Hehuanshan, straddling the Nantou-Hualien County boundary in the center of Taiwan, is the most accessible slice of high mountain magnificence in the whole of Taiwan. And high it is – Wuling (武嶺), the highest point of the road (route 14, which connects the town of Puli in the south with the Central Cross-island Highway at Dayuling in the north) is 3,275 meters above sea level, making it the highest road in Taiwan, and one of the highest in northeast Asia.
Hehuanshan is famous for a couple of reasons – it’s the favorite (and easiest) place in Taiwan to see snow in the winter. It’s renowned for its gorgeous high mountain scenery, which is jaw-droppingly spectacular in clear weather, even from the car, although most visitors can also handle the 20-30 minute climb to Mt Shimen (3,237 meters), by far the simplest of Taiwan’s ‘Hundred Peaks’ to climb.
Come this way in April or May, though, and it’s the extraordinary display of flowering rhododendrons that really steals the show. Hehuanshan has one of the island’s most famous displays of high mountain flowers – it’s up there with the famous alpine meadow at Batongguan (八通關), which apparently is at its best a little later, in June.
Hehuanshan is the best place in Taiwan to see how spectacular this island is without even leaving the comfort (and warmth) of the car, but the hiking here is fab, and mostly pretty easy. If anything a little too easy, perhaps, as the one-hour road walk up to the main peak (3,417 meters) and the short scoot up Mt Shimen which I already mentioned don’t exert anywhere near the same appeal for many of us hikers as the challenge of the cliff-bound peaks of nearby Mt Qilai (described here), which tower across the valley to the east of the road.
Among the five main peaks of the Mt Hehuan group, however, the hike to the North and West Peaks (3,422 meters and 3,145 meters respectively) are in a class of their own, and make for a great and mildly challenging day (or a more relaxed 1.5 day hike) in spectacular scenery that feels like a genuine Taiwan High Mountain hike.
The great thing about Hehuanshan is that, almost uniquely among the high mountain peaks, no permits are required. Er, police permits ARE actually required for the North/West Peaks trail, although we didn’t bother – there was no one up there to check. If you’re playing by the rules, they’re easy to get at any police station on the way up the mountain. The great – no HUGE – advantage of this is that for once it’s possible to cherry-pick the time you hike there, and choose the best weather for the hike – in Taiwan (where national park permits have to be applied for at least a week in advance) this is a rare and wonderful luxury.
Choosing the best time to go does mean a trip will often turn into a last-minute decision (as in deciding the day before the trip), and this was one of the reasons that in the event only two of us were actually up for the trip when we decided to go for it. The omens weren’t so great: I’d been feeling out of sorts for a week or so – dicky stomach, sleeping badly, no appetite, plus on the Saturday afternoon when we left Taipei on a bus bound for Puli (埔里) in Nantou County, there was a huge afternoon downpour that lasted well over an hour, with forecasts for more the following afternoon. In Taiwan though, hikers soon learn that the only way to get out into the hills on a regular basis is to take an educated risk, and this time it paid off – the weather was better than I had any right to expect, my stored fat reserves were enough to keep my ailing body going, even though I was finding it hard to force anything down, and calm, collected yet ever-enthusiastic Ian was the perfect company. Plus the rhododendrons were at the height of magnificence. In short, this short mountain hike was quite a highlight of the year’s hiking experiences to date!
We arriving in Puli (a 4 hour bus ride from Taipei West Bus Station, from where there’s a regular service) just before 8 pm. We’d have left Taipei earlier, but one of us had to work until 2 pm. Immediately opposite Puli Bus Station a scooter hire shop got us kitted out with new scooters for NT$600 for 24 hours. A few other outfits nearby have cheaper, older bikes, but didn’t seem willing to rent them for the punishing almost 3,000 meters of vertical ascent up to Hehuanshan. In any case International Driving Licences are asked for; we both had Taiwan scooter licences so we were high and dry.
The exhilarating ride up the mountain to Hehuanshan (about 53 kilometers) takes around 2 hours if you push it; bring a windbreaker and gloves – it’s freezing cold up on the top, even in May! Pass over the summit at Wuling, and continue down the far side for about six kilometers, past the Songshue hostel (site of the trailheads for Hehuan East Peak, Mt Shimen and the mighty Qilai ridge) and on down a discouragingly long way to the trailhead for the North and East Peaks, on the left a couple of hundred meters after some toilets.
