Yesterday we hiked to Yuemeikeng waterfall in Yilan - I have to say, very honestly, that this is not only the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in Taiwan: it's the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in person. Period. And that includes some spectacular falls in Guizhou, Sumatra and the Philippines. You can see for yourself how lovely it is - a spray of water falling down an etched rock face into an idyllic, swimmable pool surrounded by verdant cliff faces, approached from an idyllic gorge.
I can't give exact directions because I didn't lead the hike, although it's not a hard trail to follow. There is are links out there to posts by other hikers/bloggers that I thought I'd bookmarked, but haven't (J, if you want to provide a link in comments I'll link it in the post).
To get there, you begin at Wufengqi (also spelled Wufengchi and Wufongchi...whatever) in the hills above Jiaoxi in Yilan County. You can get there by taxi, a tourist shuttle or your own transportation. The tourist shuttle leaves from outside the train station approximately once every 15 minutes, at least on weekends.
You do not want to do this hike in heavy rain or after it. Some parts of the trail are really not navigable when wet.
When you get to Wufengqi, head down the path along the river where the mini-dams are (people will probably be swimming) and after climbing the stairs above them, cross the river. This is not the first time you'll be wading in water - a good portion of the hike is essentially river tracing, so wear appropriate shoes (river tracing shoes would be the best choice, but we did it in Teva-style sandals).
There is a trail across the river - not really marked at all. Head up that and you'll walk a very gentle incline for awhile. You'll cross two bridges and pass a simple Tu Di Gong (earth god) shrine.
One of the bridges has a sign saying that only one person may cross at a time.
The trail goes up and down and only one section is a longer, steep climb. I'm not exactly a super-fit hiking maven, but I made it up, so you can too. Huffing and puffing, but I made it. You'll pass lots of lovely hanging branches and vines and a grove of green bamboo on the way up.
You'll start heading downhill quite sharply and then hit the stream, which is punctuated by several large boulders. It's a popular rest stop for large hiking groups - when we got there they'd all stopped in the stream and were starting up hot-pot style food. Right in the stream. Which is fine, and it all looked very festive, but we were looking for peace and quiet.
I don't mean to be too harsh on the tour groups - clearly they enjoy the atmosphere that a large group brings, and they are extremely friendly. It's just...they're loud. And they take up space. And they make their hot pot right on the trail.
They also carry far too much gear. Here is a big cultural difference between hiking in Asia and hiking back home. We Crazy Foreigners show up in Tevas - well, fake Tevas from A-Mart - grody t-shirts and comfortable pants or shorts, a backpack with some water and snacks, and we go. They show up in wetsuits, with vests full of dangling gear, carabiners, rappelling ropes, helmets (why? "In case we fall and hit our head"), river tracing shoes and probably crampons and machetes as well (I'm joking about the crampons and machetes...sort of. It's hard to tell under all that rope). We get our shirts wet and whatever, it's cool. They look like they're about to start a deep-sea dive, except in a helmet.
At this point in the hike, you need to start following the stream, which means wading (or river tracing). Good shoes are a must - it's worth the money to by dork-tacular river tracing shoes although if you go in sandals with a good grip you'll be fine. Just watch out for slippery or unsecured rocks.
You'll get partway up and then reach a waterfall you may or may not be able to get over - I guess this is where the rope that the Taiwanese hikers had came in handy. There is a trail, though, up and over with ropes to help you. It's slippery, very narrow and if you fall you will probably break something, but I did it so you can, too.
You can, in fact, choose to take that trail - which is muddy, irritating, tiring and a bit dangerous - and skip the rest of the wading until you get to the end, but we found the wading to be more fun and actually easier.
You might lose a shoe, though.
After the 2nd mini-waterfall, which also has a trail up and around, you enter a small gorge and can see the top of Yuemeikeng over the trees. Even from that distance it is spectacular.
Didn't I tell you?
At this point I shouted "DUDE! We're HERE!" Even from a distance I could tell it was going to be stunning.
You do have to start wading again, but it's not that challenging. This area can get dangerous after heavy rains, and flash floods are a concern, so do check the weather and precipitation before heading out.
The trail is populated with butterflies, including small cornflower-blue ones, and dragonflies. There are also a lot of spiders.
