Hiking through Taiwan’s great outdoors: A Long Walk On the Old DanLan Trail

Very few things will get me out of bed before six AM, except for the prospect of outdoor activities like a long-distance bike ride or a full day of hiking – preferably someplace challenging, beautiful, and within a couple hour’s drive of Taipei city. It was the latter of these that got me out of bed at the crack of dawn on a Wednesday morning in March, one of a dozen guests invited by the New Taipei City Government to spend the day hiking a section of the DanLan Historic Trail. (Read also: Seven Star Mountain, a Hike You Cannot Miss While in Taipei)

The drive from the New Taipei City Government Office in Zhonghe to the trailhead took just under two hours, and by the time we hit Xizhi on highway 5, anything remotely urban was diminishing rapidly in our van’s rearview mirror. Wet clouds hung overhead for much of the drive, auguring a less-than-promising hike, but just past the town of Shifen something happened. We entered a tunnel under gray skies, but when we exited it just a few minutes later close to the town of Jianguashi, known for its golden waterfalls, the skies were clear and blue.

The Old Dan-Lan Trail: A history

The two vans parked in front of a small temple by the trailhead and our small group piled out, stretching from the long drive and readying hiking poles. As we began our adventure, Tour leader Wu Shan Rong, a local historian who’d offered to lead the tour on behalf of the New Taipei City Government, began telling the group the fascinating history of this trail. Taiwan was a different place in the mid 19th century than it is today, and while these days the trip between Danshui and Yilan is just a quick bus ride along the northeast coastal road, back then it was a multi-day hike. There were no trains or roads between the two places, so the DanLan Trail was built to facilitate communication between Danshui, then an important port, and the fertile plains that are today part of Yilan county.

It is interesting to note that the Taiwanese system for naming many roads and hiking trails are infinitely logical. For example, “Muxin Road” connects the neighborhood of Muzha with Xindian (Because Mu+Xin=Muxin). Most roads running between two towns will bear, in addition to the highway number, a name comprised of the names of the towns connected by the road itself. Hence, the “The DanLan Trail” was so named because it connected the town of Danshui with the county of Yilan. 

Wantan Section, Dan-Lan Historic Trail Guide Map

World’s Away from Taipei: Waterfalls, forest bathing, and hiking in New Taipei City

These days, the DanLan Trail is now just that, a trail suitable for hiking, forest bathing, and getting back to nature. And while it’s still possible to walk many sections of the original trail on a multi-day hike, the section we were on went through the rural Shuangxi district, just south of Jinguashi Geopark. Though the trail itself was well maintained, it was rougher and clearly less trodden than many of the trails closer to Taipei proper. It had rained that morning, and hikers in our group who’d unwisely chosen to wear sneakers soon found themselves sinking ankle-deep in mud. As the trail continued, mud gave way to slippery rock inclines and declines, and I was glad I’d brought my hiking poles. Other hikers who’d come less prepared used umbrellas for support or made their way gingerly over steep, moss-covered rocks.

Prepared hikers use hiking poles to make their way over steep rocks.

The outdoor adventure continued through the morning, with the group spreading out at some points and gathering at others for group photos. Group leader Wu took these opportunities to point out features of the area, telling us the name of the river we were walking alongside (Wantan), or pointing out a distant waterfall. Sometime around 1 pm, we stopped for lunch at the Fude Temple, a small structure with a shrine to Tudigong facing the river and a few old chairs underneath an awning. Though the temple was well maintained, our small group were the only people present. We dined on rolled up sticky rice dumplings provided by the hike organizers, and on various easy-to-carry snack items fellow hikers had brought along like dried fruits, pretzels, sunflower seeds. Tour Leader Wu announced that we’d have twenty minutes to rest and that the remainder of the hike would be shorter and over mostly easier terrain than the morning hike. (Read also: Jiaming Lake – A Hike to a Beautiful High-Mountain Lake)

The afternoon hike continued along a drier, more manageable path than the mornings. The group stopped at a three-way signpost, one of which read simply “Ancient Farmhouse”. A short, overgrown path led us to a house constructed of rough-hewn stone in the process of being consumed by the jungle. The only signs of modernity were the corrugated metal roof and, interestingly enough, an address plate indicating that this long-abandoned home was still, technically speaking, located in Taipei. The group posed for a few photos before walking back to the main trail.

Me happy to see the sign of “Ancient Farmhouse”.
The group making their way to the main trail.

The group continued hiking through thickets of bamboo, past streams, and small waterfalls, eventually coming to the parking lot marking the end of this section of the DanLan Historic Trail. Our hike had taken longer than expected, but not by much, and our vans were already waiting for us. A brief drive took us to a country restaurant, where true to Taiwanese hospitality, a feast of shrimp, river fish, chicken and locally grown vegetables awaited us. Though physically tired, the group was in high spirits, and as we ate, tour leader Wu informed us that we’d hiked well over 8 kilometers. We ate slowly, comparing photos from the hike and admiring a nearby traditional Taiwanese gate standing over another road leading to a temple and probably more trails for hiking. The meal ended, we piled back into our vans and drove slowly westward over winding mountain roads. By the time we reached the stretch of highway around the Taipei Zoo, it was dark. The twinkling lights of Taipei 101 and Taipei City proper welcomed us back in all their urban glory.   

Check out for MyTaiwanTour’s hiking trip: Taroko Gorge 3 Day Hiking Adventure Private Tour

Read more: In search of the elusive Formosan black bear