Taroko National Park (or Taroko Gorge) is one of the most stunning place to go in Taiwan. Unless you are very averse to outdoor and nature, it’s certainly something not to be missed. Take this from me, a sedentary, sun-hating person. Contrary to what most believe, a trip to Taroko National Park can be easily plan, even without hiring a tour guide. Here’s how we managed a DIY Trip to Taroko:
Travel Guide to Taroko National Park
Make our Base
We needed a base where we can stay for the night before and after Taroko. As a nature park, there’s little accommodation choice inside the valley. Last time I checked, there’s only a few campgrounds and The Leaf Inn.
Hence, most people opt for Hualien which is the nearest well-equipped town to Taroko Gorge. In reality, Xincheng is the nearest town, but it lacks the punch. Most travelers who decided to stay at Xincheng, ended up commuting to Hualien for food and excitement.
But we stayed at neither. CS wants to be near to hot spring, and Yilan county is famous for it. Naturally, Luodong town was our choice. It’s a 1+ hour ride on local train, and 40 – 58 minutes on express train to Xincheng train station.
Taking a local train, which stops at basically every small stop, can be vexing. We slept it off, and at times, take in the beautiful mountainous and coastline view that ran parallel to the track.
Xincheng Train Station
Xincheng is a very new station and certainly a very elaborated one, in contrast to its out-of-nowhere surroundings. To get to Taroko Gorge, we could take either Bus 1133A or Bus 302, from the bus stop on the left side of the station. While bus timetables are available online and on signboard, don’t count on them too much.
If you’re coming from other towns, Xincheng Train Station is the place to go, as the gateway to Taroko National Park. However, if you stay at Hualien, you can take bus straight from Hualien to Taroko.
Bus 1133A is a tourist shuttle with an option to buy day pass for unlimited ride. We didn’t buy one because that will limit our transportation choice. We used EasyCard, and simply flag down any public buses that came.
Once in Taroko park, there will be more buses servicing the route including 302, 1133 (without the ‘A’), 1126 and 1141. We made sure to confirm with the bus driver whether it will stop at our destination. Not all buses stop at all stops. Eg; 1126 doesn’t stop at Buluowan.
We skipped Taroko Visitor Center which only opens at 8.30am, straight to Shakadang Trail. At 8 am, Shakadang Trail was empty, deserted, we had the whole place for ourselves. 🙂
To start the hike, we descended the steel stairs – wouldn’t had done this if they were not fenced. There’s even a sign post to remind visitors to go to the nearby washroom first, before they start hiking. It seems like most trails start with a washroom in vicinity.
There are 2 sides to hike for Shakadang trail. Say, if you’re facing the tunnel as in the picture, the right side, is the Shakadang-Xiao Zhui Lu route. I found almost no information about hiking from Shakadang to Xiao Zhui Lu, most people had done the reverse side where they started at Xiao Zhui Lu.
On the left side is the Shakadang-5D cabin route, which we took, as with most travelers do. Shakadang Trail is known to be one of the easiest hike from the aplenty trails in the gorge.
The trail tracks side by side with the emerald blue River Wuli. We wished we could climb down the rocks to the unpolluted water, but it was strictly forbidden. Later, something happened that really drives the point home.
Halfway into our hike, we could hear rustling sound of trees. From the corner of our eyes, a big dark shadow fall fast. Before we realized, a very loud thump and splash sound broke the silence at the trail. It was a massive rock, fallen off the cliff into the river. I don’t know how I looked but CS said my face went ghastly pale. Imagine if we were down there at the river bank.
Also, watch out for motorbikes and mini truck of the local aboriginals. The trail is the connection between their village and the town. But don’t worry. It’s not like they can go past 40km per hour here.
After 25 minutes, we reached the 5D Cabin. In case you are curious, 5D cabins are basically just 5 wooden stalls, where we can buy snacks and rest. The stalls were still closed, saved for a lady who slept inside the counter. We did not hike further because there’s a sign of ‘no entry’.
Note: Shakadang Trails, even if we walk further on, goes to nowhere. Hikers will have to U-turn back to the start of Shakadang Trail to leave.
In total, it took us about 50 – 55 minutes return trip from the 5D cabin. We walked back to where we alighted the bus earlier. This time, we were getting to Buluowan. We hailed a bus 1126, but was told it won’t stop at Buluowan. 5 minutes later, we were on Bus 1133A again to Buluowan.
To our disappointment, the trail from Buluowan to Swallow Grotto was closed. I had read about ‘partial trail closure’ on Taroko official site, but never thought that it’s completely inaccessible.
Luckily Buluowan is quite a good resting area, with a Visitor Center that broadcasts a documentary about the aboriginal’s life every hour. Then, there’s wooden platform with tables and chairs where we had a little picnic.
A little while later, we took another bus to Swallow Grotto. Here’s the tricky part. Bus 302 will stop at Xipan, where visitor can borrow safety hat (free) from a tent, then walk 1 km to Swallow Grotto. But the bus we took, was 1133A which stopped us straight at Swallow Grotto trail.
