It’s a goal of countless hikers, both local and (increasingly) foreign, to make it to the summit of Jade Mountain (Yushan, 玉山主峰, 3,952 meters). Beating Japan’s Mount Fuji to the prestigious title of Northeast Asia’s highest point by almost two hundred meters, while standing only 140 or so meters lower than the highest point in all of Eastern Asia (Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu), it’s become just as popular as those two legendary mountains.
Perhaps it’s the sheer beauty of Jade Mountain that makes scaling it such a memorable as well as rewarding experience. The two-day trip to the top of the mountain and back is much more scenic than the crowded, rough, and often dull slog up Japan’s Mount Fuji, and it’s easier than the relentlessly steep trudge up Kinabalu’s granite sheets.
The first Westerner to observe Jade Mountain was W. Morrison, the captain of a US freighter, the SS Alexander, who spotted the mountain as the ship was leaving Anping Fort in Tainan in 1857. From that time the mountain was known as Mount Morrison in Western literature. The first recorded ascent of the mountain was in 1900 by two Japanese anthropologists, Torii Ryuzo and Mori Ushinosuke, after the annexation of Taiwan by the Japanese in 1895. They named it Niitakayama or Mount Niitaka (“new high mountain”) since it’s higher than Mt. Fuji (3,776 meters). Under this name, the mountain was used as the secret code to signal the Japanese Imperial Navy to begin its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The command was “Niitakayama Nobore” (“Climb Mount Niitaka”). And the rest, they say, is history. The mountain’s original name, Yushan (玉山; literally “jade mountain”) was restored by the Chinese after the Retrocession in 1945. A definitive reason for the name is hard to find, but one explanation is that the peak looks like a piece of gleaming white jade when capped with snow; a more likely reason is its deep green hue during the summer.
The Yushan area is rich in wildlife, with a range of rare flora and fauna. Formosan black bears live here, but the only animals you’re likely to see are a variety of birds, especially the Eurasian nutcracker and the white whiskered laughing thrush, both of which are commonly seen hanging around the two shelters on the trail between the trailhead and Paiyun Lodge, waiting for food. Most unmissable of the botanical treasures along the trail are the trees. The trail passes through several beautiful forests of Chinese hemlock on the way to Paiyun Lodge on day one, while further up the dominant tree becomes kawakami fir, Taiwan’s highest-growing tree; increasingly stunted specimens can be seen beside the summit trail until over halfway to the top.
There’s a choice of two routes to the summit. The first (which takes three days for the return trek) starts at the hot spring village of Dongpu (東埔) and follows the Japanese-era Batongguan Historic Trail (八通關古道), in places spectacularly cut into the rocky mountainside, climbing to an alpine meadow studded with countless delicate blooms in May and June. From there the trail turns southwest, finally joining the Yushan North Peak trail and reaching the summit of Yushan via the steep scree of the awesome fengkou (風口, literally “wind mouth”), which pierces the summit cliffs. This route is strenuous and infrequently hiked, partly because it’s often closed for long periods, especially in summer and fall, due to landslides.
The second, shorter and much more popular route starts at Tatajia (塔塔加) on the New Central Cross-island Highway, which connects Chiayi city (嘉義市) on the flat western plains of Taiwan with Shuili (水里) in the center of the island. After an initial short zigzag climb up the steep mountainside, the path is relatively gentle as it contours the grassy mountainside, giving stupendous views up the alpine valley and across to Yushan’s southern peaks opposite. After a little more uphill climbing, there’s an overnight in the comfortable new Paiyun (“cloud piercing”) Lodge, before the highlight of the walk: the slow but spectacular hike up the scree and rock to the summit (usually in the early hours of the following morning). This route takes just two days.
So how difficult is Jade Mountain to climb? It’s actually one of the easiest big mountains in the world to scale, and is certainly one of the most straightforward ascents among Taiwan’s 3,000-meter-plus mountains. Most able-bodied people have an excellent chance of summiting, as long as they do some preparation (lots of stair-climbing, and some day hikes with a full backpack) to get themselves ready before the trek, if they don’t hike regularly.
