As soon as we set eyes on Taroko Gorge, we immediately understood what the fuss was about. Even the view from the window as you get close is pretty, azure blue ocean backed by rises steep marble mountains covered in trees.
It also happens to have a high number of independent walking tracks which is definitely what attracted us to the area. Most of them are short so if you are looking to do any major hiking then Taroko Gorge will still have something for you.
We walked most of the tracks that can be hiked without a permit (more on those later) so here’s our run down on the best of Taroko Gorge.
What is Taroko Gorge?
Taroko Gorge is just two hours south of Taipei and is probably the most famous National Park in Taiwan. It is a landscape that has been formed by erosion, typhoons and earthquakes over millions of years, leaving huge marble gorges, bright blue rivers and and patches of pristine forest.
This isn’t just a place for mountain hikers, anyone wanting to see temples, beautiful waterfalls, a cave that rains (it’s more like a waterfall in a cave, but the rain sounds more fun) or some easy flat walks will also enjoy Taroko.
Best things to do in Taroko Gorge National Park
Distance: 4.8km return
Difficulty: Easy and flat
What to expect - The Baiyang Trail is home to a few Taroko favourites and is one of the best places to start. The path is entirely flat and starts - bizarrely - in the middle of a road tunnel. The track meanders high above the river, passing through several tunnels carved into the cliff side before opening out at a stunning suspension bridge that’s surrounded by three waterfalls, a stunning photography spot.
This was a truly wow moment for us, we hadn’t heard much about this trail or seen any pictures so it really blew us away to this spectacular view.
We stayed there for half an hour just taking in the rugged landscape.
From here the track goes up to the “cave that rains every day”. It’s not quite a waterfall in a cave, but it does get pretty wet so bring your waterproofs for this section unless you want to strip down to a swimsuit which is what a lot of people were doing!
The Baiyang Trail is just outside of Tianxiang and about a 30 minute drive from the entrance of Taroko National Park.
Difficulty: Flat, but longish. Most people can do this hike though.
Best time to visit the Shakadang Trail - We hate to say it but the gorgeous river on this track makes it extremely popular. The tour buses started arriving at 8am and it just got busier and busier. The earlier you can go the better, many tour groups don’t go past the drinks hut area but some do.
What to expect - The Shakadang Trail was as close to a New Zealand landscape as we’ve seen since leaving 9 months ago. The track follows a river that at points is turquoise and then turns to a deep, clear blue like the Haast Blue Pools. This river has the wow factor and we’d say if you are only going to walk one track in Taroko make it this one.
After starting at the bridge, the path follows the Shakadang River all the way to 5D Cabin (there wasn’t a cabin, just a stop sign 😂). The track takes you away from the road and deep into the park where the only noise is the rushing water and birds in the mountains. That and the odd mischievous monkey sailing through the trees overhead. Just past the 1.5km mark there was a path down to the water which i don’t think you are actually meant to take but we couldn’t resist a paddle in the crystal clear water.
If you take a moment to look away from the beautiful river, you’ll see small clouds hang on the tips of the mountains that are covered in a lush, green jungle.
The track is completely flat and only 9km long (return), so most people should be able to do it.
The Shakadang Trail is one of the first stops, only 1.3 km from the entrance to the National Park. There is a car park between two tunnels and the track starts below the red bridge.
Distance: 1.3 km return
Difficulty: Flat and easy
What to expect - Swallow Grotto is probably the main draw for many people thinking about visiting Taroko Gorge and it is an incredible spot. At this point, the mountains seem to close in and the gorge feels like it is a mile high and pretty narrow. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel small. Whilst we appreciated the spectacular scenery, this is not really a walking track, despite being marked as such. It’s still a must see but manage your expectations.
Sadly a road goes through the middle of the grotto, disrupting any chance of peace and quiet. There’s a really narrow path along the road that is crowded with selfie stick tour groups who get disgruntled if you so much as want to carry on walking. Add in the air brakes of buses that come by every two minutes dropping off another tour and motorbikes roaring past and you get a picture perfect landscape that’s spoiled by it’s own popularity.
Don’t let this put you off, but don’t expect the peaceful experience a wonder like this deserves.
Swallow Grotto is about half way to Tianxiang from the entrance of the National Park. It should take about 15 minutes by scooter or car. You can park at the cafe by Jinheng Bridge.
The Shrine of Eternal Springs
Distance: 1.3 km return (when the track is fully open. Currently sections are closed)
Difficulty: Moderate if you do the whole loop. Sections are very steep, but on a good condition path.
What to expect - A place I didn’t expect to like so much was the Shrine of Eternal Springs. It is another place that is on the itinerary of every tour bus and it gets incredibly busy - we were there after sunset and it was still crowded with people trying to take pictures of the temple in the dark!
Despite the crowds, it’s hard to not appreciate the beauty of a temple built across a waterfall on the side of a gorge. The views start from the car park and luckily for photographers the crowds are tucked away in a path that runs through a tunnel (big tick to the National Park for doing that), giving the perception that the shrine is quiet. The reality is obviously very different up close.
You can walk up and explore the temple close up, but the real beauty is from further away. The track above has been closed from the Shrine, but walk through the tunnel to the Changuang Temple and you’ll be able to get to the path above it through a back route.
The path will cross a suspension bridge and lead to the Bell Tower - a great sunset spot. The many stairs to the top puts off the crowds, so you’ll probably have this spot all to yourself. From here you can see the valleys and the mountains, it’s a beautiful spot.
The shrine is one of the first stops in the National Park but is along a one-way street and a no-left turn! You’ll need to find a place further in to turn around to get there, but there’s plenty of space at the car park once you arrive.
