The Taipei area is lucky to have a number of hikes that can be reasonably called ‘classics”: Huangdidian, Bijia Mountain, Seven Star Mountain, the Jiajiuliao Ridgewalk and Shitikeng Old Trail are all familiar and well-loved hikes within an hour or so of the city that are ‘bagged’ at some time by most local hikers (and we’ll be doing the first, second and fifth of them in the next couple of months with the group). In my humble opinion, however, if an award was to be given to the very finest hike in the Taipei area, the laurels would be split evenly between a pair of slightly less strenuous walks on the headwaters of the Keelung River: the Loyal Son Mountain and the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk. These two shortish hikes lack the wildness and relative remoteness of Shitikeng and Bijia, or the sense of really travelling across the countryside that you get on the 20 kilometers of the Jiajiuliao trail, but if you’re looking for something not too tough, yet with bags of variety and beauty, these two are hard to beat.
It was the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail that we did in the searing heat of last Saturday: a good choice, as we got to enjoy the shade of the trees for most of the way. A couple of us cooled off on the wade up to a little-known and enchanting little swimming hole called Land God Pool, and a few of our party even took a natural shower beneath one of the tall waterfalls en-route. I couldn’t imagine a better or more enjoyable summer hike.
It should take a full hour for the local train to chug from Taipei to Sandiaoling station; unfortunately our’s was delayed (which seems to happen almost as often in Taiwan as in England, which is really saying something). It was a 90 minute haul before the train finally drew to a halt at our destination.
The mid morning heat was already getting quite powerful as we started with a pair of short diversions before tackling the main hike (which at only 3-4 hours is a tad short by itself to constitute a day trip). before starting the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk itself, we trooped out to a pretty little place, variously called Two Phoenix Gorge or Fantasy Waterfall. It’s a beautiful sight whatever name you chose, yet missed by a surprising number of hikers only too keen to get started on the main event, which lies in the opposite direction.
Just before the waterfall is a small temple where preparations for the closing of the Gates of Hell (Ghost Month was just ending) were underway, with chanting monks (on CD, I suspect) and a large canopy erected in the front yard, ready no doubt for hoards of hungry worshippers and some approaching event. The gardens out the front were in a horrible state of neglect last time we passed through 18 months or so ago, so it was good to see that they’d been cleared in the meantime, the views over the densely wooded Keelung River valley were once again visible, and the charming Guanyin statue once again made an attractive subject for a snap.
It’s a short but hot climb up and then down to the waterfall, and the way back is the same, so the majority of the group took a rest when we returned to the main river and the railway lines, while a pair of us took shoes and socks off and waded out to a place I haven’t been to for well over a decade: the Land God Pool.
This magical place is tiny but for me is one of the finest natural swimming holes in the Taipei area, so it was a relief that it looked pristine, completely unspoilt and seemingly forgotten. Long may it remain so.
Arriving back where we’d left the others, we found a large group of Chinese walkers, and I was amazed to see one of their number brandishing a copy of Taipei Day Trips 1! This was a first, and a great boost to my ego! (many years ago, I did find someone, en route to the Stone Bamboo Shoot, not far away from here, following directions from Taipei Day Trips as well, but they were carrying (to their obvious embarrassment) a photocopy of the relevent pages from the book!). There followed a brief autograph session (just one book, alas) and a mini photo shoot of author and reader, then author, reader and friends, and finally I pointed them in the direction of the Land God Pool before we headed off in the direction of the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail.
Soon we were passing through tiny Sandiaoling village (the Chinese name is a transliteration of the Spanish ‘San Diego’, a reminder of the brief Spanish colonisation of the nearby coastline in the 1620s). Within a few minutes we were on the short, hot climb that starts the trail. Thirty minutes later, a wooden observation platform gives a partial view of the first (and highest) of the three waterfalls on the hike, Hegu Waterfall. Sadly, the recent improvements made to the trail didn’t extend to clearing the viewpoint, and thick undergrowth hides the lower half of the double fall. Even more unfortunate, an exciting trail (or rather rope and footholds down the steep cliff) that once gave access (from the opposite bank) to the wonderful swimming holes at the bottom of the falls was wiped out many years ago by a typhoon. It’s still possible to walk (or wade) downstream from above the falls to the brink and look over its full height, but we didn’t bother today, as time was moving on and Sandiaoling Waterfall itself beckoned.
Sandiaoling Waterfall, the second of the three big falls on the walk, is the most famous, and it’s quite an impressive sight, plunging well free of the cliff for over thirty meters.
Unfortunately it’s also the most popular place for hikers to take a lunch break, and it’s not the quietest place for a rest on fine weekends. Instead, we paused briefly to enjoy the waterfall, and then headed up and round, behind the waterfall into the huge, long overhang behind the fall. It’s too low to stand upright in many places, and huge slabs of rock have fallen off the ceiling, so it’s not a place to linger too long (just in case…), but it’s a unique experience in the Taipei area, and a very enjoyable place to take a quick breather.
Getting out of the waterfall gorge is the best fun of the trip; although it’s been spoiled a bit since the authorities made it ‘safer’ with this chunky rope ladder-like contraption, it’s still a lot of fun.
At the top, the trail soon rejoins the stream, and a surprise (the first time, at least): Pipa Cave Waterfall is a copycat fall, a slightly small version of the waterfall below, and only a hundred meters or so upstream.
Locals don’t seem to linger here, and it’s a great place to stop for lunch. In no time a couple of our party were cooling off in the waterfall, while others walked down to peer fearfully over the edge of Sandiaoling Waterfall’s sheer plunge. It’s a great view, but I was in working mode, too busy checking the updates on the walk directions to get into anything else. Must remember the swimming trunks next time….
Sadly, standing at the bottom of the third waterfall signals the best part of the hike is nearly over. However, there’s still one fun bit: climbing out of this gorge. Again it’s a bit easier than a few years ago, thanks to the ladders, but I’m not complaining.
At the top there’s another surprise: a flat, concrete path. Turn right for a minute or two and you get to the head of the waterfall, where the stream bed is scoured into countless strangely beautiful small potholes.
From here it’s a simple country walk, along a concrete trail and on several quiet, vehicle-free lanes. Parts of the trail, boarded by tall hedgerows, are strikingly reminiscent of England, and it’s a pleasant, relaxing walk. Just as the final set of steps begin descending towards Xinliao, a tiny settlement and the first since leaving Sandiaoling, a trail on the left alongside a large bamboo grove forms the forgotten back door into the long-abandoned Barbarian Valley. We did that adventure last time I was here, in 2009, and it’s quite a challenge hacking a way through the overgrown wilderness in search of the valley’s four waterfalls. This time we gave it a miss, but also missed out on a second wonderful natural shower, courtesy of the topmost waterfall in Barbarian Valley. Next time!
More photos (2009 hike):