Towering marble cliffs – formed millions of years ago – soar up to 3,000 feet along Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge. One of Asia’s natural wonders and the most popular scenic attraction on this island nation, the gorge – with the Liwu River rushing through it – continues for about 12 miles through deep canyons with lush vegetation, hiking trails and an extensive variety of animal and plant life. Taroko, or tailuge in the Ami dialect, means beautiful and the Taroko National Park, in the central East Coast area, certainly offers the visitor some spectacular vistas along with 27 of the island’s highest peaks.
A Ming Dynasty-style arch marks the entrance to Taroko Gorge. Only two miles down the road, the Eternal Spring Shrine sits high on a cliff commemorating the hundreds who lost their lives building the Central Cross-Island Highway from 1956 to 1960. A plume of water flows from under the shrine down the cliff face. Behind the shrine stone steps lead up to Guanyin Cave and Changuang Temple. The highway twists and turns for miles with various stops along the way. Home to the Atayal people, the area, now the Puluowan Recreation Area, offers a number of hiking trails for active travelers. Some of the most dramatic scenery can be found in the Swallows’ Grotto of this marble valley. A gigantic grotto of karst, it has towering cliffs frequented by thousands of swallows depending on the season. A little further on, visitors can stroll for about a mile through a remarkable feat of engineering, the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail – a road of short tunnels and overhanging rock carved out of the marble cliffs. The stone walls of the valley stand so close, they only allow a few rays of sunlight to filter down to the floor of the gorge. Waterfalls cascade off the cliffs and trees cling to the vertical surfaces. The scene could come from a Chinese brush painting. A suspension bridge guarded by two stone lions with a pagoda perched on a nearby hill is the last stop before Tienhsiang.
The settlement of Tienhsiang marks the terminus of the Taroko section of the Central Cross-Island Highway and has a number of tourist facilities and hiking trails. The 212-room Grand Formosa Regent Hotel is the only upscale property here and features indoor and outdoor pools, an aromatherapy spa, sauna and steam rooms, fitness center, Chinese and western restaurants, a bowling alley and private karaoke rooms. A short stroll over a suspension bridge takes visitors to a pagoda high on a hill. Next to the pagoda is the Hsiang-Te Temple of Taroko, a large Buddhist shrine with a huge bronze statue of the Buddha. The hotel staff provides maps for the area’s many hiking trails. One of the most scenic, the Baiyang Trail, leads hikers on a satisfying hour and half walk through tropical vegetation and six tunnels to the magnificent Baiyang Waterfall. Another nearby hike leads visitors to the Wenshan hot springs
Stretching about 22 miles from east to west and about 26 miles from north to south, the Taroko National Park is one of six national parks in Taiwan. Covering an area of about 37,000 acres in the central mountains, the park has altitudes ranging from over 12,000 feet to sea level. The park teems with wildlife with more than 239 species of butterflies, 89 of birds, 25 of reptiles and 24 species of large mammals including the Taiwan wild boar, the red-bellied tree squirrel and Formosan mountain goat.
Taroko Gorge is one of the three not-to-be-missed sights on any visitor’s itinerary to Taiwan. Many North American tour operators include day-long or overnight excursions to the gorge in their Taiwan itineraries.