Taroko National Park

Just when we thought Taiwan couldn’t get any more beautiful or green or mountainous… we went to Taroko National Park. Our jaws dropped once more.

The gorgeous Gorge

Taroko National Park is not too far from Hualien and a 2hr direct train from Taipei took us very close to the entrance of the park (Xincheng station). The biggest attraction of the park is a deep gorge carved by the Liwu River. It might sound not very accessible but it actually is. Serpentine roads carved in cliffs, tunnels digged in mountains and countless bridges, provide the most scenic route… and the most frightening at the same time.

By bike & on foot

Buses on Taiwan require a certain dosage of patience and those in the gorge even more. Renting a car was not really an option for us and in many spots it’s difficult to park it anyway. So we decided to explore a big part of the park by bike and the rest on foot.

For 800 Taiwanese dollars (around 23 euros) per person we got amazing mountain bikes with great breaks, helmets and sets of lights. Everything necessary to survive a day biking in the gorge. The price included also a drop off at the end of the route close by Wenshan spring, which meant we would be biking just one way and 90% down. It was a huge relief from a physical point of view because otherwise we would have to cycle up the whole time but also a challenge for our adrenaline. Going down on serpentine narrow roads, often looking over sheer drops from the cliff is not really an entertainment for everyone. With my vertigo I was both petrified and fascinated. As you can all imagine I forgot to take pictures on the most scenic/scary parts of the trip.

Having our own pair of wheels gave us the flexibility to stop wherever we wanted and enjoy few hikes on the way.

Falling rocks are not uncommon and sights and trails close because of them frequently. Sometimes it’s really difficult to check beforehand if something would be open or closed.

When we stopped at the Baiyang Trail and walked for 1.5 km to get to the water curtain in a tunnel, we were pretty disappointed it was closed because of the collapsing ceiling.

From there we went to the “main” village in the park- Tianxiang which is really just a few houses and not much more. It wouldn’t even be worth a stop if not for a convenient store… The only one in the park. We knew we wouldn’t see another one for at least half a day so it was a nice stop to buy some snacks and pour some caffeine into our bodies.

The village is also famous for an amazing hotel called Silks that has a very beautiful pool with views on the mountains. We heard it’s possible to have a drink by the pool there even if you’re not a guest.

Just leaving the village we spotted a beautiful temple with a pagoda (Xiangde temple) above us on a mountain. We were hoping to get some views over the surrounding mountains but it turned out to be pretty covered by trees. Still the temple itself with statues and the pagoda was quite a treat and we would definitely recommend stopping there.

Next stop was Lushui Trail, a very pleasant walk in a forest that turns into a scenic walk along the cliff with views on the gorge and the road stretching underneath.

Few bridges, tunnels and cliffs later we reached the most beautiful part of the park Swallow Grotto. It’s practically a road that has been overtaken by pedestrian tourists floating out from tour buses. It’s 1.5 km of tunnels, arches and gorgeous views of the valley. The name came from thousands of swallows’ nests that are literally in every tiny cave carved by the water.

Not far from the Swallow Grotto is the beginning of the Zhuilu Old Trail. Originally it was a part of a mountain pass built by the indigenous and used by the Japanese in later times. Now it’s one of the most famous trails in the park. Unfortunately it requires a permit and the number of people allowed to enter it is very limited. We were very disappointed to find out the permits were gone for our days. But also a bit relieved we had an excuse not to face our vertigo in there. We saw some pictures of the hike and we knew the main attraction was a walk along a cliff 800 m above the river with a sheer drop and not a single railing to keep us away from that edge… Not to mention  there were also some vine bridges involved and Jandirk had enough of those for a long time even without that trail 🙂

From Swallow Grotto we went to the main sight that brought us to the park in the first place… Eternal Spring Shrine. To our disappointment it was covered in scaffolding that made it impossible to see it in full glory. It was actually much smaller than I thought… And the whole trail to the temple was closed which left us with nothing more than an afar view…

That also meant that in order to see the Changguang Temple and the bell tower we had to go back a bit and cross another vine bridge. In saying that, the views from the bell tower were absolutely stunning and one of a kind. Unfortunately the bell is very much in operation and every tourist wants to bang on it at least once. Which spoils the peace every 5 minutes…

Other interesting sights

Just at the entrance to the park there is a scenic, 4km walk (Shakadang Trail) carved in the cliff that is very family friendly and very popular. We loved it because it gave us an idea of what the park was about without any fear as the paths are wide, easy and with a railing. The only danger that a western can face in there is to forget to bend… the trail was carved in stone for Asian size tourists. And giant spiders that are omnipresent on all the trails everywhere in the park. But that shouldn’t have surprised us, all the insects on the island are super-sized…

Except for cliffs, the trail offers amazing views of crystal water, lush forest and plenty of spots to chill out and enjoy the views. Even better, in the middle of the trail there is a shop with aboriginal sausages that are just delicious!!! Not to mention their cold, fruity mulberry juice… We literally had 4 cups of it.

