The mountain resort of Caoling (草嶺) is a survivor. Not only did it quickly recover after the area was one of the worst-hit during the great Jiji Earthquake of 1999, but it also managed to make a huge tourist draw out of the beautiful lake that temporarily formed when a huge earthquake-triggered landslide dammed the river below the village. The resort also bounced back after receiving a severe beating during Typhoon Morakot in 2009.
For a stunning introduction to just how much damage the Jiji Earthquake caused 18 years ago, turn off route 149 (which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful mountain roads in this region of Taiwan) into the upper of the two streets that comprise the tiny village, marked by a large stone plaque and the words “Caoling Geopark” in English. Pass a string of small hotels and homestays, and the road meanders around the wooded mountainside to a signposted junction.
Turn right here along a rather bumpy track (passable by cars) to the 921 Geopark (草嶺地質公園), about two kilometers west of Caoling. The geopark lies below what was once the summit of Caoling Mountain, originally over 1,200 meters in height, which lost its top third in a vast landslide. It’s a less dramatic sight nowadays than it was immediately following the temblor, since the intervening years have substantially softened the devastated landscape as plants regrow and cover the bare earth, but the enormity of the landslide is still pretty clear. Info plaques (some in English) provide some fascinating information. The lunar landscape in front, ground flat by thousands of tons of falling rock and earth, now covers two of Caoling’s traditional “ten sights.” Sadly gone forever is the wonderful Lost Soul Valley (斷魂谷), a strange, hidden little gorge bounded by rugged cliffs, down which several waterfalls plunged during the rainy season. Both this and the former Spring and Autumn Cliffs (斷崖春秋), which loomed above the road that once led out to the Valley, were actually produced by an earlier, 7.1 magnitude earthquake, that struck the area in 1941. However, while causing vast destruction and loss of life, the 1999 earthquake did, likewise, create a couple of striking new features in the Caoling area, which Taiwanese bloggers have lost no time in naming the New Spring and Autumn Cliffs (新斷崖春秋), and the New Lost Soul Valley (新斷魂谷).
Keep straight ahead at the junction (signposted “Lakeshore Sidewalk”). The road ahead winds downhill towards the Clearwater River (清水溪) far below, and one branch ends with a fine view of the landslide site and the impressive New Spring and Autumn Cliffs. Take the first turning on the left a few meters further, and it goes down to a parking lot, where a surfaced path provides a useful short cut to one of Caoling’s most beautiful walks, to the Enchanted Valley and Water Curtain Cave.
Thankfully Caoling village lay out of the path of the falling mountainside, and to this day it remains (in my humble opinion) one of Taiwan’s loveliest weekend mountain retreats. Beautiful Water Curtain Cave was one of the place that most intrigued me in the early 1990s, when I spent many lunchtimes poring over the Lonely Planet Taiwan guide in an Oxford Street bookstore. A year later, it was one of the reasons I decided to visit Taiwan.
Water Curtain Cave (水濂洞) is not one but two caves, behind a lofty 60-meter-high waterfall. It can be a tad underwhelming during the winter dry season, but this time of year it’s returning back to full, boisterous life with the arrival of the plum rains, while the oppressive summer heat is still hopefully a month or so away.
The trail from Caoling village down to the foot of Water Curtain Cave is only a couple of kilometers each way, but allow a half day to enjoy its many attractions at leisure. The walk starts with a leisurely stroll downhill along the lower of the two main streets through the village, passing a store on the right that doubles as the village gas station, selling fuel to grateful scooter riders by the can – it’s helped me out of a tight situation more than once over the years!
At the bottom the road ends at a magnificent viewpoint over the gorge of the Clearwater River. A signposted trail here descends steps through a plantation of bitter tea oil trees (the oil pressed from the fruit of these trees is a popular local specialty). Soon the trail enters the Enchanted Valley (幽情谷), a small defile cut through the sandstone by the cascading stream as it rushes towards the head of the great waterfall below. Just before reaching the head of Water Curtain Cave the trail veers left, uphill, then descends a long and very steep flight of iron steps. At the bottom a trail on the right leads behind the small upper cave, right below the lip of the waterfall.
A series of remarkably engineered wooden steps (rebuilt just two years or so ago after a typhoon washed away the original walkway) negotiates a way down the sheer cliffs of the gorge, passing a pockmarked cliff face called the Beehive Rock (蜂巢石), a balancing boulder crowning it, (the Frog Rock; 青蛙石), and the crack-like Marvelous Cave (奇妙洞), through which the thin and lithe could once walk through to the far side, before it was partially filled by typhoon rockfalls several years back.
At the bottom, the trail veers right along the foot of the cliffs and enters the huge overhang at the base of Water Curtain Cave. It’s a remarkable experience (and a rare one in Taiwan), standing behind the falling water, and a great place to pause, enjoy the cool downdraft created by the falling waters, and take a rest before contemplating the long climb back uphill to Caoling village!
The remainder of Caoling’s sights to survive that terrible night in September 1999 are also well worth visiting if you have the time. Top of the pile is Penglai Waterfall (蓬萊瀑布), clearly signposted two kilometers northeast of the village. It’s perhaps the most impressive single attraction at Caoling, at least during the rainy season (summer and early autumn), plunging forty meters in twin spouts of great power. Naturally it’s at its mightiest when in full voice, especially shortly after a typhoon. Look out for the wires belonging to a rustic cable car that was still taking visitors to the head of the waterfall on my first visit here back in 1993. It’s long since been abandoned and left to rust.
A short drive (also signposted) from route 149 is the start of the short walk along the Clearwater River to the Great Steep Wall (峭壁雄風), a large, sloping rock face that rises above the river at an angle of up to 45 degrees, and can be climbed with the aid of fixed ropes. It’s especially popular with kids, and there are magnificent views from its upper reaches over the gorge.
The remaining two of Caoling’s “traditional” ten sights lie just off route 149甲 several kilometers to the north of the village, near the tiny settlement of Neihu (內湖). After passing through the lengthy Caoling Tunnel, the road winds down through a devastating landslide, a dramatic reminder of the damage wrought upon this area by Typhoon Morakot in August 2009. Pull into a coach and car park on the left just before the road crosses a bridge, and a path here follows the stream down past a series of small, naturally eroded pools in the flat bedrock known as the Chain of Pearls (連珠池). Beyond them is a bridge which spans the stream immediately before it plunges over Tongxin Waterfall (同心瀑布), unseen below. The trail that descended to the foot of the falls on my first visit (way back in the 1990s) is long gone, and nowadays the only way to see the impressive cataract properly is by a scenic river trace upstream from below. That, however, is a serious proposition; most visitors will be satisfied with standing on the bridge and peering at the water as it disappears over the abyss below.