Before I tell you about the Zhuilu Old Trail, I should confess that the day before I got there, I failed my first Taiwanese test of fortitude.
Guide Steven Chang and I were hiking alongside the Shakadang River in Taroko National Park, a medley of gorges, mountains, jungles and waterfalls that is Taiwan’s tropical answer to Yosemite.
Our route was a 5.4-mile round trip. In a couple of spots, 5-inch spiders dangled at face level, their webs strong enough to catch bats. Farther along, a little brown snake, its species unknown, wriggled across our path. Far above, green peaks vanished into the clouds.
The deeper we ventured on this October day, the more the jungle resembled a Chinese landscape painting — clear river, striated rocks, creeping mist. But the temperature and humidity felt far north of 85. It got so hot and wet that I had to ask, “How much farther?”
And Chang had to ask, “Are you all right?”
I was red-faced and sweat-soaked, but fine. This was just a basic hiker fail on my part. We trudged on, and I vowed to pass my next test.
It came less than 24 hours later on the Zhuilu Old Trail, about 1,600 feet above the marble Taroko Gorge.
From Taipei to Taroko Gorge
Taiwan, once known as Formosa, lies just off the east coast of mainland China. Although for decades the island has largely behaved like a sovereign nation, leaders in Beijing still consider it a rebel province.
Many Americans think of complicated politics, not mountain trails, when they hear the word “Taiwan.” Before I started planning this trip, I pictured densely populated Taipei, the capital, a Buddhist temple and a night market full of mysterious foods.
But beyond Taipei most of Taiwan is green mountains. More Americans are finding their way here. About 400,000 arrived in the first nine months of 2017, a 10% increase from the previous year.
Taroko National Park, about three hours’ drive south of Taipei on the east coast, is one of the island’s most scenic patches of wilderness.
beyond Taipei most of Taiwan is green mountains
To get here, Chang and I drove south from Taipei on the Su-Hua Highway. The closer we got the more I thought of Big Sur, not only because of the steep, green slopes above us and surf-lashed rocks below but also because of the road crews we passed.
Like California’s Highway 1, the Su-Hua Highway is forever under assault by falling rocks and mud.
Just as the clouds parted we reached the Qingshui Cliffs,where the national park begins. (An all-blue sky gets your attention on an island where it rains about every other day.)
Below us, the sea was a shade of milky turquoise you would expect in the Bahamas. Above, the sky blazed blue, and mist cloaked a set of peaks more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
We hiked along the Shakadang River, admired the Eternal Spring Shrine and neighboring waterfall, rang the bell overlooking the Changguang Temple and searched the greenery in vain for wild boar.
The Eternal Spring Shrine area in Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Trekking Zhuilu Old Road in Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Traversing Zhuilu Old Road in Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
The Eternal Spring Shrine area in Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
The Shakadang Trail in Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Standing on Qingshui Cliff in Hualien County on the east coast of Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
View from the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
A volunteer directs traffic in Taipei, Taiwan.(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Artist Lu Fo-ting bequeatehd his 1985 painting “Vast Expanse of the Yellow River," to National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
A view from Qingshui Cliff in Hualien County on the east coast of Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
Shopping in Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
Cooking sausages at Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
The Eternal Spring Shrine at Taroko National Park in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Shopping in Hualien Night Market in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Blowtorching beef cubes at Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
A temple at Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
View from a taxi window outside Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
A temple in Jiufen, once a gold rush town outside Taipei, Taiwan, now a tourist spot.(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Walking and riding through Jiufen Old Street in Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Burning incense at Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Pingxi, a Taiwanese neighborhood on the outskirts of New Taipei, is known for its old train tracks and lantern launchings.(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
We shrugged off the temporary closure of the popular Swallow Grotto and Tunnel of Nine Turns. (Swallow Grotto has reopened.)
We also looked at the slopes a lot. Rockfalls are common, and the next day, we were supposed to be treading a 3-foot-wide ledge while the river rushed far below.
Old trail, deep drop
The Zhuilu Old Trail dates to at least 1915, when Taiwan’s Japanese overlords set out to show that they could conquer all of Taiwan, even the steep, barely populated parts that previous colonizers had left alone.
Before the Japanese, who ruled the island from 1895 to 1945, it might have been a tribal hunting path.