Read next: Alishan - our favourite place in Taiwan
Distance: 2.15km if walked as a loop
Difficulty: Easy-ish. A steep section, but a short walk that is suitable for most people.
What to expect: A short trail that we didn’t expect to love so much was the Luishu Trail. This little walk at the side of the road climbs up the mountain to serve up some amazing views of the gorge. In the late afternoon, the sun casts a beautiful soft glow on the valley.
We parked at the Heliu Campsite and set off. After climbing up to the top, the path then heads downhill and along the cliffside really gradually before reaching Luishu. Along the way you’ll get some beautiful views out to Tianxiang with pagodas and suspension bridges crossing the valley. It’s a leisurely walk and sees less crowds than many of the others.
The track can be done as a loop, but will require you walking along the road for 600m at the end. It’s just over 2km and has a steep section at the beginning (but don’t let that put you off, it’s not that long!). It’s very close to Tianxiang and take about 30 minutes to drive to from the entrance of the National Park (about 15km).
Landscape that reminded us of Hawaii can be seen just north of Xincheng at the Qingshui Cliffs. From the Chongde Rest area you can see out to the azure blue sea, grey sand beach and huge jungle covered cliffs that rise out of the ocean. It is a dramatic view that shows off just how wild the East Coast of Taiwan is.
The viewing platofrm is just 15 minutes north of Xincheng and is easily reached by motorcycle. You can park just after the tunnel and head to one of three viewing platforms. Sadly the path to the beach has crumbled from a typhoon or earthquake and there are signs discouraging you climbing down to the sand at this point, but the views are spectacular nonetheless.
It looked like you could drive onto the beach from further back (there were plenty of tyre tracks) but we couldn’t see where this would have been. Plus we had a flimsy scooter which would have struggled on sand! 😂
Wenshan Hot Springs
Wenshan hot springs are a popular spot in the park but it is currently closed due to unstable rocks in the area. There is a 10 minute trail you can take to look down on the springs if you don’t mind wandering into an area marked as closed.
We took a quick look as we heard it was a beautiful spot. It’s basically a straight up, straight down hike until you get to the swing bridge. There were people working by the river below when we visited and we didn’t walk down.
It’s a stunning spot and when it is re-opened would be a must do in the park.
One to miss - Buolowan Terrace
In a park full of great trails and the Buolowan Terrace trails are not one of them. Whilst the lower terrace (10 minutes) is a boardwalk and looks out to the gorge, the view is dominated by the construction work of the new bridge they are building. It isn’t bad, but there are better views in the park (the Bell Tower at the Changuang being one). We’d only suggest going if you have time on your hands.
The Upper Terrace is really not worth it at all it’s a small path running through an overpriced hotel - seriously, this place charged $300 USD per night for really basic bungalows. The trail goes through a small patch of pretty forest, but again it felt like the hotel garden not a walking trail.
Buolowan is a left turn just before Swallow’s Grotto and about 10 minutes from the entrance of the National Park.
Know before you go
Now permits are the bane of a hikers life in Taiwan. Many of the best trails require them and Taroko is no exception. We were desperate to walk the Old Zhuilu Trail but our permit was rejected. Only 96 people per day can walk this trail and it’s incredibly popular. We applied two weeks ahead of time but this wasn’t nearly enough. Apply as soon as you have your dates, preferably several months ahead of time.
Apply for your permit here. You will need the name and contact number of a Taiwanese resident to support your application. If you are staying at Stick On BnB, details below they are happy to act as your emergency contact, if not ask your hotel to do the same.
The other trails in the area that require permits are Lushui Wenshan Trail and the Dali Datong Trail. Unlike the Old Zhuilu these are only mountain permits and can be issued on the day of your walk.
Where to stay
There are a few places you can base yourself in to explore Taroko Gorge: Xincheng and Hualien being the most popular. There are also a couple of options in the park but they are extremely expensive. Xincheng is the closest to the park, just a few kilometres from the park gate, but has fewer restaurant options.
Hualien is a big city with plenty of options for hotels and food, as well as plenty of trains going to and from Taipei. However, you will be travelling 30 minutes further each time you go in the national park.
Getting to Taroko Gorge
The easiest way to get to Taroko is to get the Puyama Express train from Taipei that runs three times a day (10:25, 14:25 and 20:43) and takes just under two hours to get to Xincheng. You can hire scooters at the train station($500 TWD a day - $17 USD) and the park is only a 10 minute drive from here.
There are a lot more trains that run to Hualien from Taipei with the majority taking between 2 - 2.5 hours to go from one place to the other.
There are other trains going to Xincheng and Hualien throughout the day, but take a lot longer.
Weather in Taroko Gorge
The weather in Taroko Gorge can change dramatically and it receives the brunt of any wind or weather systems that form over the Pacific and crash into the Eastern Coast. However, we found that the weather at the entrance of the gorge was always a lot worse than at Tianxiang. There were times when it was really cloudy and raining around Swallow Grotto but clear and sunny at Tianxiang.
Look at the weather before you go, but always check Tianxiang as there’s plenty to do around there.
Avoid the weekends
Sadly Taroko Gorge is another to avoid at weekends. There is an insane number if tour groups, only choose the weekend if you have no other choice.
Where to stay
Located in Xincheng at the edge of the National Park, Stick-on marries up location and comfort. The rooms here are pristine, modern, comfortable and of a decent size: the perfect place to sink in and relax after a day exploring. They will also drop you off at the train station which saves on getting an overpriced taxi. The owners are very friendly.
The only drawback is that there’s a little road noise at night as it is very close to Highway 9, we also found it pretty expensive but still preferred this option to travelling a longer distance from Hualien each day.
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Are you planning a trip to Taroko Gorge? Do you think we missed out a great place to visit? Let us know in the comments below!