Swimming up the Keelung River is the first stage of the journeyHere’s a great short(ish) river trace to try, now that temperatures are (gradually) beginning to rise to levels when it’s better to spend the day in the river than in Taipei’s mountains. On second thoughts, you might want to leave it for one of the hotter days in May (and definitely steer clear of the rainy, plum rains that will be along shortly), or wait until the big heat arrives in June. Whatever, this is a fantastic, relatively short route, packed with variety, and neither too easy nor very difficult. Beginners should try a few more straightforward river traces first (this trace is similar in grade to the classic Lupi Stream (Jinyue Waterfall) route in Yilan County), but tracers with confidence (and, of course, the right gear: river tracing booties and a helmet are really the minimum for this one) will find it a great half-day excursion. The day we went, in early May, was a lovely sunny one, but it’s still quite early in the season, and there’s lots of deep water pools to swim) across, so we got pretty cold at a few points – a thin wetsuit wouldn’t be unwelcome, at least until temperatures really start heating up.
The river trace starts at the railway bridge where the Pingxi Branch Line tracks cross the river in the center of Sandiaoling ‘village’. Don’t pick the wrong bridge and enter the river at the nearby main- line bridge (immediately before the tunnel) or you’ll have some extra swimming to do! There’s an easy trail down on the right side of the tracks, just before crossing the bridge, or it’s also possible to walk a bit upstream along the bank, saving a bit of the initial stretch of the trace, up the Keelung River.
Less than ten kilometers from its source, the Keelung River is already a substantial watercourse by this point (this is, after all, the rainiest place in Taiwan!), so this bit’s more of a swim than a trace. If you like, it’s possible in many places to walk, waist-deep, along the narrow band of submerged sandstone rocks along the bank, eroded (like the more famous are of potholes a few kilometers upstream at Dahua) into fantastic rounded kettle holes, but be careful – the submerged rock is extremely slippery, even in the proper footwear. However you do it, it’s a gorgeous journey in sunny weather – the crystal-clear waters, glowing a deep emerald color.
After a spell, the gorge narrows, and an area of vast boulders squeezes the river through a fast-flowing, impassable channel. It’s a fun climb round and over the boulders for a short distance (alternatively a small fisherman’s trail is hidden in the woods on the right bank), to the junction with the stream below Hegu Waterfall.
The first obstacle
Safely out of the chimneyThis is a much narrower gorge, of course, than that of the Keelung River, and a great contrast – immediately the real river-tracing part of the trip begins. It’s easy at first, until the first of several small cascades, which make for fun obstacles in the route. The first little step is easy enough to get over, but immediately behind it the narrow gorge is blocked by a huge boulder. The easiest way up is to the right, through a dark hole underneath then squeezing through a chimney between the side of the boulder and the wall of the gorge. It’s a tight squeeze, and impossible unless the water level is fairly low.
First sight of Hegu WaterfallA few meters further upstream a small waterfall at first looks tricky, but there are plenty of footholds, so it’s surprisingly doable. At the top of the fall, it’s just a couple of minutes’ walk further upstream until, around a bend, Hegu Waterfall (合谷瀑布) comes into view ahead.
Although the usual view of the waterfall, from a flat piece of ground beside the Sandiaoling Waterfall Walk trail, has become a lot better since undergrowth that once obstructed the view of the lower 2/3rds of the waterfall has gone, it’s no match for the beauty of the view of the fall from below, the only place where it can be seen in its entirety. There are also several deep swimming holes, sloping rock faces to clamber up, a huge, curved overhang beside the waterfall, a deep pothole or two, and even a large, secret cave right behind the lower fall.
Getting back you’ve two options. Obviously you can go back the way you came. An adventurous alternative for the fit and confident is to follow the fragments of trail that climb up through the dense jungle to the left of the waterfall, climbing steeply up the side of the gorge. This is the trail that back in the 1990s was still a relatively easy way from the top of the waterfall to its foot. The trail was damaged by typhoon landslides, making it a much harder proposition, but the original ropes can still be found in one place. The hardest bit is the very last climb. The old trail is impassable at the top, but climb round to the left, and a fixed rope climbs the short, very steep rock face and emerges onto a dirt trail. Turn right and in a couple of minutes you’ll pop out at the top of Hegu Waterfall, to enjoy a dizzying look over its lofty plummeting waters. Ford the stream at the brink, and emerge onto the Sandiaoling Trail to rejoin the tourist masses.
The river trace starts at Sandiaoling railway station, about an hour by train from Taipei on a local (slow) train. Pingxi Branch Line trains also stop at the station. From there simply walk away from Taipei, branch right as the Pingxi Branch Line tracks veer off the mainline railway, and the railway bridge across the Keelung River (the start of the trace) is less than 5 minutes’ walk further.
If you go, make sure everyone has the right gear, and a little experience. Head out in the early morning, to be sure of getting out of the gorge before the regular summer afternoon rainstorms. Don’t attempt this one if there’s been heavy rain, however, and keep away if there’s rain in the forecast.