Hiking in Taiwan: Know Before You Go

I grew up in Taiwan, but just completed my first two high mountain hikes (and bagged my first six Baiyue!) over the month of July. I am fluent in Chinese and have family here so it was probably easier for me to figure out how to do it than for most people. Really, it was my brother that figured out all the permit stuff. Anyway, it was amazing so I wanted to share the information I gathered that might be useful to any English-speaking folk that want to hike in Taiwan.

Hiking culture in Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese hiking culture, as it was the Japanese that first developed modern, western-style hiking culture in Taiwan during the colonial period. Of course the mountains were sacred places and important hunting grounds for certain aboriginal tribes in Taiwan before the Japanese arrived and many of the current trails used to be hunting trails or trading routes used by the native peoples. My impression is that hiking infrastructure is very similar to the Japan, but the mountains are wilder.

Like Japan’s Hyakumeizan (日本百名山), Taiwan has its 100 famous peaks, known as Baiyue (台灣百岳) (see list here). But Japan only has 21 peaks above 3000 meters, while all of Taiwan’s Baiyue are above 3000 meters. The eastern two-thirds of the island is basically a series of mountain ranges running parallel to each other. The mountains are extremely rugged and remote for such a small island. The Central Mountain Range is the length of the JMT, but there is no practical way to resupply by hiking out to a town so you cannot do an American-style long distance hike of it. People have hiked the full length of the Central Mountain Range, but more in the manner of a full-fledged hardcore mountaineering expedition.

Speaking of hard-core mountaineering expeditions, see documentary of hard-core Taiwan canyoning expedition led by Mike Harris from Canyons in Gunma here.

Permits

Permits are required to hike the major trails in Yushan National Park, Shei-pa National Park and Taroko National Park. There is a lottery to climb Yushan Main Peak, so you must apply for a permit at least a month in advance. For the majority of other trails, you must apply for a Park Entry Permit at least 7 days in advance. This can be done at the National Park Permit Application website: https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/. (The website also comes in English and Japanese.) Everything is automated. You select the trail you want to hike and the online application form will automatically populate your options for itinerary and lodging. Check availability of beds/tentsites on your desired route before choosing dates. Generally, all Saturdays will be booked out for popular trails as soon as registration becomes available (usually a month ahead). You will need an emergency contact with a Taiwan ID number and phone number.

After completing the National Park Permit Application, you should be directed to a link to apply online for a corresponding Mountain Entry Permit from the police bureau. You can apply online up to 5 days in advance of your hike, or you can actually do it last-minute in person at the police station closest to your trailhead. (Taiwan police are notoriously friendly and nice.) The permits are free, as are most mountain huts and campgrounds.

Park Entry Permit approval depends mostly on availability of space in the huts/campsites for your dates and the difficulty of the trail. You’ll see a difficulty rating on the permit application for your course. For anything more than an A rank trail, you will be required to provide evidence of adequate previous hiking experience (e.g. photo with summit marker). Solo hikers are required to sign a waiver co-signed by a family member, so your family can’t sue the park service if anything happens to you. Mountain Entry Permit is apparently just some anachronistic formality and is automatically granted if you have a Park Entry Permit.

You’ll need to print 2 copies of each permit after they are approved. You will deposit one copy of each with the ranger at the trailhead when you enter the trail and hold on to the second copy, which you may be required to show on the trail and will have to deposit back at the trailhead when you finish so that the park service knows you’ve come back down to civilization and are not lost somewhere.

Permits may be annoying but I think they are understandable for safety and environmental reasons. When you deposit your permit at the trailhead, depending on the mood of the ranger, you might be required to watch a mountain safety / leave-no-trace video. I jokingly call this “the defensive hiking video.” They have an English version for foreigners.

If you need help with permits, contact me.

Mountain Huts, Porters and Food

When you apply for a Park Entry Permit you also designate your planned lodging / campsites. The mountain huts and campsites in the national parks are free unless otherwise specified. For example, Jiujiu Hut (or 99 Hut) on Daba Trail charges 200NT per person per night. It’s run by the forestry bureau and has a live-in caretaker and hot showers. Management of the hut most people stay at for a Yushan / Jade Mountain climb is outsourced to a private company and supposed to be really nice, so you probably have to pay for that one too.

