The Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk is without doubt one of Taiwan’s finest (half-) day hikes, and such is its popularity that most hikers (myself included) rarely get to try any of the other very fine hikes in the immediate area. In a determined attempt to start putting matters right a rather large group (17!) of us offloaded onto the platform at Sandiaoling Station one bright and sunny Sunday at the end of September with the intention of following an intriguing ‘new’ route that, like the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, connects the stations of Sandiaoling and Shifen on the scenic Pingxi Branch Railway Line. Instead of waterfalls, wide dirt trails and the occasional wooden rope ladder for company however, there’s some seriously dense and rough terrain, plus a succession of pointy little peaks, culminating in 502 meter-high Mount Neipinglin (內坪林山).
Forget the modest height. Getting to the top of Mount Neipinglin from the east side is a strenuous proposition, although some quite outstanding views from the top repay the effort to get there. Keen hikers who are familiar with other ‘wild’ summits above the Pingxi Branch Line such as the magnificent Fengtou Peak (峰頭尖) ridge and Mount Wanggu（望古山) area will know what to expect here in conditions and scenery. This hike (like most of the ridge walks in this area) is for the experienced, fitter hiker, and a map is basically essential to avoid getting lost. We had the maps and still managed to get (temporarily) lost a couple of times.
The trailhead is easy to find. Simply walk along the tracks from Sandiaoling station as if heading for the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, but continue ahead past the trailhead for that perennially popular route, cross the railway bridge over the Keelung River, and immediately fork right, across the tracks and onto a short street beside the houses of Yuliao hamlet. The street ends at a flight of concrete steps that climb the wooded hillside. The cement path is covered in a thin film of algae, and is very slippery when wet, but thankfully reverts to natural dirt underfoot in a few minutes, and is a very enjoyable ramble, passing the first of several dark abandoned coal mine entrances on the left.
The trail reaches a T junction above a stream. The fork on the right soon climbs little Mount Youkang (幼坑山; 240 meters) and was our planned route for tackling Mount Neipinglin. Unfortunately, as often happens, my map-reading skills fell by the wayside as I happily chatted to the others and we missed the junction, not realising we’d covered that much ground on the map in so short a time.
The left-fork trail follows the stream for some distance, then descends to cross it near a fine old stone Earth God shrine, follows the attractive streambed down a little and then climbs up the far side, passing another abandoned mine entrance. It next crosses a second, smaller stream, only to follow the right bank of this tributary for a considerable distance up its steep little thicket-infested valley.
It’s slow and rough going all the way – these trails are uncommonly followed and are overgrown and a bit unclear in parts, and after the stream it’s almost constantly uphill, but the relative sense of remoteness and satisfying sense of challenge puts this place light years away from the nearby Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk, just the north across the Keelung River.
Finally there’s a choice of two routes up to the ridge (both marked with the usual little tin signs in Chinese nailed onto trees at the junction): the ‘traditional’ route (on the left), and a ‘new’ trail. We followed the traditional route, which is soon locked into a very steep climb through the dense undergrowth; it’s one of those wonderful trails where both hands and feet are being constantly used to haul yourself up in the absence of ropes. Two things set this hike apart from most others in the area – the masses of attractive screwpine that sprawl up the steep hillsides, and a much less welcome plant with thick stems covered in countless vicious spines which makes getting through a few places without being painfully spiked quite a challenge.
Once on the ridge the hardest part of the hike is arguably over, if only because from now onwards the precipitous climbs and overgrown trails come with great views at regular intervals which take the mind off tired muscles. Before heading for Mount Neipinglin, a short (10 minute) detour along the ridge to the left (east) leads to the summit of Mount Dapinglin (大平林山; 420 meters) although apart from bagging another summit, there’s really no reason to go there, as it’s a very ho-hum kind of place, with no distinctive profile and no real view either.
The ridge walk from Mount Dapinglin to Mount Neipinglin looks quite short and straightforward on the map, but as so often happens in Taiwan, it’s very deceptive, and it takes about 90 minutes to negotiate the very rough, steep, overgrown trail linking the two summits, with some good views along the ridge towards the higher summit ahead, and some fun rocky clambers. If it’s exciting rocky scrambles you’re after, they’re much better (and more challenging) on the Fengtou Point and Zhongyang Point ridges above Pingxi a few kilometres further west, but there is one fun little rocky knob to climb over on the way, with fixed ropes which make it the most interesting part of the entire walk.
After one final short but very steep clamber, the small summit of Mount Neipinglin (the highest point of the route) offers magnificent, near-360-degree views, and makes a fitting goal for the hike. It also marks the end of the challenging part of the day’s walk. It’s immediately clear that the trail continuing westwards down the west side of the summit peak is in much better condition than anything encountered so far since leaving Yuliao village back at the railway tracks, and it’s an easy walk of five minutes or so to another T junction. At this point the ridge forks into two, with the developed Pinghu Forest Recreation Area (平湖森林遊樂區) nestled between them, and you definitely want to turn right here, to follow the northern ridge for a quick and relatively painless descent to Shifen railway station. Unfortunately my sense of direction (and map-reading ability) completely failed me this time, and for some unfathomable reason I assumed we needed to take the trail on the left, which led down to a raised wooden ‘viewing platform’ marooned in a sea of tall grass. This marks the beginning of a wide, interminably long stone surfaced trail that follows the southern ridge around the edge of the recreation area and finally (after a monotonous 45 minute walk) veers north down the steep, wooded hillside to the Recreation Area car park, another 20 minutes or so further. From here it’s an easy walk (level or downhill) of about 40 minutes back to Shifen for some much-needed refreshments and a bus home.
Pinghu Forest Recreation Area, with its network of trails and peaks, looks worth exploring on maps, but the sad reality is that it’s both miserably developed (think wide, Yangmingshan-style stone paths), scenically very so-so compared with countless other places along the awesome upper Keelung River valley, and in a state of disrepair, with some trails overgrown or destroyed by landslides. There’s lots still to discover in future hikes to this chunk of mountainous terrain between Sandiaoling and Shifen, but with more trails on the northern slopes of Mount Neipinglin, where the ruins of old coal miners’ houses lie hidden in the forest, and several options for completing long, challenging loop hikes out of Sandiaoling station, that’s the area I’ll be concentrating on in future visits to this inexhaustibly fascinating, challenging corner of New Taipei City.
Our Sandiaoling to Shifen hike took us about seven hours, with a few shortish breaks on the route, but if I were to go again, I’d definitely stop at Mount Neipinglin and take one of the trails looping back along the northern slopes of the ridge back towards Sandiaoling and Yuliao, avoiding the dull Pinghu Forest and the crazy weekend crowds at Shifen.
There’s just one tempting reason (apart from all the food and cold beers) to descend to Shifen. The old Mucha to Pingxi bus service has recently been much improved with hourly buses at weekends, all of which run as far as Shifen. The Sunday afternoon bus we took back to the city easily had enough seats for everyone in our large group, as most tourists still seem to prefer to wait for the impossibly packed PIngxi line train. For details see here.