…and five alternative trails to try in 2021.
I’m about to go off on a minor rant, if you’re just here for the top trails that Taiwan has to offer, then you’re going to want to scroll down a little way first. (But I’d highly recommend you sit though the rant too.)
It’s always interesting to see which trails pique the public interest in any given year, and 2020 has been no exception. Hailed as Taiwan’s “Year of Mountain Tourism,” 2020 has seen hiking become an ever more popular pastime for locals and long-term visitors alike, with some trails even drawing the attention of an overseas crowd. As a result, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Taiwan has been largely cut off from the outside world due to COVID-19, the number of walkers on the trails has visibly increased. This has proven to be something of a mixed blessing for those of us who love the hills here. More people brings a greater awareness and a greater potential to harness the passion of those who love the outdoors for positive ends, perhaps an increased number of visitors will even lead to more public transport services making the mountains more accessible to those who don’t wish to contribute to the number of cars on the road (perhaps even more community organised services like the newly started Parkbus). And if played smartly by local and central government, with an emphasis on courting smaller groups of independent travellers, it could potentially be a boon for the small scale local businesses, particularly in areas that were struggling after the collapse of the Chinese tourism market (allow me a dash of optimism, please).
But there is a flip side. The increased traffic has put a strain on the trails, cabins have been packed, paths blocked by inconsiderate campers, popular routes have become so busy that they can sometimes feel like you’re queuing to get a bowl of whatever the currently trending ramen is, and the number of accidents reported has sky rocketed, (with ‘getting lost’ being the most frequent cause of requiring rescue).
How can mitigate our own impact on the land? What can we do to ease the human burden and make the whole experience more pleasurable for both ourselves and others around us?
- There are plenty of things, but first and foremost, prepare yourself: this includes preparing physically, preparing in terms of skills (map reading, balance, putting up a tent if you plan to camp); making sure you have the right equipment, food and water, (right here means what you need to stay safe and happy, it doesn’t need to be fancy); studying the route you plan to do and assessing how much time it’s likely to take you to do it.
- As well as preparation you can do your bit to preserve the natural environment that you pass through, pack out your rubbish, learn how to go to the toilet in the back country (no, those toilet paper flowers are not pretty), be conscious of your volume if you’re around others, pick up litter if your schedule and bag allows. Familiarise yourself with the principals of Leave No Trace and practise them.
- Spread the burden – Taiwan has a whole host of trails, many of which are very quiet, why not try something off the beaten track. Alternatively, you could plan your visit to popular sites so that they avoid the weekend and holiday crowds.
In light of this last suggestion, instead of the normal top ten list, I will split this into the five most popular trails (in terms of how many visitors they have had on this blog), and five that I think deserve more attention than they have been getting. So without further ado, let’s look at the hiking trails that have seen the most visitors this year:
Ok, so I am slightly cheating here, this is a seven part trail, but combined they have had the most visits of any pages on my blog. This trail has seen a sudden and massive surge in interest in the second half of the year, in part spurred on by National Geographic airing a feature about it on the channel. Walking and writing about this was my challenge for myself in 2019, and it changed the way I write about some types of walk. I’m glad this walk has been a hit, it may not be Taiwan’s most thrilling trail, but it is a great introduction to the hills around Taipei. I also hope that its success leads to more multipart trails being developed.
Actually I think this trail is pretty well placed to cope with plenty of visitors, the paths have been designed to take in large numbers, and since it’s so long (92km in total), you can usually find a quiet spot of your own.
Always a popular walk, I revisited Caoling Historic Trail myself twice in the past twelve months – first on my way to walk the Taoyuan Valley Trail, then again as a section of the Tamsui-Kavalan Trails. It has seen an increase in popularity of late both due to the fact that it’s a great place to see silvergrass, and also because of its prominence on the Tamsui-Kavalan Trails (or Danlan Old Trail). After walking it a second time, I’ve decided that I prefer the walk starting from Gongliao and ending in Dali. It’s never been too busy when I’ve visited, but you’re unlikely to get ten minutes to yourself if the weather is good.