From Shakadang Trail, it’s nice to enter a very short Xiaozhuilu trail that took us back to the entrance of the park. It obviously features another vine bridge. Since there are not many people walking there the density of spiders per meter is even higher than anywhere else.

Although most people associate the park with mountains and forest we had a lovely beach just next to our guesthouse. It was very clean, calm and peaceful. Every sunset we went there for an amazing spectacle of clouds and colors. And for some downtime with a book.

Talking about water entertainment we actually stumbled on a hidden gem a short walk from our guesthouse. Crystal clear water, rocks to sit on, trees for some shade and food stands, sounds like paradise right? Since it has no name and it would be hard to just google it, we put it on our map below 🙂

Where to stay?

Taroko has limited options when it comes to accommodation. But what there is, is very good. Silks hotel is obviously the top notch, splurge option. But there are plenty of guesthouses run by the indigenous community. We stayed in Taroko Railway Authentic B&B that was very close to a convenient store and the beach. It was beautiful and the rooms were charming and had an amazing view on the mountains. The family that runs the business didn’t speak English but was very enthusiastic and keen on using google translate.

Except for hotels and guesthouses there are also few campgrounds so a tent could also be an option.

How long does it take to explore the gorge?

I think two days give you a fair idea of the surrounding. But if we knew what we know now we would definitely come for longer and go further exploring some multi day hikes.

Hikes with permits

Honestly before coming to the park we were not fully aware of the number of hikes we could do. The information online was not very clear and only when we arrived it turned out that there were multiple amazing hikes that we could do… with a bit more organization beforehand.

Zhuilu Old Trail is really the first and most famous option but there are many others like Chilai mountain hike or Datong trail. All of those require permits and some are multi- day hikes. Depending on the route rules change. So for some you can apply for the permit in person for others you have to request it beforehand online or even go to the police office…

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Nakasendo map, Japan

From a map to the hike- our short adventure with the Nakasendo route

Maps in Japan are an art apart. Even the simple ones just by the roads are detailed, beautifully painted and hyper practical. It’s an art mastered through centuries. I still can’t forget the kilometers of map from the Edo period, we saw in one of the castles. Every single house, barn and bridge was painted on it and the undisturbed line of a trail was continuing throughout the meters of paper. It looked very simple but that’s where the charm of the country is- in its simplicity and perfection.

Later on we were given a map inspired by these old maps in a tourist information shop in Nagoya. The enthusiastic woman was going on and on about how stunning the old Nakasendo route was and the villages that we would pass on our way. Nothing convinces us like someone else’s enthusiasm so we decided to walk a small part of the trail.

Nakasendo route was one of the five most important paths connecting the empire in the Edo period and one of the two linking Tokyo with Kyoto. Out of over 500 km we chose the most popular 8 km in hope for a bit time- travel experience.

We started in Magome which was one of the post towns along the way. What didn’t survive the fight with time, was restored and Magome is now a charming, little town focused along one street on a slope of a mountain. Thankfully the amount of tourists is inversely proportional to the meters above sea level and so the top part of the village is far from crowded. Lower part is another story… there the amount of flashy-dressed, loud Chinese would drive a saint mad, not to mention them in combination with selfie sticks. It’s a shame as the old houses recreate a feeling of Japan from centuries ago and it is really magical.

We were happy to leave the crowds behind and start walking through the forest to Tsumago, another post town on Nakasendo. Entering the hike we got excited by frequent bells that we needed to hit to scare the potential bears away. Soon we realized that seeing any animal could only be a miracle… The path was far from secluded and it was constantly crossed or paralleled by a road where cars were passing all the time. Even though we tried to turn our heads around and listen to the sounds of the forest and waterfalls… we just couldn’t get the cars out of our mind. Sadly the map was prettier than the hike itself.

Fortunately it wasn’t all lost, it’s Japan after all. We passed some lovely houses, few of which were open… Those who know me are familiar with my passion of sneak peaking in people’s houses so that little treat made my day. We also visited an old “rest house” where we enjoyed smoking in an open fire with a cup of green tea and some Japanese sweats. Just like in the olden days the house was there to greet the travelers and help them recharge before heading further. A bit of sugar and tea managed to lift our spirits and get us back on track.

