Mountain Climbing

Fire Mountain (火炎山)

I’ve lived in Taiwan for well over a decade now and for almost as long as I can remember, every time I’ve travelled south along the national highway, I’ve always enjoyed the view when crossing the Da’an River (大安溪), the area that geographically separates Miaoli from Taichung. 

The reason for this is quite simple, the Miaoli side has a beautiful mountain that glistens in the sun whenever you pass by. When you consider most of Taiwan’s mountains are lush with greenery, this one stands out thanks to almost red-like soil on the mountain side.

Its fair to say that I’ve probably passed by the mountain on the highway a few hundred times throughout my years living here and even though in the back of my mind I always wondered about the mountain, by the time I arrived at my destination, I had already forgotten about it.

Over the past year though, the mountain, which I’ve since learned is aptly named “Fire Mountain” (火炎山), has become a bit of a hit with young people, especially those on Instagram who hike (most of the way) to the top to get a photo of themselves at a spot that has become known as “Taiwan’s Grand Canyon” (台灣大峽谷). 

In retrospect my curiosity about the mountain should have led me to finding out about it much sooner, but sometimes my curiosity about mysterious places often leads me down really deep rabbit holes, so I’ve been trying to make an effort as of late to not let my curiosity take up so much of the little free time I have. 

That being said, the proverbial cat is out of the bag when it comes to this mountain and its recent popularity meant that a visit was definitely in order as I rarely miss the chance to get those super popular instagram photos (Pardon the sarcasm) 

Fire Mountain (火炎山)  

Situated on the geographic barrier between Taiwan’s Miaoli County and Taichung County, “Fire Mountain” or “Flame Mountain” (火炎山) has become one of the new hot spots on the country’s day-hike scene and is highly regarded for its stunning landscapes.  

Once a protected nature reserve and home to several endangered local bird species, the mountain was for quite some time restricted only to researchers and bird watchers with a permit. Now it has reopened to the public and thanks to the skill of some Instagrammers, its popularity has skyrocketed making it one of the busiest trails in central Taiwan, second of course only to Yuanzui Mountain

Stunning landscapes and Instagram photos aside, as one of Taiwan’s Top 100 Mountains (小百岳), Fire Mountain has always been a popular one among crowds attempting to complete one of Taiwan’s hiking challenges. It is also a popular stop for local birdwatchers who visit the mountain every year between April and May to observe flocks of migratory birds arriving back in Taiwan from the Philippines. 

Note: To avoid a bit of confusion I think I should explain: There are two lists of ‘100 Peaks’ in Taiwan. One is a list of 100 peaks that are over 3,000 meters above sea level, known as the “Bai Yue” (台灣百岳) while the other is a list of 100 Peaks that can be climbed relatively easily known as the “Mini Bai Yue” (小百岳), this mountain is on the list of smaller peaks. 

Link: 台灣小百岳列表 (Wiki)

Link: 100 Peaks of Taiwan (台灣百岳) 

Video: Taiwan’s 100 Best Mountains (Goldthread / Youtube)

At its highest, Fire Mountain reaches an elevation of 614 meters on its Northern Peak (北峰) while its Main Peak (主峰) is 596 meters above sea level. Formed hundreds of thousand of years ago, the geological structure of the mountain is similar to that of many of Taiwan’s mountains in that it was created by the movement of tectonic plates.

From the outset, this mountain set itself apart (from the others) in its composition from the ground up thanks to the weak cohesion of sandstone and sedimentary rock that make it less stable. Speaking plainly, this instability simply means that the physical attributes of the mountain are in a constant state of change, so whenever there is a heavy rain, typhoon or earthquake, the mountain changes a bit. 

This natural effect is also the reason why the mountain has become so attractive as its jagged peaks, cliffs, valleys and slopes have all been formed by natural degradation over time. 

