We’ve been devoting the last four sunny weekends (blessed with some vintage Taiwan autumn weather) to exploring the upper reaches of the Keelung River valley, which offers surely the widest range of great hiking in the Taipei area. There’s already enough to fill seven or eight full days of hiking without having to follow the same paths twice, and there’s still a couple of promising routes left to check out.
For the last hike of 2012 (and probably the last in this wonderful area until the spring, since the nasty winter weather can’t be far away now) we started at the source, literally, hiking north across the hills from the source of the Keelung River and rejoining it at the town of Xizhi, by which time the tiny brook has grown into a substantial waterway.
The route begins at the highest point of the Muzha to Pingxi road (route 106), by taking a small road north (a wooden signpost in English points to the ‘Source of the Keelung River’ or something to that effect). A short walk uphill along the quiet lane leads to Yuanming Zen Temple (圓明禪寺). The temple is of little interest (apart perhaps from a useful loo), but up a slippery, algae-covered concrete path following the tiny stream behind it is Shiguanyin Cave (石觀音洞), a shallow overhang in a rocky crag, which acts as the symbolic source of the Keelung River (it actually rises on the thickly wooded hillside just above). It’s a fine place, with a couple of natural, white flowstone formations inside, one of which bears a resemblance to either a human figure or the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) herself, depending, I suppose, on whether or not you’re Buddhist.
Ignore the ribbon-marked trail that follows the little stream up into the woods, but retrace steps a minute or so towards the temple, turn right across the infant river and follow another dirt trail up the side of Mount Shiguanyin (石觀音山). It’s steeply uphill almost all the way, but thankfully it’s less than half an hour to the tiny flat patch of ground on the summit of the peak, 519 meters high, with a restricted view through the trees.
Leave the summit by the other path, and it immediately dives straight down. This trail is tougher, with several roped sections, including, somewhat further on, a small rock face with a ‘spider’s web’ of ropes strung across it to make getting down (or up) a bit safer. After the Spider’s Web, there’s a junction. The trail on the right is the same one saw earlier, which follows the stream uphill from beside the Shiguanyin Cave.
Continue ahead following the line of the ridge. The next big peak is climbed a ropeless dirt track, and it’s hard getting up the nearly sheer sides after rain. Don’t even bother unless you want to bag every peak on the ridge, because it’s a dead-end. Instead look carefully for a trail on the left before the climb gets really steep. This trail (with ropes) soon descends considerably, then contours at a lower level, well below the ridge line.
From here onwards the going is easier (despite the warnings on various local blogs that describe this route as tough and a rare warning note printed on the Chinese Taiwan Jiaotung hiking map of the area, this trail isn’t especially hard or energy-draining, once you’ve tackled Mount Shiguanyin). At intervals trails on the left or right leave the ridge. Keep straight ahead though close to the top of the ridge, and it’s an attractive walk through woodland, before long joining a ‘tourist’ path (featuring colored trail map boards, steps with wooden risers in a few places, thick, sturdy ropes on the rocky bits and wooden distance markers at intervals). Turn left here and it’s an attractive walk – although slippery and surprisingly rough in a few places – all the way to the Twin Stone Towers, standing under the trees on a flat area of ground at a small saddle. There’s no clue as to what exactly they were, although our group came up with the theory that they might have been gate posts, perhaps for a police checkpoint during Japanese times.
The next summit, in about 20 minutes (again no view), is Mount Erkonggui (耳空龜山, 588 meters), and past this, following the little tin signs towards “四分子尾山” (Mount Sifenziwei) at several junctions, the woods finally start opening up, giving some attractive views towards Xizhi and the middle Keelung River Valley. By now the path is thoroughly family friendly, with wood-raiser steps and chunky rope handrails on the rougher bits, but the views on this stretch are wonderful in places.
The best view of the path is saved for a little later. The trail joins a narrow lane. Cross it, take the trail on the opposite side at the back of a small parking area, and in a minute the close-cropped grass summit of Mount Sifenziwei (641 meters, the highest point of the hike) offers a spectacular view over the Keelung River valley and the goal of the hike – Xizhi.
A wide dirt trail gently descends from the summit into the woods, and most hiking groups seem to stick to this trail, heading down to Big Sharp Mountain (大尖山) and another magnificent view – this one an almost bird’s-eye panorama over Xizhi town. A much more interesting route if energy allows (and the going so far really hasn’t been that hard) is to take the second trail on the right, towards the Monks Pate Hill (和尚頭山), and follow the last part of the “Big Sharp Mountain” hike in Taipei Escapes I (page 99, from direction 11 onwards) down to lovely Jiadong Waterfall and Xizhi. It climbs a tiny rise then descends gently down through undergrowth on the other side, with a steep drop on the right.
At the junction, double back on the right and in a couple of meters climb down a natural rocky staircase (with fixed ropes). The trail lies on a ledge beneath the rock face for a bit then descends through the jungle to a stream. The trail eventually cross-countries to join a larger stream which it follows down all the way to the three Jiadong Waterfalls. The day we went the mid-December weather was unseasonably mild, and we all ended up stripping to our shorts and jumping into the plunge pool at the base of the lowest fall for a very welcome cool off.
From here it’s road walking all the way down to Xizhi, (about 45 minutes) following Xiufeng Road down to the center of the town, just a short walk from Xizhi station. At weekends a good market sets up shop under the elevated railway tracks before the station, making a great snack stop before the short zip back by train to Taipei – a perfect end to yet another excellent hike in this ever fascinating, superbly scenic corner of New Taipei City!
The beginning of the hike is easily reached by the Muzha to Pingxi bus 1062. Get off at the highest point of the little pass before the bus descends the long hill to Jingtong and Pingxi. It’s just fifteen minutes by train from Xizhi (at the end of the hike) back to Taipei.
It’s essential to take a hiking map when doing this hike for the first time. Both available maps show the main routes, although for once the Taiwan Jiaotung map (blue, comes in a clear plastic wallet) is more accurate, showing more of the many trails crisscrossing this patch of hilly terrain.
The last time I was at Jiadong Waterfall (and took the photo below) I was caught in a dramatic flash flood. Thanks to Ondrej Simecek for pointing the startling resemblance between the cascades below the main fall in the photo and … a Shitzu dog (hope you don’t mind me posting the photo of the dog, Ondrej)!