The trip out to Huisun Hot Spring (惠蓀溫泉) is easily the most scenic and exciting that I know of in all Taiwan. The hot spring itself, in a small cave set into a sheer cliff face about eight meters above the surface of the fast-flowing river, is quietly unique and makes a great spot for a small group, but it’s the scenery on the way that truly makes this perhaps my favorite to date.
Timing is everything when arranging a trip to Huisun. Once reached by a gravel track (how on earth did that get shoe-horned into those incredible narrow canyons?) and rideable by mountain bike, the track was mostly washed away years ago by typhoon floods. A few overgrown stretches remain (look out for these – they’re all on the right as you work your way upstream), and you’ll need to use them all to reach the hot spring and get back in one (long) day.
It’s certainly a long day to get up and back to Huisun Hot Spring, and although there are a few possible campsites en route, the nature of the gorge (deep, fast-flowing water, and narrow confines where flash floods are a major possibility) means this isn’t a great candidate for a camping trip with a heavy backpack unless you really know what you’re doing.
The biggest obstacle to getting to Huisun Hot Springs, however, is often the depth of the water. Time a visit after a prolonged period of dry weather. It’s completely out of bounds from the first plum rains until well into the dry season the following year. On our first trip (late April 2016), we couldn’t even get into the water at the start of the 4-hour trace upstream. We succeeded on our second attempt in February this year, although only just. If it was any higher, it would have been risky to try at all. A couple of weeks later another party from my hiking group, Taipei Hikers, tried, and couldn’t get upstream at all because the water was too high.
The start of the epic journey up to Huisun Hot Springs is Huisun Forest Recreation Area (惠蓀林場). Although not too far from Puli town as the eagle flies, it’s a round-about journey to reach this remote corner of Nantou County (just one dead-end road in and out), so aim to camp nearby the night before the attempt. We made the mistake of choosing one of the laughably expensive campsites along the road to the recreation area entrance (sites are often NT$800, not so much cheaper than a cheap hotel). Officially camping isn’t allowed in Huisun Forest, but in practice campers set up in car parks or quiet spots near the road after dark, and as long as they’re gone soon after dawn, there’s rarely a problem. It’s best to do this in fact, because the Recreation Area isn’t open 24 hours, and only opens sometime after 8 (officially 8:30, although they may arrive earlier), making for a late-ish start for a tiring day.
The start of the trip is a small road branching sharply off the main road through the recreation area. Walk up this road (scooters can be taken to the gate at the top, and some people somehow manage to ride right down to the river’s edge, saving a good 30 minute walk downhill), pass around the gate in about 5 minutes, and follow the wide track downhill into the deep river valley on the right. The track is carved into sheer cliffs, so watch out for falling rocks! A group of Atayal (?) aborigine locals we met on our second trip here warned us of monkeys throwing rocks down on people as they walked along the road. It sounded like a joke, but we had exactly the same warning from some Truku aboriginal guides when entering the Golden Grotto over in Hualien, so who knows?
The road zigzags down to cross the river by a huge and very wide bridge which looks almost comically out-of-place here these days. Obviously it was once used by trucks. Beyond the bridge the track narrows to a trail, descending eventually, to the water’s edge at the main river, and the start of the exciting, strenuous river trace up to Huisun Hot Spring.
You’ll need to cross the river immediately, and then start walking upstream, on the bank or through the water. If this first river crossing feels at all unsteady or risky abort the trip immediately – the crossings get a lot trickier further up!
The first part of the trip is already very impressive, with huge crumbling cliffs rising up to several hundred meters above the water’s surface (look out a small hot spring pool or two on the riverbank as you go), but the trip really starts getting exciting an hour or so after entering the water, when the gorge narrows hugely, and the water is constricted into the first of a series of awesome canyons, the water flowing deep and fast through them. Look out for sandbanks which afford an easier way through the otherwise very deep water. Expect to go at least waist deep in many places though, even if you find the shallow spots.
Assuming the water is shallow enough to make the trip feasible at all, there’s nothing especially difficult about the trip except for one small obstacle, a small cascade (more of a rapid). It looks fine from a distance, but the rock is slippery, the cascading water furiously fast and white (you don’t want to slip in there!), and handholds too few for comfort. Once past that, the wonders continue – beautiful rock faces stained by tiny trickles of hot spring water, further tight, awesomely sheer gorges, through which the river squeezes deep and blue, and a magnificent waterfall – a tall, narrow plume of water the better part of a hundred meters high plunging down the sheer wall of the gorge straight into the river.
Once you reach the waterfall, the worst is over (for the outward journey anyway!). Startlingly bright colors stain the rock faces of the gorge in several places as small hot spring sources seep out of the cliffs, the gorge widens, becomes far less impressive, and it looks like the best is over. Continue upstream another couple of hundred meters, however, the river narrows a little, becomes more rugged again and on the right a small cavity in the cliff, just above water level, hides Huisun Hot Spring. It’s an anticlimax at first – the gorge here is far less deep and spectacular than the awesome chasms passed on the way, and the cave looks very small. Cross the river though, and up close it’s a much more intriguing sight. A make-shift ‘ladder’ of tree branches gave access up the cliff to the cave on our visit, and climbing up, the cave is a little bigger than it looks at first, concealing a pool of bright green bath-hot water. There’s a thick layer of mud on the floor of the hot spring pool, which soon stirs the water up into a thick grey soup, but it’s a great place for maybe 8 or 10 people. The hot water in this unique place trickles out of cracks in the back of the little cave, and a colony of tiny bees had set up residence here, and buzzed harmlessly around our heads as we soaked, trying not to think of the long, tough river trace back to civilization!
Start early!! It’s a long way out and back in one day, but the gorge isn’t a great place for camping or carrying heavy, bulky backpacks. The river is completely impassable during the wet season, and even at times during the dry winter months, so go only after a prolonged dry period in the area. There’s no public transport to Huisun Forest Recreation Area, at the start of the trace, so you’ll need your own transport, or, possibly to hitch (the recreation area is a popular destination at weekends).