With summer well and truly arrived, serious hikes start taking a back seat, and it’s time once again to brainstorm ways to keep (relatively) cool in the big heat. I’ve long known of Sisters’ Falls, near the tiny settlement of Xiongkong, southeast of Sanxia, and river traced several times up to it since the trail that once led there was washed away by a typhoon many years ago, but that’s always been in the winter, when the water was low, and it never seemed like an especially promising summer rivertracing trip.
Wrong! It’s not a long river trace, but it’s a fabulous one this time of year: the plentiful rains top up the stream and fill several small but deep and very scenic pools both below and just above the waterfall. The falls themselves are also extremely distinctive, as they plunge into a narrow slot-like gorge, bouncing off rocks on the way down, which makes it relatively easy to get right under the falling water, and even behind it, into a couple of small overhangs concealed beneath the multiple curtains of water. I wouldn’t recommend staying long under this natural spa – the danger of stones being swept over the falls is very small but still a possibility – but it’s an extremely exhilarating place to be on a boiling hot day, and you’re more-or-less guaranteed to have the falls to yourself, since they take a bit of effort to reach.
Walk up the narrow cleft to the left of the falls, and climb carefully up a mass of old tree trunks and debris swept down by the second typhoon to devastate the area (in August 2012), to reach the head of the falls, a wide, gently sloping bed of flat rock over which the stream spreads as it rushes down towards the brink. There’s another deep and large-ish pool here, although at the weekend there’s a chance you’ll see other people here – a path now links this spot with a narrow lane on the hillside above, although the beautiful Sunday lunchtime we arrived, there were still only two or three others there, so it wasn’t exactly crowded.
A hundred meters or so upstream from Sisters’ Falls, the two typhoons have really mucked with the landscape almost the entire way up to Cloud Forest Falls, and the stream tumbles through a tree-denuded landscape of stones and boulders. It’s not exactly beautiful, but this valley of desolation has its own strange attraction, it’s an easy stretch of river to trace without any challenging obstacles and there are a couple of (smaller) pools on the way to cool off in when the hot sun gets too much.
Eventually the river divides into three channels. An attractive waterfall comes down the cliffs just up the stream on the left. Take the right-hand stream, however, and in less than a hundred meters the wonderful Cloud Forest Waterfall (which in my view ties with Yuemeikang Waterfall in Yilan for the title of the most beautiful waterfall in the Taipei area) plunges into a sylvan wooded glen, happily untouched by the devastation that affects the main streambed just a few meters downstream. This last bit of the rivertrace is steep and choked with huge boulders, so it’s easier to divert around them and climb through the jungle for a few minutes to rejoin the stream at the foot of the falls.
If you get here really early, you might just have this place to yourself, but its fame has grown greatly in recent years, and during the weekends there are usually several small groups of people enjoying the beautiful scene and healthy negative ions for which the waterfall is well-known. ‘Luckily,’ however the lane that once took car-driving visitors a couple of kilometres up the valley to the trailhead for walkers 30 minutes below the falls was wiped out by the last typhoon last year, and it’s a much longer walk to get here these days, which usefully regulates visitor numbers.
Clamber over the rocks to the foot of the falls, and there’s a very large (if quite shallow) pool at the bottom, which makes a great place for a final swim. Getting in the water here is a quite different experience from the idyllic pools further downstream, since you’ll likely have a curious audience, and it can get quite cold in there (the sun rarely shines into the wooded glen), but it’s such a beautiful place that it’s hard to resist taking the plunge. It certainly makes a perfect end to a wonderful – and very easy – river trace in an especially beautiful and hike-rich corner of New Taipei City.
The route to the base of Sisters’ Falls is described in Taipei Escapes 2 on page 188. The fixed rope down to the river bank was wiped out in a huge landslide that probably occurred during last year’s typhoon (which caused severe damage in this area). It’s possible to clamber down the edge of the landslide with great care. After reaching stream, the way is easy.