Text: Dallas Waldie
Photos: Maggie Song
On a trip to Taiwan, you are almost certain to make a stop in the bustling capital of Taipei. Itʼs a beautiful city, with a little of something for everyone – shopping, fine cuisine, sightseeing, and much else. Another great thing about Taipei is how quickly you can leave the city center and spend a day with Mother Nature. Hiking trails, hot springs, and mountain scenery are just a short bus ride away.
If you want to explore the mountains just to the north of central Taipei, you can first visit the urban Beitou (北投) area and then head into the mountains of Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園), where you can visit places like Yangming Park, especially popular during the winter flower season, defined by cherry and azalea blossoms, and Zhuzihu, a farm area best known for its fields of ivory-white calla lilies. (Visit Yangmingshan National Park by joining MyTaiwanTour’s Ultimate Taipei Day Tour.)
On a pleasant September day we headed to Beitou to explore the area. Our first stop was Beitou Hot Spring Park (北投溫泉親水公園), across the street from Xinbeitou Station. The park is home to the very interesting and informative Beitou Hot Spring Museum (北投溫泉博物館), housed in heritage facilities, the impressive green-architecture Beitou Library (台北市立圖書館北投分館), and public hot-spring pools. Further up the hill beyond the park, you come to Thermal (Hell) Valley (地熱谷), where you can examine one of the sources of Beitou’s hot springs. The valley is usually shrouded in mist, giving it a mysterious feel. (Read more: Four Taipei Hot Spring Getaways)
After checking out the Xinbeitou attractions, we headed for Yangmingshan. Our next stop was the Grass Mountain Chateau (草山行館). This is a complex of main building and subsidiary buildings constructed by the Japanese in the 1920s during the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan (1895~1945). The main structure is a mélange of Eastern and Western architectural elements fit for a king – or a president – which is why late president Chiang Kai-shek chose this location as his first residence in Taiwan, later using it for summer getaways. We learned that many decisions regarding national reform were made right here in the Grass Mountain Chateau. Today it is an official heritage site with a cultural-arts focus, housing an art gallery, restaurant, and artist studios, and serving as a scenic haven for tourists. (Read more: The Hot Springs of Beitou – A Place of Warmth, History, and Mist-ery)
Another heritage site in Yangmingshan is Yangming Shuwu (Yangming Villa; 陽明書屋), the last-built and largest of Chiang Kai-shek’s retreats, which he occupied only briefly before his demise.
Next up was Yangming Park (陽明公園), which is a very popular destination during the flower season in late winter/early spring, when the park’s cherry trees are in full bloom. But even on a hot late-summer day the natural surroundings are wonderfully attractive – go for a walk, amidst birds chirping and butterflies fluttering about. The woods and pagoda-style gazebos create enchanting scenes. You can see people of all ages spending a peaceful afternoon here in the shade of the trees, playing chess, reading books, or chatting with friends and family.
For those looking to raise their heart rate a bit, signs in English and Chinese direct you to numerous hiking trails in the area. However, be prepared for a lot of stairs. Most of the larger and more accessible trails and paths in Yangmingshan feature stone-block pavement and staircases. While this might take away some of the natural feel of hiking in the mountains, it makes the terrain much easier to traverse.
It was then time to head on to our final destination on this whirlwind Beitou-Zhuzihu jaunt. Calla lilies are what draw most people to Zhuzihu (竹子湖). They bloom from March through June, and for a small amount of money visitors can even pick their own bouquet. If you come during a time when the flowers are not in bloom, you can still go for a walk through the flower fields and take in the enchanting scenery of this mountain-surrounded farm area. There are also restaurants and teahouses where you can sit back, relax, take in the mountain vistas, and eat a healthful meal or sip a fragrant tea. (Hike through the ethereal volcanic beauty of Yamingshan National Park with locals: Seven Star Mountain Hike)
There are many more attractions in Yangmingshan that you can do with just a little more time and effort, including Erziping, Xiaoyoukeng, Lengshuikeng, and Qingtiangang.
At Erziping (二子坪) you can go for a relaxed walk through the forest following what is known as the Butterfly Corridor, a great place to spot – you guessed it – butterflies. From there, you can also hike up Mt. Datun, which offers great views over the Tamsui River estuary and Taipei in the far distance.
Xiaoyoukeng (小油坑) is one of the best spots in Yangmingshan to see volcanic activity, in the form of sulfur-pit fumaroles. This is also the start of the main trail to the peak of Mt. Qixing (七星山), which at 1,120 meters above sea level is the highest mountain in the Taipei region. If you have enough stamina, hike up Mt. Qixing from Xiaoyoukeng and descend on the other side to Lengshuikeng (冷水坑), where you’ll find a visitor center and a small public hot-spring bathhouse. From Lengshuikeng you can walk to nearby Qingtiangang (擎天崗), an expansive grassland on a plateau with grazing water buffalo.
If you feel the need for some soothing relaxation after hiking in the mountains, consider one of the many quality hot-spring establishments in Beitou, ranging from the public pools in Beitou Hot Spring Park to upscale hot-spring resorts offering all the pampering you can wish for, easing away any aches and pains. (Looking for Experience of hot springs in Beitou? Join MyTaiwanTour’s Bath of Gods Tour now!)
A longer version of this article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (November/December, 2014)