Unfortunately (as mentioned above) due to the fragility of the mountain, it had to be closed off to the public for several decades. In 1986 (民國75年) the government designated the mountain as the “Fire Mountain Nature Reserve” (火炎山自然保護區) in order to allow for the mountain to naturally repair itself to prevent the effects of erosion, and to also allow the native Masson’s Pine Tree (馬尾松) to replenish itself. 

Now that the trail has reopened, it has become a popular weekend destination for hikers and day-trippers, so the local government has made an effort to improve the safety of the trail allowing for a much better hiker experience for all. If you do plan on hiking this one (and you should), its important to remember that it is still a protected nature reserve, so try to have as little impact as you can on the natural environment and as always remember to take your trash with you. 

Hiking Fire Mountain

This hike is relatively easy and will only require a few hours of your time. Unlike many of the other mountains that have become popular in recent years, this one is essentially just a brisk nature walk, so you don’t need to be an experienced climber to complete the hike. With this in mind, if you’d like to bring your family or friends for an afternoon outing, this is a trail that should allow everyone to get a bit of exercise and enjoy a bit of Taiwan’s beautiful mountainous landscapes.  

From the outset, the incline of the trail rises at a gradual pace which means that you won’t be starting out with a steep set of stairs like so many other trails. After about five-to-ten minutes of walking, you’ll start to be able to see the elevated highway through the trees and the path will start turning red.

As you hike you’re going to start noticing a few warning signs on the trail where there will be a beaten down path nearby - Unlike most of Taiwans trails, where hikers tie markers to trees which indicate the direction you should be heading in, this one is quite well developed and there is signage everywhere. The lack of these markers isn’t entirely a terrible thing in this case though as the warning signs you’ll see along the way (more often than not indicate) that there is a picturesque vista nearby.

So whenever you come across a warning sign, you’re likely to find an unmarked path branching off from the main trail that leads to an area where you’re able to take photos, and the higher you climb the more beautiful these vistas become. 

The warning signs however are obviously there for a very important reason - The cliffs where you’re able to take these beautiful photos are often quite dangerous and while it may seem like a good idea to get a photo of yourself sitting on the edge of the cliff, you should be aware that erosion on this mountain is a real thing and that if you’re not careful, you might be involved in a landslide of your own making.

You definitely don’t want to have your dead body featured on the news and force the closure of the trail, which would ruin the experience for everyone else, so use your brain and stay safe.

Each time you approach one of the vistas, you may start thinking to yourself that you’ve arrived at the ‘famous photo spot’ but I assure you, when you reach the ‘spot’, you’re going to know. This is because there is a rather generous amount of signage that indicates that you’re approaching the ‘Grand Canyon’ and once you’ve arrived, you’ve pretty much reached your destination. 

When you’re standing at the trailhead and you’re looking at the map of the trail, it provides an ‘estimate’ of how long it should take you to complete the hike. Something that you’re going to have to learn about these signs here in Taiwan is that the estimate is way off and it is never going to take nearly nearly as long to complete. Still though, these estimates are good at scaring people away.

The local authorities estimate that this mountain is going to take about 3.5-4 hours to complete, but its important to note that the vast majority of hikers aren’t coming here to "complete” the mountain, they’re only really hiking to the Grand Canyon and then heading back to the trailhead. With this in mind, you can easily shave off an extra hour or so of the estimate.

Unfortunately, if you are hiking this trail on the weekend, the time you save by not hiking to the peak may end up not being time saved at all - Hiking on the weekends mean that you’re going to have to deal with a bit more traffic on the trails. It also means that if you want to take photos at the Grand Canyon that you’re going to have to get in line with a bunch of ravenous (yet beautiful) Instagram celebrities. If you’re like me though, you may feel quite entertained by watching them take photos with all all their weird poses. 

Given that the trail is so well-developed and that hiking it is rather difficult, you shouldn’t have much trouble hiking this one. If you take a look on instagram at some of the outfits many of the instagram celebrities have worn while hiking, it should offer a much better indication of just how easy this one is. Nevertheless, this is a mountain, so you’ll want to make sure you bring enough water and wear proper footwear. You’ll probably also want to bring a raincoat with you just in case it starts to rain. 

