Jiaming Lake – A Hike to a Beautiful High-Mountain Lake

Text & Photo: Stuart Dawson

At an elevation of 3,520m above sea level, Jiaming Lake (嘉明湖) is Taiwan’s second-highest mountain lake, and one of its biggest. It was once thought that the lake was created by a meteor strike, but it is now believed that it was formed by glacier movement during the last ice age. While it is quite far from Taipei, it’s an excellent two-day hike destination in a more remote part of Taiwan.

From Taipei it’s a long drive to Xiangyang National Forest Recreation Area (向陽國家森林遊樂區), where the hike begins. The area is located close to the 155km marker on Provincial Highway No. 20 (the Southern Cross-Island Highway). If you don’t have your own means of transport, the easiest way to get there is to take a train down to the town of Chishang (池上) in Taitung County and then hire a driver there – as we did on an outing last summer. (Read more:A Bit of Hawaii in the West Pacific – Places to Go in and around Taitung City)

There’s a great campsite around the back of the police station at Xiangyang, with shower and kitchen facilities. We put up our tents and set about preparing a hotpot dinner. That evening there was no moon in the sky, and being so far away from the city, we could see the Milky Way and seemingly millions of other stars.

Pine tree along the trail
Pine tree along the trail

The next morning we packed up early and walked through the forest recreation area to the trailhead. From this point, it was a gentle and very pleasant walk through pine forest to the first mountain hut, the Xiangyang Cabin (向陽工寮). From there the trail became much steeper, all the way to the point where we came out of the forest. On a good day there are spectacular views here, but on this day clouds had already begun to billow up, and we could only just make out the famous twisted and gnarly Xiangyang Tree (向陽樹).

Typically, during the summer months in Taiwan the weather is clear in the morning, giving way to thunderstorms in the afternoon. With the clouds coming in, we thus pressed on towards the second cabin, the Jiaming Lake Hut (嘉明湖山屋), to avoid getting caught in this day’s inevitable downpour.

At the cabin, we met a group of Taiwanese hikers, who mentioned that there was the possibility of a typhoon arriving in two to three days’ time. I headed out further along the trail to a point where I could get a mobile-phone signal and called a friend in Taipei, who confirmed that there was indeed a typhoon on the way.

Our original plan was to stay in the mountains for three days, and while the typhoon was unlikely to affect us before the end of the hike, the authorities usually close the highway to/from Chishang a day before, and we thus might have ended up stuck at Xiangyang for a time. So we decided to hike to the lake early the next morning and then hike back out in the afternoon.

Splendid mountain scenery

We woke up at 2am, and were greeted by a group of deer who had come to drink from a water source near the cabin. It’s incredible how unaffected they are by the people and headlamps. They simply stare back at you, and then continue on their way. After a quick breakfast, we set off towards Jiaming Lake.

It was a very cold morning, especially when we arrived at the exposed peak of Mt. Sancha (三叉山, 3,496m). The wind was strong, and even though it was August it still stripped us of heat. We waited ten minutes or so for the sun to rise, and then turned and headed south towards the lake. By this time the glow of the rising sun had hit the grass on the hills surrounding the lake, making it seem like the mountains were on fire. It was a spectacular view.

After a quick break and a hot drink by the lakeshore, we started back. With a typhoon looming we had to move quickly to get back down in time, and we eventually got back to Taipei safely that evening.

Before sunrise
Before sunrise

Route: Xiangyang National Forest Recreation Area (0K) – Xiangyang Cabin (4.3K) – Jiaming Lake Hut (8.4K) – Jiaming Lake (13K)

Safety and Practicalities

The Jiaming Lake walk isn’t a technical hike, but since the lake is in the high mountains, it is recommended that anyone wishing to do the hike get in contact with or put together a hiking group to go on an organized trek with a guide.

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This article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (Sept./Oct., 2014)