A Short Escape to the Mountains of Shei-Pa National Park
If time is truly money, it's meant to be invested with wisdom, not squandered. While people in a busy city can easily spend hours each day driving around in heavy traffic or rubbing shoulders with strangers in crowded places, one fine recent day I decided to – at least temporarily – trade a gray-hued, neon-lit cityscape for the green of mountain forest and the sparkling of stars in night skies free of light pollution. A traveler can get from the downtown heat of a Taipei summer to the cool climes of Shei-Pa National Park, home to some of the tallest mountains in Taiwan, in about four hours – time very well spent.
By Wesley Holzer
The Formosan landlocked salmon is a unique attraction of Shei-Pa National Park
One of Taiwan's eight diverse national parks, expansive Shei-Pa ("Xue-Ba" in Hanyu romanization) is spread across several adjoining counties in northern Taiwan; the park's recreational areas, Guanwu, Xuejian, and Wuling, are located in Miaoli, Taichung, and Yilan counties, respectively, all easily accessible via major highway. Wuling in particular offers an incredibly wide range of activities, from picking fruit for the casual outdoor adventurer to scaling Taiwan's second-highest mountain for the seasoned climber. Crisp air, clean streams and, in late summer, average temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius under clear blue skies are what await you – and are what greeted me on my recent trip to Wuling.
My first stop was to see the Formosan landlocked salmon, perhaps Taiwan's most unique wildlife species and a driving force behind the establishment of Shei-Pa National Park. This high-altitude salmon subspecies – one of the world's rarest fish – has called this area home since the last Ice Age, when the flow of mountain streams out to the ocean was blocked by landslides after a major earthquake. This caused a population of salmon to be separated from its sea-faring relatives. Salmon typically spend part of their life cycle in the ocean and part in stream waters. A preservation area was first established to protect the salmon from pollution and poaching, and was later expanded and declared part of a national park.
There is a wide variety of accommodations for visitors to Wuling, ranging from stylish hotels to simple campgrounds, but the landlocked salmon arguably enjoy the best "lodging service" in the park. Student volunteers tend to captive salmon in a specially designed conservation area, responsible for such things as ensuring that water temperatures don't rise above 17 degrees Celsius. The students gain valuable hands-on experience helping to protect an endangered species; when mature enough, the fish are released into the Qijiawan River. While efforts have been made to introduce the salmon into high-mountain rivers in other locations with a similar climate, the largest population is still at Wuling, and the salmon have proved to be a unique and enduring local attraction. Close to the special conservation area is an information center and a riverside observation deck, from which visitors can view the fish in their natural river environment.
Aside from its unique wildlife, one other aspect that distinguishes Shei-Pa from other national parks in Taiwan is that it has a tourist farm within its boundaries, making for a unique fusion of wildlife preserve, farmland, and resort facilities. Wuling Farm was founded in 1950, well before the national park was established, as a place for retired soldiers to settle down and lead a quiet agricultural life. It was later transformed into a recreational farm, with visitors coming for the fresh produce and the rich ecological environment. Wuling is one of the few places in Taiwan where you can pick your own fruit, hike high-mountain paths, and camp in a pristine environment – all on the same day and without having to cover long distances.
A brief foray out into the woods found me encountering a white-headed flying squirrel
The farm is home to two hotels and numerous campsites, giving visitors different choices should they wish to spend the night. Campsites run from small empty plots at NT$700 per night to sites with ready-pitched tents on wooden platforms for rental at NT$1,200. Six-person tents for the empty plots are rented for NT$500, and a range of items such as gas stoves, sleeping bags, and instant noodles are available from the adjacent campsite office. Camping here is very popular, especially during the summer months, and with space for only 200 campers available, online or telephone reservations should be made well in advance. Hotel rooms at Wuling are even harder to come by, so reservations should be made at least three months in advance. While staying at the farm visitors can make use of a free tour-bus service, with stops at various spots of interest in the Wuling area. At the farm's visitor center you can also buy NT$150 vouchers allowing you to pick one kilogram of fruit in the orchard.
After a long day exploring the many attractions of Wuling there is more to come after sunset – so be sure not to go to sleep too early! Take some extra time to relax and enjoy nature's night-time bounty; the campsites and surrounding areas offer amazing views of the crystal-clear night sky, something impossible down below in the big city. Shei-Pa is also home to a wide range of nocturnal animals, and for those visitors not afraid of the dark, getting intimate with the wonders of the natural world can be as easy as stepping out of your tent. A brief foray out into the nearby woods found me encountering a white-headed flying squirrel and several Formosan barking (Reeve's Muntjac) deer under the starry sky.
As my second day in the mountains started, I woke up along with the sun to the pleasant fresh mountain air, and put on my adventure shoes to prepare for a day of hiking. Since I am in no shape to tackle Mt. Xue (Snow Mountain), Taiwan's second-tallest mountain, which is located in the eastern part of Shei-Pa National Park, I had to look for a trail more suitable for less-experienced hikers. About 10 minutes by car from my campsite, I discovered a trail to Mt. Tao. Since I am certainly not a grizzled explorer, this trail, only four kilometers long but entirely uphill, was a challenge for me. The two-hour-long hike ends at the spectacular Taoshan Waterfall, also known by the name Yansheng (lit. "sound of smoke"), for the beautiful mist that floats down alongside the immaculately clear water. Reaching the cool and refreshing waterfall filled me with a great sense of achievement, my reward a much quicker hike on my descent back down to the trailhead.
For the truly intrepid, the towering Mt. Xue awaits. The trail is 10 kilometers long, which may not seem so bad, but since it is almost entirely uphill, bringing climbers to an altitude of 3,886 meters from the 2,100-meter-high trailhead, it is quite a challenge. It also includes a section known as the "crying slope" for its infamous difficulty. The trail can be so treacherous that in the past only organized hiking groups were allowed to follow it. Even today, hikers must first register for permission a week in advance online. The trail has two rest spots, at Qika Hut and 369 Hut, both offering a roof over your head and a spot on the floor; travelers must bring their own sleeping bags. If you are an experienced mountaineer you can try to make the hike up and back down in one day, but for average hikers a three-day plan is recommended, the first day ending at Qika Hut, the second at 369 Hut after an ascent to the peak, and the third back to the trailhead.
The natural environment at Shei-Pa is incredible, but so are the people I met during my brief stay whose work is to maintain the park. These include the students who look after the salmon, and Mr. Gao Jian-xiang, who was a colonel in the ROC military but took a huge pay cut to pursue a vocation even dearer to his heart way back in 1994 – a Shei-Pa ranger. Gao frequently sets off on foot inspection tours of Shei-Pa's toughest trails to ensure the safety of visitors and the protection of the natural environment, and says he could not be happier. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gu Yuan-rui, a dedicated volunteer tour guide who has worked at Shei-Pa National Park since 1993; aside from his positive attitude and friendly demeanor, his enthusiasm for the park is demonstrated by the fact that he makes the five-hour drive to Shei-Pa National Park from his home in the small city of Miaoli, where he teaches college-level courses in hospitality, whenever – sometimes several times a month – his expertise is needed to lead a tour group. Gu explained to me that he is a tour guide at Shei-Pa because he likes to travel and wants to share his love for the park's incredibly beautiful environment with others. "You can't know what's beautiful about a place just from hearing about it; you have to experience it for yourself." After experiencing the wonderful attractions of Shei-Pa National Park and witnessing the dedication of the people maintaining it, I couldn't agree more. Time spent at Wuling is indeed time well spent.