Nowadays it’s a short, steep adventure: about 1½ miles of uphill hike followed by about 500 yards on a high, flat ledge, then a retreat the way you came. To walk the trail, you must have a government permit or (as I did) sign with a tour company that will get the permit for you.
On arrival, you check in with a trailhead attendant, who limits traffic to 96 hikers per weekday and warns off “people who are unfit, have a fear of heights or have heart disease.” Some hikers wear hard hats.
Chang, a veteran on this trail, handed over our paperwork and led me past a small group of hikers who were frowning at the drizzle and having second thoughts.
Then we crossed a slightly swaying suspension bridge, past one sign warning of wasps to the right, past another sign warning of wasps to the left.
Then came hundreds of rough-hewn steps, which took us about 1,600 feet above the fast Liwu River. The drizzle started and stopped. Every once in a while, we’d hear the howl of a Formosan macaque (also known as a rock monkey).
No wasps, snakes or boar. No mosquitoes, either.
Before I could give proper thanks for that, the path narrowed to about 3 feet wide, sometimes with a low guard rail, often without. It was clear now that our trail had been carved into a cliff that was almost straight up and down.
If you’ve seen the steep, green Andean mountains of Peru that rise from the Urubamba River, these slopes were like that, minus the llamas.
Five hundred yards of chiseled ledge lay before us. On our right, somebody had bolted a metal cable to the stone every 20 feet or so. On our left, we had damp air and that long drop.
This was the moment to turn around — or not.
I pretended it was no such thing. I took no deep breath, didn’t look around, didn’t look down. Instead, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, my right hand on the cable, my left using an umbrella as a walking stick. Chang did the same ahead of me, ducking now and then to dodge overhanging rocks.
Taroko National Park had my undivided attention. But step by step, I realized that Machu Picchu might be the key to enjoying this.
Soon I was glancing left and below, imagining the scene was just a vast Peruvian travel poster.
It wasn’t a long journey or an exhausting one, just precarious. We passed a few pebble cairns, a tiny Buddha carved into the wall and a short tunnel.
Then we turned a corner and the trail widened to reveal the turnaround where we would rest before doubling back.
If you ever want to have a thrill while walking, this is it
As we pulled off our packs and sat in the drizzle, a pair of hikers tiptoed around the corner, looking as if they had just come through a battle.
They were from Ireland. We talked about danger, beauty and accessibility.
“If you ever want to have a thrill while walking, this is it,” said Philip Cuffe, a banker from Dublin.
I agreed. The Irishmen went on their way. Chang and I ate, drank and rose for the return trip.
That night, we would celebrate with a visit to the Hualien Night Market, sampling peppery sausages, chicken bits, and rice caked with duck blood, with tapioca balls for dessert.
But at that moment, up on the trail. was ever so slightly sad. The hard part was over.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO TAIWAN
From LAX, China Airlines, EVA and China Eastern offer nonstop service to Taipei, and JAL, United, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific and Air China offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $707, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Quote Taipei, 333 Nanjing East Road, Section 3, Songshan District, Taipei; www.hotel-quote.com. Centrally located boutique hotel with a pleasant guests’ lounge on second floor. Doubles from $155.
Liiko Hotel, No. 63 Xinxing Road, Xincheng Township; www.liikohotels.com.tw. Stylish boutique hotel at the gateway to Taroko National Park with big coastal views from upper rooms. Doubles from $120.
WHERE TO EAT
#21 Goose & Seafood, 21 Jinzou St., Zhongshan District, Taipei.Known for its goose dishes. About 10 tables, loud with conversation. Menus in Mandarin and English. Most dishes $5-$15.
Puppet Master, 13 Shuqi Road, Jiufen, Ruifang District, New Taipei City. Good fish. Besides the views out the many windows, its interiors are full of old movie posters.
Spot Café Lumiere, No. 18, Sec. 2, Zhongshan N. Road, Zhongshan District; Taipei. Cinema-adjacent snacks beer and wine, up to $8
TO LEARN MORE
Taiwan Tourism Bureau, eng.taiwan.net.tw
Taroko National Park, old.taroko.gov.tw/English
Several companies offer Taipei-based day trips and longer excursions around the island, including Edison Tours (www.edison.com.tw) and Golden Foundation Tours (www.gftours.com.tw/en). I used MyTaiwanTour (www.mytaiwantour.com).
Follow Reynolds on Twitter: @MrCSReynolds