Do not enter unless you are fully prepared.” The next sign reinforced earlier warnings. I was definitely getting the picture it would be no walk in the park.
In March of 2015, only 3.1 kilometres of the 10.3-kilometre trail was open – 3.1 km up and 3.1 km down. In many sections, the trail consisted of a wall of steps that seemed to go on forever.
Each step was notched with grooves to improve traction and limit the possibility of slipping. I wouldn’t want to hike this trail in wet and slippery conditions.
At other times, navigating the trail required clamouring over boulders on hands and feet.
Hmmm. Another reason to pack or rent hiking poles!!
At the .7-kilometre marker, this group of hikers from Taipei told me they were quitting and returning to the trailhead. The prospect of another 2.5 kilometres must have been just too daunting to contemplate. By this point I understood where they were coming from.
I pressed on, blending the need for frequent stops with opportunities to absorb the beauty of the surroundings and admire the interesting variety of plants.
Every now and again, the views of the gorge promised more spectacular vistas to come.
While steps and switchbacks dominated the trail, each new curve brought plenty of variety to make the hike interesting.
Unfortunately, by the time I reached the Jhuilu Cliff at 1,100 metres, a bank of fog had rolled in and I missed the spectacular views of the river below by about 30 minutes.
Nevertheless, hiking the narrow 500-metre-long trail cut into the cliff face was a definite highlight.
On the blessing and curse scale, the fog made the experience less scary as I wasn’t constantly peering over the edge to admire the vertigo-inducing view below. At one point I rounded a curve to find hiking guide William Ho standing precariously on the edge of the precipice. He suggested I walk to the next bend where he snapped a selfie with me in the background.
Still, the fog didn’t obscure the sharp drop of the precipice I was standing on and a sturdy rope attached to the cliff face added a high degree of security to the experience.
At its narrowest and most exposed points, the trail is no more than 60 centimetres wide. My hand was never far from the plastic-coated cable bolted into the cliff face.
The hike downhill was just as challenging as the climb up to the Jhuilu Cliff. I took things slowly, averaging only about .5 km every 35 minutes. I came across a troop of Formosan macaques (rock monkeys) feeding in the trees, and stopped frequently to admire the interesting variety of flora. While I was hiking alone, it was comforting to know there were four people behind me at different intervals. Of the maximum number of 60 persons permitted on the trail, my best guess is perhaps 25 people were hiking that day. At the .5-kilometre marker, just another 30 minutes or so to go.
It was with a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment I made it to Swallow Grotto. When the couple behind me (pictured on the suspension bridge in the background) reached the trailhead, the only common language we had and needed consisted of high fives, bows and smiles of congratulations.
For a convenient, efficient and stress-free approach to hiking the Old Jhuilu Trail, I chose to stay at Taroko Lodge on the outskirts of Taroko National Park. The owner, Rihang Su organized a park permit after I emailed him the requested information (name, birth date, passport number and a scanned copy of the information page of my passport). The cost of the permit was NT$500 ($16 USD), and Rihang organized drop off and pickup services to and from the trailhead for a total charge of NT$500 ($16 USD).
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. On one of the days, take advantage of Rihang’s bike and hike services to explore some of the wonders of Taroko Gorge and freewheel twenty kilometres or so down to the park entrance. Check out Cycling Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge for a description of the experience.
It’s not necessary to hire a guide, but I imagine the experience would be enriched with having one. The hiker I met on the trail with William Ho highly recommended William whose name I recognized immediately because of the excellent reviews of William at TripAdvisor.
You’ll need your passport to verify your identity at the permit tent. The laminated copy of the information page of my passport was acceptable. Pack a rain jacket, snacks and at least a litre of water. I carried insect repellent, although it wasn’t needed in March. Wear long pants in a light fabric (it’s very humid) and hiking boots or shoes with good tread. I also suggest carrying a small first aid kit to treat possible stings, sprains or cuts and scrapes. Hiking poles will contribute to a safer and more comfortable hiking experience. An unlocked phone with a Taiwan plan is useful in an emergency.
Have you hiked the Zhuilu/Jhuilu trail? Are there any other hikes within Taroko National Park you’d recommend?
Might you be interested in other posts on Taiwan? If so, check out:
- Include Taiwan in your travel plans
- Cycling Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge
- Yehliu Geopark – bizarre rocks and succulent seafood
- Visiting Beitou Hot Springs
- Taipei walking food tour
- Space Inn, Taipei