It was about 10:30 pm when we started up the trail, headlamps on, backpacks on back. The trail is pretty simple and quite safe to climb at night, although the scenery is so fabulous it’s a shame not to do it both ways in daylight. From here it’s about 2 kilometers to Mt Hehuan North Peak (合歡山北峰). The terrain is covered in low cushions of dwarf bamboo all the way up however, with plenty of places to pitch a tent, which we did at the first available spot, about 1.4 kilometers (about 50 minutes, in the dark) up the trail. A few hundred meters further up the trail, near a conspicuous aircraft reflector panel the terrain flattens out, with much better camping ops, as we found out the following morning.
Our tiny camping place was cramped and a bit sloping, which made for an interesting night in our two-man tent, but we made it through the night with good humor, and awaking at 5:30 to THAT view in the morning was truly memorable. The cliffs of pyramidal Mount Qilai North Peak (奇萊山北峰) towered dramatically ahead, while over to the left the more distant peaks of fabulous, pointed Zhongyangjian (中央尖山) and the softer contours of Mount Nanhuda (南湖大山) were conspicuous along the long line of the ridge to the north.
The area around the rounded summit of Hehuanshan North Peak is dotted with countless rhododendron bushes of seemingly two main species. The earlier, white-flowering kind had already been in bloom for some time when we arrived the second week in May, and the first blooms were dying off. The even lovelier deep pink species, however was at its height, with plenty of buds still swelling. The scene was simply enchanting, with rounded bushes heavy with flowers giving a perfect backdrop to panoramic views over the mountains, with Lishan (梨山) village far below, and beyond the great wall of Snow Mountain West Ridge clear as a bell in the early morning air. Snow Mountain (雪山) itself looked unusually angular from this direction, while to its west the unmistakable point of Mount Jiayang (佳陽山) and the abrupt drop-off off of Jian Shan (Sword Peak; 劍山) – summits I’d love to climb one day – stood out against the blue sky.
The hike to Hehuan North Peak is pretty easy and extremely lovely if you’re blessed with clear weather. Just before the summit plaque the trail splits, with one route striking north to the lonely little Tianluan Pond (天巒池) on the ridge above Lishan. The trail to Hehuan West Peak heads westwards here, but be warned, the trail from here is a lot more strenuous than the easy prelude just completed, with five or six steep peaks of varying sizes to conquer before the modest, rounded West Peak itself is reached. It’s not too bad, but the trail is steep and rough in many places, and an absolute killer if you take it too fast.
Immediately after the North Peak plaque, the mountain, all rounded contours and grassy hummocks from the southwest, finally reveals its rugged side. The northwest face of the North Peak is completely eroded away into a mass of sheer cliffs of rotten, crumbling shale. And – the good news – the trail sticks to the edge of this spectacular landform for much of the way, passing over another small peak, and then plunging down the longest and steepest descent of the whole hike.
The scenery is simply wonderful all the way from here to the West Peak; things calm down a bit in the later stages, when the trail lies more in stunted woodland, but even here there are still enough marvellous views and soft, rolling hillside views to make the hike a constant delight. The West Peak is so low it’s hidden behind the peaks you have to cross first until to the top of the final one, when its rather humble, gently curved contour finally comes into view below. There’s one last steep drop with a fixed rope, then the trail climbs through the springy tussocks to the summit plaque of Hehuan West Peak (西合歡山).
It’s a great place to hang around awhile – the scenery is gentler than earlier on the hike, but with a long view up the deep Hehuan Stream valley along the line of little summits back to the North Peak. If retracing steps all the way though, don’t wait too long, as it’s still a long way back! Strangely the return is slightly quicker (or at least it seems to be), despite a lot of steep uphill climbing. The final set of pushes to the top of the North Peak is really hard on tired legs, and I had to force-feed myself chocolate for an instant energy burst to get my poor, sickly body to the top. Those with their own transport (and driver) can however opt for a much easier alternative: a trail about a kilometer before the summit of the West Peak drops down to Huagang in the Hehuan Stream valley in a little over an hour, bypassing the long climb back, although by doing that you’ll also miss out on all those marvellous views!
Hehuan North and West Peaks is a fabulous walk, especially since the ease of getting permits means it’s possible – for once – to choose a good weather day for the climb. The North Peak is within the range of anyone that walks at all regularly, and the long upward climb visible from the road below shouldn’t put anyone off if the weather is clear. The hike to Hehuan West Peak is a tougher proposition, especially if you’re not used to the altitude. The two of us agreed that the return hike, if done in one day, is a stiffer test than any of the days on the standard Yushan or Snow Mountain routes – it’s a long day (about 9 hours). On the other hand there are loads of great camping sites (albeit the best are either side of the North Peak, where there’s more flat land), and as a two-day trip it would be awesome. Alternatively do the three easy climbs: Hehuan Main and East Peaks and Mount Shimen on the first day and tackle the North and West summits the following day, when your body has adapted a bit to the high altitude.