Tour / Permit 

Trailhead warning sign and map

It seems like there is a bit of misinformation out there about whether or not you need a permit to hike the mountain or whether you need to have a tour guide take you up the mountain. 

Let me dispel both of these rumours right now. 

You might have read somewhere on the internet or heard from a friend that you need a permit to hike the mountain. That’s false. You don’t need to have a permit. There are quite a few mountains in Taiwan where you’ll need a permit, but this isn’t one of them. You’re not going to encounter anyone at the trailhead checking for permits or identification. What you will find at the trailhead is simply a map of the route and several warnings about the danger of walking too close to unstable cliffs. 

The reason why people claim that a permit is necessary is because years ago the mountain was a protected nature reserve for replenishing trees and protecting a few endangered local species of birds, most notably the “Grey-faced Buzzard” (灰面鵟鷹) which migrates to the Philippines during the Winter and returns in Taiwan in April each year. 

Those issues seem to have been rectified with time, so they’ve reopened the trail to the public. 

Hello friend!

You might have also read online, especially on some Taiwanese tour sites that you need to take a tour to hike the mountain. That is also false.

If you see a website claiming that you need to join a tour to hike this one, they’re just spreading misinformation in order to make some money off of their paid tours. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s business, but I also don’t like people spreading false information to tourists in order to cheat them and make money. 

Of course having a tour guide and travelling with a tour group could solve some of the travel issues involved with getting to the mountain, but most of these tours are more expensive than what you would pay if you followed the travel advice I’m going to provide below. 

Ultimately it is up to you how you get to the trail, but you definitely don’t need a permit and its not necessary to join a tour - All you have to do is simply walk up to the trailhead and enjoy your hike. 

Getting There

 

One of the main obstacles to climbing Fire Mountain is actually getting to Fire Mountain. 

When I say that, I mean for those who don’t have their own means of transportation, be it car or scooter, getting to the trailhead can be a bit of a hassle that will probably include a train ride and a taxi ride. 

If you have a car, getting to Fire Mountain is rather straight forward - Take the National Highway Number One (國道一號) and get off at the Sanyi Exit (三義交流道). From the interchange make a right turn and then at the first set of traffic lights turn left on Road 13 (台13線). Follow that road until you reach the bottom of the hill where you’ll find yourself under the highway. The trailhead is located directly next to that road. 

When you want to park your car, there isn’t much choice in terms of legal parking spots, so you’ll likely have to park in the “正松泉停車場” paid parking space by the trailhead. The parking fee is only 50NT though, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem - unless of course its full. 

If you are relying on public transportation, the easiest way to get there is to take a train and then take a taxi from the station to the trailhead. If you are travelling from the north, I recommend getting off at Miaoli’s Sanyi Station (三義車站) and if you’re coming from the south, you could get off at Taichung’s Tai’An Station (泰安車站). The distance from both stations is more or less the same, but the trip from Sanyi is probably the most straightforward and should cost around $200NT 

It is important to remember though that if you are taking a train to Sanyi or Tai’An, that at some point you’ll have to switch to a Local Train (區間車) as the Express Trains don’t stop at either of those stations. If you’re coming from the north, get off at Miaoli Station (苗栗車站) and if you’re coming from the south get off at Houli Station (后里車站) to transfer. 

Once you’ve arrived and you get in the taxi, if you can’t speak Chinese you can show him this or try your best to read the pinyin: “我要去火炎山登山口” (wǒ yào qù huǒ yán shān dēng shān kǒu). Considering the popularity of the hike as of late, the driver is likely to know exactly where you want to go. You might also want to remember the drivers phone number or get a copy of his card so that you can call him to pick you up. 

