Taipei-ers are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking places from which to view the cityscape. Tea fans may sway in favour of Maokong’s terraces and tea-houses, urbanites may select the glamour of Taipei 101 or the Shin Kong Tower, while those in-the-know might choose Guanyin Shan’s well-positioned peak. Needless to say, the slopes of Yangming Shan – ‘Taipei’s backyard’ – also afford incredible views over the city, and a climb to one of the National Park’s many peaks can, on a clear day, reward hikers with vistas that cover all of Taipei and most of northern Taiwan.
Taipei’s searing summer heat suits the mountain’s large snake and insect population and can make for extremely sweaty and occasionally hazardous hiking, but temperatures in autumn, winter, and spring are perfect to dust off your boots and get out into the hills…without the fear of stumbling across a bamboo viper. Standing at a lofty 1,120 metres, Qixing Shan – ‘Seven Star Mountain’ – is Yangming Shan’s highest peak, and is easily accessible thanks to a number of well-marked and immaculately-maintained trails. There is a risk, as we recently found out, that as a result of the north-eastern monsoon which batters Taiwan’s northern coast during the winter months the upper slopes of Qixing Shan can become shrouded with thick cloud and mist, but even this can make for some stunning combinations of light and landscape.
The quickest route to Taipei’s highest spot makes for a pleasant three-hour, 7 kilometre excursion and is generally suitable for hikers of all abilities, though wearing footwear with decent grips is recommended to avoid rapid, acrobatic descents down the slippery stone steps. Starting from the Lengshuikeng (‘Cold Water Pit’) car park / bus stop on Jingshan Road (???), this trail follows a loop which takes in Qixing Shan’s two highest peaks, the ecologically unique Menghuan Pond, and conveniently finishes back at Lengshuikeng’s public hot springs, where hikers can dangle their weary feet in the warm, mineral-rich waters. (Click here for the Love Taipei map, and here for the more detailed National Park map.)
Lengshuikeng Pedestrian Trail
From the car park, head south (Qixing Shan will be on your right) for 400 metres or so along the main road until another, smaller, car park is reached. For most people coming from Taipei this will mean back-tracking along the same road you just drove along. Across the road from this smaller car park is a set of stone steps; this is the entrance to the Lengshuikeng Pedestrian Trail.
This section of the walk is a pleasant, relatively flat 1.7 kilometre jaunt through beautiful broad-leaf forest. As it stands on the southern edge of the mountain, this side of Qixing Shan is sheltered from the harsher effects of the north-eastern monsoon, which makes it the perfect habitat for an abundance of wildlife, including red-bellied tree squirrels, the bandicoot rat, and even the Formosan giant flying squirrel.
Mount Qixing Main Peak – East Peak Trail
Strolling on the flat ends quite abruptly, however, as the Lengshuikeng Pedestrian Trail joins the Main Peak Trail. This junction is clearly marked and has a number of stone benches, which makes it a good spot to take a quick breather. From here, it’s a very steep 1.2 kilometre slog to the mid-point between the Main and East Peaks.
As this section of the trail winds steadily upwards, the thick forest gives way to a combination of thin-stemmed bamboo, pine, and bird-lime trees. With the peaks slowly coming into view, and the path finally beginning to level off, the trail is lined with Chinese silver-grass, often known as ‘razor grass’ thanks to its neatly disguised serrated edges. The grass and bamboo-covered slopes also allow for some good views over Taipei and the northern coast of Taiwan.
Quite quickly the mid-point between Qixing’s two highest peaks is reached, with the trail to the left leading up to the Main Peak. On weekends the Main Peak can get very busy with jovial family outings, seemingly endless crowds of school-trippers, and out-of-town tourists come to conquer Taipei’s highest mountain. On a clear day, the views are incredible, with vistas taking in the city, the island’s central mountain range, and the Pacific Ocean. During winter, however, the north-eastern monsoon often obscures the view with its moisture-laden winds, and hikers find themselves enveloped in cloud with only an occasional fleeting glimpse of the scenery beyond. From the Main Peak, you will need to back-track to slightly to head across to the East Peak – a much quieter, but no less impressive, vantage point.
Heading down from the East Peak, the trail is clearly marked and there are a number of helpful information boards introducing Qixing Shan’s flora and fauna. This side of the mountain gets more exposure to the winter monsoon and as such is often blanketed in fog, making visibility poor and the steep stone steps quite slippery. It’s a short 1.1 kilometre walk to a fork in the trail – the right branch takes you down another 200 metres or so to Qixing Park, which boasts toilet facilities, some covered pavilions, clear views over Taipei, and a number of fearsome feral dogs. The left branch – which you will have to take to complete the loop – leads a little further on to Menghuan Pond, one of Yangming Shan’s Ecological Conservation Zones.
As a result of Menghuan Pond’s location and shape – it was once an active volcanic crater – it is covered by a layer of fog for most of the year, the dream-like effects of which are one of the reasons for its name in Chinese: ‘Fantasy Lake’. The pond is literally crawling with wildlife, including snakes, frogs, aquatic insects, and a number of bird species, but the wetland’s highlight is an aquatic plant called the Taiwan quillwort, which can only be found in this location and has thus resulted in the national government bestowing protected status upon this 0.3 hectare space.
Moving on past Menghuan Pond’s viewing platform, the path continues quite steeply downhill for 1.1 kilometres towards the Menghuan Pond Car Park, from which point the trail runs adjacent to Lane 101 of Jingshan Road, until the path ends at the Lengshuikeng public hot spring facility. The hot springs include a bath house which is open daily from 6am – 9pm (excluding the last Monday of the month), with a daily cleaning period from 12.30pm – 2pm. Free entry means that the bath house gets quite busy on a weekend and even on week days, but for those hikers who don’t fancy crowded bathing there is the option of resting weary feet in the orange-coloured spring outside; there are benches, as well as a roof to keep off the rain. Although Lengshuikeng translates as ‘Cold Water Pit’, the spring water here is still hot, albeit at the relatively cooler average temperature of 41 degrees Celsius rather than the 80 or 90 degrees which is common at Yangming Shan’s other hot springs. The cooler temperature certainly makes it a very pleasant way to celebrate the end of your hike.
From the public hot spring it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump down the road back to the hike’s starting point from where you can head home having conquered Taipei’s highest peak, seen some stunning forest and bamboo grasslands and, weather permitting, seen the best views northern Taiwan has to offer.
By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei