Taroko Gorge never fails to impress greatly during a first visit, and bits of it – the Tunnel of Nine Turns, Swallows’ Grotto, the Lyushui Trail – are always a delight, but after a couple of visits the area’s limitations soon become apparent. There’s little chance to get off the main road for long and enjoy the scenery away from the hoards of noisy tourists, cars and coaches, and it’s only by getting away from the road that the full beauty of this natural marvel can be really appreciated. Although there are a few trails to explore, the choice of longer, really interesting trails for keen hikers within the gorge is very limited. The Datong Trail (which takes a full day) isn’t really in the gorge, and two of the better short trails (the Baiyang and Huoran Pavillion Trails) are both closed for the forseeable future. All in all, Taroko really isn’t a great place for hiking.
There is, however, one notable exception. Closed for a decade following the great 1999 earthquake, the Jhuilu Old Trail (錐麓古道) has always been Taroko Gorge’s most coveted hike, for the simple reason that it’s by far the most interesting hiking opportunity in the Gorge, offering some truly jaw-dropping views. Although the trail was reopened to hikers in summer 2008, typhoon damage each summer since has closed the path for lengthy periods. Even when open, it’s been notoriously difficult to get the necessary permit to walk the path legally, and both times I’ve walked the trail, it’s been with a local hiking group (which seems about the only means way of getting the necessary but hard-to-get permit, at least for foreigners: more on that later). The great disadvantage of having to apply for permits for any hike is that once you’ve set the date you’re at the mercy of the whim of the weather on the day. And if the weather is dismal in Taroko Gorge, there’s no way the Park authorities will let hikers walk the whole trail.
The weather wasn’t looking so great as four of us travelled down with 28 Chinese hikers last Friday night, regaled by long stories about Taroko and what-not from one of our guides, who was excessively talkative. We made a welcome stop at Suao en route (which was a good thing as it allowed us to grab a bowl and chopsticks for the communal breakfast the day after: I’d completely forgotten we’d need them!). At nearly 1am, when we pulled into Taroko National Park Headquarters (our digs for the night) the sky had thankfully cleared, a fullish moon peered moodily through broken cloud, and we even saw a star or two as we got settled down for the night, laying our sleeping bags on the stone floor of the visitor center veranda.
It looked rather different when I woke up about 4am, to find it raining on the foot of my sleeping bag, which was facing outwards into the night. Curling up to keep my bag (and feet) out of the continuing rain, I was too furious at the change in weather to sleep, and by five-thirty, everyone was up, the tents (which the guides had insisted on erecting for the benefit of the ladies in the group) had been dismantled, and we were all gathered under a large canopy eating a hot rice-gruel breakfast and looking frustratedly out into the rain.
At first it seemed that the weather had condemned today’s walk to be the same short one I’d done along the trail a year ago, as , once aboard the bus, the guide announced we’d be doing just the first 3 kilometers of the trail. Another five minutes later though we were zooming past the suspension bridge at the start of that route and diving into the new road tunnel beside Swallows’ Grotto without stopping. It turned out that the other guide (bless him!) had vetoed the decision. Forget the rain and the Park authorities: we were going for the whole trail!
His decision paid off: as we left the coach at a parking place beside Loving Mother Bridge, the rain had slowed to a pleasant, misty drizzle, in which this very fine section of the gorge looked especially beautiful. A couple of minutes later a second coachload of hikers arrived, and we hurried to the trailhead before they beat us to pole position.
Juilu Old Trail is only ten kilometers or so long, but it’s SLOW going, and the wooden plaques placed beside the trail every 200 meters showing distance travelled (and distance still to go) passed by at inordinately long intervals. The first part is very attractive, however, lying along the bottom of a steep-sided tributary gorge, its bed littered with huge boulders of beautifully banded marble.
A good hour after leaving the road, we’ve gained three or four hundred meters in height, and the trail suddenly and rather startlingly reaches the top of the cliffs immediately above Loving Mother Bridge. We’re back almost exactly where we started, but now atop the vertical bluffs that close in on the Liwu River.
