I set out from Taipei early in the morning. My base in Taiwan’s capital city was in the far north of the country, but Taiwan is absurdly easy to get around. An extensive rail network takes you all over the country, but I had a specific destination in mind that morning: Taroko Gorge.
Taroko Gorge is one of Taiwan’s highlights, and with just cause. Located close to the city of Hualien, a couple of hours south of Taipei by train and close to the east coast of the country, the gorge slices through the mountains in a series of breathtaking valleys lined by lush sub-tropical vegetation and beautifully patterned rock faces. The mountains are made of marble, and their swirling colours line the sides of the gorge.
But my day started on the coast. Joining a tour group at the Hualien train station, we set out first towards the Qingshui cliffs. On a bend in the highway, a side road heads out to a viewpoint where there is a stunning panorama, as marble cliffs drop vertically into a bright turquoise sea. Further ahead, the main road winds its way along the coast and disappears into a tunnel. Running parallel to it, perilously close to the cliff edge, is the old main road, which shows how hazardous it was to travel up this coast until comparatively recently.
Qingshui Cliffs are a regular morning stopoff, as it is at this time of day that the easterly sun bathes the cliffs in light and makes the sea sparkle in many shades of blue. As the clouds began to roll in, however, we set off again for the main destination of the day: Taroko National Park.
Navigating the park itself is pretty easy. There is really only one road, which runs along the gorge in a series of bends and spectacular bridges. We stopped first at the Shakadang Trail, where a footpath runs along the edge of the gorge for about 30 minutes. The walk is spectacular, taking you past rocky overhangs and through lush trees and foliage. The Liwu River runs along the bottom of the gorge it created in a sparkling thread of silver among the marble and subtropical greenery. The walk is gentle, and provides a wonderful opportunity to examine the gorge up close.
At the end of the trail, we doubled back and returned to our starting point on one of the bridges that criss-cross the park. Soaring high above the gorge, the bridges themselves are a work of art, with each one lined with statues of lions and other motifs that give you no doubt of the Chinese heritage of the country. Moving on, however, we set off to explore more of the park. After lunch in a local restaurant, the next stop was Swallow Grotto.
Swallow Grotto is another footpath along the river’s edge, but very different from the Shakadang Trail. Running mainly parallel to the road which has been carved into the rock, the trail follows a section of the gorge which is high above the river below, taking you below rocky overhangs and natural archways. Hard hats are required to negotiate the trail, which adds a dose of humour to the occasion. But the real draw is the tiny natural caves that litter the rock face along this section of the gorge, and which are used by swallows for nesting each spring. The swirls of marble are also particularly spectacular along this section of the gorge.
Our final stop was to check out one of the temples that also dot the national park. Perched high above the river below, they are impossibly picturesque, hidden amongst the trees. We visited Changuang Sih temple for a look around, where we were one small group of foreign tourists among the many Taiwanese day trippers who had come to pay their respects. Not far away, a rope bridge crossed this section of the gorge, another popular draw, and another photogenic moment. Solid and well-secured, a trip across one of Taroko’s rope bridges is a must-do if you are not too afraid of heights.
All too soon, it was time to return to Hualien for the train back to Taipei. While Taroko Gorge could easily keep you occupied for a couple of days, Taiwan has so much to see that schedules can be tight, but as a day trip, you can certainly get a good feel for the area. It makes for a spectacular day out, in the Taiwanese nature that makes the country so special.
How to visit Taroko Gorge
As I mentioned, I chose to join a tour group to visit the gorge. For me, this was a practical way of ensuring I saw the best sights, had someone else take responsibility for getting me back to my train on time, and had a local guide to explain the history and geology of the area as we went. Travelling solo, it also gave me a group of people to share my day with. Group tours set off from Hualien City and can cater to visitors staying overnight in Hualien as well as those arriving on the morning train from Taipei. If your budget runs to it, private tours are also easy to find.
If you prefer to travel independently, you have two options. Firstly, you could rent a car and drive yourself (to be approached with caution: the roads are winding, narrow, and busy with other cars and tour buses). Or, secondly, you could take the local shuttle bus from Hualien station up to the park. Be aware that this bus runs once an hour and can be busy; if you are catching a train later in the day, take care to make sure you are back at the station in plenty of time. Timetables are available from the Taroko Visitor’s Centre or at http://old.taroko.gov.tw/.
Enjoyed reading about Taroko Gorge?
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