Mention the country of Taiwan and most people either get it confused with Thailand or associate it with the words “Made in…”. But this little leaf-shaped island off the east coast of China has much more to offer than mass production and Taipei 101; if you head to the mountains running through the centre of the country or take a train to the eastern seaboard, there are some sweet spots of nature to discover.
Being a pair of country bumpkins who love the great outdoors, Nate and I need to find places of natural beauty and tranquility wherever we are in the world. When we lived and worked in Taiwan for five months, it first seemed to us that natural spaces were hard to come by in this industrially-oriented nation. We explored as much of this island as we could and in time found the hidden green gems of nature that Taiwan has to offer.
Join us on this pictorial guide as we reveal the best hiking trails and nature walks to explore in Taiwan.
Chasing Waterfalls in Yilan County and Jiaoxi
Yilan County is in the north-east corner of Taiwan, only a 2-hour train journey from Taipei central (you can head to the Taiwan Railways Administration website for info on times and fares) City-dwellers come here for the cleaner air and less hectic vibe, because Taipei is a maelstrom of fume-belching mopeds at any time of the year.
Jiaoxi is one of the most popular destinations in this county, a town famous for its hot springs and holiday atmosphere. It was in Jiaoxi that we found some of Taiwan's best vegan cake at a cute little cafe. We also stayed in a resort close by; a 4-star retreat surrounded by rectangular fish pools as far as the eye could see. There's plenty to do in the town too. We visited one of several thermal baths and enjoyed a pedicure courtesy of some nibbling fish at this place (Nate also tried to take an underwater photo of the feasting fishies, and ended up breaking his ‘waterproof’ phone-camera…)
A 20-min walk uphill and out of the town will bring you to a walking trail that leads to Wufengchi Waterfall. While it’s not one of the wildest of trails (the Taiwanese approach to hiking: cover it with concrete and signpost the sh*t out of it), there’s a decaying “Jurassic Park” feel to the path, with rusting lampposts and steps smothered in vines and moss.
To get to Wufengchi Waterfall, search in a maps application for its name (or try "Wufeng Road"); it’s very easy to find and reach on foot, and is only a 20-minute walk from the main town. Alternatively, you can catch one of the regular minibuses from the stop outside Jiaoxi Train Station and be there in less than 10 minutes for half the price of a Mars bar.
Crowd-surfing on Elephant Mountain, Taipei
The Nangang District Hiking Trail (also called Xiangshan, which means “Elephant Mountain”) is another example of how the Taiwanese like their nature walks: tame, accessible and convenient. It even has paved steps, handrails and public toilets at the top.
If you fancy a break from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, you can enjoy the hustle and bustle of this hilltop walk instead; the place is swarming with tourists, especially at the weekends, but the view of Taipei’s famous 101 skyscraper is worth elbowing your way up to the top for.
Despite the crowds, there is still plenty of wildlife to spot on the fringes of the city. I spied an eagle flying between the treetops nearby and also managed to snap some of the creepy crawlies too.
To get to Elephant Mountain, take Taipei’s MRT system to Xiangshan Station and at the terminus of the Red Line, leave by Exit 2. Walk along the park, turning left at the end of the road. The whole walk takes about 20 minutes to the top and is best done in the late afternoon to catch the sunset, but expect hordes of hikers at the weekends. Or you could head there for sunrise and have the place all to yourself.
Keeping out of the cold in Kenting National Park
January 2016 was the coldest winter in 80 years for Taiwan. Crowds flocked to the mountains to see the white stuff for the first time, causing tailbacks in Taipei. We were holed up in a (now ex-) friend’s apartment, desperately trying to keep warm; the Taiwanese don’t need central heating in a country that normally basks in 30-degree heat. While Taipei froze, we decided to head to the south of the island for some tropical sun instead (and escape our nightmare of a host – more on that story in another blog post…)
Kenting is a small town that draws the Taiwanese tourists in droves for its seaside party atmosphere. The main drag felt more like somewhere in Thailand than Taiwan; bars, clubs and even amusement arcades, all close to soft sandy beaches. But we hadn't left the bright lights of Taipei City to find another place to party. We were seeking somewhere pulsing with a very different kind of life...
Nate's birthday was spent exploring gullies of fossilised coral and striking limestone boulders, all smothered in creeping vines and exotic foliage. We clambered over the rock formations and were rewarded with ocean views across the Pacific. At the end of the trail we found a path to the historic Eluanbi Lighthouse.
Signs alongside the paved pathways warn tourists of the dangers of the local wildlife, although we didn’t chance on a single snake or giant hornet. Fortunately, Nate didn’t get any birthday bumps of the venomous kind.
Getting to the green wilds of Kenting is simple. From Taipei, take a HSR (high-speed rail) to Kaohsiung Station and change for a “Pingtung” bus at Zuoying Station. The return trip costs NT650 and takes 120 minutes from Zuoying to Kenting. Once in Kenting town, we’d recommend hiring a car or scooter to allow you to explore, but there are return buses to Eluanbi Lighthouse that frequently stop on the short high street of Kenting Town.
Trails, Tribes and Beaches in Taitung
Taitung is a corner of Taiwan that feels like it’s the last place to be developed on the island. Unassuming and quiet in comparison with most other Formosan cities, you’ll find black-sand beaches to stroll along and forest parks to explore.
What struck us the most about Taitung was how quiet and remote it seemed. The beaches weren’t the most picturesque, but they made up for it in their emptiness.
The forest trails were typically concreted and cultivated, with a feeling that nature had been prepared and tidied before our arrival. We were starting to wonder whether the locals were afraid of wild things. Still, the tropical foliage and colours were easy on the eye.