For most travellers this hiking trail isn’t going to be a particularly easy one to get to, but it is a fun one and if you do decide to hike it, you’re going to be rewarded with excellent views of Taiwan’s so-called “Grand Canyon” as well as the Da’an River that stretches all the way out to the ocean. The hike is relatively easy and is well-maintained, so with a bit of effort you’ll be rewarded with several picturesque vistas and you’ll be able to get one of those important instagram photos that everybody’s looking for.

Remember though, some of the cliffs are dangerous, so if you notice a warning sign, it’s best to take some precaution while at the same time enjoying the experience of hiking this beautiful trail.


Sacred Mother Trail (聖母登山步道)

If I've got some free time and the weather is looking good, its highly likely that you’ll find me somewhere on a mountain trail making my way to the peak of one of Taiwan’s beautiful mountains. I was always an avid outdoors person back home in Canada but since coming to Taiwan the hobby has certainly taken a life of its own thanks to all of the beautiful and accessible hikes that are available all around the country.

Before I start this post, I want to take a minute to express my gratitude to Richard Saunders, who has done so much amazing work promoting the country to the rest of the world. Richard, whom I've never actually had the pleasure of meeting has made the decision to head back to his native England after spending over two decades living in Taiwan. Like a lot of people I have all of his wonderful books on my book shelf and his work has been not only a resource for my blogging but also the inspiration for many of my weekend excursions. Thanks for everything you've done Richard and all the best for your future! 

When it comes to hiking, my personal preference is for those where I get to use ropes to scale up rock faces or walk along jagged mountain ridges. There is a certain challenge and thrill to that kind of hike that makes the whole experience even more exciting and fulfilling. On the other hand, I’m much less of a fan of what I would consider the easier family-friendly style of hikes which tend to be on well-maintained trails that consist solely of concrete stairs.

I might argue that these types of hike are 'easier', but I'd be lying if I didn't say that walking up a never-ending set of concrete stairs is extremely tiring and is also a pretty good workout. The problem for me though is that the stairs on these hikes are rarely made for someone with feet the size of mine, so it makes walking up them a bit awkward. 

I know that arduous five hour climb to the top of a hike like Wuliaojian (五寮尖) isn't for everyone, but I'm sure you'd agree that you'd have a much more rewarding experience doing that than you would on a hike like Taipei’s Elephant Mountain (象山) which only takes about ten minutes.

I hike for the experience, for the long walks through the forest, the peace and quiet and the enjoyable conversations I have with friends and other hikers who I meet on the trails. I don't get the same enjoyment out of a brisk walk up a set of stairs, but I can understand the appeal for some. 

My Thai friend. 

Over the past few months I’ve posted about a few locations around Taiwan that have gone a bit viral thanks to the help of the social media - These locations are often popular with locals, but not really as well-known with tourists and most people in the expat community.

One such location that has become popular on social media is a mountain trail in Yilan (宜蘭) which offers hikers the opportunity to take some really beautiful and photos of a landscape that is somewhat unlike what you commonly see in Taiwan. The mountain trail was always a popular one among hiking enthusiasts, but a beautiful photo from a popular Instagrammar transformed this quiet trail into a busy weekend destination.

While I think its great that young people are taking an interest in hiking, I think its important for these people to remember that when you’re making weekend plans to climb a mountain that you first do a bit of research as to what is going to be involved - Don’t just look at a photo on social media and think that its going to be a simple and short hike.

Preparation and safety are always important when it comes to hiking and of course are more important than your social media photos. Of the hikes that have become popular as of late, Jinmian Mountain (金面山) in Taipei is one where you can get away with not knowing what you're getting yourself into, but then others like Wuliaojian, Yuanzui Mountain and Stegosaurus Ridge are really dangerous, especially for those who are inexperienced hikers and have no idea what they're doing or where they're going. 

The ‘Sacred Mother Hiking Trail’ in Yilan is one of those hikes that has become popular over the past few months and is one where you are certainly going to be rewarded with that viral photo to add to your collection, but you should know that it is on a trail that is going to make you work for it and is one of those trails that I mentioned above that is full of stairs! 

