See the Taroko Lodge's website here.
I have a friend who stayed here and raves about it. The owner speaks excellent English and is incredibly helpful. He will pick you up and drive you around to nearby attractions for free (excluding Taroko Gorge), and can organize bike tours. The hotel is near Xincheng (Sincheng/Taroko Gorge) train station, the station just before Hualien City. They also have larger cabins for groups.
Many people begin their East Coast journey further south in Hualien, and this makes perfect sense for short term travelers. Hualien County is home to Taroko Gorge, and visitors who have a shorter time frame will probably only visit Taroko and surrounds and then go back to Taipei. Also, the traveling time from Taipei to Hualien is only 2 hours on the Puyuma express train, while reaching Suao means you have to take the local train, which takes 2.5 hours or more, even though it is closer to Taipei.
It is impossible to travel all the way from Taipei to Hualien by bus because no buses do the Suao to Hualien stretch, though some people do shorten their journey to Hualien by taking a bus from Taipei to Luodong in Yilan, then catching the train from there (or the same thing in reverse). Therefore, seeing the stretch of road from Suao to Hualien is only possible with your own transportation, and only recommended for those who have a little more time on their hands. However, note that you can easily visit the Qingshui Cliffs from Hualien.
Trains these days are easier than they've ever been for visitors to book. Here is an excellent guide to booking train tickets online and picking them up at 7-11 or the train station (note that despite what this page says, you don't even need to print anything off. Just bring your booking code and passport). While the Puyuma express doesn't allow standing tickets and can sell out, for other train types in Taiwan you can always buy a ticket at the station, even at the last minute, and just stand or sit on the floor between train cars if there are no free seats. You can even get a standing ticket and then sit in unoccupied seats until people with tickets for those seats arrive.
It is possible to rent scooters at Xincheng (Sincheng/Taroko Gorge) or Hualien City train stations for about NTD 400 per day. Most places prefer international driver's ID. Cycling is another good option, or you can organize taxi tours from your hotel. See more info for all of these options below.
Nanfang Ao (南方澳) harbor is located just south of Suao, where the largest isthmus on the East Coast provides a perfect natural harbor, which just happens to be adjacent to a stretch of coastal water rich in migratory fish. The harbor is abuzz with activity, especially around the main fish market in the morning. The market caters to tourists; you can buy sample packs of extremely fresh sashimi, or buy a whole fish or any other kind of seafood and have one of the adjacent quick fry shops cook it up for you for only NTD 100 per dish.
The rickety-looking boats bobbing about in the teal waters of the harbor make for great photos, and for the best vantage point of the entire harbor and adjoining Suao port, there is a lookout point when you continue south along the highway, which ascends steeply above the harbor.
When asking which part of Taiwan they should visit on their 1-2 week trip (this is the typical, but far too brief amount of time most backpackers allot to Taiwan in their round-Asia travels), the standard reply is: If you like history and culture, stick to the west coast. If you like scenery and nature, head to the east. Of course this is a simplistic breakdown of Taiwan's diverse, abundant, and widely distributed attractions, but there is no denying that the east coast boasts a vast, sparsely populated coastline of unparalleled beauty.
It would be unfeasible for me to introduce every point of interest on the entire east coast with much detail in a single post like this. This is meant to be a general guide to the east coast and its highlights. Even that proved to be too long, so I've split it into two parts. This part covers the northern half, and part 2 covers the southern half.
These tips and photos come from multiple visits over many years, including a road trip by car with my family from Canada shortly after I first arrived in Taiwan in 2008, research trips for my book Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner, and a 2016 scooter & train adventure from Hualien to the southern tip of Taiwan and back with my wife, two kids, sister and her boyfriend.
I have relied on multiple editions of Lonely Planet Taiwan when traveling around the country, so some of my info inevitably echoes information provided in the book. I would strongly recommend the guidebook for a far more comprehensive list of sights and activities than I provide here, including heaps of information about cycling, but my guide does include some personal favorites not covered by the book, and intentionally leaves out many of the attractions that I feel aren't worth a visit if you are short on time. I would also recommend the Bradt Travel Guide for Taiwan by local travel veteran Steven Crook, which helped me find numerous new places of interest in Taiwan, as well as the new 2-part Taiwan 101 by Richard Saunders.
For accommodation, you'd probably be far better off taking advantage of online resources over what any guidebook has the space to do, but I will give some personal recommendations below for Hualien and Taroko Gorge, the most popular stops on the east coast. Finally, it's worth mentioning that AirBnB is becoming increasingly popular in Taiwan, and I've been finding some great places recently using it. If you can't read Chinese, it's great because it gives you access to some of Taiwan's great number of excellent guesthouses that in the past good only be booked on Chinese-language websites. If you've never signed up for AirBnB before, please use this link to do so. You'll get NT$850 off your first booking, and I'll also get a credit!
