The Alishan National Scenic Area is one of the most magical places in Taiwan. It covers over 400 kilometers of mountain terrain ranging from ancient cypress groves to manicured tea terraces. Alishan is famous for its “sea of clouds” sunrise and spring cherry blossom display, though I most enjoyed the wide array of hiking trails and stunning sunsets. It can be somewhat challenging to reach Alishan from Taipei utilizing a combination of trains and buses. But once you’ve been, you’ll know it’s worth the effort. I spent two days exploring the Alishan National Scenic Area, and that was barely enough time to enjoy all it has to offer.
DAY 1: Hiking the Alishan Loop Trails
The first day I meandered along the looping paths of the forest recreation area to get my bearings. On the Poetry Trail, you can supposedly find references to the five iconic sights of Alishan: the sea of clouds, forest railway, giant cypress trees, sunrise, and sunset. Fifteen Taiwanese poets came to the unveiling and read their odes to the special scenery. But I only had eyes for the pretty pink cherry blossoms dripping with dew. Note that you will need a ticket to enter the forest recreation area and all the trails mentioned below.
Other trails snake through the forest, past elaborately decorated temples and towering cypress trees. Japanese loggers cut down many of the largest and oldest trees in the early 1900s when Japan occupied the island. The remaining stumps are now praised by the Taiwanese for their unique aesthetics. My favorite is the “pig-shaped stump” which does in fact look like a pig with a moss-covered snout. Helpful English signs point out the most notable formations.
Yet another trail passes by the Two Sisters Pond. According to a local legend, two girls fell in love with the same man. But rather than let him come between them, they drowned themselves in the pond instead. A small pavilion juts into the water, providing a tranquil spot to reflect on the sisters’ bittersweet bond and possible overreaction to heartbreak. If you are fortunate enough to visit in spring, the area will be flush with azalea and magnolia blossoms.
DAY 2: Summiting a Mountain
After a disappointingly foggy sunrise, I tackled the Tashan Trail. This challenging hiking path leads 3.5 kilometers straight up the side of a mountain. A sign at the trailhead says that a round-trip hike to the top and back should take around four hours. It begins near the Zhaoping Station of the Alishan Forest Railway, which was closed during my visit due to track repairs. The first half of Tashan Trail ascends at a gentle rate, but grows ever more difficult the higher you climb. At one point, the stairs were so ridiculously steep they were practically vertical! Once you reach the top, however, the view will make you forget all about the pain in your legs. From here you can see the vast Alishan National Scenic Area with a series of mountain peaks in the distance. If the hike didn’t take your breath away, this sight surely will.
After a rest at my hotel, I made one more attempt to see Alishan’s elusive Sea of Clouds. This time I was rewarded with a perfect golden sunset. Clouds lapped the mountains like ocean waves as the shimmering sun dipped below the horizon. I can see why the poets rhapsodize over this phenomenon. It’s captivating!
Alishan House is the best hotel in the Alishan National Scenic Area and where I spent a comfortable three nights. Its prime location inside of the ticketed forest area makes it easy to access the hiking trails, and the on-site restaurant means you’ll never miss a meal. (Dining options are very limited in Alishan.) Just be prepared to keep your coat on as the hotel isn’t heated beyond the bedrooms. I recommend booking a room in the hotel’s modern wing as opposed to the historical Japanese wing if you prefer newer amenities.
How to Get to Alishan
Getting to Alishan from Taipei is a multi-step process.
First, take a high-speed train from Taipei to Chiayi. This ride is two hours long. (Chiayi is an interesting destination in its own right so you might want to spend a night there if you can.)
From the Chiayi high-speed train station (HSR) I took a taxi to the Chiayi regular train station, where I caught bus 7322 to Alishan. It’s possible to take bus 7329 to Alishan from Chiayi HSR, but the departures are few and far between and I didn’t want to waste precious time waiting around.
Whichever bus you take, the ride will take two and a half hours along a twisting mountain road. Be sure to get a forest recreation area ticket from the bus driver before you exit the bus.
The Alishan House shuttle picked me up from the Alishan bus station and took me to the hotel, where I was able to store my bags until check-in time. You can buy tickets for the return bus to Chiayi inside the 7-Eleven next to the bus stop. I also suggest stocking up on snacks.
Would you like to visit Alishan, Taiwan someday?
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