Dear reader: This article contains links to products and services that I may be compensated for, at no extra cost to you.
Where should you go if only visiting Taiwan for 1-2 weeks? Most say that if you like history and culture, stick to the west coast. If you like scenery and nature, head to the east coast of Taiwan.
While this is a simplistic breakdown of Taiwan’s diverse and abundant attractions, but there’s no denying that Taiwan’s east coast boasts a vast, sparsely populated coastline of unparalleled beauty, making it the ideal place for a Taiwan road trip.
In Part 1 of this, 2-part Taiwan east coast guide, I’m going to cover the northern half of the east coast of Taiwan, from Yilan County to Hualien City (or you could follow it in reverse, from Hualien to Yilan). I’m going to cover all the sights along the coast from Yilan to Hualien, though in reality the vast majority of people visit the two separately: Yilan as day trips from Taipei, then taking the train from Taipei straight to Hualien City for visiting the region’s most famous sight, Taroko Gorge.
In Part 2 of this guide, I cover how to continue south along the east coast from Hualien City through southern Hualien County to Taitung County in the southeastern corner of Taiwan, and finally reaching Kenting National Park at the southern tip of Taiwan.
The tips and photos I present below come from multiple visits over many years. It is my hope that this guide shall provide everything you need to know about planning the ultimate Taiwan east coast road trip, though you’ll also have options for doing it by public transportation.
How Much Time Is Needed for the East Coast of Taiwan?
At the absolute minimum, you need one full day just to see Taroko Gorge, and make that 2-3 days if you also want to check out the sights in Hualien City or do some activities in and around the city, such as whale watching, sea kayaking, or taking an aboriginal cooking course. For many visitors to Taiwan, this is the extent of their east coast trip. See my detailed Hualien itinerary for more information on how to plan such a trip, with 40+ ideas for things to do in Hualien City.
But if you want to follow the east coast trip I’m going to describe below, you’ll need more time, as well as your own wheels. In fact, few people actually travel along the coast from Yilan to Hualien because the cliff-hugging road has a tendency to be destroyed once in while by landslides, and some consider it unsafe during or after heavy rain or typhoons. This is also why there are no public buses that cover this route.
Having said that, the highway from Suao in Yilan to Hualien (called the Suhua Highway) is gorgeous to drive or bike ride. It’s a two-hour journey, but with stops you can easily make a half or full day of it.
Therefore, I’d recommend one day for getting from Yilan to Hualien, one day for Taroko Gorge, and 1-2 days for further exploring Hualien City and the area around it. That means you’ll need 3-4 days to see and do everything I mention in this article. If you’re living in Taiwan, then you could consider making multiple weekend trips to the area instead of doing it all as one road trip.
For Part 2, traveling from Hualien City south to Taitung and/or Kenting, you’ll need another 1-4 days, depending on how you go about it.
What Are the Best East Coast Tours?
If you’d like to join a tour, this comprehensive four-day east coast tour covers much of the journey described in my part 1 and 2 guides, starting in Hualien and traveling down the east coast on Highway 11 to Taitung, back to Hualien through the East Rift Valley (Highway 9), then north to Jiaoxi (Yilan) and back to Taipei.
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 of Taiwan (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 City, a smaller and geologically more recent chain of mountains, the Coastal Range, runs parallel to the coast. The coast here is rocky and pretty, with a few surfing beaches such as Dulan, but the real highlight in southern Hualien County and Taitung County is the East Rift Valley. This visually stunning valley sits between the Coastal Range and the Central Mountain Range of Taiwan. It is a vast area rural scenery and rice paddies flaked by mountains on either side, and is considered the rice basket of Taiwan.
South of Taitung, the scenery remains rocky and dramatic on the coast, but then transforms to sand dunes and open, dry expanses as you approach Kenting National Park, occupying the southern tip of the country and home to the best beaches on the Taiwanese mainland.
The Route of this East Coast Guide
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-filled Yilan plains.
This winding coastal route from Suao township in Yilan County to Hualien City is called the Suao-Hualien/Suhua Highway, or Provincial Highway #9.
Route covered in parts 1 and 2 of this guide
This map shows the total distance covered by my two east coast guides (in blue), spanning Yilan, Hualien, Taitung, and Pingtung (Kenting) counties.
Route covered in this article only
As you can see, there isn’t a whole lot of ground to cover in part 1, but the road between Suao and Hualien is a rough one, and is not covered by public transportation. Also, you’ll need several days for this part of the east coast, because there is just so much to see and do, including Taroko Gorge.
Route covered in part 2
This map shows the two options covered in part 2: coastal highway 11 (in blue) and inland highway 9 (in gray) through the East Rift Valley.
When to Do this Trip
You can do this road trip at any time of the year. In winter in Taiwan, the northern east coast, including Yilan and Hualien, can be chilly and windy, but in Taitung and the far south, it can still be warm enough to swim or surf in the sea.
Spring and autumn are probably ideal, but heads up that the Plum Monsoon can bring more rains in June, while in July through October typhoons can strike, especially in August and September. If a typhoon hits, avoid traveling or being anywhere near the coast. Summer in Taiwan can also be extremely hot, so make sure to protect your skin and avoid the midday.
For the majority of visitors, they don’t do the Yilan section of my below guide. They take the train directly to Hualien to see Taroko Gorge and perhaps travel south down the east coast of Taiwan from there. Still, I include the Yilan section below for those who really want to to do it!
Getting to Suao in Yilan
If you follow my below guide, you’ll see that it begins in Suao, where Highway 9 along the coast of Yilan and Hualien starts. While you can reach Suao on the slow local train from Taipei, or by taking a faster train to Luodong in Yilan then transferring to a bus, there’s no public transportation from Suao on to Hualien. Therefore, if you really want to cover this section of my guide, you’ll have to bring a bike on the train, rent a scooter in Yilan, or rent a car in Taipei and drive there yourself.
You could also do my below guide in reverse. Take the train to Hualien City first, then rent a scooter or car there, and drive north up the coast to Yilan and back.
If you hire a driver to take you from Taipei to Hualien, the vehicle will actually drive along this route and stop at a few of the most scenic spots on the Suhua (Yilan and Hualien) coast, so you can kill two birds with one stone (get to Hualien, and see the coast along the way).
Flying from Taipei to Hualien
The fastest and most convenient way to reach the east coast is to book this flight from Taipei to Hualien, departing from Taipei’s Songshan airport in the city center. However, if you add the time needed for getting to the airport on either side, it’s barely faster than taking the train.
Taking the train from Taipei to Hualien
The Taipei to Hualien train route is one of the most popular in the country, so it almost always sells out. This is why it is essential to book your train tickets in advance. You can book TRA (Taiwan’s regular) trains up to 2 weeks in advance. Try to do it the moment they go on sale if you’re hoping to travel on a weekend or holiday. They can sell out in minutes! Also keep in mind that they go on sale at midnight, so you’ll actually want to book it on the night of 15 days before your trip (Taiwan time, of course). Here is a guide to booking train tickets online.
The express (Puyuma/Taroko Express) trains from Taipei to Hualien only take 2 hours, but they sell out especially fast, and standing tickets are not allowed. Non-express trains take 2.5 to 3.5 hours, but even if their seats sell out, you can still always buy a standing ticket and just stand or sit on the floor between train cars. It’s not ideal, but at least you’ll still get there.
When booking your train ticket, you need to first decide whether you’ll get off at Xincheng (Sincheng/Taroko Gorge) Station or Hualien Station. Xincheng is a small town very close to the entrance of Taroko Gorge. There are few hotels or amenities there, but if you’re going directly to Taroko Gorge or staying at a hotel inside Taroko Gorge, it makes sense to get off there. You can also rent a scooter at Xincheng station and drive to the entrance of Taroko Gorge in less than 10 minutes.
If you continue on to Hualien Station in Hualien City, the county capital, there are loads of amenities, hotels, hostels, and attractions there, but it’s about a 40-minute drive to reach Taroko Gorge. Most Taroko Gorge tours take off from Hualien City, but should be able to pick you up from Xincheng as well.
Taking the bus from Taipei to Hualien
It is impossible to travel all the way from Taipei to Hualien by bus because no buses do the Suao to Hualien coastal highway, and there are no highways through the mountains; only the train goes through tunnels in the mountains.
Many locals do have a trick for slightly shortening their trip from Taipei to Hualien by taking a bus from Taipei to Luodong in Yilan, then transferring onto train from there (or the same thing in reverse). It doesn’t save much time, but getting a seat on a bus for part of one’s trip can be more comfortable at times when trains are packed and only standing tickets are available.
Cycling from Taipei to Hualien
For cyclists, you can actually cycle all the way around Taiwan, including to and from Hualien. See this super detailed guide to cycling around Taiwan for all the details.
Riding a Scooter to Taroko Gorge
It is possible to rent scooters at Hualien or Xincheng (Sincheng/Taroko Gorge). You’ll need a local or international driver’s ID.