Taiwan is a geologically active island nation that sits on a convergent boundary between multiple tectonic plates. The subduction of the Yangtze Subplate of the Eurasian Plate beneath the Philippine Sea Plate has produced the Central Mountain Range, the highest mountains in Northeast Asia. From the peak of Yushan (Jade Mountain) (3952m), the Pacific Ocean to the east is so near that it can be seen on a clear day. The drop from Yushan down to the east coast (50 kilometers) continues below the sea at the same rate, so that another 50 kilometers out from the coast it drops another 4000 meters, constituting one of the most dramatic overall drops in the world.
This explains the rugged seaside cliffs at Qingshui (see below) just north of Hualien, as well as the breathtakingly immense scale of Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's premier scenic attraction. South of Hualien, a smaller and geologically more recent chain of mountains, the Coastal Range, runs parallel to the coast. Provincial Highway 9 connects Hualien and Taitung (Taidong), the east coast's two largest cities, via the East Rift Valley, a long, narrow belt of fertile farmland between the Central Mountain Range and Coastal Range. Alternatively, Provincial Highway 11 follows the coast between the two cities. What this means is that you can do a loop between Hualien and Taitung, taking Highway 9 in one direction and 11 in the other, making this a popular route for cyclists and motorists alike.
South of Taitung, the scenery remains rocky and dramatic, but then transforms to sand dunes and open expanses as one approaches Kenting National Park, occupying the southern tip of the country and home to the best beaches on Taiwan's main island.
I've decided to start my guide from the first point on the east coast (excluding the far north) where the mountains meet the sea, at the southern end of the rice-paddy-dominated Yilan plains. This winding coastal route is called the Suao-Hualien/Suhua Highway, or Provincial Highway #9 (which becomes the inland highway through the East Rift Valley south of Hualien).
See the section above “Why is Taiwan's East Coast so Beautiful?” for an explanation of how these coastal bluffs came into existence. The Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖) have been designated as one of Taiwan's “Eight Wonders”, and stretch for more than 21 kilometers. However, some of the best views are on the Hualien end and can easily be visited if you are staying in Hualien City or near Taroko Gorge.
From the entrance of Taroko Gorge, it is only a 10-15 minute drive north to the start of the cliffs. There are multiple lookout points and places where you can park at the side of the road or follow stairs down toward the sea. Just be careful of traffic, since many drivers' eyes are on the sea and not the road.
If you are visiting Taroko by taxi tour, you could also ask your driver to include the cliffs in your itinerary, but it depends on how much you have planned in Taroko Gorge itself. The cliffs are best seen in the early morning, when the rising sun casts softer rays on them, but you may also be rushed to get into Taroko early to beat the crowds. In other words, the earlier you start your day of sightseeing in around Taroko, the better, or split your visit into two days.
Suao Cold Springs (蘇澳冷泉) is Taiwan's most famous cold spring town. The town looks very similar to hot spring towns found all over the island, with multiple hotels and spas offering a full range of experiences, from cheap and gritty to posh and upscale, but the water itself is freezing cold. Some of the cheaper, more popular ones have a reputation for being a little dirty. Obviously, the town is only popular in summer, and attracts many families with kids. I've never stopped Suao Cold Springs because I strongly prefer the natural setting of Dongao Cold Spring south of Suao (see below).
Nanfang Ao Harbor from the Suao-Hualien highway
boats in Nanfang Ao harbor
rickety old boats in Nanfang Ao harbor
After the highway winds upward for some time and reaches its crescendo, you will suddenly be rewarded with an incredible view of the wide Dong Ao bay to the south. After you descend and reach the small aboriginal town of Dong Ao, watch for a small sign (or ask around if you can't find it) to the rustic Dong Ao Cold Spring (東澳冷泉).
Here a small cold spring stream has been dammed up to create a pool of chilly, crystal clear water that provides a much-needed cool-down on a scorching, Taiwanese summer day. Kids love it, evidenced by the mobs of children splashing around in the water. Many local aboriginal families come here to picnic, and don't be surprised if they call you over and offer you a chilled can of beer from the water.
The pool sits below a train overpass, causing the kids to scream every time a train passes overhead. Beside the pool there is a large grassy field, and at peak times, vendors set up, selling cold beer, sausages, and other snacks. Strangely, the spring was packed with people and food stalls the first time I went, about three years ago (photos below), and nearly deserted when I went last year (photo above). Both visits were on summer weekend days.
