When looking north while in central Taipei, from many vantage points you will see towering mountains in the distance. These mountains are all within Yangmingshan National Park, a natural and scenic wonderland on the city’s north edge. The peak of the highest of these mountains, Mt. Qixing, can be reached on a slightly demanding, but not too difficult, hike.
Over twenty volcanoes, a similar number of steaming hot-spring sources, and large areas of impenetrable wilderness covered in tall grass or forests of bamboo and many other tree species make Yangmingshan a remarkable national park by any standards. Most remarkable of all, though, is that its stunning volcanic mountains lie just outside the urban core of Taipei City, within striking distance from the center of the metropolis.
The Yangmingshan massif (the national park takes up its higher elevations), like the rest of Taiwan, owes its existence to the collision of the Philippines oceanic plate and the Eurasian continental plate, the former uplifting the latter, an ongoing process that has created the land that is now Taiwan. About 2.5 million years ago a series of huge volcanic eruptions commenced, covering the base sedimentary rock and creating the Datun Volcanic Group at the island’s north end over the next half-million years or so. Today the volcanoes are dormant, and apart from the tell-tale cone-like shape of several peaks in the range such as Mt. Miantian, the main clue to the volcanic nature of these hills is their steaming fumaroles and many hot-spring sources.
Yangmingshan National Park (www.ymsnp.gov.tw) covers an area of over 11,000 hectares, and has a rich variety of landscapes, so there’s a lot to explore. The plethora of trails can keep both serious hikers and casual walkers busy for many weekends.
A hike to the highest point in the volcanic group, Mt. Qixing (1,120 meters), is a great introduction to the national park, since most of the attractions that make the place so special can be seen here—the remains of a volcanic crater, steaming fumaroles, hot-spring sources and pools, and rich flora and fauna. It’s a hike of an hour or two to the top (depending on the trail chosen and your fitness), along clear, stone-surfaced trails, and although steep in places the walk lies within the reach of most walkers. Certainly the view from the top (weather permitting) is well worth the effort: an incredible 360-degree panorama over the national park, the sea beyond, and (to the south) the Taipei Basin. In really clear weather the Central Mountain Range can even be seen, and in winter the snow-capped, 3,000-meter-plus heights of this range are a conspicuous landmark on the horizon.
|1. Xiaoyoukeng sulfur pit
2. Menghuan Pond
3. Descending Mt. Qixing
4. Hot-spring foot bath at Lengshuikeng
The name Qixing (“seven stars”) comes from the way the mountain’s seven knobbly little summits surround a volcanic crater, which are said to be arranged in the form of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The most popular trail up the mountain crosses two of these summits, the main and east peaks; among the other summits is a mysterious little pyramid-shaped peak which was once claimed to be a prehistoric man-made structure.
Fit and strapping locals appear to favor the toughest route, which starts beside the Yangmingshan Natonal Park Visitor Center on the main Yangmingshan-traversing highway (the second stop, Second Parking Lot, on the public bus on. 108 route) and involves 600 meters of vertical ascent. First-timers, however, might prefer the easier and also more scenic climb from the impressive fumaroles of Xiaoyoukeng on the mountain’s northern side (get off at the Xiaoyoukeng bus stop), with a descent along the eastern face of the mountain, where at the bottom the hot springs ofLengshuikeng await your tired feet.
This trail starts at the Xiaoyoukeng car park, and before starting the long haul to the top a quick detour along a short trail to the edge of the huge, steaming gash in the side of Mt. Qixing is de rigueur. Sulfur-rich steam escaping to the surface through cracks has eaten away at the rock here and created a huge, crumbling gash in the mountainside. A second short trail winds through the large expanse of tall arrow bamboo surrounding the car park. Pass this way in June and you’ll see beautiful butterflies called chestnut tigers, with sky-blue markings on their dark brown wings. Amazingly, these beautiful creatures migrate, flying several hundred kilometers from southern to northern Taiwan and back each year, spending the summer in this part of Yangmingshan, where they feed on nectar from the tiny pink flowers of a plant that grows in profusion here.
Leaving the car park, the trail to the summit of Mt. Qixing immediately dives into the arrow bamboo and silvergrass that covers the exposed northern face of the mountain, and climbs up around the edge of Xiaoyoukeng. Near the top of the gash the trail draws close to the brink for a spell, then strikes left up a grassy valley, passing several much smaller steaming fumaroles. This part of the hike is stunning in November and December, when the sea of silvergrass here bursts into bloom. The flowers of the grass are normally white, but the sulfur in both the air and soil here turns the fluffy plumes a very beautiful shade of salmon pink.
The path continues upwards, passing pretty little Seven Stars Pond, located in a deep depression on the left. A little further on, take a right at a junction to a wooden viewing platform and enjoy a breather while absorbing the magnificent view. After a final short, steep climb, the path emerges onto the summit ridge, crosses a hollow filled with arrow bamboo, and zigzags up to the main and east peaks of Mt. Qixing.
Allow plenty of time to gape at the incredible views from both summits before tackling the descent, which drops steeply off the east peak, with magnificent views towards the grassy heights of Qingtiangang and beyond. As the trail drops lower you may just be able to make out a small pond at the foot of the mountain below. Milk Pond, beside Lengshuikeng car park owes its striking white appearance to particles of sulfur suspended in the water. Another body of water, shallow Menghuan Pond (Dream Pond), a short detour to the left of the trail shortly before it reaches Lengshuikeng, is a secluded little spot and a very important one, as it’s the only place in the world where a rare form of water plant, the Taiwan isoetes, is known to grow.
From the pond it’s just a short walk down to the big car park at Lengshuikeng. There’s a visitor center here, with a shop selling cold and hot drinks and simple snacks. You can also pay a visit to the warm waters of Lengshuikeng’s hot springs, just a couple of minutes’ walk up the road to the left. The water spurts out of the ground at a blissful 40 degrees Centigrade into an outdoor foot-bathing through that’s perfect for soothing achy feet. Even better, bring a towel and plunge into the deeper pools in the huts just behind: the perfect way to end any hike!
|1. On top of Mt. Qixing
2. Mt. Qixing main peak in the distance
3. Milk Pond
Getting to Yangmingshan and the trailheads for Mt. Qixing is quick and easy from the center of Taipei. Simply take either bus R5 (from MRT Jiantan Station) or bus 260 (from Taipei Main Station) to the Yangmingshan terminus, and change there to minibus 108, which travel along a long loop around the center of the national park, encircling Mt. Qixing and passing the trailheads of all three routes to the summit—from the national park visitor center, Xiaoyoukeng, and Lengshuikeng. You can also take bus S15, which connects MRT Jiantan Station with Lengshuikeng on the east side of Mt. Qixing.
Before trying the climb up Mt. Qixing, check the weather. Note that the peaks of Yangmingshan are often covered in clouds, even when the sun is shining in downtown Taipei, meaning that you won’t be able to enjoy the magnificent mountain-top views should you ascend at such times. Wear proper footwear, and take warm clothes and protection against both sun and rain. Although it’s a straightforward walk, the weather can change very quickly, and though you may start out under clear skies be sure you won’t end up in heavy rain or a blowing gale.