After a 3 hour walk we completed the tiny part of Nakasendo and ended up in Tsumago, the best award we could hope for. Tsumago was an oasis of piece and it really brought us back in time. The residents did their best to preserve and since late 60s to rebuild the houses and enchanting spirit of the past. Now a whole street of restored buildings as well as some back allies made it feel bigger than Magome. We felt we could emerge in the past and the fact that cars are forbidden on the main street and electricity cables are concealed helped our imagination even more. Strolling through the streets we imagined how it must have been to travel in Japan in those days. How crazy is it to think that a few hundred years ago many didn’t even know much about anything outside of their village…

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Zakopane, Poland

What to do in Zakopane?

Zakopane is THE city to visit in the mountains. It´s a Mecca for those who want to see the mountains even if they don´t necessarily want to hike one 🙂 that’s where we started our journey through the peaks. And there are a few things to do to get in the mood 🙂

  1. Eat oscypki like there is no tomorrow

Oscypek is a typical smoked cheese from the mountains. From every baca (old man from the mountain) you will hear a different story of how it was first made. We like the one where it was supposed to be always in baca’s pocket waiting for rough times to come and then when it would come baca would nibble on it a bit to ease his hunger. From that activity came the name and from the pants the pattern on the cheese. Every product needs a bit of a legend. We heard the real ones are made only from May till September.

It’s best to eat them grilled with cranberry sauce. They are just insane!!!

  1. More good food at the the U Wnuka restaurant

The first two floor house in the region built around 1850, then the first post office, shop and even a casino 🙂 now it’s “just” the oldest and probably best restaurant in Zakopane that serves insanely good food and looks sooooo charming and cosy!! It has obviously oscypki but also a lot of other local dishes like moskole (kind of potato pancakes) and a selection of local meat for example sheep meat 🙂

  1. Feel like a star next to the Zakopane sign

Maybe Hollywood’s one is bigger, maybe the one in Amsterdam is more known but just look at the one in Zakopane, it is amazing! It was built for an International Mountain Folklore Festival a few years ago and they just kept it. The sign itself is as folklore as it can get and the view just behind it on Giewont (The Sleeping Knight Mountain) is just unbelievable.

  1. Warm up your muscles going to Gubałówka mountain

There is a cable car going there but it’s cheaper and greener to just walk there. It’s not really challenging and it doesn’t take long (around an hour) and it’s nice to warm up your muscles before hitting the real deal. The walk itself is quite nice as it goes through the forest but once on the top it’s actually quite disappointing. There are a lot of shops, restaurants, cars etc. It’s more like a circus than a mountain. But there are beach chairs that you can use for free to sit around and read a book or just enjoy the view.

  1. Go on an amazing hike- Małołączniak mountain (2096 meter above sea level)

It’s a very spectacular hike which begins at Mała Łąka. It’s really easy to get here from Zakopane you just take a bus that passes through there and the bus driver will leave you by the road. It will take maybe 15 minutes and cost 4zl pp. After paying the 5 zl entrance fee to the path you are free to start the adventure. Mała Łaka Valley is actually already pretty. It will take you slowly through the forest and next to a small river and then slowly you will go up. It’s not too difficult and the views are insane. First you take the yellow path and then the blue one. The only surprise might be a few chains almost at the top of Małołączniak but once there, it will all be worth it. The views on the peaks, the air and when we were there the clouds… all spectacular. From there we took the red path to get to Kopa Kondracka which is another peak with amazing views. From there we followed the yellow path and went down up till Wielka Polana where we picnicked a bit. We just really couldn’t resist. It was such a stunning forest glade with views on the mountains and the end of the hike 😀 Yep from there it’s literally just a walk in the park to get to Mała Łąka and from there a bus to Zakopane.

It took us a day to do the hike stopping all the time to take pictures, drink water and enjoy the views. You can download our hikes for Maps.ME not to get lost (Małołączniak-Mountain-Hike and Gubałówka-Mountain-Hike) or use this life saving app (Android, IOS, Windows Phone)…. That will take you there (only in Polish unfortunately but still great to have).

Interested in more hikes in the Tatra mountains? The're right here.

Our Favourite Hikes in Tatra’s Chochołowska Valley

Tatra Mountains around Zakopane are definitely not off the beaten track in Poland but they are still quite extraordinary and a must see. Especially being so close to the most popular city in Poland- Kraków. Tatra Mountains are perfect to visit all year long. During the winter you can enjoy skiing, hot wine and looking at the snow peaks. On the other hand in the autumn you will see incredible colors of red, green and yellow spread all over the slopes. Some say that the best period to go to Chochołowska Valley is spring as it’s covered with purple crocuses. The worst season to go would probably be summer as it gets really crowded (july-september).

