As nature likes to do, the rain didn’t take any time letting us know who’s the boss at Hehuanshan (合歡山, or Mount Hehuan) in central Taiwan. At least it helped us realize we’re the kind of people who smile when it pours. And why shouldn’t we? Inclement weather kept everyone else in Taiwan from having a look around 3,400 meters high. For most of the hike, the 8-km trail to West Peak was ours.
Hehuanshan is deceptive. Most of the area’s peaks are straightforward and you can reach several 3000m peaks in a day. For example, the East Peak is just a lot of stairs. Most people can get to and from North Peak in a morning; no problem. Another peak is a rest stop along Highway 14.
These are the places most visitors throw up deuces, take a group photo, and stop pressing on. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the views from the road are incredible. It’s still kind of a shame, because it gets even better.
Getting to West Peak is…
On a clear day, it’ll take you a half day of hiking to get to West Peak, and then there’s the matter of getting back. There’s an obvious, rough trail all the way there. So, it’s not technical, not savage, but not for snowflakes, either. Taiwan Waterfalls gives it a 5/5 for difficulty (see below).
Last week, a hiker was choppered out after getting a blister on their foot. Blisters are painful! But it seems a lot of people underestimate these heights because they heard about the place from people who only hit the easy peaks. Like I was saying, no snowflakes.
This is a topographical map of Hehuanshan, thanks to The World is Not That Big. When Highway 14 was built – the highest road in East Asia, by the way – the locals built roads to or near all the other peaks, but left West Peak alone. It’s out of the way for good reasons.
If you want to thru-hike (hike in one direction), there’s allegedly a service road down by the Hehuan River, and you could hire someone to drop you off. Note that Hehuan River isn’t marked in Google Maps, like it is here in Chinese. You won’t see the service road on either map.
Part of the Central Mountain Range along the “backbone of Taiwan,” this trail is also the border between Nantou and Hualien county. It’s the western edge of Taroko Gorge National Park, and part of its watershed. Way further east, rapids rush through even deeper grooves through the mountains. Gorge-ous.
I see these beautiful and devastating cliffs, and immediately understand why the government chose to place the Nantou-Hualien borders exactly where they are. No one in their practical mind wants to take the technical path down and up these ravines.
Trail permits are still reqiured to come out here – which just means registering at the nearest police station – although this area no longer requires special government permission to venture around.
The military once had a training facility by East Peak, and they still use this area. Some cable cars they put up here were turned into a ski lift that’s now just ruins. A combination of bad roads, inconsistent snow, and at best, 15 seconds of pow pow gnar gnar is the story of the ski business in Taiwan. This is from an 1983 issue of Taiwan Review, about Hehuanshan Ski Resort:
“During our stay on the mountain, the cable lift had broken down. Ski meisters and green hands alike had to spend 15 minutes climbing the 150-meter slope, just to slide down in 15 seconds. Most of the novices, not knowing how to stop or change directions, would fall on their backs to break their speed. When one of them crashed into one of our colleagues, we broke into cold sweat. He turned a somersault and lay flat for several minutes before we finally got him up.”
Getting permissions probably has something to do with the military, but there is a lot of biodiversity here — some being researched, some used for traditional medicines. That’s worth protecting, also!
You could go off-trail if you really want to, but you’re faced with this and that on the near side of the mountain. There’s really nothing preventing you from going down the ravine if you’re not paying attention. Around here, you don’t have to try very hard to get lost, or hurt.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, like these guys who came here to snowboard.
I wrote earlier that the trail is clear, if rough. Getting to West Peak requires quite a bit of scrambling and rope climbing.
Green on Green on Green. I mean, we could be in Ireland. Sometimes, it felt like we were on our own spirit quest. The challenge and beauty of the terrain leaves you feeling a little more empathetic, more human once you’ve reached the end.
Thick seas of clouds can be an issue for a lot of visitors, but we saw no reason to complain — mostly, because we were taking pictures of them. The area is actually known for its clouds, and because they’re always shifting because of violent winds, you’ll never really see the same view twice.
Finding A Place To Stay Near Hehuanshan
We made our own campground along the trail. You can also camp in the visitor center’s parking lot, for free. If you need a trail guide, talk to my friends Ryan and Dustin, who run Taiwan Adventure Outings!
If you’re looking for something more, indoors, Song Syue Lodge (松雪樓), is the place most people recommend. Sitting at 3,150 meters, Song Syue is generally considered the highest lodge in Taiwan. They also have an oxygen room in case you get altitude sickness.
There are many more hotels in Nantou county’s Ren’ai Township, about 1-1.5 hours due west. You’ll see them on your way, if you take the Nantou route to Hehuanshan (and you should). A few other tourist attractions are also nearby, like Cingjing Farm, the Small Swiss Garden, tea farms, and Aowanda National Forest. There’s much to see here — Central Taiwan is a gifted place.