Since winter seems to be no closer to loosening its grip, and it seems like six months since I’ve taken any photos that I’ve been really happy with on a hike, I’m re-visiting a couple of hikes from the warmer, sunnier, more picturesque days of the spring of 2009, when we explored the magnificent countryside around Pinglin (坪林) in Taipei County over a couple of memorable weekends.
Actually I was in two minds about advertising this most sylvan yet least well-known corner of Taipei County, but since it remains relatively hard to get to (there’s no public transport there, for a start) I don’t suppose it’ll become overrun with day-trippers anytime soon. I’ve already described the scenically enchanting Beishi Stream Old Trail (北勢溪古道) below, but here’s the Wantan Old Trail (萬潭古道), right next door, another old path following the valley of a picturesque rushing stream, with lots of opportunities for swimming in deep, invitingly blue pools.
Although Pinglin is just a quick zip away from Taipei on the Yilan-bound freeway, the main part of the trip to the trailhead begins only after leaving the dual carriageway behind. It’s exactly the same route as for the Beishi Stream Old Trail. Take local route 42, a narrow, constantly winding road commanding fine views over steep, wooded hills, countless neat rows of tea bushes, and the blue-green strip of the Beishi Stream, running snake-like through the bottom of the valley far below.
Nearly forty minutes after leaving Pinglin the lane passes above Black Dragon Pool, a wide and deep hollow in the Beishi stream which was once a popular camping place, and another ten minutes later the trailhead is reached at a small temple and a stone Earth God shrine, standing beside the confluence of the Beishi and Wantan Streams, which combine at this point to form yet another wide, deep and rather lovely pool known as Sanshui Tan (三水潭). Ignore the track which crosses the river (this is the way to the Beishi Stream Old Trail) and walk straight ahead along an unsurfaced track, soon climbing above the right bank of the well-named Wantan (‘countless pools’) Stream. In about fifteen minutes the route passes a house and camping area called Jiang Jia Jhuang (張家莊, it’s also possible to drive as far as this point). Pass through a large, tree-lined parking area near the house, which is home to a large colony of Formosan Blue Magpies. These magnificent birds were probably raising chicks as we passed through in early May: the parents repeatedly dive-bombed Gem, our poor golden retriever as he trotted across the car park, in an effort to scare him away from their nest.
On the far side of the car park, a small tin sign points out Wantan Old Trail, which is cut into a steep wooded hillside high above the stream. The scenery is disappointing at first, but after about twenty minutes things become much more interesting as a winding arc of deep aquamarine appears through the woods below on the left. This, the first of the Wantan Stream’s many fine pools, isn’t too easy to reach, but continue a few minutes further and the trail emerges into an open, flat meadow next to the finest pool on this stretch of the river: the Dream Lake (夢潭). Here the pure waters meander in a wide arc around the base of a small bluff of rock, carving a deep bowl out of the riverbed, edged with fine pebbles and a rich, deep aquamarine-blue in color. It’s a magnificent place for a swim, although a brief dip confirmed that the water – at least in May – is freezing cold.
Upstream from Dream Lake the path passes an old stone hut and turns away from the stream, climbing briefly but stiffly into an ugly, stunted wood above the river. Persevere, however, because the scenery soon improves greatly as the trail passes a couple of waterfalls where tributary streams pour off shapely rocky bluffs and cross the trail en route to the larger stream below, shaded by fine old trees hung with huge bird’s nest ferns.
In several places the trail rejoins the river, which widens into several further secluded pools, the last being a long and placid stretch of deep water, just before the trail finally returns to civilization at a lane through the tiny settlement of Wantan, (nothing more than a few houses and a small temple).
From here the alternatives are returning the same way (making a 4-5 hour walk in all), continuing eastwards (a network of trails from here connects all the way with the east coast at Waiao (外傲), a walk that would take a full day), or doing what we did: connecting with the nearby Wushan Old Trail (烏山古道), whose well hidden trailhead lies behind a nearby residence, climbing over the flank of the Black Mountain and down the other side to connect with Beishi Old Trail to return to the car. This worked out a long (if rewarding) 7-8 hour walk, which is probably a bit much on a hot summer day.
The next time I come here I’ll be strolling no further than Dream Lake, parking myself there for the day, and venturing no further than the cool, pure waters of that wonderful spot.