Taiwan’s South Cross-island Highway (route 20) once ranked as one of Taiwan’s very finest mountain roads – perhaps even the finest. Sadly Typhoon Morakot unleashed it’s unprecedented fury squarely over the area in August 2008. Almost ten years later the legacy of the enormous floods caused by the storm are still only too clear in the landslides that scar the once magnificently forested sides of the gorge through which the road climbs, on it’s way between Tainan and Taitung.
Morakot also caused such severe damage to the highest section of the road that it’s been closed ever since. Repairs are apparently still ongoing, but there have long been rumors that this stretch of the road may never reopen. Both the eastern and western flanks of the South Cross-island Highway boast a number of hot springs (just like its Central and North counterparts) and while Morakot caused some damage, the hand of man has had a more marked effect on some of the remaining wild hot springs on the western side of the highway (hot springs on the Taitung side of the South Cross-island Highway are described in a separate blog, HERE). Long-established hot spring resort areas can be found at Baolai (寶來) and Bulao (不老), but nearby several wild hot springs are well worth a visit.
Shikeng Hot Spring (十坑溫泉)
Perhaps the most worthy of the easily accessible hot springs on the western half of the highway, Shikenmg Hot Spring is one of a series of five that can be found along the Baolai River, upstream from the popular hot spring resort of the same name. Morakot has blasted a wide, flat, rock-choked freeway up this beautiful river valley, and it’s now a popular spot with Taiwan’s 4WD brigade, who drive upriver from the bridge at Baolai all the way to Shikeng Hot Spring. This is one way to walk in, of course, but for those with their own transport, a couple of kilometers can be knocked off by turning rightin the middle of the village into Guanshan Forest Road (小關山林道), which climbs uphill out of Baolai. Four kilometers out of Baolai, the forest road makes a hairpin bend left while a smaller road zigzags downhill to end at an abandoned rest area just above the river at Shidong (‘stone hole’) Hot Spring (石洞溫泉), which has sadly been spruced up by locals, with an ugly tarpaulin pool ruining the natural beauty of the scene. This road down is narrow and in poor shape, so it’s probably easier to park at Baolai Bridge and walk the couple of kilometers upstream to the spring. On second thoughts though it’s probably better to simply ignore Shidong and continue to the less damaged examples further upstream.
Continuing up Xiaoguanshan Forest Road, take the second turning on the right, at the next hairpin bend in another kilometer or so. Keep right at the fork (a painted stone points the way is to the left, but this road is now blocked by a landslide). The road – pretty rough and narrow in places, but passable with care by an ordinary car in dry, finally descends to a parking area above the wide riverbed. The track drops another 50 meters or so almost as far as the riverbed, but don’t attempt this in a car unless it has high clearance!
Walk down this track, and clamber down a short length of trail at the end to reach the riverbed at a very large, very dead tree (a useful landmark – take a note of it to find the trail on the way back!). Turn left, upstream, and start walking.
It’s an easy walk of a kilometer or so to Qikeng Hot Spring (七坑溫泉), on the far (right) bank of the river. Old blogs and photos show a rather nice hot spring waterfall here, but Morakot was very cruel here, and there was no sign of a waterfall, or really anything very worthwhile at Qikeng on our visit! As at Shidong Hot Spring downstream, the locals seem to have thought Mother Nature needed some help, and a hideous blue tarp-lined pool lays on the river bed, surrounded by 4WDs and tents when we passed by on a Saturday morning. Up on the riverbank, several hot spring remain untouched, but their not very impressive, and the rather dirty pool they feed into is too hot to dip even a toe into.
Continuing upstream, the scenery becomes a tad monotonous after awhile. The gorge is wide, the river clear and attractive, and the gorge sides on either side tall and often sheer, but there’s little variety, and the scars gouged into the landscape by Morakot are far from healed yet. About half-way to Shikeng Hot Springs, however, a stream hurtles over the sheer side of the gorge in Changsii Waterfall (長絲瀑布). Minerals in the slender waterfall have stained the rock into a narrow column of golden orange, and it’s a striking sight.
Past the waterfall there’s little of special interest on the way until the hot spring suddenly appears in the rock face just above the right bank of the river. On weekends the cluster of 4WDs and tents will signal its proximity long before you see the vivid green hue of the little hot spring waterfall that lies at the heart of this small but stunning place. The hot spring decorates a length of low cliffs about 50 meters long. As the hot water, rich in both minerals and bacteria, trickles over the rock, it stains it in various colors. By far the most striking is a small, bath-hot cascade, which has stained the rock face behind a stunningly bright shade of green. The water falls into a man-made pool, only for once the pool was created from small pieces of stone cemented together, and petrified over the years by minerals in the water so that it looks almost like a natural feature. The water in the pools below the vivid green waterfall are of a fetching pale powder blue, and the whole ensemble is very beautiful.
Continuing upstream, the gorge soon narrows considerably on the way up to the last two hot springs along the river: Shi-er Keng Hot Spring (十二坑溫泉) and Shi-san Keng Hot Spring (十三坑溫泉). Hikers (like us) who visit Shikeng Hot Spring as a day hike are unlikely to have time to visit either, and from photos online, neither looks especially big or impressive, but the route up there looks a lot more interesting than the easy but dull traipse as far as Shikeng, and after all, when visiting many of Taiwan’s natural hot springs, getting there is at least half the fun!
Getting as far as Shikeng is a fairly easy hike and the return trip is easily done in a day if you start fairly early. Allow 6-8 hours. Take an spare pair of comfortable walking shoes or sandals and be prepared to have wet feet for the day: there are many river crossings en route, and it’s impracticle to change footwear every time. The best time to go is from January to April, during the dry season. After heavy rain, and during the remainder of the year the river is often too high to cross safely. Going further appears to be rougher, with some river tracing required, although I haven’t been to Shi-er or Shi-san Keng yet.
Several buses from Liugui (六龜) and a couple of buses from Kaohsiung serve Baolai, although the trip takes nearly three hours, so you’d have to camp a night – there’s plenty of space right in front of Shikeng Hot Springs and elsewhere on the way up there.
Other Hot Springs on the Western Side of the South Cross-island Highway
There are (or at least were) a number of wild hot springs close to the Kaohsiung half of route 20, but sadly Morakot wiped out at least some of them. Xiaonian Hot Springs (少年溪溫泉), close to Taoyuan village (桃源), is definitely gone. To be honest it’s not such a great loss – on my only visit a year or so before disaster struck, the springs had already been piped into functional and ugly concrete pools, and there was little feeling of beautiful nature. It’s still worth visiting for the impressive Changlong Waterfall (長龍瀑布), a short walk above the site of the former hot spring. It looks much less lush than it did pre-Moarakot, but it’s still impressive. A very distinctive lower waterfall once tumbled out of the foot of gorge into the main river, but that was completely buried by the deluge of stone, silt and gravel bought down by Morakot.
I’ve yet to visit any of the remaining wild hot springs along the road, and it’s unclear which still exist, or are worth visiting. Three that do are Fuxing Hot Spring (復興溫泉), which looks well worth visiting. It lies well upstream (and a fairly long walk/river trace) above the village of the same name, shortly before reaching Meishan (梅山), which marks the highest part of route 20 that’s currently open.
Much lower down the road, Gaozhong Hot Spring (高中溫泉) seems to have been taken over by the same development fever as nearby Baolai. Yusui Hot Spring (玉穗溫泉), just past Taoyuan village, remains natural, but has become a popular destination for the 4WD crowd.