The knife-edges and metal ladders of Huangdidien’s famed ridge hike are so much fun that during the many hikes I’ve done there (I’ve probably been over ten times over the years), I’ve never – even once – been able to tear myself away from the main area and explore much of the nearby trail system. A look at what else the area has to offer has been long overdue, so on the magnificently sunny first Sunday in May, a group of us set off for Huangdidien, to find something new.
The knife-edge ridges of the main ridge are still a fun adrenaline rush, despite the well-meaning desecration performed on them a few years ago, with the idea of making the hike less ‘risky.’ (For those unfortunates who didn’t know Huangdidien a decade and more ago, most of the ledges were a lot narrower in those days – the rock has been chiseled away to make the ledge wider in many places, and the footholds on the rockfaces are much bigger than in the days of yore.)
It’s fair to say the east ridge of Huangdidien (from the East Peak to Yugueiling) offers nothing that’s going to tempt first-timers to Huangdidien away from the main event; to compensate, though, these much less popular trails haven’t yet been ‘improved,’ and still feature a couple of fun and mildly challenging sections, and the lack of other hikers and the general sense of peace and quiet are refreshing after those crowded trails to the west.
We started our exploration of Huangdidien’s neglected eastern ridge from what I call the ‘Tourist Trailhead’ at least an hour later than planned. Bus 666 is well-numbered. I’ve had all sorts of problems with this diabolical service over the years – buses that never turn up (the service is pretty infrequent after around 9 am), stampedes for the few available seats on the bus when it finally arrives, etc. Arriving at Jingmei MRT station at 7 am, we arrived just in time to see the bus (which I noted was almost empty) pass by. The next bus, 20 minutes later, was packed to the gills (there wasn’t even any room to stand in the aisle or beside the driver). The following 666 bus was a short-route service and didn’t even go as far as Shiding. When we finally got on the fourth bus, an hour after arriving at Jingmei, most of us still ended up standing. The lesson to be learned here I suppose is DON’T GO TO HUANGDIDIEN ON A SUNDAY or, if you do, go early!! Failing that from Jingmei MRT station walk north up Roosevelt Road (west side) a little bit to the terminus two stops up, where at least you’ll have a fighting chance of getting on if there are already a couple of hiking groups waiting.
It was nine am before we finally turned up (on foot) at the car park at the end of the road at Xiaodzukeng trailhead. Buses generally stop at the bottom of this approach road, about 2 kilometers east of lovely old Shiding village (get off at Huangdidien bus stop; 皇帝殿站, beside a distinctive small temple built on a bridge over a stream. Some services don’t go this far however; be sure ask before hopping on the bus).
Xiaodzukeng is the most popular trailhead for Huangdidien, simply because it offers the easiest and quickest ascent to the knife-edges of the main ridge. It also offers several lengthy, monotonous series of wide stone steps leading up the wooded slopes to the ridge; these are another relatively new ‘improvement’ – they were built a decade or so ago; before them the trail (if I remember right) was a more aesthetically pleasing dirt with much narrower stone steps.
We started the hike by choosing the steps on the right, signposted to the East Peak (東峰), but within a hundred meters abandoned the surfaced path, veering off instead onto a rough and rather steep dirt trail (indicated by a couple of concrete steps on the right of the main path).
This dirt trail is steep and rough in parts, and the tangled forest it passes through isn’t exactly picturesque, but it sure beats the steps. On the left after perhaps 30 minutes is Chautian Cave (朝天洞), a dark, small, vertical pothole in the ground. Clambering on up the hillside, in about another half hour, the trail reaches a T junction – the trail from near the East Peak of Huangdidien to the wonderful Bat Cave.