Something we didn’t find time to do (5 months spent living in Taiwan and we still didn’t find the time! *Rolls eyes*) was a trip to one of the mountain villages close to Taitung, where we would have encountered indigenous Taiwanese villages. Head to this site to learn more about native Taiwanese tribes such as the Amis or Puyuma: http://tour.taitung.gov.tw/en-us/DiscoverTaitung/Culture and don't make the same mistake we did; get out there and experience this island!
Trains from Taipei to Taitung take around 5 and a half hours and the journey is incredibly scenic, passing coastline, sweeping riverbeds and forested mountains. You can also reach the region from Kaohsiung on an equally picturesque route that takes 4 hours 30 minutes.
Magnificent Views from Maokong, Taipei
Maokong is close enough to Taipei for a day-trip experience of nature. We took the city’s metro-train to the south of the city, alighting close to Taipei Zoo, but rather than gawping at sad caged animals we took the gondola over the mountains to this greener, more natural part of Taiwan.
Like most of Taipei’s attractions, Maokong is heaving with tourists, particularly at the weekends. They come for its tea houses, as the village is one of the most scenic places in Taiwan to have a cuppa. No doubt you can find a cheaper pot of tea elsewhere in Taipei, but we had to admit that the views were incredible.
We left the crowds behind to explore the area a little further along the main road (just keep walking away from the cable-car station and beyond the town if you decide to follow in our footsteps) and found wooden decks weaving through a forested valley, tranquil and green and totally lacking in tourists.
Sunset here was magical; a view of Taipei city as the light turned golden and a chorus of frogs and insects chirping in the trees around us.
Take the Wenshan-Neihu Line on the city’s MRT to Taipei Zoo Station and follow the signs to the Gondola from the stop (walking distance of about 350m). The ride in the gondola is NT$120 each way and is the fastest route to the village of Maokong. Check the weather before you go as high winds will force them to close it.
Epic Scenery at Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge was so spectacular, we went there twice. Accessible by road from the laid-back eastern city of Hualien, we’d say this was our favourite location in Taiwan.
As you drive along winding, steep-sided roads, in and out of rock tunnels that were blasted through silver marble, you follow the snaking rapids of the river as it carves its way through the gorge.
Stop at the Swallow Grotto, where the little birds have made their mud nests on the sheer cliffsides and around the cave tunnels. If you come during the summer months, you'll see them flying in and out of the caves to feed their young.
Creepy crawlies, correct clothing and keeping dry: What to pack for hiking in Taiwan
Taroko Gorge, like any other nature spot in Taiwan, is crawling with bugs! Whether you love minibeasts or not, you should always wear plenty of insect repellent in this country. I got eaten alive on the days I forgot to douse myself in DEET. Likewise dress appropriately. Forest trails are full of thorns, prickles and nipping bugs, so opt for loose trousers and long-sleeved shirts rather than t-shirts and shorts. Pull on your sturdiest walking boots too; despite the concrete paths everywhere in this country, it’s still important to be comfortable while hiking! Lastly, the east side of Taiwan is much wetter than the rest of the island, so be sure to pack waterproofs.
Another place we loved in Taroko Gorge was the area around Wen Tianxiang Park, where you can hike overgrown trails behind a sweet little church at the top of the hill. Don’t wander too far into the forest and get mobbed by macaque monkeys though (like we almost were).
Taroko was a memorable place for Nate and me. We had come to Taiwan without any expectations of the landscape, but this canyon was mind-blowing in scale and beauty. If there’s only one place you have time to visit outside of Taipei, we’d recommend this immense gorge.
Getting to Hualien is easy; the Coast or Mountain Line trains run from Taipei main station and only take 2 hours 10 mins, costing NT$440. From Hualien, there are regular buses at the main station that will take you to Taroko Gorge. Tickets cost no more than NT$80 and take 2 hours to reach Tianxiang Park.
Ali Shan Tea Mountain Ali Shan is a tourist spot sitting high in the mountains above Chiayi County and was one of the last places we visited before we left Taiwan. We’d heard about its delectable tea (the bushes are grown all over the misty mountain slopes here) and also a train line that runs from the plains to the forested peaks.
We didn’t experience the magical train ride which takes passengers up the mountain through groves of cherry blossom trees (best experienced during the spring months). Instead we opted for the 2-hour coach ride from Chiayi station. This was also a scenic view, but not recommended for anyone who suffers with motion sickness, as the journey up the switchback mountain road is something akin to a fairground carousel. Our poor friend Shana was barfing all the way to the top.
Ali Shan is a welcome change from the usual roasting temperatures you'll find in Taiwan. The mountain air is cool and fresh and there are flowers and plants growing among the pine trees that you’d find in the woodlands of England. Hiking the forest trails of Ali Shan was a reminder of home for us.
Within the forest park of Ali Shan there are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic; make your way to the lake and listen out for the frogs around the wooden jetties, or tramp deeper into the forest to find ancient remnants of the giant trees.
Before you leave Ali Shan forest park, seek out the cafes located outside the entrance near the car park; they sell authentic, locally-grown and harvested Ali Shan tea. We had a refreshing brew at one of the small, independent tea-rooms and bought some bags of leaves to take home.
Trains run regularly from Taipei’s Songshan station to Chiayi City, taking around 3 and a half hours to reach this central part of Taiwan. Fares at the time of writing cost NT$600. From there you can either catch the train (see the Ali Shan railway website for extremely confusing information about times and fares) or take the same bus we did for less than NT$225 return. There are small fees to enter the park (about the equivalent of USD$5).
Go and Explore!
Taiwan may be an industrial hub of the far east, but it also has scenery and natural treasures to rival places like Japan and Malaysia. Be bold and take a train out of Taipei and you’ll discover a green heart beneath the concrete shell of this island.