The village of Nanao (南澳), the largest settlement on the magnificent Suhua Highway, sits, like the few other villages between Suao and Hualian, on an alluvial plain at the mouth of the two-pronged Nanao Stream, and unlike Dongao (the next settlement to the north, which has a scenic cold spring pool and some nice aboriginal touches) it’s only worth stopping in town to get supplies or top on gas. If you’ve got the time though, there are enough places to explore in the vicinity to keep you busy for several days. Most casual visitors will probably be limited to a stroll along the sole remaining stretch of the original, Qing dynasty Suao – Hualian trail, along the clifftop just to the north of of the town, or maybe the impressive cliffs of the Guanyin Coast Nature Reserve, with a couple of caves lying about 30 minutes’ walk south from the end of the road where it reaches the beach. A longer, more demanding walk leaves the Suhua Highway south of town, and climbs over the wooded mountains to the aptly named Mystery Lake (神祕湖), hidden deep in the thick forest southwest of town.
To get the most out of Nanao’s surroundings though, you’ve got to get your feet wet. Nanao is great river tracing country. For a start there are four hot springs and a uniquely-shaped waterfall along the Nanao Stream to the northwest of the village, among which the third, Laka Hot Spring, can only be reached by an easy-ish but very scenic trace of several hours. For hardcore river tracers with lots of experience and 2 days to spare, the Aohua Stream drains Mystery Lake, then cuts a way through the mountains via a series of gorges to end the spectacular Aohua Waterfall (澳花瀑布) the most impressive easily accessible fall in Yilan County. Easier and much briefer are the Nanao area’s two other established river traces – the short but very sweet Bidan Stream, and the only slightly longer but even sweeter Lupi Stream trace up to Jinyue Waterfall. With private transport, both could just about be done in a full-day day trip from Taipei, although it’s much nicer to stay the night, using the village’s fab grassy, very large camping site (which doesn’t cost a cent), about halfway along the road from the village to the coast.
Lupi Stream (Jinyue Waterfall) (鹿皮溪 (金岳瀑布))
This magnificent waterfall is quite heavily promoted by the local tourism office, much to the disappointment of many visitors who arrive at the car park to find the waterfall can only be reached by a river trace. The trace is only an hour or two each way, and isn’t especially tough (unless the river is high, in which case best not to attempt it), but it’s not a beginner’s river either; best try an easier one like Yuemeikang or Datun Stream before taking on this one. Lupi Stream is a popular destination for local outdoors outfits taking groups out for river tracing trips, so start early at weekends to avoid the chance of a hold up.
Most of those visitors who get conned into driving up here end up at the poos below the smaller lower fall of the two. Just a minutes’ walk from the parking area at the end of the road, this is a great cooling-off spot on summer days, where the stream widens into a wide pool. It’s not very deep, but there’s loads of space so even on weekend afternoons it’s not too crowded. A few meters upstream, the stream exits a narrow rocky chasm by plunging over Lower Jinyue Waterfall, about 8 meters high, and a popular spot for more courageous river tracers than me, who climb the rocks to the left of the fall, jump into the huge and very deep rock pool at its head, and then ride over the smooth lip of the fall and plummet into the pool at the bottom; this is quite possibly Taiwan’s highest natural waterslide.
Unless you’re carrying equipment and experience at technical river tracing, there’s no way to pass the narrow rockbound gorge immediately above the waterfall, so cross the stream to the right of the waterfall, climb up the steep bank by traces of trail, and at the top a trail leads through the woods for a couple of minutes, rejoining the stream at the top of the impressive rocky defile.
it’s a good hour from here up to the much bigger Upper Jinyue Waterfall. There are a few small obstacles in the form of easy short scrambles up the rocks, and in one place under a huge boulder lodged over the narrow streambed. At the top, the 25 meter-high waterfall lies at a 90-degree angle to the stream below, plummeting into a very large pool of deep blue-green water.
To get to the car park and the start of the river trace, drive south through Nanao village, cross the long bridge over the broad, stony flood bed of the Nanao tream, then immediately turn right (signposted in Chinese to Jinyue (金岳)). Turn left at the first junction, following the south bank of the Lupi Stream. Keep straight ahead at the bridge and the car parking area at the end of the road a just a bit further.
Bidan Stream (Little Golden Grotto) (碧旦溪)
The Bidan Stream appears to have become popular more recently than the Lupi Stream. It’s a longer, bumpier drive from town, it’s a very short trace, and also a slightly harder one, with a couple of slightly tricky rocky obstacles to climb, but it’s magical, especially the ‘little Golden Grotto’ at the top, which is really enchanting, although not as spectacular as the original, across the border to the south in Hualian County.
To get there drive south out of Nanao, pass the turnoff for the Lupi Stream, and nearly 3 kilometers further along highway 9, turn right onto local route 57 towards Jinyang (金洋). Pass above the aboriginal settlement of Jinyang and follow the narrow bumpy road west past the (invisible) junction of the Bidan Stream and the main watercourse, the Nanao South Stream, to the right. In another kilometer or so, an overgrown track on the right goes down to the river’s edge. Follow this and walk back down the Nanao South Stream for 20 minutes or so to the confluence with the Bidan Stream, emerging from a very narrow slot gorge hidden in the trees and tumbling down rocks into the main stream below.
Climb up the rocky bank beside the stream and into the narrow and rather beautiful gorge of the Bidan Stream, and trace a way up. There’s one or two trickier bits right at the beginning, then it’s easy until a bigger climb beside a small waterfall at the top of the trace. This last one is hard without a rope to bolster confidence, but it’s hardly necessary. The best bit of the gorge is the short, narrow, and quite enchanting little stretch right before this small waterfall. Above it, the stream flows through a wooded gorge much like countless others throughout Taiwan.