Xitou is probably most famous for its Japanese folklore inspired monster village, but for those who prefer to escape the crowds, there are lots of hiking trails too. The climb up to Phoenix Mountain follows an atmospheric cloud-cloaked ridge line cutting through towering bamboo forest, exactly the kind of place where you might run into a real mythological creature.
DISTANCE: About 8km.
TIME: 7¾ hours – judging by the other groups we passed this is a pretty average time, perhaps just a smidge slow.
TOTAL ASCENT: About 900m to a high point of 1698m on top of Phoenix Mountain.
DIFFICULTY (REGULAR TAIWAN HIKERS): 5/10 – I didn’t ache at all the next day, but why not is a mystery. This trail is a lot of steep ups and downs with some very slippery rocks underfoot.
DIFFICULTY (NEW TAIWAN HIKERS): 9/10 – This isn’t a walk that I’d recommend for a novice hiker, especially if you’re not in a group of more experienced folk. The amount of elevation gain and steep, slippery terrain would make the challenge unpleasant rather than enjoyable.
SIGNAGE: Not much in the way of English signage, but apart from the very first section, the trail is pretty easy to follow and there are few junctions.
FOOD AND WATER: I finished about 1.3L of the 2L that I took. We walked this on a cool spring day with temperatures between 14-20°C. Food wise, we had a big breakfast at Xitou FamilyMart, then took snacks (nuts, dried fruit, biscuits to keep us going).
SHADE: Quite shady, even on a sunny day you should be ok with an application of sunscreen.
MOBILE NETWORK: I was on Taiwan Mobile and had weak to no coverage the whole way. Teresa’s Chunghua seemed to be slightly better.
ENJOYMENT: If you’re looking for views, then this probably isn’t the walk for you, but if you like atmospheric bamboo forests, then you’ll love it.
SOLO HIKE-ABILITY: If you’ve got plenty of experience hiking in Taiwan then you should be fine climbing this alone, especially on weekends and holidays when the trail is busier. Just make sure you take the usual solo hiking precautions.
OTHER: Long trousers are a must, and preferably long sleeves too – there is a lot of the vicious biting cat plant during the climb up to the ridge and you really do not want to be walking through that in bare legs. It would also be wise to have gloves and a hiking pole to aid with the muddy rope sections and with balance over the slippery rocks.
TAIWAN 100 MINOR PEAKS: Number 53.
ROUTE TYPE: There and back.
PERMIT: None needed.
Jump to the bottom of this post for a trail map and GPX file.
07:30 – The start of the trail is barely marked, there’s just a muddy track heading into a grove of scruffy banana palms. Local hikers have dubbed this place “the banana garden” and there’s something quite fun about that.
Sharp eyed walkers (or those with painful past experience), might notice the biting cat plant growing like a kind of warning right beside the entrance. There is A LOT of it along the first third of the trail, so be careful not to let it touch bare skin. (Side note, buns baked with one of these leaves on top of them are one of the more popular snacks sold at the monster village.) The plants beside the path are lush and glistening, and the trail itself is very muddy. Evidently this area is known for being perpetually cloudy, exactly the kind of conditions likely to make the greenery extra green.
There’s a stretch at the start where it seems as if the trail doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to do. Bananas, cedars, bananas, bamboo.
The bamboo grove is dotted with stacks of spirit money, the older piles almost appearing glued to their rocks with moss. It almost feels like an escaped installation from the nearby monster village.
07:52 – The trail climbs to a double junction. At the first make sure to head right, then about ten metres later you’ll need to turn left at this tree. (The trail leading down on the right here leads to another trailhead somewhere in the campsite.)
One of the more memorable aspects of this hike was the constant, loud and melodic presence of white-eared sibia (the one in the right). They were there right from the moment we woke up and heard their call-and-response dawn chorus starting up, all the way until we got back down. In fact I could still hear them long after we’d left the mountains, they even managed to infiltrate my dreams that night. Despite this, we saw very few, or rather we saw very few clearly. Mostly they were just greyish blurs rustling around in the foliage. We also spotted a couple of these white-tailed robins on the right (a scratchy, metallic call, comically territorial looking), and a few Steere’s liocichla, but they didn’t want to be photographed.
08:11 – The trail climbs through a patch of land which looks like it might still be farmed. A sign on the hut tells hikers to stay out of the private property and it looks tidy enough to still be in use.
Climbing higher, we found ourselves walking through more and more bamboo.
It seems theft is a problem for farmers here since there are a couple of signs warning would-be thieves that they could face a $500,000 fine if caught. (This one is complete with photos of the police catching the bamboo bandits red handed.)
