Framed by sheer seaside cliffs and majestic inland mountain peaks, TAROKO NATIONAL PARK (太魯閣國家公園; tàilŭgé guójiā gōngyuán) is Taiwan’s most diverse national park and one of the island’s top tourist destinations. The amazingly narrow Taroko Gorge (太魯閣峽谷; tàilŭgé xiágŭ) is the park’s namesake and main attraction for good reason: stretching some 20km, with marble walls that soar several hundred metres above the Liwu River (立霧溪; lìwù qī), the canyon offers some of Taiwan’s most awe-inspiring scenery, from crystal-clear waterfalls plunging down the rock faces to ethereal canvasses of ferns swaying gracefully in the wind as they hang from hairline cracks in the stone. Walking through some sections of the gorge is akin to stepping into an ancient Chinese scroll painting, with water cutting fantastic formations across the marble-cake cliffs and lushly vegetated outcrops draped in heavy bouquets of mist. Alongside the winding road through the canyon are several easy hiking trails, providing superb vantage points for some of the most spectacular features and giving a greater sense of scale. Though the gorge is Taroko’s claim to fame – and the main tourist magnet – it comprises only a small part of the park, which also has some of Taiwan’s most challenging mountain climbs, including rugged Qilai Ridge and the revered Nanhushan. Another of the park’s finest attractions are the Qingshui Cliffs, which plummet dramatically into the Pacific Ocean along the park’s northeastern boundary and are accessible only by the Suao-Hualien Highway (Highway 9).
The park is named after the Truku (Taroko) aboriginal tribe. Though the Truku, traditionally known for their hunting prowess and weaving skills, once populated many river valleys within the park’s current boundaries, few remain today. Most of those still living inside the park are located in Buluowan and the Bamboo Village. As with all parks in Taiwan, extreme weather has an inordinate impact – Typhoon Morakot hammered Taroko in 2009, and much of it was closed for a time. You can get the latest updates from the Taroko National Park Headquarters and Visitor Center (太魯閣國家公園遊客中心; tàilŭgé guójiā gōngyuán yóukè zhōngxīn; t03/862-1100, wwww.taroko.gov.tw), located just inside the main entrance.
Most tour buses whip through Taroko Gorge to Tianxiang (the best place to stay and eat), briefly stopping at the main sights along Provincial Highway 8 before speeding back to Hualien, but to appreciate the national park you need to get hiking. There are at least half a dozen good trails in the gorge; several of these are short and relatively flat, while a few of them are more challenging, with steep hill sections and trailside drop-offs. These are often closed owing to landslip damage, so ask for updated conditions at the visitor centre near the main entrance before you get started. With more time (and hiking experience), you could explore some of Taiwan’s most enticing peaks, further to the west, while the awe-inspiring Qingshui Cliffs mark where the mountains fall dramatically into the Pacific.