Mount Beichatian (北插天山: 1,727 meters) is such a popular challenge hike (it’s the highest peak that can reasonably climbed as a day trip from Taipei) that I (and I’m sure many other weary, muddy hikers) fail to appreciate just how beautiful it is while panting up its steep, seemingly never-ending ridge. Good weather does of course make a great difference, so that’s probably why my third trip there, on a weekend in mid October that turned out unexpectedly nice, was the first time that I really noticed its extraordinary scenic merits.
The first time I climbed the mountain was as a day trip, coming in and out from Manyueyuan, near Sansia in Taipei County, and although we made it up and back in daylight, my main memory of that climb was how damned muddy the final section to the summit was. It was nearly a decade later when I climbed it again, 2 years ago (in 2011), with a group of Taipei Hikers. This time the trails were very much better, with wooden boardwalks in places on the trail up to the campsite, and log ladders up the steepest muddiest parts of the summit trail. For this trip we decided to split the trip into two days, camping the night in the idyllic wooded ‘spring’ (水源) campsite on the shoulder of the mountain, which worked great, because it gave us time to explore the nearby Yunei Stream Ancient Tree Grove on the second day before heading down.
For this most recent trip, we again spent two days, camping at the spring camping place, but neither toughing it out as a day trip (with light backpack) or spending the night up there, but having to haul a heavy backpack with tent, sleeping bag, food etc. up is a perfect solution. If time wasn’t a problem the answer would be to go for three days, camp two nights at the campsite, and really enjoy what this stunning area has to offer without the rush.
The trailhead is up the steps near the toilets on the right just before the Manyueyuan (Full Moon) Waterfalls (滿月圓瀑布), a half-hour walk from the entrance. The initial zigzagging climb is slow if you’re carrying a heavy backpack, but after maybe 30 minutes or so it levels out and the trail contours the steep hillside, high above the stream.
After a diversion at a huge landslide (which happened many years ago now) the second, even longer ascent climbs (now on dirt steps with wooden risers all the way) to the first main junction. The wider trail on the right descends to Dongyanshan National Forest Recreation Area (東眼山森林遊樂區); the trail to Mount Beichatian is the narrower one, on the left, and it’s a fairly easy, level or gradually rising walk of about 45 minutes (passing through three small man-made cuttings on the way) through the forest to the spring camping place, in the forest beside a sparkling stream.
The spring camp is the best of at least three places where tents can be pitched nearby [there’s another spot another ten minutes further at the junction with the summit trail, and a third, very small spot on the trail beside the Yunei Stream below the Eight Immortals Tree]. There’s space for maybe ten or so tents in the clearings between the trees, and plenty of fresh water from the spring flowing into the stream at the point where the trail crosses it. There are no other facilities though (it’s a wild camp) so bring everything!
To safely summit Mount Beichatian and return to the camp before dark (outside of the summer months at least), it’s best to leave the spring camp by around 1 pm at the latest. The best idea if time allows would be to overnight beside the spring and ascend in the early morning, when there’s a better chance of clear weather at the top. This last ascent we left at 2 pm, and it was a major rush. Rushing on the Mount Beichatian trail is a major no-no, since it’s steep, very muddy (ie slippery) and a little tricky in a few places. I over-pushed myself this time, got a nasty cramp while hauling up a rock halfway to the summit, and had to head down. The remaining five members of our little summit party were really pushing it, and only just summited and made it down back to the spring camp as it got dark.
It’s about ten minutes from the campsite to the junction with the summit trail. Cross the stream next to the camping place, and the trail winds through the woods. After the first huge old tree on the route (there are bigger specimens nearby!) keep left at the junction and in a few minutes the trail climbs to a large flat area (a second possible camping site) and another junction. The trail on the right descends to the Yunei Stream Ancient Trees (赫威神木群) and on to the Xiaowulai (小烏來) trailhead on the North Cross-island Highway, with a connecting trail down to the White Veil Waterfall. For Mount Beichatian, take the trail on the left, which climbs to the top in about 90 minutes. After a couple of gentle minutes, this trail is steeply uphill almost all of the way, with a succession of crude ladders made from tree branches on some of the most difficult sections.