I’d only been once before to Huangdidien’s famed Bat Cave, the largest cave mouth in the Taipei area, at the end of a day’s hiking along Huangdidien, and I was surprised to find the way there (while by no means easy) wasn’t nearly as hard as I remembered. It’s quite a fun climb down, but the hardest bit remains the climb up the short but very steep scree slope into the cave, which is precarious work. It was mid morning when we arrived, and the sun was shining into the cave, lighting up the various colors of the sandstone cliffs, making the place seem far less forbidding than on our first visit a year or two ago. Huangdidien Bat Cave is a special place – impressive and slightly mysterious, but be sure to scramble up into the cave itself, as it’s only from inside that its size can be really appreciated. Don’t hang around too long though – the cave roof is unstable (all that scree had to have come from somewhere) and there’s a risk of rock falls.
Retracing steps back the T junction, we followed the trail ahead over and down a steep ridge (there are ropes now on this stretch, which make the steep descent much easier than on our first visit), to join the ‘tourist’ path up to the East Peak at the top of the stone steps. Turning right up a steep dirt bank, we reached the ridge trail in a few meters and turned right for ten minutes’ climb to the rocky East Peak of Huangdidien (at 563 meters, the highest point on the ridge) and its fantastic view.
Even those that have no intention for straying far off the popular loop around Huangdidien should include the short detour to the East Peak, and continue a couple of minutes further east as the trail descends along the sharp spine of rock on its eastern side. For my money, this short stretch of ridge walk after the East Peak is one of the finest moments along the entire Huangdidien ridge, with inspiring views in clear weather.
Shortly the trail dives back into the rough forest, and the airy ridge-top walk is replaced by the quieter pleasures of clambering along the rough trail, until before too long it reaches a small summit and a tiny open area at the junction (on the left) for Xiaobajian (小霸尖; ‘small chief point’). It’s a short, steep climb down, with a fun rock face or two to negotiate, to reach a small saddle, then another short, steep clamber (and another small cliff to climb) to reach the tiny summit of this foliage-covered finger of rock, which is very conspicuous from the Muzha to Pingxi road, far below. The view is restricted, and no match for the wonderful panorama from the East Peak, but there’s a good view westwards, back along the ridge just travelled, and the main ridge of Huangdidien beyond.
A short, easy walk further along the main trail leads to Shibajian (石霸尖; ‘stone chief peak’ 537 meters). Unfortunately there’s not much of a view from this shapely, steep-sided dome, which is again covered in thick forest.
The trail now begins descending and shortly meets the top of one of those wide, neat flights of smooth stone steps that attack the ridge from sides, and seem so out-of-place in such an attractively wild landscape. Ignoring this easy way down, we took the dirt path ahead instead (signposted in Chinese to the Bird’s Beak Peak 鳥嘴尖). In a minute or two there’s another junction. The trail ahead follows the ridge to its very end, at Yugueiling, where it’s possible to connect up with the trail on to Fengtoujian, Pingxi and Shifen at the head of the Keelung River Valley. This opens up some fascinating possibilities, such as long, multi-day hikes from Taipei city’s Muzha (the top of the gondola) all the way to the coast near Jiufen, along trails basically all the way. With much less ambitious plans today, though, we turned left, climbed over a small sill of rock, and took the trail at the bottom towards the Bird’s Beak.
This trail is unclear in places, and you need to look out carefully for the trail-marking ribbons. After a short descent, the trail climbs up to the left onto a narrow ridge, which it then follows to the top of the tiny peak known as the Bird’s Peak. The summit (reached by a short side-trail on the right 0f the main trail) is a small rocky outcrop, with a sheer drop at the far side, although once again thick foliage means the view is limited.
Ten minutes down the other side of the Bird’s Beak Peak, the Bird’s Beak Rock (鳥嘴岩) looms out of the trees on the right. It’s well named, although it definitely reminds more of an eagle than any other kind of bird. From here several trails descend to route 106 (the Muzha to Pingxi road). We chose one on the left after the big electricity pylon, steep and fun in places, and quite rough-going, eventually emerging at the road on the edge of Yongding village, right beside the trailhead of the wide, stone steps we’d ignored earlier.
Turning left, through the village, a small betel nut shop right next to the bus stop for buses back to Muzha sells ice-cold drinks – a very welcome end to a fun, 5-6 hour hike through some of Huangdidien’s less often explored landscapes.