The Route from Tatajia
The trailhead is 3 kilometers up a surfaced access road from the New Central Cross-island Highway at Tatajia, but strict vehicle controls mean it’s necessary to either walk the whole way, or take a shuttle minibus from the police checkpoint a couple of hundred meters up the road. Minibuses hang around the checkpoint in the mornings, and the last one returns from the trailhead about 5 pm.
The start of the trail up Yushan is at the end of the accessible length of the road (beyond it runs through a strict nature reserve area, open only to researchers), and is marked by a large inscribed rock. After a few hundred meters the trail climbs high up the grassy hillside via a series of zigzags, but by the Monroe Pavilion, a tiny resting shelter around the 1.5 kilometer point, the going becomes easier, rising only gradually as the trail contours the side of a great valley.
Approaching the three kilometer mark the route passes the short but very steep trail (signposted) to Yushan Front Peak. The trail to the summit of this steep little eminence is only 800 meters long, but it’s a relentlessly steep haul, especially the last half. Leave the heavy backpack at the junction, bring some water, and take it slowly – it’s a killer if you go too fast and get tired at this stage, because Paiyun Lodge and the night’s rest is still a long trek away! The view from the top includes Yushan North Peak, and the Main Peak is also just visible, but the main reason to climb the Front Peak is to bag another of the ‘Top Hundred Peaks (nine peaks in the Yushan group are featured on the list).
Back on the main trail there are fantastic views in many places as it winds around the steep mountainside, often on a wooden boardwalk; the distance is marked every hundred meters.
At the five kilometer marker there’s a covered rest shelter where most trekkers stop for lunch. It’s also at the point where the trail rounds a bend in the great valley and the summit of Yushan Main Peak suddenly appears for the first time in the trek.
Just after the 5 km rest stop lies the second uphill stretch on the first day’s hike, a short but very steep zigzag climb. At the top, the path resumes contouring the hillside, and the views are even finer than before. In several places around the 6 and 7 kilometer marker, the trail passes through several impressive rock faces that fall nearly sheer for many meters below the path.
It’s a four-hour walk (8.5 kilometers) from the trailhead to the new and much improved Paiyun Lodge (排雲山莊), which also marks the start of the 2 km-long side trail to Yushan West Peak, a return trip that takes 90 minutes to 2 hours, and gives spectacular views in several places of Yushan Main Peak if the the weather is clear. The trail is rougher than the main summit trail, and a short rocky obstacle about 5 minutes from the lodge needs care, but it’s well worth walking out there if the weather is clear, as the trail provides magnificent views of the main summit, beaten only by the classic view of Yushan from the North Peak trail.
The summit itself is in the middle of a rather dull forest glade, but walk a couple of minutes further, downhill through the woods, and there’s a reconstruction of a Japanese Shinto shrine that once stood here. A little further the ground falls away in frost-eroded cliffs, with spectacular views over the lowlands in clear weather.
Completely rebuilt several years ago, the once super-basic, drafty Paiyun Lodge is nicer these days (although still very simple – don’t expect mattresses on the beds or showers of any kind!), with two floors and separate rooms sleeping around 12 people each laid out on the second floor. Meals (dinner, a pre-summit hot snack and breakfast noodles after returning) are cooked up (for an extra fee) by the staff, and warm duck-down sleeping bags can be hired for NT$200. Hikers aren’t allowed to cook their own food anymore, but hot water is usually available for instant noodles, hot drinks etc.
On the second morning most people get up at 3 am or so, and tackle the steep final 2.4 kilometers to the summit in the dark. At first the going isn’t too hard, then the trail reaches the screes below the summit crags, and starts winding steeply up the crumbly slopes. Take a left at the first junction about 30 minutes from Paiyun Hut (the trail on the right climbs over the shoulder of the mountain and down to the small and basic Yuanshan Hut, at the foot of Yushan South Peak). The last section of the summit trail is the most spectacular stretch of the whole hike: for the final few hundred meters of ascent, the trail narrows to a ledge zigzagging up an enormous slope of loose scree. Fixed chains (and at one point a long iron cage) provide welcome security as the trail climbs the rocks. Keep right at the second junction immediately after the cage (the trail on the left is the route from Dongpu, and also the way to Yushan North Peak).
