Yes, Taiwan has amazing food and shopping, but it is also a beautiful tropical island, replete with the kind of natural splendor one doesn’t usually find in California. Just an hour outside of Taipei, you’ll find hauntingly majestic mountains and unrivaled coastlines. Here begins my story of our day trip to Sandiaoling, Shifen, and Jiufen. Tis a story about foolishness, a broken camera, getting lost in the wilderness, and finally finding our way back to civilization and mass tourist crowds.
On a seemingly uneventful Tuesday, a day marking the start of our second week in Taiwan, Michael and I set out for our visit to the lovely towns just outside Taipei. We’d planned a refreshing morning hike at 三貂嶺 [Sandiaoling], followed by a completion of a life goal to light a sky lantern at 十分 [Shifen], then end the day sipping posh Japanese tea at 九份 [Jiufen]. That was the plan, and admittedly, we did follow this general itinerary fairly closely. However, what adventure can be named “Adventure” without a few mishaps along the way?
After nearly missing the train that comes but once an hour, we miraculously made it to Taipei Main Station on time, and boarded the train heading towards Sandiaoling. An hour or so later, we arrived at our stop, only to discover that the water bottle had spilled and drenched our beloved camera! Well, there go all our potential-but-never-to-be-actualized beautiful photos for the rest of the trip, a reality that stabbed at our hearts every time we came across lovely scenery [or food hehe] that we could only photograph with our sad phones. The following pictures can hardly do justice to the breathtaking beauty we found on this hike.
Part One: Sandiaoling
Not many people have heard of this hike. Most head straight to the Shifen Waterfall, which we decided to forgo. In fact, we were among a mere eight or so people who got off at this stop, and we didn’t meet many others along the way. This was one of my favorite places to explore in Taiwan. It’s beautiful and quiet, with some fun climbs, as you’ll see later on. Because it’s relatively less well known, we encountered far less people than anywhere else. It was a peaceful place to enjoy God’s creation and immerse ourselves in nature.
Upon exiting the train station at our destination, we turned right and followed the sidewalk until we came to Sandiaoling Elementary School. Crossing the railroad tracks and following signs to the first waterfall, 合谷瀑布 [Hegu Waterfall], we began our hike. After climbing a long set of stairs, the path levels out, and it became considerably flatter from there. Signs clearly marked the trails from start to finish, which made the experience much smoother. At one intersection, a fork pointed to a trail “for pro hikers only” that would eventually lead to absolute wilderness haha. Wouldn’t want to take a wrong turn there!
We arrived at Hegu Waterfall not too long after the start of the hike. You can only see it from a distance, but the majesty of the falls cascading down the mountain can still be experienced from afar.
The hike continues to the second waterfall, 模天瀑布 [Motian Waterfall]. It becomes a bit more slippery in some places, and steeper as you approach Motian. You’ll also encounter a couple exciting rope bridges to cross.
Apparently, you can also climb to and explore a cave behind Motian. Though smaller, I liked this and the next waterfall better than Hegu. They give off a more serene aura, and invite a more intimate interaction with nature.
Getting to 枇杷洞瀑布 [Pipa Dong Waterfall] was more challenging. It involves climbing up a long, rickety metal staircase and some scary rope ladders. Not for those afraid of heights! This was actually my favorite part though, and appealed to the childhood adventurer in me. 😀 We came across a group in which someone had brought her dog, had managed to drag it up the stairs, but found that they couldn’t carry it up the rock face with only a rope to cling onto, and had to carry the poor animal back down. Honestly, I’d find going down much more terrifying than climbing up..
Pipa Dong Waterfall is a perfect resting spot, with large rocks aplenty to take a break and eat a packed lunch. When we were ready to continue, we followed signs to Fusing Temple, climbed another rope ladder, and finally reached the top of the mountain. At this point, wiser people turn back, but we decided we’d be the ultimate adventurers and hike all the way to Shifen. Silly us..
At the top, a fork awaited us. We followed the sign towards 野人谷 [Yeren Valley] to the left, and continued to follow somewhat frequent signs to 大華車站 [Dahua Train Station]. After following the path a ways, we emerged from the wilderness onto a main street.
Confused at first, we walked along the street for awhile, but found the creepiness level rising exponentially as we met with utter silence and desolation the entire way. Not a soul did we see, nor a car did we hear. The road stretched on for seemingly forever, and many times we wondered whether or not we were even heading in the right direction. The signs assured us that we were, but who knew?? The path looked dilapidated and abandoned; at best, it didn’t seem much frequented by fellow hikers. At this part of the hike, the “signs” often became chalk markings on walls or scraps of paper taped onto little posts. Not at all reassuring.
Eventually, possibly many decades later, we arrived at a small village 新寮 [Xinliao]. This too, was a completely abandoned ghost town. The village was indescribably eerie, with an unearthly feeling, similar to that of “Spirited Away,” when Chihiro + parents first encountered the spirit world [by the way, the idea is considerably less exciting when you’re experiencing it yourself. Plus, there’s no adorable Haku to lead you out 😛 ]. Our knocks on doors in hopes of finding a kind soul to point us in the right direction met with echoes and then silence. Unnerved, we continued on..following the sign to turn left from the main road towards Dahua.
At long last, we came to the Yeren Valley entrance:
We finally did encounter a couple people here, who both assured us of where we were, and told us that we to “just go up those stairs, then down,” misleading us to believe it would be such a quick, easy little walk. As a matter of fact, the slippery “stairs” were another hike in itself, and felt akin to climbing over yet another mountain and down the other side. At the bottom, we crossed the red bridge, climbed up some more steps, and then finally, FINALLY, reached the train tracks. From there, you can either turn right and walk along the tracks to Shifen [technically illegal, but people do it anyways], or turn left and walk a shorter distance to Dahua Station. Thoroughly tired of walking, we opted for the latter.
Almost four hours after the start of our hike, exhausted, thirsty, and hungry, we emerged from the jungle like a couple of feral monkeys, plopped down on the benches of Dahua Station, and let out huge sighs of relief that we didn’t get lost in the wilderness [a serious concern at many intervals]. After waiting about half an hour, we finally boarded the train to Shifen, one stop away.
- Check train times and routes the night before. Plan to arrive early because as mentioned, there’s only one train per hour. Once at Taipei Main Station, follow signs to TRA. Buy your ticket at the counter [59 NT] and ask which platform you’re on because it’s not written on the ticket. Keep your ticket, as you’ll need it to exit the destination station.
- Follow signs carefully. The trail is pretty well marked, but there are points where the signs seem to play hide and seek, so keep an eye out for them. Ribbons tied to trees by previous hikers will also help guide you.
- Unless you’re feeling adventurous, I don’t advise hiking all the way to Shifen. Just turn back after the waterfall hike the way you came. The hike to Shifen wasn’t much fun for us, and didn’t even reward us with any epic views.
- Bring snacks and lots of water, especially if you plan on hiking the whole way to Shifen. There are no shops or stands at the Sandiaoling station, so you’ll need to bring everything you need with you!