I’ve spent the past two hours slogging up steep mountainside paths, through dense forest and past the remnants of Japanese colonial outposts, when I finally arrive at my destination: a narrow, 500-meter-long cliffside path at points no wider than about 90 centimeters — though it can feel a lot less — with only small, sporadic pieces of fencing standing between me and a 700-meter drop into the gorge below. This is Taiwan’s Zhuilu Old Road.
Perched high above the Liwu River that cuts through Taroko National Park, you are rewarded with sweeping views of the gorge. Far below, miniature-looking vehicles make their way along the highway that runs through the park, and mountains linger in the distance, shrouded by fog. It is justifiably considered to be one of Taiwan’s best hikes. Like me, you may find yourself tempted to grab hold of the rope attached to the cliff — one of the few concessions to safety — so as to get a better view of the vertigo-inducing drop into the canyon.
Hiking the Zhuilu Old Road (200 New Taiwan dollars for an adult; about ¥700) puts you in a somewhat exclusive club, with only 96 people on weekdays and 156 people on weekends and holidays allowed access. It is necessary to secure a permit, which can be applied for online (bit.ly/twoldroad), and the low number of spaces means it is advisable to apply as soon as possible — applications begin 30 days in advance. This is largely a straightforward process, but a potential sticking point is the need for a local emergency contact, which has to be a Taiwanese citizen or person with residency in the country. Your accommodation may be able to serve in this function, but it is not guaranteed and advisable to check before you book.
To maximize your chances of getting the best possible views from the cliff — fog is common in the afternoon and the weather changes quickly — it is best to set off as early as possible. While entrance is allowed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., the earliest bus to service the park (NT$250/¥890 and NT$400/¥1,400 for one- and two-day passes, and the best way to get around for most visitors) arrives at the trailhead at Yanzikou (Swallow Grotto) at about 8 a.m. if coming from Hualien and 8:50 a.m. if coming from Tianxiang, your most likely base if staying within the park.
Depending on the forecast, or how fast you think you can complete the hike, this is hardly ideal. Renting scooters or a private car is a possibility, but for those who can’t, the next best option is to try hitchhiking. With only one route through the relevant section of the gorge, it shouldn’t take too long to get a ride, and this can be a useful way to reach or return from other trail heads.
With the myriad warnings against attempting the hike if you suffer from a fear of heights, heart problems or a range of other maladies — not to mention the notices to look out for venomous snakes and be wary of falling rocks — hiking the Zhuilu Old Road can seem a daunting prospect. It shouldn’t.
As someone who doesn’t play soccer anywhere near as much as they once did and who only got into hiking recently, I fully expected to find myself destroyed by the end of it. I wasn’t, and actually found myself raring to hit the park’s other trails after I’d finished. If you can handle something like Mount Tsukuba’s Shirakumobashi course in Ibaraki Prefecture, you’ll be fine.
Due to rockfall damage sustained a few years ago, only part of the Zhuilu Old Road is open, with the route terminating at the end of the cliffside section at a site that was once a colonial outpost. Hikers can rest there, and perhaps wait to see if the weather clears up, before doubling back on themselves to complete the trail as it currently stands.
Arriving back where you started, it then makes sense to walk the Yanzikou Trail — although calling it a “trail” is a bit generous, as it merely involves walking along a normal road — which takes in some of the most impressive sections of the gorge and ends at a small rest area with a store and restaurant. As you go, you can try to make out where you just walked along the Zhuilu Cliff, high above the opposite river bank.
Taroko National Park has plenty of other trails to offer, and even though it is possible to visit the park as a day trip from Taipei, it is recommended to spend at least another day exploring the various trails in the park, each of which has its own history and scenery, making a visit to the park worthwhile even if you can’t secure a permit to the Zhuilu Old Road.
