Despite knowing of this trail since arriving in Taiwan, it has taken me over three years to get around to walking it. I’d heard of the amazing landscape and photogenic water-buffalo, but for some reason there was always something higher up on my exponentially expanding list of places to visit. Now that I have been, I am glad that I made the effort to go, but this walk won’t be featuring in any of my personal top ten lists. With it’s many steps and many people this trail reminds me of my former stomping ground in Hong Kong, and whilst this isn’t a bad thing, (especially for solo travellers in search of a safe hike), I have been spoiled by the quieter, wilder side of Taiwan, and now I enjoy views much more if I pay for them with sweat and bruises.
DISTANCE: About 14.5km from station to station.
TIME: 6-7 hours is what is suggested in most places, I walked it in a little under five hours, but that was pushing myself a little.
DIFFICULTY (regular Taiwan hiker): 4/10 – All of the difficulty here comes from the fact that it is basically just 14km of steps. You could pretty much walk this daydreaming, or with your eyes closed and without a map, but the trail will still take a toll on your body. My feet, knees and calves were sore after so many hard, stone steps.
DIFFICULTY (new Taiwan hiker): 7/10 – This is a very straightforward trail with clear signs and good paths throughout. It’s also very popular, so you don’t really need to worry about getting lost in the middle of nowhere. However, there is quite a lot of elevation gain involved, and 14.5km is a pretty long walk for some people even on the flat. If you want to do this make sure to give yourself plenty of time, maybe 7-8 hours to be on the safe side, and prepare enough food to give you energy.
TOTAL ASCENT: 950m to a high point of 616 metres above sea level.
WATER: I drank about 2.5L of my 3L, I’m not convinced it was enough, but when the weather is cooler it’s a little harder to recognise thirst.
SHADE: Pretty much no shade at all, except for the final down section – if you burn you will need protection on all but the most overcast of days.
MOBILE NETWORK: Patchy, there are quite a few long sections without any signal.
ENJOYMENT: This is tough to define! The views are obviously delightful, top/marks kind of views. However, the walk itself is punishing. The only good thing about all the endless steps is that they enable you to cover a greater distance than you can on most mountains in Taiwan. Overall, perhaps I’d have to say this is a 7/10 – the views are worth the effort, but it’s not a hike I’d be repeating in a hurry. Also, it’s taken me so long to get around to visiting because Teresa cannot stand this type of trail, so it’s safe to say that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
TAIWAN MINOR PEAKS: No. 82 – Mount Wankengtou (灣坑頭山)
OTHER: The ridge is completely exposed, so it would be a bad idea to go in windy, rainy or stormy weather. What’s more, this walk is popular for the views (at least I assume this is why so many people visit, since it definitely isn’t for the steps), so you should try to go on a clear day when all your efforts will be properly rewarded.
ROUTE TYPE: Point to point.
PERMIT: None needed.
Jump to the bottom of this post for a trail map and GPX file.
I arrived at Dali train station at about 11:30, a little later than I’d hoped, but I knew there was always the option to cut the walk somewhat short if I was running out of time. The station has a hot water machine and a toilet, but there is a bigger, cleaner and more pleasant toilet block a little further along, so I turned right and headed along the road. (Actually, there is a newly constructed wooden trail which runs along and then under the road which is quite a bit safer than walking on the side of the road).
Just where the trail crosses under the road, it comes up in a large bus and car park, and some steps leading up from a corner of the car park leads to a tourist information centre, some toilets and a temple.
Caoling Qingyun Temple appears to be very popular with the tourist crowd, but I just passed through. After crossing the temple forecourt, look out for the steps leading up on the left.
The path leads out of the temple complex and joins a small road, and its from here that your legs really have to start earning their keep.
Since the trails here are so popular, there are maps at regular intervals telling you where you are. I don’t know if it is maybe just that the local government in Yilan is good at this stuff, but I’ve found the trails in Yilan to be better marked than many in Taiwan.
The road winds up and up and up for a good long way. I passed many people on their way down already, including (what I assume to be) the whole senior year of Chiao Hsi Junior High School. (I’m making that assumption based on the fact that many schools here have a ‘graduation trip’ for their leavers around this time of year – although given that these kids were from just a few train stops away, perhaps it is a regular trip for them.) A few chucked a hello my way, and one or two cheeky ones used Chinese – if these kids are anything like the ones I come into contact with regularly, then I imagine it is somewhat taboo for them to speak Chinese to a foreigner. I must have been passing groups of them for a good 15 minutes or so.
From leaving the temple to arriving at the junction of the Taoyuan Valley Trail and Caoling Trail it took me about 40 minutes.
There were many people sat on the benches here and next to the land god shrine, and more people arriving frequently from both sides. I took the left turn up to the viewing platforms where I had some fruit before continuing on.
From the viewing platform you can see the lower portion of Caoling Trail dipping down into the valley towards Fulong, and in the other direction Turtle Island rises from the sea.
If you reach this point and feel like what’s come so far is close to the limit of you capabilities, then I would highly suggest that you take the Caoling Trail down from here towards Fulong Station and beach because it doesn’t get any easier, in fact the steps from here on out are unrelenting and frequently steep.