The trails sticks to the rim of the gorge all the way now, in places following the edge of the sheer cliffs with a vertical drop of several hundred meters to the road winding through the gorge below. Elsewhere the trail winds round very steep slopes somehow still covered in trees and undergrowth. We’ve been going for three hours or more, and the constant steep ups and downs, plus the rough terrain in places is becoming quite tiring, but the weather (remarkably) is holding up. Despite this a pair of middle-aged ladies in front of us continue to insist on holding umbrellas over their heads. To protect themselves from what? I never found out: the rain had long stopped and there was no sun to speak of, even on the few times we emerged from the tree cover onto a cliff path. They did earn kudos, however, for managing to successfully negotiate – umbrellas unwaveringly propped above their heads – several rocky climbs and descents that I would have considered dangerous without the free use of both my hands. Whether this was achieved thanks to years of practice or pure blind luck, I’ve no idea.
Despite the guides’ repeated requests before the hike started that the group ‘stay together,’ we had spread well out by the time we got to the remains of the first Japanese police outpost (actually nothing more than an insignificant stone pillar on the edge of a flat piece of ground) and we’d been resting for about ten minutes before the last stragglers arrived. And of course those last few unfortunates had no more than a few minutes breather before the guides got up and the hike continued.
For all the beauty of the trail, I’m longing to get to the famous bit: the 500 meter-long stretch of path cut into Taroko Gorge’s highest, sheer cliff face. A fine prelude comes as the path emerges once agin onto a cliff face, with magnificent views down into the gorge, but then the trail dives once again into the jungle, climbing once more all the way to the second police outpost: another flat piece of land in the woods, although this time enlivened by a small memorial dedicated to Japanese who apparently fell victim to aboriginal headhunters. We’re now four hours down the trail and I finally know where we are: this is the furthest point I reached the last time I walked this trail, starting at the opposite (Swallows’ Grotto) end. The most famous part of the trail begins just two minutes further down the trail. However it’s lunchtime and our guides give us a full hour to appreciate this dreary place before continuing the hike. Perhaps they believe we’ll think we’ve not got our money’s worth if we get back to Taipei too early tonight….
Finally, about 1 pm we start off (immediately after the second group, who’d lunched at the same place), and take advantage of the resulting traffic jam to enjoy one of the best half-kilometers of hiking in Taiwan. The guides made a point of reminding us (several times over) that the trail is a lot wider than it once was (now up to about a meter wide in places, it was once apparently only a third of that), but although safe nowadays, it’s still very spectacular. It’s also a little un-nerving in a few places, looking down 450 meters or so to the road and river directly below, and the safety line fastened to the inside cliff wall was welcome in a few places. Halfway along the cliff face, the trail dives into a very short tunnel, near the end of which is a small shrine housed in a hollow carved out of the cliff, yet somehow I managed to miss it both times, and only got to see later – it on a photo taken by a sharper-eyed friend.
We must have been twenty minutes or so walking that short stretch, and by the end of the cliff, we found ourselves last in the group for the first time on the hike, the second guide shadowing close behind in an effort to keep us moving.
From the end of the cliff it’s only 2.5 kilometers to Swallows’ Grotto trailhead, most of which is a rather dull slog downhill along a wide path that would be more at home in Yangmingshan. A little more interesting is a suspension bridge across a tributary stream about halfway down, which looks quite unexciting at first, but turns out to cross an amazingly deep chasm: almost a mini Taroko Gorge in its own right. Across the bridge lies the slight ruins of an aboriginal settlement (which once apparently boasted a school and lodging place for travellers!).
From there it’s a simple downhill plod to the graceful suspension bridge which spans the Liwu River at the foot of Swallows’ Grotto, and the road.
Sinking down on the sidewalk, we tried to ignore a steady stream of Mainland Chinese tourists getting off coaches for a walk along the nearby Swallows’ Grotto path, and hoped we didn’t look too bedraggled. Climbing on to the coach, we began the long drive back to Taipei, getting to Chingshui Cliff just in time to enjoy this most dramatic stretch of Taiwan’s coast before night drew in.
GETTING THE PESKY PERMIT:[Updated May 2015]. It’s apparently a lot easier for foreigners to get permits these days (although demand still far outweighs supply on weekends), and it’s worth trying to apply via the Taroko National Park website. For convnience though, Matt Hopkins at Hualien Outdoors is great at getting permits, and can organize a trip along the trail, including transport etc. Taiwan Adventures also organizes scheduled and custom weekends in Taroko Gorge that include a hike along Jhuilu Old Trail.
These days only the first three kilometers of the trail from Swallows’ Grotto to the police outpost at the end of the first and best section of cliff path often seems to be the only part that’s open, but since this also happens to be by far the best part of the whole walk, it’s not too big a deal.
Date of Hike: May 29th, 2010