To some of us Taiwan evokes more the city, Taipei, with a concept of modernity, than the country with its natural reality. That’s why Taroko National Park made such an impression on us. It’s Taiwan’s prime natural site and though it was a bit complex getting there it was for sure worth it. We planned our Taroko Gorge visit around New Year’s Eve holidays, so all trains were fully booked. Luckily with a help of a polite clerk we managed to buy a bus to Luodong and a local train to Hualien. The whole journey took us more than 4 hours, double what the usual train ride Taipei – Hualien takes. Fortunately, big windows ensure cool views.
Taroko National Park
The history of Taroko is quite unusual. The Taroko National Park was originally established in 1937 when Taiwan was part of Japan. After the Second World War, the new government of the Republic of China abolished the park. Fortunately, the park came back in 1986. The national park includes a mountainous area of 92,000 hectares with numerous tall peaks and deep canyons. The park begins in the Pacific Ocean and climbs fast to reach a height of over 3000 meters. The diversity of flora and fauna is due to such steep incline. Among many interesting species, the park is home to the endemic Formosan Rock Macaque or Taiwanese Monkey.
From Taipei to Hualien
The most convenient way to travel between Taipei and Hualien is by an express train. There are several daily connections, and the trip lasts between 2 and 3 hours. Take note that the first train leaves just after 6 AM, and the last one at 10 PM. The trip takes you along the east coast through some of Taiwan’s most dramatic scenery. One moment you are in tunnel and then you are at the top of a mountain, overlooking endless abandoned beaches. Finally, you reach Hualien after the river meets the ocean. If you are in a rush, you can also fly to Hualien. Low-cost carrier Uni Air operates flights from Taipei’s Songshan Airport.
From Hualien to Taroko National Park
To get from Hualien to Taroko National Park it’s best to take the organized buses everybody advertises. We chose a cheaper version, without understanding why everybody was saying we shouldn’t do it. It turned out to be a local bus, so it wasn’t clear where we had to get out. We missed our stop and had to take a private taxi to the park entrance since there were no other public buses till hours later. So, don’t be like us, listen to the locals, they are friendly and honest. If you do decide to take a public bus, take note that there are two different buses: Hualien County bus 302 from Xincheng train station and Tour Taiwan Taroko Bus 1133A from Hualien train station. You can use your EasyCard on both.
Inside the Park
The road goes up beautiful green mountains with all sorts of trees and bushes. And that’s where it hits you: Taiwan is a blessed island. We humans inhabit it. The good thing is that the Taiwanese have taken good care of it. There is very secure wooden path with bridges at the edge of the cliff, perfect to admire the rocks and the forest. It’s a nice exercise, no worries; anyone can go up and down at leisure. There is even a harmonious temple above a cascade that enhances Taroko. Most tourists that visit Taroko are Chinese and Taiwanese. It adds to the experience. We met polite friendly locals that were admiring nature, quite like us.
Where to Eat in the Park
Another positive thing about Taroko is that it’s very inexpensive and not money oriented. Forget about massive stalls or shops or hideous coffee shops. The Taiwanese are not that cheap! The same happened when we visited Maokong Hill and were surprised at the offer of snacks and coffee. That said, there are very few places to have lunch or dinner. Most tourists stop for lunch at the large restaurant next to the Buluowan Service Center, but fellow travelers told us that it’s not that good. Otherwise, you can taste the aboriginal food at the Taroko Village Hotel or buy food at the 7 Eleven in Tianxiang.
What to Visit – The Eternal Spring Shrine
The Taroko Gorge is not really about visiting, but something to be experienced. To us, it’s a place to disconnect and enjoy nature. Nevertheless, there is one place worth visiting: the Eternal Spring Shrine. There is no way you can miss this gorgeous landmark since its right next to the main road on top of the waterfall. The shrine is a memorial for the 212 workers that died while building the Central Cross Island Highway that goes through Taroko Gorge. If you have time, climb to the top of the bell tower above the shrine. It’s an easy 20-minute walk and, surprisingly, few tourists go, so you will be able to enjoy it in peace. The views are absolutely superb.
There are several popular hiking trails inside the national park. We didn’t have much time, so we opted for the easy one: Shakadang Trail. The trail begins next to the red bridge, not far from the Eternal Spring Shrine. It takes about 45 minutes to complete the track along the Shakadang River. The path often goes under cliffs, with lush green vegetation on the other side. For those of you more adventurous, the most scenic and dangerous trail is the Zhuilu Old Trail. It’s a 90 cm wide path right next to a cliff, 700 meters above the canyon. You need a permit for this hike, so book ahead as they issue only a few permits a day. Another two interesting hikes are The Swallow Grotto and the Biyang Trail.
Where to Stay in Hualien
Most visitors to the Taroko National Park stay in Hualien because of its convenient location. In fact, trains and planes arrive here, and most organized tours start from Hualien. We stayed at the lovely Liga Hotel, just a step away from the train station. It is a great base to discover Taroko Gorge and the city of Hualien. In recent years many new hotels have opened, so now you have a wide variety of quality options to choose from. Another great hotel, not too far from the train station, is Mr. Buster B&B. Several fellow travelers told us they loved it! If you want to stay in front of the sea, then the cool Hualien S.E.A. B&B is your best bet.
Where to Stay in Taroko
If you wish to stay inside Taroko National Park, you’ll have to open your wallet. The Taroko Village Hotel is a wonderful hotel surrounded by nature. Their private wooden huts offer balconies with views, and they also serve an aboriginal food buffet. Another even fancier option is the Silks Place Taroko Hotel. This five-star hotel offers uninterrupted views of the Taroko Gorge and again private balconies. Additionally, there is a gym, sauna, and a large swimming pool. If you want to stay in Xingcheng, close to the park, we recommend the Taroko Liiko Hotel. Another great option in Xingcheng is the Starry Inns, next to the train station.
When to Visit Taroko
The weather in Taroko Gorge, just like in all of Taiwan, is subtropical. Hence, it never gets too cold. That said, temperatures in Taroko are always a few degrees below the surrounding area. According to statistics, the busiest months are October, January, and November. On the other hand, December is the month with fewer visitors. As mentioned above we went in winter. It was foggy and drizzling, providing for a very dramatic atmosphere. It wasn’t cold though. With average temperatures of around 20 Degrees winter is perfect to visit Taiwan. Be sure to notice how nature changes.
Tips for Visiting Taroko
Organizing a visit to Taroko Gorge is not the easiest task. Therefore, if you are short of time or are not such an experienced traveler, we advise you to book a private tour. The lush vegetation of Taroko is green all year round due to frequent rains, so don’t forget to bring an umbrella. If you mind the crowds, go early. The park starts to fill with people around 10 AM. Check for road closures before you go. Typhoons are common in Taroko National Park, just like in the rest of Taiwan, so landslides do happen frequently. Finally, if you have extra time, take a walk on Qixingtan Beach.
Other Places on the Way
Many tourists visit Taroko Gorge as part of a wider route around Taiwan. Some of them combine Taroko with Sun Moon Lake on the other side of the mountain. The journey between the two natural spots is long but quite scenic. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for it. We left Taroko National Park on another local train which was convenient since it stopped in Jiufen Mining Town, our following destination. We didn’t mind it being slow and packed with people, we were happy we made it to Taroko during such traffic chaos. Taiwan has the best of both worlds: gorgeous nature and cool cities!