Of these, the Lushui-Wenshan Trail is a worthy alternative to the Zhuilu Old Road, or a nice addition to your itinerary if you have enough time. Stretching about 5.5 kilometers through subtropical forest and taking in various former aboriginal villages and colonial outposts — the remnants of which can sometimes still be seen — the course brings you much closer to the park’s animal life. Listen for the calls of unseen creatures frequently heard and keep your eyes peeled for the Formosan rock macaques.
It also represents a somewhat more technical hike, with some sections requiring you to shimmy along ledges or climb up or down steep slopes using the chains and ropes provided. Its categorization as a “mountaineering trail,” however, feels like something of an exaggeration. Unlike the Zhuilu Old Road, Lushui-Wenshan doesn’t require a permit.
Several courses are categorized as “scenic” and are mostly flat, although no less worthy of your attention — there is also a third “hiking” category sitting between these two in terms of difficulty. The Baiyang Trail, for example, is wheelchair-accessible for the first section. The rest of the route takes you through the occasional pitch-black tunnel and culminates in views of waterfalls, the gushing Taci Jili River and a “water curtain” cave featuring spring water pouring down from the ceiling — don’t expect your waterproof jacket to keep you completely dry if you pass through it.
Tracing the park’s history
Beyond the flora and fauna, the park’s history is an ever-present aspect of the trails, and to walk through some sections of Taroko Gorge is to get a sense of deep time, the 18th-century notion that the vast sweep of the earth’s history can be felt in these geological formations. With the gorge’s cliffs towering above you, it is hard not to contemplate the immense forces behind the landscape, forces that operate on a far longer timescale than our own.
This contrasts with the park’s more recent history — the remnants and extant examples of modernity that are but a blip compared to the time horizons of the gorge’s landscape. Many of the trails you walk are, at least in part, based on routes set out by the Truku people hundreds of years ago, as well as those used by Japanese forces as they established control over the area. But this confluence of histories serves to show how the tribes, colonialism and modernization projects have all left their own indelible traces that will be possible to discern long into the future.
Back in the present, Taroko National Park, with its stunning landscapes, traditional pavilions precariously perched atop vertiginous cliffs and variety of trails, has much to offer to even the most casual hiker. Don’t let it pass you by.
Getting to the park and where to stay
When flying to Taiwan, you’ll likely arrive in Taipei. Several airlines, including low-cost carriers, offer flights to Taoyuan International Airport from airports across Japan. ANA and JAL also have services to Taipei Songshan Airport.
From Taipei, take the train to Xincheng or Hualien (NT$424; ¥1,600). Shuttle buses run from Hualien and Xincheng train stations to the national park. Buses outside both stations are easy to find. Xincheng is closer to the park, but trains there are more infrequent. For bus timetables, visit bit.ly/tarobus.
Hualien may not be the most picturesque seaside town you’ll ever visit — head to nearby Qixingtan Beach for something a bit nicer — but it makes for a solid base before, during or after tackling Taroko National Park, with a range of affordable accommodation available near the train station.
Accommodation within the park can be found in Tianxiang, where there is a small B&B and the Tienhsiang Youth Activity Center (the name is something of a misnomer; it caters to all). Food and drink for the hike is also available for purchase in Tianxiang.
You’ll almost certainly want to earmark at least a few days for time in Taipei given everything it has to offer, including its night markets, abundance of good, yet highly affordable, eating options and the city’s overall character (shrines, often replete with an array of LED signage for that extra cyberpunk feel, are liable to crop up in all manner of unexpected locations).
For those cheap-and-cheerful eats, try Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan, a favorite among locals for the eponymous dish (although you’ll get a variety of opinions on where is best depending on who you ask), and the wonton restaurant Laohu Jiang Wenzhou Da Huntun near Taipei’s main station.
For a tasty snack in Hualien, make sure to stop by one of the two food trucks on Fuxing Street for a zha dan cong you bing (scallion pancake with deep-fried egg). For something a bit more substantial, Zhongshan Road, which runs down to a night market near the sea, hosts a variety of different kinds of eateries.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5