A Guide to the Stunning East Coast of Taiwan Part 1: Yilan, Hualien, and Taroko Gorge
Why is Taiwan’s East Coast so beautiful?
Getting to and around the East Coast
Suao (Su-Ao) Cold Springs
Nanfang Ao Harbor
NTD 100 to fry up any fish or seafood item purchased from the market!
all kinds of interesting seafood at Nanfang Ao
Dong Ao Cold Spring
Dong Ao Cold Spring on a hot summer day
train passing over Dong Ao Cold Spring
Taroko Gorge (太魯閣), Taiwan's #1 scenic attraction, is so vast and magnificent that I can't hope to properly introduce the whole valley in a general post like this. The section commonly referred to as Taroko Gorge is the first 19 kilometers of Provincial Highway 8, or the Central Cross-Island Highway as it follows the Liwu River upstream. Popular as it is among visiting tourists, especially from China and domestic ones on weekends and holidays, you can still enjoy many of its attractions in relative silence if you get an early start or do one of the gorge's many hikes. Here are some of the highlights, roughly in order from the entrance:
Taroko Gorge Entrance Gate
Tacky as it may seem, I couldn't resist stopping here for a photo.
Cross the bridge at the entrance gate (to the right in the photo above), turn left at the end of the bridge, and drive about five minutes minutes past the information center. Shakadang Trail (砂卡噹步道) is an easy trail that follows a creek with sapphire pools of water. You WILL want to jump in, but you aren't allowed since people have died in swimming here. But if my memory serves me correctly, it's easier to sneak down if you hike further up the trail, as we did several years ago.
Eternal Spring Shrine
The Eternal Spring Shrine (長春祠) is probably the busiest place in Taroko, but worth a stop. A picturesque waterfall streams out from the mountain, with a large colorful shrine built up around it to honor the many who died when the highway was first carved out by the Japanese in the 1910s. Note that you couldn't access the Eternal Springs Shrine itself when I visited in early April 2016, but you could walk through a cave that went right up to it, far left in the picture below.
Tunnel of Nine Turns
The Tunnel of Nine Turns (九曲洞隧道) is a dramatic stretch of walking only tunnels that has been indefinitely closed due to damage from a landslide. The photo below was taken in summer of 2008.
Swallow's Grove (燕子口) is a pretty stretch of road through multiple tunnels where you can get off and peer over sheer vertical drops to the river far below.
Note: In April 2016, a section of road just beyond this point was damaged by a major landslide, and the road was only open at certain times of the day, so this was the furthest point we made it that day. If you want to inquire about possible road closures, contact the Taroko Gorge information center.
Tienhsiang is the only “town” in the gorge, with a bus station, a couple shops and hotels, and a recently opened 7-11.
Baiyang Trail and Water Curtain Cave
Baiyang Trail (白楊步道 ) is a leisurely hike starting near Tianxiang to a large waterfall and Water Curtain Cave (水濂洞), a tunnel in which water spills down on top of your head as you walk through.
Wenshan Hot Spring
I was so impressed by the wild Wenshan Hot Spring (文山溫泉) that I dedicated a whole blog post to introducing how to get there. The spring was destroyed by typhoons and you need to sneak around a gate to visit it today.
Where to Stay in Hualien and Taroko Gorge
River Tracing to the Golden Grotto and other Adventure Sports
Sanzhan/Sanjhan (三棧), which I will discuss below as my favorite place to stay in the Taroko Gorge area, is also the starting point for one of Taiwan's most renowned river traces: the Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷). This 6 to 7-hour return trace requires some experience and equipment, and it is at times technically illegal to the visit due to the very real danger of falling rocks, especially after heavy rainfall. In the summer, the stretches of river just upstream from Sanzhan, basically the start of the river trace to the Golden Grotto, are filled with Taiwanese river tracing tour groups. There are several good cliffs for jumping in within 20 minutes trace upstream from Sanzhan. Here is a complete guide to river tracing to the Golden Grotto.
White-water rafting is another popular activity in Hualien County, and there are various operators. I've never done it so I can't personally recommend any, but most hostels can organize trips.
Cycling is extremely popular in the area. For more detailed info I would recommend searching cycling blogs online, of which there are many, or checking Lonely Planet Taiwan. For a more leisurely ride, you can cycle along the coast from Qixingtan beach (see below) to Hualien City. You can hire your bikes at one end and drop them off at the other. The Taroko Lodge (see below) organizes bike excursions into Taroko Gorge where they drop you off at the top and let you zoom down to the entrance.