There are also a couple of small rock faces to climb, so it’s slow going. The view starts opening out (if the weather is clear) after 45 minutes or so, and after a good hour, a summit is reached. This however is a false summit, so continue ahead, downhill then back up to reach the true summit of Mount Beichatian, marked with a few tin plaques. The two times I’ve stood here there wasn’t a shred of a view because the weather was (as it so often is up here, particularly in the afternoons) foggy, but despite the trees the view this last time was apparently magnificent. A small tin sign points onwards to Mount Duoyai (多崖山; 1,700 meters), which apparently has a much clearer view and is only 15 minutes further. From this second summit a trail loops (or at least it once looped) back round to rejoin the trail up from Manyueyuan – an interesting return route for day trippers if it’s still usable.
For once going down takes just as long as going up, and you’ll need to allow at least 90 minutes (preferably more) to return to the spring camp before darkness. This is one trail you don’t want to be benighted on, as it would be more-or-less impossible to safely follow after dark, even with a flashlight.
Yunei Stream Ancient Tree Grove and White Veil Waterfall
For most hikers, Mount Beichatian is the main event, and on a day trip it’s highly unlikely you’ll have either the time or the energy to visit the Yunei Stream Ancient Tree Grove, even though they’re not far off the route, unless climbing from the Xiaowulai side. Branching off from the summit route, the trail immediately descends the far side of the little pass. In a few minutes a couple of huge old trees rise beside the trail, which descends in about 15 minutes to the bizarrely-shaped Eight Immortals Tree (八仙神木). Walking straight through the big hole in the tree’s main trunk is now discouraged, as the force of countless feet is damaging the ancient giant, so walk around the tree and the trail crosses the sylvan Yunei Stream just below it, and heads downstream to the Hewei Tree (赫威神木), perhaps the most impressive tree of all, just above the trail on the right.
The Hewei Tree stands beside an important junction. The trail climbing the hillside beside the tree is the (much) easier way down to Xiaowulai. There are no more ancient trees of any size on the path, but it’s a nice walk, and less than two hours to the trailhead on a road about 6 kilometres above Xiaowulai. The trail on the left below the Hewei Tree descends past several more giant trees, crosses the Yunei Stream by a unique bridge made partly from a naturally fallen (and still growing!) tree, then meanders through the forest on the far bank, past two more huge trees (one fallen and spectacularly split) to the Devil Tree (魔鬼神木), recognizable by the screaming ‘face’ near the top of the main trunk.
Beyond the Devil Tree, the trail becomes a lot tougher for the remainder of the 70-80 minute walk from the tree grove down to the marvellous White Veil Waterfall (白紗瀑布). A local hiker we met at the spring camp on our last visit neatly put it this way – going down to White Veil Waterfall is like climbing the trail up Mount Beichatian – very steep and rough, only you go down first, leaving a long, tough climb for the return trip.
Several impressive trees line the route which descends almost constantly to the head of the two-layered Hewei Waterfall (赫威瀑布). The wide, fairly short upper fall is fine enough, but a few meters below it the stream plunges again, into a very narrow gorge over a much higher fall – very impressive, but only partially visible (getting to the bottom is also next to impossible). It’s now steeply downhill all the way, across a tiny tributary stream, then straight down a side valley to the base of White Veil Waterfall. It’s a slow and very rough clamber down, but deeply worth it. On this most recent visit we arrived around 10:30 am, when the Sun was shining straight into the gorge, casting a rainbow in front of the 30 meter-high falls from some angles, and turning the falling curtain of water into a mass of blinding white, with a large and deep plunge pool of rich turquoise at the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight (no photo does it justice) and one of the finest waterfalls I’ve seen anywhere in Taiwan.
The trail continues by following the bed of the Yunei Stream down, in places climbing onto the rocky sides, at others walking on the boulder-strewn bed. The way below the waterfall is even rougher and harder than the way down from above, but at least it’s not uphill. It’s two hours or more from the waterfall before the trail emerges on the road above Xiaowulai. According to Lyndon Punt, part of the trail near the lower end has been wiped out by a landslide recently, although it’s possible to get around it.
With backpacks and tents back at the campsite, our only realistic option this last time was to return the way we came – an exhausting climb of 90 minutes or so. Next time I’ll definitely aim at a three-day trip and take more time!
Thanks to Mars for lending me his spare camera, and to Nick for letting me use a few of his pics after my camera packed up at the very start of the weekend!!