NOTE (April 2017): River tracing is now officially banned on all streams in Yangmingshan National Park, although it continues unofficially. If you go, keep a low profile.
We’ve been doing quite a bit of river tracing recently (and will hopefully do a little more before the weather turns chilly), and the photos of our various destinations are gonna start looking rather similar, but one thing that’s pretty clear about river tracing: while you’re there at least, every river is quite different, and every one has its own special character and its own pleasures.
Few we’ve done so far though are quite as memorable as the Masu Stream on the eastern slopes of Big Sharp Mountain in the eastern wilds of Yangmingshan National Park.
The trip starts when the stream passes under Xidi no. 2 Bridge, on the Taipei – Wanli road, at the bottom of the long hill that drops down from Fengguikou pass. Clambering down to the riverbank, the distinctive wide, flat, shale river bed and the many-layered strata exposed in the rocks on either side (which are a feature of this stream) are immediately apparent. Just a short distance upstream is a large and deep pool, although amazingly we had this idyllic spot to ourselves on a hot, sunny Sunday in mid August – thankfully it appears that the Masu Stream is still known mainly to river tracers alone.
Upstream from the pool lies the first gorge, where the stream cuts through a miniature but very attractive ravine, with the numerous eroded layers of the shale bedrock giving it a unique appearance. The stream here runs narrow and deep, and in places the only way upstream, even at low water, is to swim.
At the top is a tiny waterfall (the first of many such obstacles). The fall is difficult or impossible to climb. Instead a rope on the left gives access to a small ledge which leads to the gorges above.
And so it goes. In an hour or so, the stream passes under a tiny lane, crossing a concrete bridge high above the stream over a narrow restriction where the watercourse flows deep between low, gate-like walls of rock. Upstream from this, the way becomes more exciting and also a bit more demanding, with a couple more impressive small gorges and grottos and a series of small waterfalls, plus several attractive falls on tributaries plunging over the rim of the gorge into the main stream.
Several of the obstacles in the stream look impassable from a distance, but the rough rock has many good footholds, and there’s always some way through.
After about three hours, the gorge narrows into a pincer-like cleft, squeezed between narrow and sheer walls of rock, making further progress very difficult or positively dangerous. A fragment of trail on the right climbs up the steep side of the gorge just downstream from the cliffs, and the ravine is crossed by a narrow, makeshift footbridge. Just a few minutes further along the trail the wilderness ends abruptly as a farmer’s cottage materializes from the trees above the left bank of the stream. From here it’s a 45 minute walk along roads back to the Wanli Road and Xidi no. 2 Bridge. The whole trip takes just four hours – just a half-day excursion – but it’s certainly one of finest, most rewarding ways to spend a hot summer afternoon that I’ve found to date.
The Masu Stream river trace is, however positively NOT a place for weak swimmers, or for inexperienced or less confident river tracers. There are a number of small but basically sheer rock faces to climb on the way, and although the footholds are pretty secure, with one exception there are no fixed ropes to help out, which means tracers need to be confident and extremely careful. It’s also essential to pay close attention to the weather. This part of Yangmingshan is also notorious for heavy rains, which are especially common on hot summer afternoons and can begin with surprisingly little warning. Even though it may be sunny overhead, a heavy shower further up on the mountains above could trigger a flash flood, which would create extremely dangerous conditions with little warning, especially in the very narrow and sheer-sided gorges along the way.
(Thanks to Tony Foster Brown for photos 1, 6, 9 and 13!!)