Mountain huts called XX山莊 (shan-zhuang) have facilities like designated bunks covered with a thin rubber mat (think cheapest yoga mat), a cooking area, toilets, running water, solar-powered lighting. This is where most people stay and will probably be lively and noisy with big groups and aboriginal porters and cooks. I saw these guys servicing hikers at both 369 Hut and 99 Hut: http://www.bununclimbers.com/. They were friendly and professional. At 369 Hut, the rate was 200 NT per kilo to carry your stuff to and from 369 Hut and 800 NT for a sleeping bag and hot dinner and hot breakfast, which was 100% real food, mainly consisting of local fresh veg, and didn’t look too shabby. So, even though the national park website will say there is no food service or bedding at the mountain huts, you can get it from a private provider if you contact one in advance. When I was coming down from Dabajianshan on a Thursday, there were 7-8 young porters carrying 200kg of fresh food in styrofoam coolers strapped to external frame packs up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. (On a side note, fascinating history of external frame packs here.)

Huts called XX山屋 (shan-wu) are intended to be used as emergency huts and don’t have any facilities. (Park service considerately provided a shovel and hoe for digging catholes at Zhongba Hut.) It appears the emergency huts in Shei-pa National Park have all pretty recently been rebuilt or refurbished and had rainwater collection tanks added and are quite nice.

Don’t expect the designated campsites to have any facilities; they are just places which are relatively flat and have water sources nearby.

Maps

Sun River publishes hiking maps for climbing Taiwan’s Baiyue very similar to Yama to Kogen hiking maps in Japan. They cost 200NT apiece and are should be available at any serious outdoor gear shop. I got the one for the Holy Ridge which covers most of Shei-Pa National Park. The map provided information about the huts, campsites, water sources, model itineraries, course times and elevation profiles for popular routes. If you can’t read Chinese, the map is still useful for matching Chinese characters to signs, water sources, hut locations, course times etc. Beware that trail conditions are constantly changing due to typhoons, earthquakes etc. and maps may not be fully up to date. Check the appropriate national park website for latest conditions before you go.

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Water

According to a Chinese language Taiwan mountaineering book my mom has, there is no water in the mountains of Taiwan that will make you seriously ill, there is only water that may not be very tasty to drink. The mountains are mostly sandstone, shale and half-metamorphosed shale-slate and when the water from the porous sandstone hits impermeable shale, it flows out in delicious mountain springs. Up on a ridge though, the water sources may be brown snow/rainwater ponds, so you’ll probably want a filter for that.

In Taiwan, it’s still not recommended to drink the tap water in the cities; so most people habitually filter or boil their water even if it looks fine. Use your own judgment or ask an aboriginal porter rather than some flatland Taiwanese person.

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Water seeping through cracks in the shale in the Black Forest under Xueshan Main Peak

Weather

As with any high alpine environment, the weather changes really quickly in the mountains. I hiked in July in the typical summer weather pattern of not-a-cloud-in the-sky mornings and short afternoon thunderstorms. Best time to hike, according to the caretaker at 99 Hut, is from September through December when the weather is most stable (after typhoon season and before cold fronts). You can hike most trails year round but snow gear (crampons, ice axe) may be necessary January-March and the difficulty rating on the trail is increased for permitting purposes.

In mid-July, at 3000 meters it got down to 8 degrees Celsius at night. Daytime temps above 2000 meters were so comfortable for hiking. It was a great escape from the sweltering sauna of Taiwan summer down below.

Dangerous Animals and Plants

If you see a Formosan Black Bear, you should go buy a lottery ticket because that means you’re really lucky. Their remaining habitat is the three national parks you will probably be hiking in but they are extremely endangered and sightings are extremely rare, so few that no meaningful estimate of the population can be done. Taiwan’s poisonous snakes are nicely distinct looking if you have the misfortune to have to tell a doctor which one bit you for anti-venom, but they don’t live at high elevation. Formosan macaques look small and cute but have been known to be aggressive, so don’t look them in the eye and don’t leave your pack unattended if they are around because they will go for your food.

There is a really scary plant to be aware of that is common in mountain forests called yaorenmao (literally “biting cat”). It’s a variety of stinging nettle. It’s covered with really fine little hairs that will prick and burn you with an acid venom if you accidentally touch it. It was all along segments of Dalu Forest Road on the Daba Trail when I hiked in, and the Forest Service had sent a private contractor to cut it down by the time I hiked out, so it’s good to know they are trying to keep it under control.

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Once bitten, you won’t forget what it looks like.

Elevation

Diamox / Acetazolamide is available over the counter at most any pharmacy in Taiwan for prevention of elevation sickness.

Cultural Quirks

For some reason, a lot of people hike in rubber boots, or wellies. I think that would be so hot and uncomfortable and ill-fitting. No one hikes in shorts; I got so many shocked comments. I guess you would think it’s cold in the mountains if you can wear jeans in the 39 degree sauna down at sea level.

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Take me back to the mountains!

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