08:34 – The path climbs to a rest area with the first of two rudimentary land god shrines. It was here that we first encountered the annoying hiking group that we would keep crossing paths with all day. They were the kind of people who found it necessary to comment on my foreignness every single time that we passed them (at least six times). That alone would have been ok, but they also felt it necessary to state that Teresa wasn’t a woman, (would they really have said this if they thought she was actually a man, of course not), all this in earshot of us but without actually talking to us. Thankfully they were on their way off and left before managing to say anything else offensive.
We had a little rest then followed them. Turn left out of the land god clearing and follow the steps leading uphill.
The trail here is part slippery stone steps, part slippery mud, basically all slippery. Having a hiking stick really really helped in this section.
Very briefly the trees on the left opened up a little to give us a view down towards the flat planes of the western coast, but soon we were surrounded by trees again.
08:59 – Part way to the ridge line there is a natural spring where hikers (or maybe bamboo farmers) have installed tanks and tubes to collect water. I guess if you were planning to camp up on the ridge it might save you carrying some of your water all the way.
09:18 – As we approached the ridge, we found ourselves catching up with the same rude group that we’d passed earlier. This time they spoke to us, asking us if we were students. When we replied that we weren’t, one of the men said to another “Eh, now you ask if they’re students, earlier you said they’re old enough to be your mother?!”(These guys were clearly all my parents age or close enough, so old enough to know better, and I’m not sure why they felt comfortable to loudly and unnecessarily judge us like this, maybe they though we wouldn’t understand.)
This time we decided not to stop and endure their chatter, passing straight through once we’d had a little to drink. There are two trails leaving the junction, take the one on the left leading up to the main summit of Phoenix Mountain (the one on the right will take you to the south peak).
Once you’re up on the ridge, the trail is more of the same. Steep and muddy scrambles interspersed with some more laid back ridge walking, and even a few descents. Mercifully there are no more slippery stone steps though.
The damp climate means that there are lots of mushrooms to spot. (I’m not sure what the function of this marker is.)
09:37 – After a strenuous climb, the trail reaches a rest area with a shelter. Having powered straight through the previous rest area, we decided it would be good to stop and take a break here. As we were doing so, the noisy group passed by again, once more commenting on my miraculous ability to remain consistently foreign.
Once we set off again, I glanced down at the trail and found large numbers of these stunning Indian ghost pipe. This wasn’t my first time seeing them, but I had only ever seen the white variety up until this point. Seeing the pink ones was a real treat. After I spotted the first clump, I looked around and saw them all over the place, they were breaking through the leaf litter to either side of the trail for about 50m.
In one particularly rocky section keep your eyes open for a short trail leading you to this view on the left. I think this is looking back down the ridge you’ve just climbed in the direction of the southern peak.
10:20 – After a while, the trail starts to descend again, and we found ourselves at a junction where the shelter had managed to grow a resplendent leafy crown. Head straight over, passing to the left of the shelter and following signs towards 鳳凰谷鳥園.
On the forest floor in amongst the papery bamboo leaves, I spotted something that looked like a time-stained baseball. Nearby there was a second one, only this one had started to crack open exposing a transparent gelatinous layer beneath which was a fleshy lump of something or other. Having never seen them before, I had no idea until after I got back home that these are stinkhorn eggs. Stinkhorn mushrooms are a fascinating example of how evolution can pan out, they grow inside ‘eggs’ like these until they are ready to emerge in their full, smelly, phallic and/or skirted beauty.
Through a gap in the trees to the right of the trail we caught sight of Sun Moon Lake reflecting the blue sky way off in the distance. On the left you can see the tall buildings around Shuishe Village, and on the far side of the water you can see the red-orange mass of Wenwu Temple.
Another more east-facing gap offered views of the rover valley below us and distant peaks beyond it.
10:43 – From here you need to turn left and continue to follow the ridge. As we approached the junction, we heard what we thought was our least favourite hiking group returning back, but it turned out to be a different, larger collection of retired hikers. “Hey! Come back, you missed the junction!” yelled the guy at the rear “No! You come here!” came the response from the leader at the front. This conversation was being passed up and down the chain of hikers linking the guides at both ends of the group, who decided to conduct the whole debate by shouting instead of by using the radios that they had brought for precisely this purpose. In the end, rear guard guy sent his buddy along the trail ahead of him to vanguard woman, and only when his friend reached her did he accept that she’d gone the right way.
The trail continues in much the same fashion, only there is a bit more bamboo around along this final stretch.
There were also more Indian ghost pipe flowers, although these ones were all of the white variety.