Wufengqi itself - which is a tiered series of three waterfalls (only the final one of which is really impressive) reachable by an easy path pockmarked with stairs, has nothing on this place. If you have to choose between here and Wufengqi for time reasons, choose Yuemeikeng. Don't even bother with the more well-known Wufengqi. Yuemeikeng is just better.
Also, note the bike helmet, the scooter helmet, the construction helmet...bring a helmet, any helmet seemed to be the directive from the group leader, who had a whistle and everything.
See how much nicer it is without a lot of people?
It started to rain on the way back - pretty heavily in fact. Fortunately the worst of it hit long after we'd left the more dangerous-when-wet parts of the trail. Ash had already changed into a dry shirt (we hadn't) so he put on his Giant Condom. Brendan, Joseph and I figured, well, we're already soaked, so whatever. We're not going to get any wetter.
Brendan and I changed in the bathrooms at the Wufengqi parking lot near where the shuttle picks up. Although my pants were quick-dry and my shirt was athletic clothing material, I was soaked to the bone and didn't want to get on the bus like that.
I have to say goodbye to the pants though - at many points on the trail I had to get there by scooting on my butt (I call it "ass hiking") and I got a huge tear in the right butt-cheek of my pants about halfway through: another reason to change before heading back to civilization.
In Jiaoxi we sought out some locally-brewed beer that we'd tried previously. This company makes three kinds of wheat beer and something called "green beer". We'd tried the dark wheat beer before and thought it tasted like Oreos - when we first tried it I thought it was pretty good. This time we got that and the Green Beer (below) and, well, it wasn't as good as I remembered. I could drink it, and it was certainly unique, but...well...it's green beer.
If you want to try it (don't say I didn't warn you: it's not that good, but it is an experience), go to the main intersection in Jiaoxi where the road to the train station hits the main road (Rt. 9), turn left and walk to the large blue building under construction. Next to that is a hot spring park with coffee, shaved ice, ice cream and this beer.
They also have snacks - fennel dried tofu, fennel cooked peanuts, smoked duck in a tasty sauce, edamame and more. The snacks, especially the duck, were delicious.
Yes, this is actually beer.
I'll leave you with this: if you live in Taiwan, and you are even reasonably fit, you have to try this hike. Go with a small group, bring good shoes, check the weather and try to go on a weekday, but do go. You won't be disappointed - Yuemeikeng is truly spectacular.
That brings me to my Reason #22 to love Taiwan - wherever you live, especially around Taipei, there are myriad day trip and day hiking options to get out of the city. When I lived in DC getting out of the metro area was an ordeal that required planning and a car. Sure, you could go to Annapolis, Harper's Ferry, Shenandoah, even the Blue Ridge Mountains if you wanted. You could go to Richmond, Baltimore Harbor or the Billy Goat Trail (or other hikes in the area), visit Mt. Vernon or do any number of other things.
In Taipei, if I get up early enough I can do a satisfying hike through some breathtaking natural vistas (or just enjoy the breeze, butterflies, trees and earth) and I can do a different one every time. I could hike every other weekend for years and still not do every day hike available to me from Taipei. And for most of them I don't need a car - there's a bus that goes close enough, or a chartered taxi is in my price range (imagine getting a taxi to take you out to a hiking trail in the USA!).
It's not that I didn't like hiking in the USA - and I did a lot of it in upstate New York where I grew up because that town really is in close proximity to a lot of day hikes - it's that in the USA if you live in an urban area and don't have a car...forget it. At least where I'm from - I don't claim to have been to every major urban area or spent enough time there to really know. Maybe things are different in another part of the country.
Even if you do have a car it's hard to get out to a good day hike. From New York City you'd probably want to go to the Shawangunks which are a good 2 hours away. From DC there are precious few day hikes and by the time you get to the best mountains you're looking at an overnight stay in central Virginia.
I complain a lot about how living in a city in a "basin" (surrounded on three and a half sides by mountains) creates pollution and bad weather, but I have to say that that basin is formed by some great mountains which are etched with some awesome trails - some of which are in Taipei City itself. And unlike China, not all of them are paved over with stairs!
Here, well, we pick a trail, we pack a bag, we catch a bus early enough and we go. And we're back in time for dinner. No car necessary and there are quite literally hundreds of choices.