This is one of the best hikes I've been on in a long time. The main waterfall trail is quite well known, but at the top of the waterfall trail, instead of heading down to the Pingxi Valley, I took a long, and surprisingly remote and beautiful trail back to Houtong. It's easy to do both in a day. It took myself and a friend just over four hours to do it all, but we are quite fast, and I'd estimate it would take a group about 5-6 hours.
The trail begins in Sandiaoling, which is connected to Taipei by an hourly local train service (about one hours duration). The station is cut into the steep Keelung River valley, and at first doesn't seem to serve anywhere except from some ruined houses nearby. The trail begins next to Sandiaoling Elemetary School, which is now a small museum.
The start of the trail is well paved and has a couple of fun rope bridges, before getting rougher and more interesting. The climb isn't particularly long or steep, and the trail after the first steps is mostly level. We went on a misty day, which had seen some rain over the previous few days. This made a few parts slippery, but the waterfalls had a moderate flow. The trail is a good choice if the weather is overcast. It's very much in the forest, with just a few panoramic vistas.
The first waterfall is called Hegu, and it can be viewed from a wooden platform high above it. Sadly, although it is a spectacular waterfall, it is quite distant, and the lower level is blocked by trees. The forest here is full of small Earth God shrines, and one is located by the platform. If you orient yourself well, there is a rough unmarked trail to the head of Hegu Waterfall. Otherwise you could wade down to it through a slow moving stream.
Continuing on from Hegu the trail passes through a beautiful river valley. Further up this river the other two waterfalls are located. The first is Motian Waterfall, which means skyscraper. This is a tall cascade, which tumbles down a vertical cliff face. It's an impressive sight, and the forest around it gives it a wild look. Interestingly, to the left of the viewing platform there was a dead tree that was absolutely covered in spider webs.
Before you reach the ascent on the metal staircase, (this was once a long ladder), there is a side trail on the right. This leads to a long hollow cut into the rock behind the waterfall. A significantly weaker layer of rock has been eroded away a few meters deep. It's well worth heading right to the end of this hollow, where you are right behind the waterfall cascade. Apart from a tricky sloping part near the entrance the hollow is easy to walk through.
At the top of the stairs and the ropes a narrow trail will take you to Pipadong Waterfall. This waterfall has an incredible overhang, which has created a deep hollow underneath it. It's possible to get right to the base of this waterfall, and the pool looks like it would be a nice cool off spot in summer.
The head of Motian waterfall is slightly downriver. Goaded by some old ladies I went down to the edge. It's a little slippery here but the view is great. Much of the river bedrock in this part of Taiwan has had circular holes sculpted into it. This makes it look a little bit like holey cheese. I found a board in Houtong that explained that the rivers carry rocks, that get caught in whirlpools. Gradually they erode the soft sandstone, creating what are generally called potholes, but some locals call rock dimples.
After stoppping by this final waterfall there are a series of ropes and ladders out of the canyon and to the end of the trail. These were not difficult to navigate and the ground was dry.
Waterfall trail - Fusing temple - Houtong
At the top of the trail there is a choice. Either head left down to the Pingxi Valley, or head right to Fusing Temple. I didn't want to face the packed weekend Pingxi train, so I went right, into the unknown. On the way we crossed the top of Pipadong Waterfall on some stepping stones. At Fusing temple (little more than a metal shack) a few minutes later, there was another junction. A sign pointed to Houtong Station, almost 5km away. This was perfect; we had enough daylight left, and it avoided the busy Shifen area.
This trail turned out to be an excellent surprise. It is long and at times challenging, but it feels very remote in many places. It winds up and down through many tributary river valleys of the Keelung River. Sometimes it is within lush valleys, at others it is in bare, weathered forest. It is not a trail for views, there are only some good vistas towards the end. Because of this though it felt more remote than most trails I've been on (no views of power lines on far mountains).
The only slightly challenging part is a rope climb up a wet river bedrock. Otherwise there are a few slippery parts on river rocks and fords. The trail yoyos between being quite developed, with wooden steps and seating areas, and very rough, with narrow paths.
It is well signposted. However the distances on the signs are quite inaccurate. At one point we traveled 100 meters in about 10 minutes, then another 200 meters in around 30 seconds. We even went negative distance at one point; with Houtong Station moving 100 meters further away between signs. This made it seem like it was taking forever to get from 4.8km to 3km, and it made us rush a bit, but don't worry, the last half of the trail is fast.
In one river valley we came across a bright orange pool. I know minerals in the ground change the color of many rivers in Taiwan. Yangmingshan has several brown-orange rivers. But I've never seen such a concentration of the color. I wondered if it was just a build-up, or water was coming up from a spring tainted with the material. It looked very unnatural, but there were orange stained streams heading into it. I have a feeling it may be mine run-off though it felt like we were too high up for any mine works.
At one point I heard a sound I've heard a few times in forests here. It almost sounds like a rodent purring. Turns out it was a group of small birds, but they were too fast and well hidden for me to get a picture. On another quiet slope, something large moved through the thick tree cover. I assume it was a monkey but I couldn't make it out.
There's a turn off for a trail to Shihzihzueiciyan Peak about two thirds through the trail. On the descent into Houtong we got a good look at this ridgeline (below). Parts looked very precarious and dramatic. It looks almost like a karst formation. I plan to head back to try that trail.
The trail was easy after this point. At the base of the mountain the trail crosses under the railway, and it's an easy walk through some of Houtong's mining history to the village. You'll pass a bare looking brick dormitory building, the miner's bathroom, and the entrance of the very long (almost 5km!) Rueysuey No 4 mine. A rushing stream passes out through the mine entrance, which I though was quite unusual. I expect because of this the mine doesn't actually descend but stays level and winds a great distance under the mountains.
Eventually you'll pass by the Keelung River potholes (larger versions of the ones on the waterfall trail), and the sleepy south part of the village. The main village and station area of Houtong is cat land. There were tons of tourists here and it was a jolt to suddenly be in crowds after the total isolation of the trails (even the waterfall trail was quiet). The village is famous for it's many stray cats. I like cats, but how this place gets so many tourists for that is a mystery to me. One of the nice things about exploring Taiwan is almost everyone stays in a handful of very convenient and developed places, and don't often venture beyond. This has left huge peaceful swathes of the country, and even parts of cities, that leave them unspoilt and rewarding. Apart from the cats, Houtong has an interesting mining ruin and bridge, and a few historic village homes. The train station and railway seem to take up most of the villages' land, and from here you can catch a local train back to Taipei.
The route and some points on it are marked on the Hidden Taiwan Map. The trailheads are next to Sandiaoling Elementary School and Houtong Miner's Dormitory (Neiziliao). There is also an interesting mine site along the trail that I've written about in its own post here.