11:09 – We reached the summit in a little over three and a half hours (slower than a lot of other hikers seem to do it, but that’s normal for us). The annoying group had just left, and as we boiled water for our coffee it was just us and a trio of comedic men, one of whom cajoled his hiking mates into taking a ridiculous number of photos before letting them leave. He also tricked them into recording a video of multiple poses so that he could cut out the stills that he liked. The packed up and left before we had finished, and for a while we had the summit to ourselves.
11:46 – After a 40 minute break we were ready to set off again, timing our departure perfectly with the arrival of another couple.
There is a trail which continues over the far side of the peak, but it involves a long road walk back to the start, so we turned around and went down the same way that we’d come.
By the time we were making our way back down, the clouds that this area is famous for had started to graze the top of the ridge, and we found the whole landscape trandsformed.
12:18 – Make sure to turn right at this junction on your way back. It’s signposted as heading towards 溪頭.
12:38 – We passed the annoying hiking group (mercifully for the final time) at the leaf-topped shelter, passing straight over and on, as they (yet again) felt the need to alert each other to my being foreign (doesn’t it ever get boring?).
At one point Teresa had to stop to answer a work phone call, and left me staring through this gap in some jumbled boulders through to the foggy forest beyond.
The bamboo is interspersed with rhododendrons, another common tree on mid elevation slopes in Taiwan.
Where the bamboo leaves whisper like dry paper underfoot, rhododendrons crackle and crunch. They also look fantastic with cloud-diffused light filtering in from behind them
13:31 – We made it back down to the junction with the higher of the two land god shrines, and without any other people around we took a short break, admiring the triangular wooden seating that had been built into a depression just behind the shelter. If we had had more time, I would have suggested continuing straight over towards Phoenix Mountain’s southern peak, but we would have been tireder and less happy at the end of the day if we’d gone that way, so no doubt returning the same way was a smarter choice.
The clouds followed us part way down the next stretch, and we even passed a few more late comers heading up. One couple looked as though they might be planning on camping, but the others didn’t.
14:16 – Back at the lower of the two land god shrines, we took another break. Teresa tended to more work stuff, and I thought I heard the annoying team heading down, and tried to chivvy her on. As it happened, it wasn’t them, but it was an equally annoying team who several times tried to engage us in conversation by saying “有一點晚呢!” and “太晚了吧!” then when we didn’t react to those, “very late!” The first ones weren’t obviously directed at us, and so we ignored them, but the switch to English made it clear that they were trying to communicate. Teresa continued to ignore him, so I asked if he meant we were climbing too late, and he said yes (…so why not say that directly…?), and when I replied that we were on our way down he seemed confused. It hadn’t occurred to him that they hadn’t seen us earlier because we’d been on a different trail.
Perhaps I was just in a bad mood that day, or perhaps the earlier group had used up all of my patience. Either way, I decided not to stick around for further pleasant conversation, and told Teresa it was time to get going again.
15:05 – Annoying team number two set off not long after us, but thankfully they met some more hikers who were really climbing up this late, so they got caught up giving unsolicited advice to them too. (To be fair, some people really do need to be told that these things, so maybe annoying team number two saved that pair from getting stuck in the hills overnight.)
We made it back to the trail head around three o’clock, and made our way slowly back to Xitou Monster Village. If you’ve never been, then it’s definitely worth a quick look, but after a day spent out in the peace and quiet of the forest, I found it overwhelming and far too touristy.
How to get to Xitou Monster Village and Phoenix Mountain
GPS location: Midi Street trailhead – N23 40.820 E120 47.780
Public transport: If you’re coming by public transport then you’ll either want to find overnight accommodation nearby (Xitou Camping Area and Monster Village would be the obvious choices, although the area does have quite a few options), or be confident in your abilities to complete the walk before the last return service of the day. The simplest option is to take the 6883 Taiwan Tourist Shuttle from Taichung. On weekdays the first bus leaves Gancheng bus stop (close to Taichung train station) at 7:20, then stops by Taichung THSR at 7:40, arriving at Xitou around 8:50. The last return service leaves Xitou at 17:20. On weekends the service runs a little earlier, with the first bus leaving Gancheng and the TSHR station at 7:10 and 7:30 respectively, and the last bus back leaving Xitou at 17:50. (Information from Xitou Monster Village’s website.) Alight at the final stop and walk back a short way past the convenience store to get to the start of the trail.
Further reading: For more about the monster village, I refer you to Nick Kembel’s site.
Phoenix Mountain Trail Map
GPX file available here on Outdoor Active. (Account needed, but the free one works just fine.)
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