Sacred Mother Peak (聖母山步道)

It’s safe to say that Yilan’s Sacred Mother trail is unlike any other mountain you’re going to climb in Taiwan. Not because of the hike itself, nor the amazing landscape, but because it is oddly full of Catholic imagery. If you've spent any amount of Taiwan and have visited as many temples as I have, you'll probably feel it is little surreal to see this kind of Christian religious stuff, but as usual there’s an interesting backstory to all of it.

The hiking trail is situated in Jiaoxi (礁溪) which is most well-known as a hot spring resort town as well as for its popular Wufengqi Waterfalls (五峰旗瀑布). It starts near the waterfall area and brings you up a long vertical climb of more than 700 meters to a peak which is not only a popular hiking trail but a Catholic pilgrimage site as well..

Hail to the Chief! 

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the backstory, but the reason this trail became somewhat of a sacred place for Taiwan’s Catholics goes a little like this - In 1980 a group of hikers set off from Pinglin (坪林) in what is now New Taipei City (新北市). They hiked over the mountains passing into Yilan but along the way they got lost and as the daylight started to fade they became worried for their safety.

At this point, most Taiwanese would likely say a prayer to either Guanyin (觀音), Mazu (媽祖) or any of the other myriad of local deities for spiritual deliverance, but these guys prayed to the Virgin Mary. Luckily they chose the right spiritual figure to pray to as they claim that she appeared at the top of a nearby tree and guided them down the mountain to safety.

Source: Corpus Christi (聖體堂) - 礁溪-五峰旗聖母

Since then, the peak where the 'miracle' was said to have occurred has become a pilgrimage site with a memorial set up to honour not only Mary, but Jesus as well.

The cement steps that lead to the top of a viewing platform have fourteen plaques which depict the ‘Stations of the Cross’, imagery that is well-known among Catholics. The plaques depict the different events that took place on the last day of Jesus’s life here on Earth.

The viewing platform, which sits atop one of the mountains has a statue of Jesus on the cross in the centre and provides a beautiful 360 degree view of all the nearby mountains as well as the Lanyang Plains (蘭陽平原) and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Below the platform you’ll find the Sacred Mother Hut (聖母山莊) where most people stop to have lunch before heading back to the trailhead. The hut is administered by a local church and you'll likely find a group of nuns inside who take care of the grounds and do nun-related things. The hut has running water and you’ll usually find more experienced hikers sitting there eating the five course meal that they prepared with the stoves they carried up there with them. 

I’m not much of a believer in miracles, but I guess if anything could be considered a miracle it would be that the area around the peak is somehow full of concrete. If I was to have any complaints about the hike, it would be that someone figured it would be a great idea to ‘add’ to the natural environment by pouring a bunch of concrete around the place.

How did they even get concrete up there in the first place?

I’ll never understand. It’s a Taiwanese miracle.

The Hike

As mentioned above, the trailhead for the hike starts near the entrance to the Wufengqi Scenic Area (五峰旗風景區). Whether you are taking public transportation or if you have your own means of transportation, most people will start the hike to the trailhead from the Scenic Area’s parking lot and walk along the river to the entrance.

If you are driving a car, parking in the parking lot is only $50NT for the day and its a lot better to leave it there than on the side of the road where you’ll get a ticket.

When you arrive at the entrance to Wufengqi you have a choice in terms of which route you want to take - One route allows you to first check out the waterfalls and eventually connects with the hiking trail. The other takes you up a steep and winding road that brings you to the newly constructed Catholic Sanctuary of Our Lady of Wufengqi church (五峰旗聖母朝聖地) which provides an excellent view of Yilan and the ocean in the distance.

Whichever route you decide to take is completely up to you - Whether you go to see the waterfalls or the church, the trail to the Sacred Mother Hut is about 5.6 km of unrelenting stairs that is sure to tire out even the best of us.