Note that riding scooters or even bicycles in Taroko Gorge is a risk. Several people have been injured or died in landslides, and some local tour companies no longer recommend it. If you do decide to do it, definitely avoid going after or during any kind of heavy rain or typhoons, and drive carefully. Also watch out for those big tour buses hogging the narrow road.
East Coast Road Trip: Yilan to Hualien
Now, let the road trip begin! We set out from Suao in southern Yilan County, following Highway 9, the Suhua (Suao to Hualien) Highway. The following are the sights you’ll encounter in order.
Suao (Su-Ao) Cold Springs
Starting in Yilan County, at the point where the northeastern plains meet the coastal mountain range, 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 natural spring water itself in this case is cold.
Obviously, the town is only popular in summer, and attracts many families with kids. I’ve never stopped Suao Cold Springs because I like the natural setting of Dongao Cold Spring south of Suao (see below), but if you want a convenient place to cool down in summer on the way to Hualien, Suao may be for you!
You can get from Taipei to Suao slow local train, by taking a faster train to Luodong then transferring to a bus, or as a stop if you charter a private car from Taipei.
Nanfang Ao (南方澳) harbor is located just south of Suao, where the largest isthmus on the east coast of Taiwan 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, especially domestic ones; 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 TWD100 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.
Nanfangao made international headlines on October 1, 2019, when the steel arched Nanfangao Bridge collapsed, killing six fishermen in boats below. The bridge is visible on the far left of the image below, which I shot several years before the bridge collapsed.
If you only want to visit Nanfangao, you can get there by public transportation. Take a bus or train from Taipei to Luodong, then transfer to a local bus to reach it. You can also get there as a stop along the way if you charter a private car from Taipei.
Dongyue (Dong’ao) Cold Spring
After the turnoff for Nanfagao, the highway winds upward for some time and reaches its crescendo, upon which 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 Dongyue Cold Spring (東岳湧泉) sometimes called 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 like they did to me.
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.
It is only possible to visit Dongyue Cold Spring with your own transportation.
Continuing south from here, you can visit remote Nan’ao Beach Waterfall (南澳滴水坑瀑布) and Aohua Waterfall (澳花瀑布) before reaching the border of Hualien County.
Qingshui Cliffs, Hualien County
The Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖) have been designated as one of Taiwan’s “Eight Wonders”, and stretch for more than 21 kilometers along the coast of northern Hualien County. Some of the best views are only a 10 to 15-minute drive north of the entrance to Taroko Gorge and are often included on Taroko Gorge day tours, so you don’t have to drive all the way down the coast from Yilan to see them.
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 for passing traffic, since many drivers’ eyes are on the sea and not the road. Another magnificent experience is to visit the cliffs while sea kayaking below them.
If you are visiting Taroko Gorge by van tour or on this private tour, the Qingshui Cliffs are included. 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. Some tours only visit them at the end of the day, if there’s still time.
Taroko Gorge: The East Coast’s Most Famous Attraction
Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan’s most famous scenic attractions. It is the star attraction of Hualien and the east coast, and many visitors travel to the east coast just to visit it. There’s a lot to see and do in Taroko Gorge, so you’ll definitely want to set aside a whole day for it. For more information on how to plan your visit, where to stay, and how to get there, see my detailed Taroko Gorge itinerary.
Taroko Gorge is even doable with young kids. Whether you take the local bus and just visit one or two spots, or hire a car or scooters like we did, there are plenty of easy, kid-friendly trails to enjoy in Taroko Gorge.
Funny side note: There is one more place in Taiwan that claims to have the “Grand Canyon of Taiwan”, although it is much smaller and few people know about it. Find out where it is in my article on day trips from Taichung.
Wenshan Hot Spring
For those who love to get off the beaten track, there’s a secret wild hot spring that used to be popular many years ago, before it was mostly destroyed in a landslide. There are still some rock pools you can bathe in, and it’s an adventure to find it. To find out exactly how to get there, read my guide to Wenshan Hot Spring.
Hualien City, the capital of Hualien County and largest city on the east coast of Taiwan, is located about 35 minutes south of the entrance to Taroko Gorge by car. As the region’s main city, most visitors base themselves here for visiting Taroko Gorge and other scenic attractions and outdoor activities in the area. Most tours in the area take off from Hualien City.
There are enough things to do in and around Hualien City to warrant staying here for 1-2 days after you visit Taroko Gorge. Most people reach Hualien by direct train from Taipei City.