A classic northern Taiwan day hike, this one has consistently been among the most visited pages of my blog ever since I walked and wrote about it in 2017. I haven’t been back since then, but I have visited the nearby Teapot Mountain and witnessed the literal queue all the way along the spine of the beast (it makes my photo look empty). If I were you, I would save this hike for a weekday, it’s fun, but a lot less so when you feel as if you’re stuck in line at a 7-Eleven.
Shockingly for me, I hiked Jiali Shan back in either late 2016 or early 2017, nearly four years ago. I feel that Teresa and I have grown so much as hikers in that time, I certainly would never leave all of the planning up to her these days! It’s always been a well-trodden trail, but judging by its prominence on my Instagram feed, I think its popularity has exploded over the past year or two. The drive up is not so pleasant, but if you can stomach that without getting too car sick, then Jiali Shan provides some fun walking and fantastic views.
This trail has always had a number of names: Saint Marian’s Hiking Trail, Sacred Mother Trail, Shengmu Hiking Trail, Marian Hiking trail, and now to add to the list is Matcha Mountain. The person you need to thank (or curse) for turning an already busy trail into a supermarket is Japanese photographer Kengo Kobayashi. His rechristening of the hill as Matcha Mountain sent scores of Taiwanese marching up the slope on a mission to enjoy the velvety green mounds. It is a beautiful walk, no doubt, but the crowds I’ve seen in recent photos of the peak have put me off travelling here for a while.
TOP FIVE TRAILS TO TRY IN TAIWAN IN 2021
Whilst all of the above trails are undoubtedly worth the leg work, you might want to avoid them until most Taiwanese people are once again able to escape to Japan for their nature fix (Taipei Grand Hike being the exception). But don’t despair, Taiwan has thousand of mountains, and even more trails that snake over and around them, there are more than enough quiet corners to get lost in. Below are are some that I feel are deserving of a little more love. I’m going to focus on trails that are accessible by public transport*, and since I’m Taipei based, that’s where most of them are, but if you have any suggestions for routes elsewhere then please let me know.
*accessible ≠ convenient, I think that’s a major factor in keeping these trails less visited
This is an absolutely gorgeous historic trail which runs alongside Beishi River, and although it is a pretty popular spot in summer, you’re still likely to find it very quiet if you go midweek. You’ll definitely want to dip your feet in at the very least, so make sure you bring a towel. Buses aren’t the most convenient, but with a little planning and an early start it’s entirely possible.
Just a short distance away from the crowds admiring the Pingxi Crags, you can find a whole other adventure. This one is not for the faint of heart, as you have to scale a near-vertical rock face to reach your destination. The loop returns via another charming historic trail which takes in a unique pair of twin temples and some ruins from the area’s mining past.
I couldn’t say how busy this is on weekends, but when I visited on a rainy Monday it was both enchanting and quiet. Come midweek and bring a picnic to enjoy this to the fullest. Public transport is a bit of a mission, but very possible, (I managed to find my way here by accident!). Since the bus departs from and returns to Pinglin, it would be ideal to combine this relaxed stroll with a stop to sample some of the area’s famous tea.
This is not an undiscovered gem, not by a long stretch of the imagination, but every time I walk the trails around here I am pleasantly surprised. This particular route is probably my favourite through the hills here as it has both impressive views and just enough adventure to satisfy your need to get outside without having to forfeit a good rest. Rehai Cliff is popular with rock climbers, but even on weekends I haven’t come across anyone except climbers here.
This is a trail I’ve returned to several times this year, it’s really very short, but it packs in a good climb, a small crater lake, some grand scenery and a dash of rocky scrambling. It’s a true delight. Think a micro version of nearby Xinshan and Dream Lake.
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