Summer has arrived, and serious hikes at low altitudes are pretty much out of the question, so it’s time to brainstorm ways to keep (relatively) cool in the heat. I’ve long enjoyed going to Sisters Falls (姐妹瀑布), near the tiny settlement of Syongkong Village (熊空), southeast of Sanxia (三峽) at the western edge of New Taipei City.
Since the trail that once led there was washed away by a typhoon many years ago, I’ve river-traced up to it several times. But that’s been in the winter, and the Jhongkeng Creek (中坑溪), on which it and the more famous Cloud Heart Falls (雲心瀑布) above it lies, never struck me as an especially promising summer river tracing trip.
Wrong! It’s not an especially long trace, but it’s a fabulous one this time of year: the plentiful rains top up the stream and fill several small but deep and very scenic pools, and the pair of waterfalls on the trace are both very distinctive.
Photo: Richard Saunders
The only drawback to this great summer river trace is getting there. A bus number 807 from Sanxia goes right to the trailhead, but with an infrequent service (once every two to three hours) it’s not a very convenient way to get there and back again. A better bet is to travel to Yongning MRT Station, leave by exit one, and take a taxi from there to the trailhead, Syongkong Village. The fare is around NT$500, and divided between four passengers it’s pretty reasonable.
Syongkong, where the river trace starts, isn’t so much a village as a scattering of residences and a fish farm, all strung out along the road. Get off at the bus stop (where bus 807 turns round and starts back to Sanxia) at a T junction beside a small general store (although don’t count on it being open — get food and drink before you take the taxi). If you arrive on a weekend morning, you can’t miss the trailhead. There’ll probably plenty of cars parked beside the road and in the informal parking area beside it.
Photo: Richard Saunders
Take the road forking off beside the convenience store, keep right at a second fork in a couple of meters, and the narrow road descends, immediately crossing a tributary of the main stream by a bridge. Scramble down the wooded bank beside the bridge to the edge of the stream, and start tracing it up.
For the first few hundred meters, the stream is closely followed by a narrow road. It’s an attractive and easy trace, spoiled just a little by a few newly-built concrete embankments. After about half an hour the stream runs through a more natural, unspoiled landscape, and 90 minutes or so upstream from the bridge, Sisters Falls appears ahead, plunging into a narrow, slot-like gorge.
A huge boulder, which once balanced on the flat, table-like stream bed above the waterfall, was pushed over the edge by a typhoon a year or two ago, so it’s not so easy to get to the base of the waterfall anymore, but it’s still an extremely exhilarating place to be on a hot day, and you’re more-or-less guaranteed to have the falls to yourself, since they take a bit of effort to reach.
Photo: Richard Saunders
Clamber up the narrow cleft to the left of the falls, and through a mass of old tree trunks and boulders washed down by past typhoons, to reach the head of the falls, a wide, gently sloping bed of flat rock over which the stream spreads as it rushes down towards the brink. There’s a deep pool for cooling off. On weekends there’s a chance you’ll see other people here — a trail now connects this spot with the route to Cloud Heart Waterfall: useful if rain looks possible, or if you’ve already got wet enough.
Upstream from Sisters Falls, two major typhoons (the second of which smashed into the area in August 2012) really played havoc with the landscape. Happily, six years later, nature has already started softening the once tree-denuded landscape of stones and boulders, and the gorge looks a lot greener and more attractive than just a few years ago.
Photo: Richard Saunders
Eventually the river divides into two streams.
Take the right-hand fork, and in less than a hundred meters, the wonderful Cloud Heart Waterfall plunges into a sylvan wooded glen, happily untouched by the devastation that affected the main stream bed just a few meters downstream. This last bit of the river trace is steep and choked with huge boulders, so it’s easier to divert around them to the left and climb through the jungle for a few minutes to rejoin the stream at the foot of the falls.
If you get here really early, you might just have this place to yourself, but its fame has grown greatly in the last decade, and during the weekends there are usually several groups of people enjoying the beautiful scene.
Clamber over the rocks to the foot of the falls, and there’s a very large pool at the bottom, which makes a great place for a final swim. Be warned: it can get quite cold in there (the sun rarely shines into the wooded glen, and the waterfall creates quite a breeze), but it’s such a beautiful place that it’s hard to resist taking the plunge. It certainly makes a perfect end to a wonderful — and fairly easy — river trace in an especially beautiful corner of New Taipei City.
To get back, take the footpath which starts to the left of the waterfall, and contours the side of the wooded gorge you’ve just traced up. Turn left on the road at the end, which winds down to return to Syongkong, about an hour’s walk from Cloud Heart Falls.
IF YOU GO
Correct gear (river tracing footwear and a helmet are the minimum) is essential, and a little river tracing experience is preferable for attempting this route. Start early so as to be out of the water before the regular summer afternoon downpours. Be ready to abort the trace if the water level is too high, and don’t attempt it for several weeks after a typhoon.
Bus 807 runs to Syongkong from the Taipei Bus Company (台北客運) bus station in Sanxia five to six times a day, although the only useful service leaves Sanxia at 8:30am on weekends (9:30am on weekdays). The last bus back leaves Syongkong soon after 6pm daily.
It’s far easier to get a taxi to the trailhead from Yongning MRT Station, at the western end of the blue line. Ask the driver if he or another driver is prepared to pick you up at the end of the day. Otherwise, you’ll have to take the bus back, or try hitching (relatively easy at weekends).
Richard Saunders is a classical pianist and writer who has lived in Taiwan since 1993. He’s the founder of a local hiking group, Taipei Hikers, and is the author of six books about Taiwan, including Taiwan 101 and Taipei Escapes. Visit his Web site at www.taiwanoffthebeatentrack.com.
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