“Seven Star Lake” (七星潭) is not a lake but a picture-postcard pebble beach on the northern edge of Hualien City, 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.
As it is a short detour off the Hualien City to Taroko Gorge highway, most day tours to Taroko Gorge include a stop at Qixingtan. You can also rent bikes at Qixingtan and ride them to Hualien City, where someone will pick them up for you (or the same in reverse).
Hualien City (花蓮市) is a convenient base for exploring the area and has some of the best hostels in all of Taiwan. There are several fascinating cultural, artistic, and historical sights in Hualien City, so many people opt to stay here for an extra day after visiting Taroko Gorge. Here’s my detailed guide to the best places to visit in Hualien City.
Some of the best things to do in Hualien City include:
Martyr’s Shrine: One of the city’s most beautiful pieces of architecture
River tracing (aka river trekking) is a very popular summertime activity in Taiwan. Basically, you walk up a river, jumping in various spots, playing in the water, sliding down rock slides, and more. It’s really fun and a great way to cool off in summer.
The small aboriginal village of 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), but this is not recommended for beginners, and as times it is illegal to visit.
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. Here is a complete guide to river tracing to the Golden Grotto.
If you’re visiting the area just to go river tracing, it makes most sense to stay at Moon River Guesthouse, from where it’s a short walk to the river.
But if all you want to do is jump into some cold water, Sanzhan is also a great place to do so. The Sanzhan Riverside (三棧溪戲水區) has several spots where you can jump into the water. You can also walk from Sanzhan Village upstream for about 10 minutes in the direction of the Golden Grotto, to find more great spots to jump into the water. This part of the river is popular for Taiwanese river tracing groups, so you may see lots of them.
Sanzhan village is only a 10-minute drive from the entrance to Taroko Gorge, and just off Highway 9 between Hualien City and Taroko Gorge.
Other Outdoor Activities in Hualien
There are loads of other outdoor activities to enjoy in Hualien County. Many activity tours take off from Hualien City, making it the most convenient base. Here are some popular choices:
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 (read reviews / check prices) organizes bike excursions into Taroko Gorge where they drop you off at the top and let you zoom down to the entrance.
Aboriginal Culture on the East Coast of Taiwan
Nearly 30% of the population of Hualien county is aboriginal, including the Amis (Taiwan’s largest tribe), Atayal, Bunun, Truku or “Taroko”, Sakizaya, and Kavalan. As such, many aboriginal festivals take place on the east coast of Taiwan, including the most famous, the week-long Ami Harvest Festival in summer.
Dates of festivals can change, so if you want to see if anything is coming up, you can try 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 (小米酒 or xiaomi jiu).
The best way to experience aboriginal culture on the east coast is to take this aboriginal cooking course. The class includes visiting an aboriginal garden maintained an Amis tribe, learning how to cook wild herbs, and tasting millet wine.
You can visit a small aboriginal museum or enjoy an aboriginal buffet feast at Buluowan Visitor Center (布洛灣管理站) in Taroko Gorge, on the site of a former aboriginal village of the Truku (Taroko) tribe. You can even spend the night there at Taroko Village Hotel (see reviews / check prices). Finally, you can also meet aboriginal people if you visit Sanzhan village (三棧) near the entrance to Taroko Gorge (see the river tracing section above).
One of the toughest choices you need to make when visiting the east coast of Taiwan is where to stay. Hualien City is the most obvious choices, with loads of accomodation options and some of the best hostels in the country. However, it’s also possible to stay in Xincheng, closer to the entrance of Taroko Gorge, or right in Taroko Gorge. To really get off the beaten track, you can also stay in the aboriginal village of Sanzhan.
Hostels in Hualien City
There is a high concentration of hostels in Hualien, and their quality and value for money is better than anywhere else in Taiwan. It is a 40-minute ride by scooter from Hualien City to Taroko Gorge.
Staying near Xincheng (Taroko Gorge) train station is very convenient for accessing Taroko Gorge.
I have a friend who stayed at Taroko Lodge (see reviews / check prices) and raves about it. The owner speaks excellent English and is incredibly helpful. He can pick you up at the train station and can organize bike tours. The hotel is near Xincheng. They also have larger cabins for groups.
This is your cheapest option. Heliu Campsite is first-come-first serve, with a dozen wooden platforms (NT200 per tent) 16.5 kilometers up the valley. I stayed here several years ago with my family; the facilities are very basic but the setting is awesome.
Moon River Guesthouse, Sanzhan
My personal favorite is the Moon River Guesthouse (read views and see prices) 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.