The main (perhaps only) positive are the very pretty views in every direction. After climbing a further 20 minutes from the junction I paused at some benches to look back in the direction of Fulong and saw the first water-buffalo of the walk – a handful of adults and a couple of calves were grazing around a small pond. A local who was also stopped in the same place asked me where I was headed, and when I told him, he said I’d better get a move on. He also said that the trail is much easier if walked from Daxi to Dali.
This walk between here and the end of the upland section of the Taoyuan Valley trail is mostly very pleasant. There are ups, but whilst they’re steep and tiring, they’re also short and followed by downs.
As I was midway down one of these downhill slopes, a woman gave me that slightly overly friendly smile that I’ve come to recognise as a local stating their intent to become your conversation partner for the indefinite short-term future. I quite like talking to people when I’m out by myself, but I have developed a sixth sense to warn me in situations where the other person is interested in perusing a conversation based solely on the fact that I am a foreigner. I don’t mind repeatedly telling people where I’m from, how long I’ve been here, what I think of Taiwan, or hearing about their trips to England, it’s good practise for me, and it’s always interesting to hear what people think of my home country. But when the other speaker cannot let the conversation progress beyond my foreignness, or begins to just list the foreign places they’ve visited, or starts asking for selfies together within five minutes, or introduces me to others in their group as their ‘English friend’, then I get uncomfortable. If you’ve been a foreigner in Taiwan for any length of time, then I am sure you know the type I mean – the ones who exoticise and idolise outsiders simply for being other. Perhaps I am being entirely unfair, and these people are just going out of their way to be welcoming and sociable, but I very quickly find myself looking to escape.
This lady had ticked all of the boxes on my discomfort checklist without wasting any time. We’d been photographed with the water-buffalo together, I’d had her whole travel history including all of the cities, she had deflected my attempts to make the conversation about what we were currently doing, and she had called over her friends to introduce me to them as her new foreign friend. I decided it was time to deploy my first line of defence – the speed of my comparative youth.
I started to increase my pace, and got quite a good speed going despite the tiredness in my legs. Determined aunty managed to keep up, albeit silently. In a way this was weirder, since she’d pulled ahead of all of her friends, and at this point was basically just chasing me. With her a little behind me, we both arrived at Wankengtou Shan (灣坑頭山). She remarked how pretty it was, and I agreed. She then immediately turned around to ask another person to take a photo of us, but I pretended not to hear that part and kept walking to see the view from a slightly different point, and then just slipped away. It felt like I was pulling a bit of an unkind move, but at the same time, I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my hike talking to her and taking photos together at every noteworthy spot, (a real risk because we were both headed to the same end goal). Thankfully, that is where the ordeal ended. Twice before I’ve had to resort to a more direct way to get rid of clingy companions and it is unbearably uncomfortable to tell people that I’d rather walk alone.
It was a bit of a shame that I didn’t take the time to enjoy the view from the highest point of the hike, it really was lovely – layered mountains stretching as far south as I could see, the flat sprawl of Yilan city picked out in hazy gold light further down the coast. All of the hues of green, blue and grey blending together. Immediately after ditching the clingy aunty, I ran into the group of hikers in the above photo, pleasant conversation was exchanged as I passed through, but mercifully none of them tried to become my new best friend.
It’s hard to see in the above picture, but that flat piece of land curving out on the horizon is Yilan, with the easternmost point being Su’ao. After resizing the picture, it’s also impossible to see the many shipping vessels streaming back in to Daxi Harbour. (You can see a full sized file here.) That is where this walk finishes – it appears deceptively close, but it still took me me about three hours to make met way there from this point.
After reaching the highest point of the walk, this was where the effort really was truly rewarded. To the north and east was the sea, but in every other direction was layer upon layer upon layer of hills. This promise of there always being another peak to climb, a new ridge to explore is why people can spend their whole lives hiking in Taiwan without ever having climbed them all or getting bored.
After dipping down a little, the landscape seems to change somewhat, the greenery becoming less varied and more obviously grazed. A scattering of graves are partially visible slightly below the edge of the flatter land, and a row of lights hints at the presence of a road.
Sure enough, upon reaching a viewing platform at the end of the Caoling portion of the Taoyuan Valley trail there is a car park right at the trailhead. (If you’re only interesting in coming up here to see the scenery, the car park can be accessed via Gongliao, and on weekdays you can even catch a bus to within a 30-minute walking distance.)
I pressed on, headed down to the carpark and straight up more steps on the far side. By this time my legs were really starting to feel the burn, and even regularly popping my salt candy didn’t seem to do much to replenish the energy in my muscles.
IF YOU FEEL THAT ANOTHER 5 OR 6 KILOMETRES WOULD BE TOO MUCH, HEAD LEFT HERE AND YOU’LL BE BACK ON FLAT GROUND A BIT QUICKER.
There is a further subtle change of scenery on this final ridge section, here even the peaks are grassy mounds, only the hardiest of shrubby plants remain. On the trail maps, this portion is called the Taoyuan Valley Trail – Daxi Section. This picture was taken at the highest point of the Daxi part of the trail, somehow it reminds me a little of the landscape back home.