Although you can see the Chochołowska Valley in one day going from Zakopane, it’s preferable to stay there. There is a certain charm in staying in an old mountain shelter and waking up surrounded by the sheep.

The hikes 🙂

Chochołowska Valley is a great base for some incredible hikes. They are all quite easy meaning no chains or difficulties 🙂 Here are the ones we have done

  1. Trzydniowiański Wierch easy half day walk 🙂 perfect for the first day, 8 km

First we took the yellow path through a nice forest then it turned into the red path and that’s when the going-up-part started. It wasn’t steep or difficult, just a nice walk up through a forest with a sneak peek on the mountains every now and then. At some point we left the forest behind and we started walking up the mountain itself. And that’s when it got pretty spectacular. The colors were just unbelievable, the slopes were red and with patches of yellowing pine bushes and purple flowers that looked a bit like lavender. I guess a perfect hike for the autumn time. And it’s not too high, it’s only 1765 m at the top.

To go down we took the red path to the other side and then the green to get back to the Valley and the shelter. I would say it’s better to go down the same way, it’s way prettier as on the other side we didn’t see much except for bushes that surrounded us and toilet paper.

  1. Ornak Shelter and Smerczyński Lake- easy although you go up and down twice, 15.5km

With this one it’s all about the destination and not about the way. We started by going back with the green path and then turning on the yellow path that leads to the cutting tree area where people from local villages work. The sight of fallen trees and the sound of the chainsaw didn’t really make it the best mountain hike ever. At least not until in the middle of the path when we reached the Iwaniacka Pass (1459 m above sea level) after which we went down through a forest straight to the shelter.

Ornak shelter is a pretty small one but it’s charming and beautifully situated in a small valley. It serves meals, beer and other drinks so you can chill out here or go straight to the Smerczyński Lake. It’s around 20 min walk on the black path, a bit up but not too much and the lake is just breathtaking. It’s small but the reflection, the peace and the fact that there is a terrace build right onto it where you can chill out… Amazing! A must see.

  1. Grześ mountain and then Rakoń and Wałowiec- definetely the most demanding of the three although still not difficult, 10km

First you take the yellow path to get to the top of Grześ. We decided to take a shortcut and go on the blue path which was much shorter indeed… but just in meters. It was very steep so it probably took us the same amount of time or even more. It was pretty fun though to walk on the steep rocks through the forest. Once we got on the top and passed some bushes we got some amazing views on all of the mountains. Later it was very clear that we had to continue on the blue path to reach Rakoń and then Wołowiec. Afterwards we had to go back a bit and go on the green path to get back to the shelter.

The shelter… how much and how to get there?

The cheapest option is sleeping in a 14 bed-dorm, it’s 25 zl. You need to pay additionally 5zl for sheets or bring your own sleeping bag. The prices for a private vary depending if it’s low or high season. The whole list of prices http://chocholowska.com/project/pokoje/ (and it’s in English).

You need to book the shelter in advanced either by just calling them or sending them an email. They will ask you to pay some money in advance to secure your booking.

The shelter has a restaurant. It’s not super expensive but it’s not cheap either. You can buy your dinner for around 25 zl but it’s not a big portion so it might not be enough. They serve breakfast as well but starting from 8 am so if you want to leave early to the mountains it’s better to have your own food. They do have boiling water for freeJ it calls for noodles 🙂

To get to Chochołowska Valley you need to take a bus from Zakopane to Siwa Polana (6zl). Once there you can walk (2h, pretty flat) or take a kind of train to Huciska Glade (30min) and then walk or take a bike (wouldn’t dare on the stones but whatever floats your boat) or lazy people can take a horse carriage that will bring you straight to the shelter 🙂

ps. To enter the valley from Siwa Polana you have to pay an entry fee of 5 zl.

Life saving app 🙂

During our hikes we used “Szlaki turystyczne Małopolski” app (Android, IOS, Windows Phone) which is just great. Ok, it’s in polish but it shows you all the paths, tracks where you are, shows you elevation, nearby attractions or shelters.

Enjoy the mountains 🙂

And remember you can download the hikes for Maps.ME: Chochołowska Shelter Hike, Grześ Mountain Rakoń and Wałowiec Hike, Ornak Shelter and Smerczyński lake, Trzydniowiański Wierch Hike.