There’s so much to explore in the hills rising on either side of the few short but scenically magnificent kilometers downstream from the source of the Keelung River to the point it turns north, near Sandiaoling Station, and starts its journey towards Keelung, that a hiker could easily spend a week in the area and still not see everything. This area may not be quite as rugged and dramatic, as a whole, as the Mt Keelung group on the Northeast coast not far away, but it probably affords more wonderful hiking opportunities for all abilities than any other single area in Northern Taiwan.
There’s something for everyone here: a short stroll to Shifen Waterfall (十分瀑布, finally re-opened after a long closure – just in time for typhoon season, when it’s at its spectacular best); short and easy but exciting climbs up the stone pinnacle of Mt Xiaozi (孝子山, Loyal Son) and the adjacent Loving Mother Peak (慈母峰; the half-day Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk (with three spectacular waterfalls en route); and (for something a little more strenuous), the Pingxi Three Peaks (平溪三尖).
Sad to say, two of the Three Peaks, the Stone Bamboo Shoot (石筍尖) and Shulung Peak (薯榔尖), have fallen victim to the local authority’s attempts to ‘open up’ hiking routes to a larger proportion of the public, resulting in an endless and boring drudge by thousands of steps right to the top of Shulung Peak; the Bamboo Shoot has fared a little better, although a couple of the more exciting parts of the climb have been tamed.
The third peak, Fengtoujian (峰頭尖), thankfully has so far evaded this unneccessary and ugly form of domestication, partly because the terrain is so damn steep that even the most rabid trail builders would probably find it impossible to install steps and stone paths there. This is great news for lovers of more strenuous hikes: the Fengtoujian ridge, which stretches about four slow, strenuous kilometers between the settlement of Yugueiling and the village of Pingxi, is probably the most challenging walk in the area, and affords some of the most magnificent views.
The Stone Candle, en route to the Fengtoujian Ridge
Although I’ve walked the whole of the ridge at various times, I’ve yet to do the entire ridge in one trip, and on our last hike there, braving a steamy hot day in mid-June, we did a favorite loop walk, climbing up to the ridge via the impressive (and unclimbable) pinnacle known as the Stone Candle (石燭). The route starts easily enough, opposite Pingxi Junior High School, by following the first few meters of the Dongshige Old Trail (東勢格古道). We soon abandoned that easy path, however, for a dirt trail contouring the side of the valley above a stream on the right. Getting briefly lost, a local man working in his allotment (which surely has the best setting of any vegetable garden in Taipei County!) put us on the right track, after he’d got other the shock of seeing four foreigners come striding through his veggie patch.
Within ten minutes, we’d crossed the stream by a small concrete dam (which creates a lovely pool – a favorite spot of my dog, Gem), and a few minutes later we were climbing into the wooded hills by a path of carefully laid, but steep and very overgrown, stone steps. At the top of the steps is a trio of shallow caves carved out of a sheer cliff (engraved in Chinese into the rock above one of them is the inscription ‘Chiang Kai-shek Hall’ ). These are evidently the work of the same retired soldiers who carved the much-loved routes to the top of nearby Loving Mother and Loyal Son Mountains.
Rock-cut steps similar to the ones at those two far more popular places lead up a narrow spine of rock a little further up, and after a short, steep clamber, we crawled on our tummies up a sloping slab of slippery, moss-covered rock and stared over the brink of the sheer cliff at the Stone Candle and the steep, wooded hills beyond.
From here it’s a long climb of over an hour, along the bottom of and later up several rocky bluffs, over the wooded summit of insignificant Mount Jiulung (九龍山) , and up to the main ridge of Fengtoujian. The recent rains made things difficult in places , and at one scary place, I found myself slipping down a moss-covered sloping rock towards a vertical drop, and only just managed to grab some tufts of grass and haul myself onto a safer trajectory, away from the cliff edge.
Finally on the ridge, dripping wet, my water half gone already, we were rewarded with a fine view towards the stone pyramid of Zhongyangjian (中央尖, the finest-looking peak in the whole area). Unfortunately after this view the trail dives back into the woods and, although following the top of the extremely narrow spine of the ridge for almost the whole way, there were few views for the next hour, as we forced our way along the sometimes barely discernible trail, through the stunted forest that somehow grows on the narrow, rocky ridge.
Finally the trees gave way, and the twin peaks of Fengtoujian East peak and (behind it) Zhongyangjian appear ahead, in perfect alignment. The next 30 minutes or so to the rocky perch atop Fengtoujian East Peak is magnificent, and perhaps the most beautiful stretch of ridge walk in the whole Taipei area. It’s not easy going though, with several narrow spines of bare rock to pass through, and some precarious stretches of path clinging to hefty drops of a hundred meters or so on the left.
Dropping down the far side of Fengtoujian East Peak, there are several steep rock faces to negotiate before the trail becomes much gentler, easier and (at last) wider for a spell, before, after getting down a final couple of tricky rock faces (which were again very slippery: this is NOT a walk to do in bad weather) we emerged onto the Dongshige Old Trail, for an easy but very scenic walk downstream back to Pingxi High School and the bus stop.
Back in Pingxi, the afternoon tourists were out in force, and trying to beat the heat in their own uniquely Taiwanese ways. During the few minutes we were in town waiting for the next bus back to Muzha, we saw a girl shading herself with one of the largest banana leaves I’ve ever seen, and a man standing shin-deep in the infant Keelung River fishing with what looked like a UFO on his head….
Getting There: Bus 1076 from the main road outside Muzha MRT station runs to Pingxi every 45 minutes to one hour.
Date of Hike: June 26th 2010