From this point on I found the trail to be much quieter than on the previous sections. From here until the point where I finished, I encountered a total of eight other walkers – a stark comparison to the hundreds that I must have passed on the previous two parts.
Coming down from the peak, the trail splits. I headed straight, but it’s worth noting that there is a toilet block just a couple of hundred metres to the right. Unlike most longer trails in Taiwan, this one has very few secluded places for a person to relieve themselves if nature calls, so it was considerate of the local government to put these toilets in.
This is the last real section of grazed highland landscape, and I enjoyed seeing the many water-buffalo doing their thing. In a couple of places I passed them grazing so close to the trail that I could hear the sound of them eating. The cattle here seem docile and unconcerned with people, but as with all large, wild animals it is necessary to treat them calmly and respectfully. Just the same as at Qingtiangang, there has been the odd incident of people being injured, but I would say that it’s unlikely to happen unless you get too close.
I stopped for a short rest and snack break to give myself a bit more energy for the final push. This picture is looking back the way that the path comes from – if you check carefully you’ll notice that the profile of the most distant ridge is the same as in the previous photo, only quite a bit further away. The silver grass here was particularly pretty.
Not much further along from where I stopped to photograph this I passed a weather observing station on a small peak with a few benches.
After heading through the final stone cattle gate I arrived at this junction which marks the point at which the trail finally veers away from the ridge and starts to head back down to the coast. I paid a quick visit to the land god shrine that had been set up to mark the pass, and then took the left path downhill. The signpost told me that it would be 4.1km down to Daxi Riverside Park, and I wished that someone could have constructed a slide or a zip-wire to make the journey swifter.
There was a toilet block a short way down from the ridge, I debated whether or not to make use of it, but decided to press on. I didn’t enjoy this section so much, the dark clouds that had been moody and dramatic when I was on a wide, expansive ridge became oppressive and gloomy once I’d dropped below the tree line. The abundant bird life was the only thing that prevented it from being creepy. At one point I saw a dash of tan fur and a flicked-up white tail bounding away from me at high speed. This is the first time I’ve ever spotted a deer in Taiwan. A little further on I passed a couple slogging their way up, (I’m not sure that was a wise choice considering that it was already nearly 3:30), and I heard the startled squeak of a barking deer, (maybe the one I’d just seen), clearly it wasn’t expecting to have its afternoon foraging interrupted by so many noisy walkers.
The trail seemed unending, and every time I thought I must have finished climbing there was another flight of steps leading up. My leg muscles and feet were really protesting at the amount of effort I’d forced them to exert, and I was ready for a rest.
For the final ten minutes of the descent I found myself walking close to a couple headed the same direction as me. They’d been sitting on a step as I approached. I overheard them saying that they were glad they hadn’t walked the Caoling Trail section, as that would have been too far, so I assume they must have taken the Stone Guanyin Temple trail. They let me pass, saying that they were slow, but honestly I wasn’t much faster, I am always a little slower on the downs to avoid aggravating the issue with my toes, particularly in places like this which are steep and without anything to hold onto for support.
After what seemed like forever, (in actual fact it was only an hour), the trail levelled out and crossed over a bridge. A sign post indicated that the train station was a further 800m to the right.
Looking forward to the promise of a seat, I made my way along a narrow path behind a row of houses. After a while, the train tracks appear from a tunnel on the right.
The path emerges onto the main road, and I saw a pair of fishermen folding their nets. Perhaps they had been in one of the boats I’d seen heading into the harbour earlier in the afternoon. I crossed a bridge over a large river which empties into the ocean, and made my way up the small row of businesses that comprises Daxi’s main street. There were a couple of stores selling snacks, and one or two restaurants setting up for dinner, but I made my way straight to the station and found a space on the platform bench. The overhead sign had completely inaccurate information, suggesting that it would be over an hour’s wait until the next train, but thankfully it turned out to be just 15 minutes or so before one came to whisk me back to the comforts of the city and my dinner.
How to get to Taoyuan Vallley Trail
Google maps address:
- the trail starts behind the Caoling Qingyun Temple/Dali Tiangong Temple, just five minutes away from the Dali train station.
- the path arrives in the village of Daxi right next to a carpark.
- an alternate end point is half way between Dali and Daxi, (this is the Stone Guanyin trail), you’d then have to choose which train station to walk to.
- Dali trail head – N24 58.220 E121 55.540
- Daxi trail head – N24 56.530 E121 53.770
- Stone Guanyin Trail entrance – N24 57.100 E121 54.550
Public transport: one of the reasons for this trail’s enduring popularity is the fact that is is easily accessible from Taipei. Just get on one of the local trains which stop at every station from either Taipei Main Station or Nangang Station, the journey takes under two hours and trains leave regularly (every 45 minutes or so).
further reading: the team at Taiwan Everything have a write up of a shorter route starting from Daxi, heading up the Stone Guanyin Trail and then down the same way as I walked. Then this post on Over The City details the differences between the different trails up to Taoyuan Valley, (and is a good example of why you should always be cautious with regards to the weather here).
Taoyuan Vallley Trail Map
GPX file available here.
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