We ended up strolling around Swallow Grotto without a safety hat, but we were not keen to back track to Xipan.
Swallow Grotto is no less stunning than Shakadang. Its name was derived from the numerous naturally formed cave/holes on the wall of the limestone cliff. Swallows flew in and out from one caves to another.
Following the trail, we came across a suspended bridge leading to another Zhuilu Old Trail. A Permit is needed to take the bridge leading to aboriginal villages. Overall, Swallow Grotto was an easy walk on the paved roadside but we would have more ease of mind, have we had safety hats.
After reaching a resting area, we turned back to the bus stop for our last ride to Tianxiang
Tian Xiang to Baiyang Tunnel
Tian Xiang is the last stop for most of Taroko Gorge visitor. It’s the only small town surrounded by the massive nature with a handful of eateries and a yay! 7-Eleven. 😊 From here we walked about 1 km uphill climb to Baiyang Tunnel.
At first, there were confusion on where should we head, there’s no crowd to follow. Most people just flocked into the eateries or 7-Eleven and totally ignored (or ignorant of) Baiyang Tunnel. But a lady (who seemed to be a volunteer for the national park) directed us to walk further up after 7-Eleven, passing a public car park on the right.
Later we came to a tunnel, where big pillars lined the side. It looks like Greek pantheon from afar because of the pillars. Here’s the not-too-exciting part. There’s very little road side space for us to walk, and it’s hard for the incoming cars to see us from the angles. Hence, we stashed ourselves between the pillars whenever we heard (or saw) any approaching vehicles.
True to its reputation, Baiyang Tunnel is dark, but not too deep that we can see the light at the end of it. A torchlight is recommended but even without it, it’s just a straight path forward.
There’s a few tunnels on this trail. Some of them were more ‘as-is’, unlayered with cements. There’s signs that warned us of falling rocks from the ceiling. Again, I wished we had safety hat.
By the point of 3.9km, I wanted to turn back. I wasn’t sure how far long we have to go, but I knew that Water Curtain is no longer open to public. (Later, I read that it takes 2-3 hours for return trip. Phew..) The family we met earlier had slowed down, while the couple in front had decided to turn back. It will be a rather lonely hike without them.
Don’t get me wrong. The trail is beautiful but the dark tunnels slightly freaked me out. The only time I wasn’t happy that we had the trail by ourselves.
Once we’re back at the entrance again, a tourist group had reached. We can’t help but sniggered upon hearing someone said, “It looks like Jurrasic Park!”
As mentioned earlier, the bus timetables are not precise. During lunch hour, the bus drivers will be taking their lunch break so there’s no bus service in the hour. Bus 302 departs from Tian Xiang at 1.50pm, then followed by 1133A at 2.10pm.
Xincheng to Luodong
Back at Xincheng station, we try to take an express train and the next train happened to be Tze Chiang Express. We opt for non-reserved seat, so we merely hopped onto the train using our EasyCard. For assigned-seat, you will have to buy a paper ticket from the counter, which is more expensive than using EasyCard, cash only.
Confusing? I will detail about taking trains in Taiwan in another post soon.
Initially, our plan was to get to Jiaoxi, and enjoy our evening at hot spring resort. We deserved it, after all these hikes. But weather turned for the worse as rains started to pound on the train windows. We soon realized we had to abort the plan and went back to Luodong.
In the end, the bath tub in Loya Herb Arts Hotel Luodong was our consolation.
Other Tips to Plan Taroko Trip
- Most people take Puyuma or Taroko express train to get to Hualien. Sales of the ticket starts online 14 days prior to the travel date but sells out really fast. If you can’t get the ticket, then Tze Chiang express train is your next best option. Timetable and online booking are available at Taiwan Railway official site.
- Bring enough drinking water, your own food and snacks. Food at Tian Xiang is limited and more expensive.
- All Park Visitors Centers offer safety hat to borrow. Just make sure to borrow one before you head to Swallow Grotto. The hats can be returned to another different visitor center in the park, other than where you borrowed it.
- Wear comfortable shoes that fit the purpose. We were hiking the easy trails, so I had sneakers and CS had his hiking sandal. Both did the job. But if you’re going to do serious climbs, you might want to consider better walking shoes.
- Check the weather before you go so you won’t be caught in the worst weather at Taroko. Bring raincoats or a water-proof jacket, in case it rain.
- Check trail and hikes status before you go. Nine Turns Tunnel and Baiyang Water Curtain Cave are still close as in Mar 2018. Trails closure are frequent.
- Traffic control applies to some part of the road in Taroko. Your vehicle might be required to stop for around 10 – 15 minutes.
- Visiting Taroko on a weekday and early in the morning (after sun rises) really helped us avoid hordes of tourists.
- Some trails require permit (apply in advance). More information is available at Taroko official website – English and Chinese.