Taroko National Park and its resident natural Gorge is one of the nine national parks in Taiwan and was named after an aboriginal tribe “Taroko”. The gorge is one of the few highly accessible scenic sights in Taiwan located near the island’s east-coast. The park spans Taichung Municipality, Nantou County, and Hualien County.
A trip to the Taroko gorge typically begins with a connection via the country’s efficient high speed railway service to the coastal city of Hualien. Hualien is known for their nice long running beaches with ultra-fine sand facing the open Pacific. “Hualien bus”, a local bus service there runs a daily shuttle route through the gorge itself along the Zhongbu cross-island highway, up to Tienshiang village.
You can purchase tickets for a full day pass from their terminal station and departure bus stop just across the Hualien high speed rail train station. The bus journey there takes about an hour, bringing you further inland into the mountains right into the national park via winding river-side cross-island highway road. The park was originally established on December 1937 as the Tsugitaka-Taroko National Park by the Governor-General of Taiwan when part of the Empire of Japan. As history knows it, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Republic of China (ROC), who thereafter assumed control of Taiwan subsequently abolished the park on August 1945, only to be reestablished back again in November 1986.
Gorges are formed by erosion, typically by forces of a running river over hundreds or even thousands of years which craves rock vertically downwards, forming near-vertical steep gorges like the ones we see here. The gorge we see here was carved by the Liwu River.
Taroko Gorge Panorama from the road
On your road journey in, you pass by a series of sights and points of interest along the route, such as shrines, suspension footbridges and vehicular bridges spanning the various rivers, offering many photo opportunities. Many of the national park trekking trails also start from this main road too.
The Hualien bus service will stop at predefined stops and points of interest along the gorge road which is useful when used as a hop-off, hop-on service. The buses are distinctively orange in colour and have clearly labeled digital signs on the fron showing their route direction. Just remember to familiarize yourself with the stops you are intending to get off and inform the driver beforehand- as some drivers do not automatically stop at every bus stop, especially when the bus stop is empty. Also, be sure to board the last bus before the end of the day!
Access within the gorge is served by a series of winding roads ducking in and out of tunnels and crossing several bridges along the way, such as the Cimu, a bright red bridge serving the main Taroko road with a nearby rope bridge. This road is a two lane, bi-directional road with variable road widths depending on the terrain conditions. You can get off the bus top and connect to your destination walking on the road. Areas like the Tunnel of Nine Turns are closed off to vehicular traffic, so getting to it involves going on foot.
Panorama of Lioufang Chiao Bridge and Swallow Grotto.
Also nicknamed “The Marble Gorge”, Taroko Gorge and its surrounding rock compositions are well known for their abundant supply of marble. The rock now seen in the Taroko region began over 200 million years ago as sediment on the bottom of the ocean. The Qingshui Cliffs is one area where the cliff meets the sea, from its vantage point; you can see the three colours of the Pacific ocean in the distance.
Other trails from the road include the Lushui trail, a short 2km trail running through some forested areas and a gorge-side walk through a small man-hole cave. Not all trekking trails will be opened throughout the year, but the main road serving the gorge is open throughout the year, subjected to weather conditions.
View from Lushui trail along the cliff side walk
Be mindful that you share the narrow mountainous roads with other trekkers, bicyclists and large motor vehicles, so do practice extreme caution when on foot such as always facing the direction of traffic and clearing the road for large tour buses on narrow tunnel ways. Though the drivers along this road are generally safe and very cautious, it pays to check for clearings and tight spots before venturing into tunnels. Areas with concrete pillar road overhangs are usually indication of a waterfall area.
I will recommend not cross the roads with blind corners and minimize the time spent in tunnels as they are usually tight and dimly lit- you won’t want to be caught in the middle of a tunnel with not enough space between you, a large tour bus and a hard tunnel wall. Going on foot has it advantages as it allows you to explore the small details which you otherwise miss along the road, such as trails, swallow nests and waterfall elements.
Panorama from suspension bridge
Most of the public buses services here do a loop service from Xincheng to Tianxiang (Tienshiang). Tianxiang is a little village situated at the end of the Gorge along the Zhongbu cross-island highway, residing here is a small tranquil village town home to a visitor center, hotels, public toilet facilities as well as a couple of coffee shops where you can grab lunch and snacks. The start of the Baiyang waterfall trail resides here too. The place is good for a midday lunch trip and food prices are reasonably well priced and not touristy-overpriced.
Tianxiang is also home to the Tian Feng temple. It is a Buddhist temple seated on top of a hill accessible across a pedestrian bridge from Tianxiang village. You have to climb a series of stairs passing through small shops and gardens. The temple does regular services to devotees and is open to all. During my visit, the place was packed for an afternoon mass prayer session. The people are welcoming and I was even invited into the temple to join them by sitting in.
A goddess of mercy statue overlooks Tianxiang village from a vantage point from a clearing from the temple hill- side. Also perched on the top of the hill sits a tall Pagoda (Tian Feng Pagoda), which you can climb up and get on its various balconies – offering views overlooking the town and the surrounding natural beauty.
Panorama of Tianxiang Village and Gorge from Tian Feng Pagoda
From the Pagoda, you can see the gorge continuing on between the valleys in the distance, where the Zhongbu highway breaks from the gorge river parallel route and continuing into the mountains as part of the cross-island road.
Eternal Spring Shrine
Another main landmark along the Taroko gorge will be the Eternal Spring Shrine. This shrine is extremely popular with tourists, so it does get rather packed at times. From the bus stop area, you can get an overall view of the shrine and picturesque waterfalls sitting at the bottom of a cliff-face, with another structure (Bell tower) situated higher up the hill. Entry to the Shrine involves a river-side walk into a cave area alongside a cliff wall. The shrine is built over a mini waterfall stream fed by the highlands (Chungchun falls) and ejecting them out into the Gorge river via trickling waterfalls. The water is drinkable. Given the high pedestrian traffic the place get, the route around the Shrine follows a linear route, circling you back out.
The Taroko Bell Tower sits at the top of a cliff face above the Eternal Spring Shrine. From the Eternal Spring Shrine, you can access the Bell Tower up through a series of cliff-side stone staircases located behind the main shrine building. The path itself involves a continuous 15 minute stair climb up, is well laid out and relatively safe. Given the physical demands to get up here, there are usually no tourists up here Shrine Bell Tower building. Connecting temples of interest up here include the Changuang Temple perched on an adjacent hill-side; it is open to all and accessible via a rope bridge from the Eternal Spring Shrine. You can have pretty much have the entire place up here on the hill and the great views to yourself.
Panorama from Eternal Spring Shrine Bell Tower, overlooking Changuang Temple
In all, I found Taroko Gorge one of the most scenic natural features sites in the country. A visit to the Gorge is good for a full day day-trip, from the morning to sunset, with the last of the looping public buses departing about 6pm back to Hualien. You can catch the main sights from the comfort from a private vehicle if you are driving or from a bus and is suitable for all ages. Trails and bridges may be more demanding to older visitors and is not wheelchair accessible. Though many of the trails are short (under 3km) and manageable, but will be more physical if you plan to explore deeper into more of the less-explored areas. You are recommended to dressed light with at least trainers shoes and a good supply of water and snacks. Definitely a visit to consider if you are on the east-side of Taiwan.
View more photos of Taroko Gorge here.