Taiwan’s wilder side

Roads to Hualien

There are three roads to Hualien from north and the west, all of which offer spectacular views of Taiwan’s natural scenery. First, is the Central Cross-Island Highway, which brings you twisting down from the cloud-level heights of the central mountains, and in its last stage slices along the base of mighty Taroko Gorge’s sky-climbing cliffs before spilling you out coast-side at the gorge’s mouth.


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Second is the inexpressibly impressive Suhua Highway, which is etched along cliffs high above the pounding Pacific breakers between the port town of Su’ao in Yilan County and coastal Hualien City, just south of Taroko Gorge. The most dramatic section traverses the face of the 1,000m-high Qingshui Cliff for 20-plus kilometres, the cliff dropping almost vertically down into the sea.


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The third is a “railway road.” Your train powers across the green Yilan Plain and plunges into the mountains heading south, propping in and out of tunnels and shooting across a series of gorges and valleys, taking you “behind” the colossal Qingshui Cliff. You then burst forth right on the coast for the last-leg chug to always-at-ease Hualien City, passing the yawning Taroko Gorge mouth and foot-of-the-mountain indigenous villages.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge is the centrepiece of Taroko National Park. It is a magisterial river-cut slice right through solid mountain that starts far inland and opens directly onto the Pacific 19km of unremitting wonder. Visitors moving along the Central Cross-Island Highway and along trails in the main gorge and tributary gorges marvel at the towering cliffs thickly laced with marble.


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Upon entering the gorge at its east end, first check out the Taroko National Park Visitor Center – turn right and cross the bridge after passing the Central Cross-Island Highway gate. The facility has first-rate exhibit areas and video presentations (English available with a little advanced notice). A special treat is dining alfresco at the snack bar-restaurant, while looking out over the artwork-bedecked grassy lawn and beyond into the gorge. Choose from among a range of savoury set meals, including Korean-style spicy pork, curry chicken, and vegetarian tofu. As your drink selection, try the cold Oolong tea laced with local honey.

Little Zhuliu Trail

The Little Zhuliu Trail starts with a flourish, accessed from a pedestrian walkway inside Shakadang Tunnel, a highway tunnel near the visitor centre. A short side tunnel, the east-end ventilation tunnel, takes you to the trailhead.

The short trail (650m) hugs the mountainside most of its length, and you overlook the gorge-sculpting Liwu River’s lower reaches from about 60m up much of the time. Pacific views are granted at the lookout spots. There are a few moderately steep stepped sections, requiring a modicum of fitness. After the views, the main trail highlight is its rope bridge spanning a creek-bed. Those less daring can cross via a wood-plank suspension bridge.

Shakadang Trail

Shakadang Trail begins where Little Zhuliu Trail ends. This easy-grade trail along the tributary Shakadang River, with sections cut right out of the cliffside, began life as a narrow track blazed by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial period to facilitate hydro-project work. The walls here feature some of the area’s most impressive evidence of geological folding, in places looking like works of abstract art by immortals. You pass two now-abandoned settlements of the Truku tribe (the local indigenous people), called 5D Cabin and 3D Cabin, and a Japanese-built dam and aqueduct. At the 5D Cabin are Truku-run sales stands; the site’s old red-brick police station and small houses are used for storage. Try the locally grown bananas and delicious figs harvested from Ficus trees along the river. Macaques and colourful birds feed on the fruit early mornings and evenings.

Baiyang Trail

The gem experience Taroko is the the Baiyang Trail, which starts at a roadside just above Tianxiang, a river-terrace recreational and service area at the upper end of the Taroko inner gorge. Beyond the scenery, Tianxiang’s draw include a few small eateries, and a 7-eleven.

The Baiyang Trail begins with a dramatic human-engineering flourish. You dive directly from the roadside into a straight-as-an-arrow 380m-long tunnel that pierces a mountain from the main gorge to a secondary gorge. At the end of the even-grade 2km section of the trail is a golden prize, which bursts into view upon exiting a tunnel. At a footbridge leaping a deep-cut cleft carved by a waterway seemingly too modest for the task, a lofty twin cataract plunges ethereally downward from vertigo-hugging road by the Taiwan Power Company in 1984 for use in a later-cancelled hydropower project. There is in fact a further section beyond the present trail, currently closed for safety reasons.

Buluowan Recreation Area

The Buluowan Recreation Area is spread over an upper and lower terrace at roughly the inner-gorge midway point, about 160m above the Liwu. It is reached via a short side road. “Buluowan” is the Truku name of a former tribal settlement here, and most recreation-area staff are tribe members. The word means “echo” – little wonder, considering the area is surrounded by soaring cliffs on three sides.

The site has trails, a sophisticated multimedia tribal-culture intro, a circular theatre where traditional dancing is staged, a museum explicating traditional arts and crafts, arts/crafts demos, a gift shop, and nightly song-and-dance performances at the Taroko Village Hotel. The latter has indigenous-style wooden cabins with modern interiors spread out in village style around a grassy square and a restaurant serving up indigenous dishes and stupendous views.

Spending a half or full day in Taroko Gorge, as most visitors do, does not do it justice, especially for those with a taste for trail trekking. There are big draws aside from the trail forays, including: the Eternal Spring Shrine, the Tunnel of Nine Turns, and the Swallow Grotto.

East Rift Valley

The farm-carpeted, brightly coloured East Rift Valley starts immediately below Hualien City, with the Coastal Mountain Range on one side and the Central Mountain Range on the other. It runs almost all the way down to Taitung City. Provincial Highway 9 connects the two cities through the north-south valley, meandering side to side.