Qixingtan Beach, Hualien
“Seven Star Lake” (七星潭) is not a lake but a picture-postcard pebble beach with incredible views of mountains looming over the sea looking north along the coast. There are a dozen or so food stalls set up here and it's a great place to lie on the beach and gaze at the sea, but note there is no swimming permitted due to strong tides, and yes, they will stop you. Qixingtan is between Taroko Gorge and Hualien City, so it is very doable to make a stop here on your way to or from Taroko Gorge if you are staying in Hualien City. If you are staying in Xincheng or Sanzhan (see below), it is a 20-minute scooter ride down county road #193 to reach Qixingtan.
Hualian (Hualien) City
There is nothing you MUST see in Hualien City (花蓮市) itself, but it makes a convenient base for exploring the area and has the highest concentration of excellent hostels anywhere in Taiwan. If you are in Hualien City for the night, you'll probably want to check out the East Gate Night Market (東大門觀光夜市) at #50, Zhongshan Rd., which has recently been restored to its original location after it was set up in a different location and called Ziqiang Night Market for years. It is separated into three sections: a games street, regional cuisine street, and aboriginal street.
Aboriginal Culture in Hualien
Nearly 30% of the population of Hualien county is aboriginal, including the Ami (Taiwan's largest tribe), Atayal, Bunun, Truku or "Taroko", Sakizaya, and Kavalan. As such, many aboriginal festivals take place in Hualien city and county, including the most famous, week-long Ami Harvest Festival in summer. Dates of festivals can change, so if you want to see if anything is coming up, I would recommend contacting the Hualien County government. All of my photos above and below were taken at the Hualien County Joint Aboriginal Festival in Hualien City in 2014. At any authentic aboriginal festival, you can expect song and dance performances, curious smiles, and profuse consumption of millet wine (xiaomi jiu). At aboriginal culture centers, such as the Ami Cultural Village (阿美文化村) in Hualien City, don't expect any booze along with the performances.
There is a handful of places to stay right near the entrance to Taroko Gorge. Lonely Planet Taiwan mentions Liwu Inn (a hostel) and Taroko Hotel. Another option is to stay in Tienhsiang at the head of the gorge (Catholic Hostel (03-8691122), Tienhsiang Youth Activity Center, Silks Place Hotel (upscale) and finally there are pricier wood cabins at the aboriginal-themed Leader Village Taroko in Buluowan. I've never stayed in any of these, but we did enjoy an excellent buffet-style aboriginal dinner at the Leader Village.
My personal favorite is the Moon River Guesthouse in Sanzhan (Sanjhan).
Sanzhan is a small aboriginal village 10-minutes south of the Xincheng train station, in the direction of Hualien City. You can rent scooters from one shop in the Xincheng Train Station parking lot (2 pieces of photo ID needed, international or Taiwanese driver's license preferred but may not be necessary, speaking Chinese helps). The relaxed one-street town of Sanzhan sits on a lovely stretch of the scenic Sanzhan River with a stunning mountainous backdrop, with many good spots for jumping into blue-green pools of water. It is a 15 minute ride by scooter from Sanzhan to the entrance of Taroko Gorge. There are only a few tiny shops and informal restaurant-slash-KTV joints with limited hours in Sanzhan, so you may want to pick up supplies at the 7-11 on the highway just south of Xincheng train station. They don't speak much English and the hotel is basic but clean. I love it for its location and the town's non-touristy atmosphere. I've never seen other guests staying there, but do be aware that it can sometimes be filled with river tracing groups, so advance reservations are strongly recommended in summer.
Most popular option and cheap. There are many hostels in Hualien, and their quality and value for money is better than anywhere else in Taiwan. Try hostels.com or hostelworld.com. It is a 40-minute ride by scooter from Hualien City to Taroko Gorge. You can also arrange a day tour by taxi through your hostel. Expect to pay 2500-3000 for a full day tour. If shared between 4 people, this is a good deal. The driver will sit and wait for you at every point of interest, even if you want to do a longer hike.
This is the most common question I receive from friends and travelers about the entire east coast, so I will dedicate a whole section to giving some recommendations for where to stay in Hualien and Taroko Gorge.
Cheapest option. There's a free campsite right in Taroko, closer to Tienhsiang than the entrance, but it is small, extremely basic, and first-come-first-serve. You may notice that some Taiwanese visitors camp in parking lots after the campsite fills up.
Camping in Taroko Gorge
Hostels in Hualien City
Staying in Taroko Gorge
The Taroko Lodge, Xincheng
Moon River Guesthouse, Sanzhan
Please continue on to Part 2 of this guide, and make sure to subscribe to my mailing list to be updated about similar articles in the future!
amazing sapphire blue water on the Shakadang Trail
Baiyang Waterfall on the Baiyang Trail