The most sought-after photo on the mountain. #SUCCESS

My Apple Watch recorded that I climbed 280 flights of stairs and walked more than 15 km on this hike. So, if you are attempting to do this one without actually first doing any proper research or wearing proper hiking attire, you’re going to regret it.

While on the trail we came across a young “Internet Beauty” (網美) wearing a cute dress and flip-flops who had to stop less than halfway through the trail. The poor girl had tears in her eyes and her mascara running as she was forced to give up due to lack of proper preparation.

Likewise I came across a group of young guys who were wearing the latest all-white and extremely expensive Nike Air Force sneakers who were doing everything they could to wipe the dirt off their shoes. I don't remember seeing them at the top. 

The almost six kilometre hike to the Sacred Mary Hut should take most people around five hours to complete, but its important to note that once you pass by the hut there are other peaks that you can climb which will add to the time it takes to finish the hike.

Put your phone down and enjoy the scenery! 

If you want to go as far as the Sanjiaolun Peak (三角崙山) for example, you’ll have to add at least another hour to your trip - The views from Sanjiaolun are well worth the extra time though and more interesting for someone like myself is that you’ll have to use ropes to pull yourself up a very steep mountainside to get to the peak!

The main attraction for people these days though is not actually to hike to the top, not any of the other peaks but getting a photo of themselves standing along the ridge of the mountains just below the platform.

The view which has beautiful grass-covered and somewhat untouched mountains that roll off in the distance has become a social media favourite as of late and is a scene that, if you are visiting on the weekend, you may end up having to wait in line to get a photo.

I can understand the appeal of getting photos in this spot, but the area where you stand to take the photo is so small that it is really difficult to get something that is even remotely different than any of the hundreds of others who have stood in the same spot.

I’m not particularly a fan of going places to take the exact same photo that others have already taken, but I can understand the appeal, it really is a beautiful scene.

Things to Remember

TAIWAN NUMBER ONEEEEEEEEEEE

  • The weather in Yilan can be a bit unpredictable, so apart from wearing proper hiking shoes, its important to prepare a raincoat in case the weather takes a turn for the worse.
  • The peak tends to be quite windy, so even if its a hot day, you should bring a windbreaker to help you stay warm.
  • Make sure to bring enough water with you as well as snacks to eat at the various resting huts along the way. Like all mountains, its probably best to pack fruit or food that requires you to pack out as little garbage as possible. Remember not to leave your garbage on the mountain for others to carry out.
  • Start the hike early, don’t start it after midday unless you have prepared flashlights or headlamps to help you navigate the trail in the dark.
  • This hike is part of a very well maintained trail that has covered rest stops along the way as well as places for hikers to use the bathroom. You won’t have to worry about being stuck in the mountains and having to relieve yourself. Make sure to bring some tissue though!
  • After about an hour or two of hiking you’ll reach the Sacred Mother trail where there is a river and waterfalls. The trail tends to become a bit damp and can be slippery. Be careful walking up and down the stairs in this area.
  • Don't feed the monkeys - There are monkeys on the trail and its best not to feed them junk food. 

Even though this hike is a long one that requires you to walk up a lot of stairs, its a well taken care of trail and is a popular one on weekends. Whether you are visiting to get that special photo for Instagram, for a great hike or even for a religious experience, you’re sure to enjoy your time on this one. It’s not only a great workout, but offers beautiful landscapes as your reward for a day of hard work!

Getting There 

 

If you are taking public transportation all you have to do is catch a train to Jiaoxi (礁溪車站) and from there get on either Taiwan Bus (台灣好行礁溪線) #11 or Yilan Bus (宜蘭勁好行) #112, 113, 191, 131 all of which cost $20NT per ride.

Link: Bus Routes + Schedules

Here are a couple of bonus links to two of my most widely used English hiking pages that also covered this hike in pretty good detail: 

  1. Taiwan Off the Beaten Track - Sacred Mother Peak 
  2. Taiwan Tales and Trails - St. Marian's Hiking Trail