Liyu (Carp) Lake is in the central-mountain foothills southwest of Hualien City, on Highway 9C. About 104 hectares in area, this is the largest lake in eastern Taiwan. Among the plethora of tourist facilities and recreation options at the lake are a visitor centre and pedal-boat, canoe, motorboat (with driver), and bicycle rentals. It has a 4km ring road that offers pleasant walking/cycling routes, camping/picnic areas, easy-challenge trails into the hills, and open-air local-style restaurants at which lake shrimp is the favoured delicacy. On non-holiday weekdays, the birds find it quiet enough to come out and sing for you.


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North of Liyu Lake, a short riverside road heads inland off Renshou Bridge that crosses the wonderfully monikered Mugua (Papaya) River. At the road-ending T-intersection is a trailhead. The pathway is less than 1km long and takes you upriver along the Mugua, through an old tunnel with dozing ceiling-clinging bats, and along an up-and-down au naturel exposed-root section to a tributary-stream waterfall with a wadeable rock pool at its base. This is the bottom of the narrow Feicui (Emerald) Valley, increasingly popular with river tracers.

Dotted along Highway 9 as it flows through the East Rift Valley are small farm towns well worth a little of your time. Two of which are Fenglin and Guangfu. Fenglin was Taiwan’s first locality recognised as a “Slow City” by Cittaslow International, an Italy-based association which promotes slow-paced sustainable living and provides support for natural, eco-friendly food production.

Guangfu is best-known as home of the Guangfu Sugar Factory, a sprawling complex constructed during the Japanese colonial era. Sugarcane was long a leading regional cash crop. Today, tourists come to view the heritage Japanese-style bungalows, worker bathhouse, and other nostalgia-inducing facilities.

The Wanli River exits the central mountains into the valley between the two towns. Just inside the mouth of the mountain valley is a place popular with history buffs, the Lintienshan Forestry Culture Park. This is a former timber industry village established by the Japanese. It was once Taiwan’s fourth-largest logging operation, with 2,000 residents at its height. Many buildings, built with native Chinese cypress, have been beautifully restored. It also hosts a history centre, remnants of the extensive rail and cable system that ran into the hills, and displays featuring trains and machinery.


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Directly on the other side of the mountain on which the centre is built is another mountain valley, carved by the Ma’an River. This was also logged by the Japanese. Up a tributary stream just inside the mouth you’ll find the placid Jilitan (Jili Pond). It was created by the Japanese as a log pond, and is now cleared. It’s the centrepiece of a new breeze-brushed park with walking paths, Chinese imperial-style arch bridges, and foot-soak facilities.

The Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area is in yet another central-range valley. The park is between the towns of Guangfu and Ruisui. The latter is best-known as a starting point for whitewater rafting outings to the coast. The focus here is eco-tourism.

Pacific Coast

The long coastal strip between Hualien City and Taitung City is framed by the coastal range on one side with slopes that are sometimes gentle and sometimes steep, and the brilliant-blue ocean on the other. The coast offers a medley of arriving formations, and narrow bands of arable land.

The curvaceous Provincial Highway 11A takes you from Guangfu up and over the low-peak coastal range. It serves up splendid hawk-eye views of the rift valley and central mountains when ascending, and of the coast and ocean on its descent. The descent drops you into Fengbin, a languid mixed Amis/Kavalan Indigenous village above a river that melds with the pacific. Highway 11, which traverses the coastline and takes you back north up Hualien City, is joined here.


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The village of Xinshe, with a sharpe-slope mountainside serving its “back wall,” is perched atop a large flat-topped headland which is viewable from many kilometres away while motoring along Highway 11. This is a tribal community, Taiwan’s largest Kavalan settlement. The Kavalan motherland is Yilan County, but most members moved down along the Hualien/Taitung coast in the 1800s to escape Chinese-settler pressure. The headland is beautifully contoured, with sun-reflecting rice paddies fitting perfectly together. The blue of the ocean, green of the paddies, and colourful scarecrows combine into a photographer’s dream come true.

The new Hualien Fengbin Sky Trail is a double-thrill attraction. The “sky trail” is 150m cliff-clinging skywalk that hands you right out over the ocean, breakers and shore fishermen at your feet. A 20m, section is transparent. The trail follows a narrow old path hacked from the cliff face, which connected local villages during the Japanese period. The second thrill is that your access walk is along a retired cliff-edge section of Highway 11. Your skywalk return is through an old highway tunnel, today filled with gift and snack stands.


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Jiqi Beach

Jiqi Beach offers 3km of soft sandy shoreline in a shallow bay surrounded by mountain of three sides. This is the first good swimming beach south of Hualien City. On the south end is a resort with water, including beach-fun equipment, a snack shop, a retail/gift shop, and a camping area with covered wooden platforms.


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The hill on the south side of Jiqi Beach is easily ascended. It juts out into the sea, and the highway curves around it inland. The wood-stair pathway to the top, the Dashibi Hill Trail, starts at a highway-side parking lot and takes about 15 rugged coastline north and south, local fishing craft out at sea, and the highway-side indigenous village inland.

Getting There


There is regular train service to Hualien City from points around Taiwan’s perimeter on the round-island railway loop. The fastest trains from Taipei take under 2.5 hours. Vehicles can also be rented from one of the licensed enterprises outside of the Hualien Railway Station (there are also scooter-rental outlets). If you have any questions, staff at the tourism information centre outside the station can help. A mid-sized vehicle costs around NT$1,500 per day. For non-self-drive options, check out the ultra-convenient Taiwan Tourist Shuttle and Taiwan Tour Bus services.

Where To Stay

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