The efforts of the local authorities to open up the beautiful countryside of northern Taiwan to everyone is a great idea in principle, but often results in spoiling the beauty of a place, thanks to thoughtless and un-necessary intrusions such as wide, concrete steps and ugly, faux bamboo handrails, or else it encourages large volumes of people to disturb the wildlife in places that were previously little visited and relatively pristine (the Shanziding Trail (山子頂步道) in northern Yangmingshan is a sad example of this negative effect).
However, at Mt Wufen (五分山), which rises above the headwaters of the Keelung River near the village of Shifen (十分), for once they’ve really got it right. The hike from Shifen to the summit of this, one of the best viewpoints in the Taipei area, is a delight, and they haven’t ruined the landscape with lots of fussy details. Perhaps the steps are just a bit wide and obtrusive, but certainly they’ve opened up a remarkably beautiful area to the widest public, and haven’t spoilt the beauty of this enchanting area.
There are two ways to climb Mt Wufen. The really quick way is to take advantage of the access road to the radar station on top of the mountain (a necessary evil, and quite eye catching in its bizarre way), and drive up from the Ruifang to Shifen Road (route 106). From the car park at the top the summit is a mere five minutes’ walk. A far better idea, though is to get yourself to Shifen, follow the signs to the Taiwan Coal Mining Museum and take the trail (which starts next to the Museum) to the top.
Unless you’re Superman, it’s a good two hours’ trudge from the trailhead to the summit, but the lengthy climb up countless steps is tempered by some lovely countryside, including a cascading stream and mixed coniferous and broad-leaved forest which supports a rich ecology.
The end of the long climb to the ridge is signalled by a rather ugly aluminium shelter which has been built over a small and very old-looking Land God shrine. Ugly as the shelter is, it came in useful on our visit, when the heavens opened briefly just as we reached its shelter.
The ridge is reached at the shrine, but the climb isn’t over yet, and it’s another half-hour or so negotiating a roller coaster-like sequence of steeply undulating hilltops before the white ‘golf ball’ radar station atop Mt Wufen comes into view in front.
The view back in the opposite direction is magnificent as well, however. I could make out almost all the the shapely summits around Pingxi (平溪), a bit further up the Keelung River valley: the pyramid of Zhongyangjian (中央尖), Fengtou Point (峰頭尖), Shulung Point (薯榔尖), and most conspicuous of all, the Stone Bamboo Shoot (石筍尖), which from this angle looks like a tiny Matterhorn, with the pointiest of tops.
Marching over the last ridge, it’s an easy stroll to the first summit of Mt Wufen, topped with a rest shelter. This is the place to enjoy the view: a 360-degree panorama which on this especially clear day comprised a long sweep of the East China Sea (Keelung Island looking especially steep and impressive from this angle), the whole of the upper Keelung River valley, and even the capital, with Taipei 101 a clear landmark to the west.
A short scramble up a muddy and overgrown path through a sea of tall arrow bamboo leads to the trig point at the main summit of Mt Wufen. Surrounded by neck-high foliage, there’s no view to speak of, except for the radar station a hundred meters away. The white ‘golf ball’ on top of the structure seems to sit on the ochre-green carpet of foliage and makes for a fun picture.
Mt Wufen is a thoroughly civilized climb and makes a nice change from the steep, overgrown trails, stream crossings and wet feet of most hikes I end up on, but we couldn’t leave the area without just a little adrenaline rush, which we found on the short but rough scramble up to nearby Wanggu Waterfall (望古瀑布), down in the Keelung River valley below. A couple of kilometers above the biggest and most famous waterfall in the area, the wonderful Shifen Waterfall (石十分瀑布), Wanggu Waterfall lies on a tributary of the main river, close to Wanggu station (the next stop on the line after Shifen).
Ten years ago it was an easy walk up the riverbed to the waterfall, but now the whole area is wildly overgrown and, after the first few minutes along a dirt trail below the cliffs that hem the stream in below the falls, the only way ahead is to cross the stream and follow a route dictated by a series of short ladders, climbing up and down the overgrown bank of the stream, past a man-made weir, and forcing a route through a thicket to the base of the fall.
Wanggu Waterfall, like Shifen Waterfall and (the other ‘big’ waterfall in this area, Lingjiao Falls (嶺腳瀑布) a kilometer or so further upstream on the main river) was once the focus of a small park, where visitors paid to walk along the trails, pause to enjoy the scene from tacky ‘ornamental’ bridges and take boats on the small artificial lake below the falls. The park closed many years ago, but luckily there’s nothing to stop the curious from going in and taking a look. Shifen Waterfall (which is truly spectacular after heavy rain) has now gone the same way and closed its doors (and none too soon, as the ‘owners’ of the land around the falls were charging a criminal NT$200 to see them). Let’s hope then that they finally release their grip on that beautiful place, the locked doors are opened and we can get to see one of the Taipei area’s more arresting sights once again – and for free.
Date of Hike: 16th June 2010
Getting There: Shifen is easy to reach (if a little time consuming, since train connections are often not great) by taking a Suao or Hualien-bound train and getting off at Ruifang (瑞芳; most, but not all services stop there, so check). Change here for the Pingxi Branch line, and it’s a short hop (3 stops) to Shifen. Alternatively Bus 1076 (run by Taiwan Bus company: for more info go to: http://www.tpebus.com.tw/image/5163.gif ) from Muzha at 7:15 and 9:45 passes the bus stop on the main road outside Muzha MRT station about 5 minutes later and goes directly to Shifen in less than an hour. Most other 1076 buses stop at Pingxi, a few kilometers short of Shifen.