The beautiful Central Cross-island Highway, which once linked the cities of Taichung on the flat western plains of Taiwan, and Hualien, below the towering mountains and sea cliffs of the island’s east coast is, like the North Cross-island Highway, graced with a number of fabulous hot springs. Like their northern counterparts, developed resorts (at Guguan) can be found, but the remaining three main hot springs along the highway remain pristine, and fabulously scenic to boot.
Wenshan Hot Springs (文山溫泉)
Deep in the depths of a stunning marble canyon at the top of Taroko Gorge, Wenshan Hot Springs is easily Taiwan’s most famous and popular unspoilt hot spring. Closed for some years during the early years of the millennium following a rockfall which killed at least one bather, the hot springs opened again to the public a few years back, and are more popular than ever.
Getting there is simple. Walk uphill along the road from the village of Tianxiang at the head of Taroko Gorge), and take the steps on the right just before the second tunnel (the first tunnel marks the trailhead of the wonderful Baiyang Waterfall and Water Curtain Cave walk, a good short hike before a dip in the hot springs). Steps lead down to a suspension bridge.
On the far side, more steps lead down under the overhanging cliffs to the riverbank and the hot springs, just a five-minute walk from the road.
The water seeps from several places in the marble cliffs, and out of the shingle riverbed itself. The main pool, in a shallow natural cave just above the river bank, looks inviting, but with water well into 40-degrees C range, it’s out-of-bounds to all but the bravest hot spring bathers, and even then a couple of minutes in there and you’ll come out like a boiled lobster.Much more comfortable for the average hot-spring lover are the pools formed by the spill-off from that cave pool, where the water cools just enough to make it bearable.
Bathers after a cooler soak also scoop pools out of the smooth shingle of the river bank when the water is low…
…and the icy-cold water of the river itself is right beside for a quick cool off. Beware though – the current is always fast, and dangerously so during the summer months.
Maling Hot Springs (馬陵溫泉)
In a gorge near the western end of the highway, Maling Hot Spring is the only major hot spring source of several nearby that hasn’t been tapped to supply the hot spring spas of Guguan a couple of kilometers downstream. It’s smaller and less reliable than Wenshan Hot Springs (summer flood waters bring down gravel which regularly buries the hot spring sources on the river bank), but the real attraction of visiting is the magnificent scenery on the route. It’s not too far – about 90 minutes each way – but lies through magnificent scenery, and a bit of an adventure unless the water is low (in winter, which is the best time to go anyway, of course).
Drive through Guguan and follow the highway eastwards for a couple of kilometers, then take a turning on the left just before the barrier that stops vehicles going any further (the section of the highway between Guguan and Deji is currently still closed after huge damage caused by the great earthquake of 1999). The rough road soon stops at a gate which blocks further entrance; squeeze round the side of it and walk down to the riverbank just beyond. The gate is apparently there for a good reason – it’s said that the reservoir upstream periodically releases water without warning, sending flood waters down which could be extremely dangerous for anyone in the river at the time. This is most likely during the summer wet season, when the hot springs will be inaccessible anyway, but visiting still has an element of risk.
Once at the river, start walking upstream, wading through the water or following the wide banks of rock and gravel exposed in places at low water. Crossing the river can be quite a challenge if it’s rained recently. Keep well away if there’s been heavy rain.
After a short walk a fine waterfall drops from the cliffs on the right into the gorge: the first of a number of magnificent waterfalls that plunge into the gorge if it’s rained recently. It’s actually not quite the completely natural feature it looks at first, but is no less beautiful for that.
Now simply continue wading and clambering upstream, past the remains of a building (washed away by floods or a landslide many years ago) strikingly clinging to a sheer cliff face soon after the waterfall, and several other landslide relics of past storms and earthquakes.
Eventually the first of several tall waterfalls plunge down the sides of the gorge – a magnificent addition to the wild scenery if the weather hasn’t been too dry. The first waterfall, on the left side, signals that the hot spring is nearby.
The hot springs are beside the left bank of the river, and unless the river is low they might even be submerged. As usual, look for pools scooped out by other visitors to indicate where they are. On our visit, heavy rains a week or two before our visit had practically buried them in gravel, although we found some lukewarm water pools just above the level of the swirling river. They’d be a wonderful spot for a soak in winter when completely uncovered, but as I mentioned earlier, the attraction of a visit to Maling Hot Springs, as so many of Taiwan’s other wild hot spring sources, is in the adventure to get there, and the great beauty of the gorge. Maling Hot Springs is less popular than the Guguan Seven Heroes mountains nearby, but is every bit as deserving of a visit. Even better, spend a weekend in the area, climb one of the summits on Saturday, and spend a more relaxing second day visiting Maling, to soak those tired muscles!
Deji Hot Spring (德基溫泉)
A third wild hot spring along the Highway, sits beside the river at the foot of a magnificent canyon about three kilometers west of the village of Deji, and looks extremely scenic from old, pre-1999 photos. Unfortunately the trailhead lies on the closed stretch of the Highway west of Deji village, and it’s been more-or-less inaccessible since the great 1999 earthquake.