From far below it seems there can’t be any easy way to negotiate the sheer cliffs that guard Jade Mountain’s summit on all sides, but, remarkably, the trail lies up a steep and exhilarating rocky staircase that is relatively easy to scale and shortly emerges on the compact roof of Taiwan. The summit is so small it seems it can hardly hold the large groups who gather here most mornings to watch the sunrise.
No-one complains about the company, however. If the weather is clear, the panorama over Jade Mountain’s other peaks and the countless other rocky mountains of the surrounding Yushan National Park is simply world class.
The Other Yushan Peaks
While it’s naturally the main summit of Jade Mountain that is the goal of most hikers, an even more rewarding trip would include one or more of the mountain’s other eight main peaks. As noted above either Yushan Front or West Peaks (前峰、西峰) can be bagged as a detour on the first day, while longer trips of three, four or five days allow time to reach the more far-flung peaks. Particularly recommended is adding an extra day to the basic two-day summit hike and exploring Jade Mountain South Peak, which is accessed via the Yuanshan Hut (圓峰山屋), two hours beyond Paiyun Lodge, and features some truly awesome scenery and fewer fellow hikers.
If there’s time to explore only one other summit, however, make it Yushan North Peak (玉山北峰). Since it’s only a ninety-minute walk beyond the main summit, if the weather is fine fit walkers can tack it on to the two-day ascent after conquering the main summit before heading down. In any event the short walk is absolutely spectacular. After a long, chain-assisted descent down the great, scree-filled “wind mouth” below the main peak’s awesome northern crags, the trail follows the narrow spine of the ridge past a line of conifers severely stunted and twisted by the inhospitable climate. The north peak itself is crowned by Taiwan’s highest weather station, but look back for the classic view of Yushan familiar from countless photos: the great cockscomb crest of the summit cliffs, rearing up into the sky ahead adorns postcards, tourist brochures, the logo of a local bank, and even the 1,000 NT dollar bill!
The hardest aspect of climbing Yushan isn’t the trek itself, but getting the necessary Yushan National Park-issued permit, of which only around 90 are issued each day, and are notoriously sought after. It’s best to forget trying to get the permit for a weekend (Saturday-Sunday) climb, when many hundreds of hopeful hikers enter a lottery and it can be as low as a one-in-ten chance of being approved for a permit. If you do want to try, applications open 60 days before the first day of your hike. Sunday to Thursday holders of foreign passports can apply for a number of foreigner priority permits, which greatly improves the chance of success. In practice it can be very hard to get even this permit for hikes starting on Sunday, when demand is still very high. Trekking midweek, competition is less strong, and there’s a better chance. These permit applications open four months before the first day of your trek. Apply on the first possible day if possible, and if you’re trying for a Sunday-Monday, get on at midnight, the moment online applications on the permit application website open, to stand a chance of success. Food (dinner, pre-climb rice gruel and hot noodles after returning from the summit) and sleeping bag rental at Paiyun Lodge can be ordered once your permit comes through.
An alternative to trying to get the permit 2-day trek is to hike the mountain up and down in one day, for which a different (easier-to-get) permit is issued. It’s a long day, but certainly within the scope of fitter walkers. Note that during winter (late December to early April) extra regulations may be in force, requiring snow-training certification for at least the ‘guide’ (who can be any member of the group).
Before starting the climb, it’s worth spending the previous night at altitude, to acclimate. Alishan, at 2,000 meters, has a range of accommodation, but even better is Tatajia, right at the start of the 3 kilometer approach road to the trailhead, at about 2,500 meters, where there’s a bunkhouse called Dongpu Villa (東埔山莊; phone 049-2702-213 or 0928-358-307); bedding (duvets and pillows) is provided.
Getting to Tatajia is tricky without private transport. Bus 6739, run by Yuanlin Bus Company, runs from Alishan (reachable from Chiayi city by regular buses) to Sun Moon Lake twice a day, stopping at Tatajia (called 上東埔 on the bus website). Otherwise, you could try hitching from Alishan, or even walking, although it’s a 20 kilometer walk!