OK, by no remote stretch of the imagination could be Huangdidian (皇帝殿) be ever considered off the beaten track. Even on the ominously cloudy, misty day we ended up hiking there in early October, there were no shortage of other hikers on the trails. Yep, for better or worse, the regular circuit of the knife-edge precipices of Huangdidian forms one of the Taipei area’s most renowned and popular hiking routes, so give it a wide berth if you value solitude and the opportunity to commune with pristine nature. Perhaps the most damaging (or beneficial, depending on your point of view) byproduct of Huangdidien’s immense popularity are the many disfigurements improvements that have been made to make the path a little safer in recent years.
What with all the spacious stone steps, hand rails, and widened stone ledges, Huangdidian (and, for the same reason, Taipei’s other famous knife-edge ridge path, Wuliaojian, near Sanxia) is a pale, tame imitation of its thrilling former self. Given the immense popularity of both these places, I suppose improving safety on the trails was absolutely essential to keep to a minimum the number of injuries or (lord forbid!) deaths on the trail. It’s not that either place is really ugly or boring nowadays, it’s just that neither hike is nearly as wild and beautiful as it was a decade or two ago. And that’s a shame.
At least at Huangdidian it’s possible to get off the main paths into some terrain that still excites and even challenges. Shunning the ‘tourist route’ up from the big car park at the main trailhead below the ridge, my favorite ascent starts from the village of Shiding, with a long, steep climb up countless neatly faced stone steps. Having craftily fooled the unwary into expecting an easy hike however, at the top the path instantly turns into a narrow, steep and rough dirt trail along the rocky, tree-covered ridge. Two long (and after rain, treacherously slippery) metal ladders climb several steep rock faces, giving access to the hike’s first great viewpoint, Huangdidian West Peak, and then another three ladders take you down the cliffs of the other side to join the masses on the tourist path beyond.
If I knew no better, I’d say the tourist path is exciting and breathtakingly scenic, but I’ve been hiking here for over a decade and still yearn for the days before overkill set in and the authorities widened the knife-edge ridge until you could almost ride a bicycle along it. Even worse, hikers are regarded as needing the protection of handrails on one but BOTH sides along the most exposed stretches.
OK, so now it’s basically impossible to fall off the ledge unless you really tried, but it also looks rather unsightly….
Most hikers turn right off the ridge and descend (via a thousand or so more of those tidy stone steps) to the trailhead car park after the third little peak along the ridge. Those in the know however follow the trail along the ridge for another ten minutes or so, climbing stiffly up to the small but unguarded knife-edge atop Huangdidian East Peak. The view from the summit is the best on the ridge, and so far remains undefiled by handrails and whatnot. From here relatively unspoilt trails head further eastwards into the hills along the ridge, leaving the crowds far behind.
If you’re up for it, though, one of the most exciting things to do on Huangdidian is to make the short, tough side trip to the awesome natural cave (called the Bat Cave) below the ridge. Bring a few fit buddies with you though; this is definitely NOT a hike to attempt alone). As with other similar caves in the Taipei area, the bats were scared away by locals long ago, and now prefer the depths of the many abandoned coal mines in the area, but Huangdidian Bat Cave is an extremely impressive sight. Just getting there guarantees a richer sense of achievement than you’re going to get hiking anywhere else on Huangdidian, as it’s not easy at all to reach.
The way to the cave begins by following the ‘tourist’ circuit, and just after the path starts descending back towards the car park at the foot of the ridge near the East Peak, at the top of a flight of steps made from wooden railway sleepers, turn left onto a rough dirt trail marked with a small tin sign nailed to a nearby tree, which tells hikers to ‘pay attention to safety’. Within a minute or two the trail is climbing very steeply. On any other trail like this there would be ropes to help you haul yourself upwards; perhaps the hiking groups that maintain this trail deliberately left it ropeless to discourage less able hikers from venturing this way. It’s certainly not a place to come unless you know what you’re doing.
Before long the top of the incline is reached and the trail follows an overgrown knife-edge ridge of rock. The algae-covered spine was disconcertingly slippery in a couple of spots, with a nearly sheer rock face on the right, so slow and very, very careful progress is the name of the game. Finally there’s another tin sign, pointing straight down the very steep incline to the right after the bare rock cliff ends. This time there are ropes to help, and they’re probably essential to prevent a nasty fall and a few broken limbs.
Soon the trail swings to the right and, mercilessly, is far less steep, but now there’s the long, bare rock face, angled as near as dammit to the vertical, to get across. The trail does it by following a natural, horizontal crack in the cliff face, in which a few stunted trees and various small shrubs have somehow taken root. For a few scary meters there’s no solid ground beneath your feet at all and the cliff falls away below, but the exposed tree roots are strong enough to take the feet of the occasional hiking group that comes this way.
The last few meters to the foot of the scree slope below the cave mouth are overgrown but straightforward, and then a second handwritten warning sign orders hikers to proceed in small groups for this last short stage up to the cave. We soon found out why.
Lauren, the quickest and fittest of our select group of four adventurers had gone on well ahead, and as she climbed up into the cave, she unwittingly let loose chunks of rock which came hurtling down the extremely steep scree slope, sending us diving for cover. Getting hit by one of those would truly ruin our day. It’s a precarious and very slow climb up the precipitous scree slope into the gaping mouth of the cave. At the top the scree slope turns to solid but crumbling rock, which continues to rise at the same outrageously steep angle into the dark depths at the back of the cavern. Lauren, trying out her rock climbing skills, climbed up into the darkness and apparently enjoyed a fantastic view out through the cave mouth. For me though, this was already spectacular enough.
It’s amazing that such an amazingly impressive, wild place should be so close to one of Taipei’s most popular hiking routes (as we sat inside the cave and gawked at the scene, we heard the voices of happy hikers drift up from the stepped trail up Huangdidian, less than 500 meters below) yet be so little visited. It’s good, though, to see that the rugged beauty of some places here hasn’t been compromised by ‘improvements’ in access. Indeed, the Bat Cave is in such a relatively inaccessible position that the authorities will never realistically be able to make it a relatively safe place for the average Huangdidian visitor to reach. Which is great for those of us that cringe at the sight of those handrails and chiselled out ledges on the nearby ridges, and who sometimes want something natural, more challenging.