Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike

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I’m covered in purple bruises and scrapes, itchy bug bites and tiny cuts, and while some of the bruising is from Vietnam, most of the damage happened during an unhappy hike exploring the Sandiaoling Waterfalls (三貂嶺瀑布) on Wednesday.

The Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike is easily one of the most popular day hikes for Taipei residents, with its three beautiful waterfalls and mostly flat trails in easy reach. To clarify, it’s not the actual hike itself that’s put me off from wanting to go back—it’s what happened after I saw the last waterfall that devolved into a hiking nightmare (and my new umbrella breaking in the process). But it didn’t need to end that way.

On Wednesday, I woke to a 4:30AM alarm. Stubbornness and determination steered me out of bed. Just a few days earlier, my attempts to hike Teapot Mountain (茶壺山) and, later, the Sandiaoling Waterfalls were dashed by unforeseen rain and I became obsessed with hiking at least one trail this week since I’d be busy in the coming weeks. So, with a backpack full of snacks, I took the 795 bus out of Muzha.

The bus arrived at Shifen (十分) just as the sun was rising. It was unusual to see the normally bustling main drag deserted. Rainclouds loomed ominously overhead but there was no rain; there was only mist entwining itself in the green mountains and an intoxicating stillness to the air. I like being awake in these early hours, when most people haven’t yet left their homes.

At 6:25AM, the train pulled into the station and I boarded for Sandiaoling. Built in 1922, the tiny Sandiaoling Station is the starting point of the old Pingxi coal railway and isn’t accessible by car. There’s no need to go by train to get to the trailhead in the village—a car is faster and easier—but for those bound to public transit like me, you’re at the mercy of the hourly train schedule.

Since it was early, I expected to have the trail to myself. But I bumped into one other hiker at the trailhead: a middle-aged man who hikes the trail from time to time. He was surprised to see that I was hiking alone and after I told him my plans to finish the hike at Dahua Station, he warned me that it was easy to get lost past the last waterfall. I later learned that getting lost would be the least of my problems. I let him go ahead of me as I explored the defunct elementary school next door.

After the coal mining industry left the area, the Shuoren elementary school was gradually abandoned. The school has been converted into a historic landmark and art destination.

Candy Bird’s mural decorates the wall of the public bathrooms.

The main Sandiaoling Waterfall path is an easy hike. Save for a short bit of stairs in the beginning, the trail is wide, mostly flat, and easy to follow. The trickiest part is avoiding the mud.

Hegu Waterfall 合谷瀑布: The first and the biggest waterfall of the four along the upper Keelung River’s tributaries can only be seen from a distance. The two-tiered waterfall has a 25-meter-tall upper tier and a 15-meter-tall lower tier. It’s beautiful but far away, so I only stopped briefly at the viewing platform before moving on.

There are a few narrow rope bridges you’ll need to cross.

After forty minutes on the trail I heard a dull thumping in the forest. Slightly unnerved, I pressed on and saw the man from earlier hunched down on the ground. A closer look revealed him hammering nails into a footbridge. I greeted him from a distance.

“Oh, hello, you’re quite fast,” he said, stopping and looking up at me.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m fixing the bridge. There were some planks missing.”

I suddenly felt bad for feeling wary of the man. I asked him if he worked for the parks department.

No, he said, just a private citizen who enjoys hiking. I was pleasantly surprised. It was a little past 7 on a Wednesday morning and here was a Good Samaritan who purchased and brought a bunch of timber planks and nails to fix a bridge on his own initiative.

“Are you still going up to the third waterfall?” he asked.

I said yes.

“Then you should take these.” He swung his backpack around and fished a pair of white fabric gloves out of a pocket. “I’m only going up to the second waterfall so I won’t be needing them. There’s a metal ladder you’ll need to climb to get to third waterfall. Your hands will get dirty if you don’t have gloves.”

How nice! I thanked him. He told me to go on ahead because he wasn’t finished with the footbridge.

Not long afterward I reached the second waterfall, Motian 摩天瀑布, which, unlike Hegu, lets you stand much closer to the waterfall’s awesome force.

There’s a cave with a handrail behind the waterfall and I know you can get up there. I wasn’t sure which way to go and assumed the path would reveal itself if I continued the trail up. I was wrong. I think there’s a path next to the observation deck but since I had already climbed up onto the ladders (the gloves came in handy) I didn’t feel like going back down. Maybe next time.

The third and last waterfall of the trail is Pipadong Waterfall 枇杷洞瀑布. Like the two before it, the waterfall was massive, gushing with water from weeks of rain. It was a little hard to breathe while standing in front of the cascade. Even though I didn’t stand too close, it was sometimes hard to tell if it was raining or if the waterfall spray was just that strong. The sublime waterfall was numbing: a sensory overload of whipping winds; crashing sounds of water pounding against rock; and droplets flying in all directions, dousing everything in water. I stood alone in front of the waterfall and felt my heartbeat race.

I eventually left the foot of the fall for a skinny rock ledge near the top of Pipadong Waterfall. On the way up I passed by some anti-馬英九 graffiti that some inconsiderate person, who inexplicably felt a need to deface the rock, wrote in large red text.

The crumbling rock ledge curves behind the waterfall but doesn’t quite reach the back of the fall. It was a good spot to take a rest and soak in the landscape, free of the unrelenting sprays of water. I ate an apple. It hadn’t rained on the hike yet and the sun peeked out from the clouds from time to time.

I left Pipadong Waterfall in high spirits for the final climb out of the trail. This was the part that the man from earlier said was easy to get lost in, but I didn’t find that the case at all. I did make a brief detour to see a temple (during which it did start to rain) but getting back on the right path was easy enough. Someone had kindly tied laminated signs onto the trees to direct hikers in the right direction of Dahua Station.

The path in the beginning is pretty easy, though sections of the partly paved trail can be slick when wet and I fell down (not a big deal) when I stepped on an angled slippery rock.

I saw a baby snake on the trail. I’m not sure if this is one of Taiwan’s several venomous snakes. I’m always amazed by how quickly snakes move.

Eventually the path to Dahua Station passed through Wildman Valley (野人谷), a former tourism park that was forced to close after a typhoon destroyed the area a few years ago.

I walked down a stairway next to the entrance gate to get a peek of 新寮瀑布, the fourth waterfall in the area that's not considered part of the Sandiaoling hike.

Passing through the entrance gate, I was surprised to see a man sitting behind the ticket booth. A few stray dogs roamed around, one of which was particularly aggressive. I was on the phone with Nathan at the time but was getting swarmed by mosquitoes and followed by an unhappy dog so hung up to move quickly out of the car park and onto a flight of stairs ascending into thick jungle. It was starting to rain again.

The last part of the path was the worst. Kirk Beiser of Taiwan’s Waterfalls describes the slippery black stone stairs as the “Stairs of Death” so I anticipated a slow descent. I’ve hiked mossy black stone steps before, but mostly uphill and not on rainy days. These stairs that you have to take to get to Dahua station are almost entirely downhill.

What I thought would be an uneventful and slow walk down the mountain became probably the worst experience I’ve ever had hiking. Rather than “Stairs of Death,” I think of them as the Stairs from Hell. Slippery and treacherous, these black stone steps force you to move slowly lest you fall—and I did fall. At least four times. But if you move too slowly, the mosquitoes swarm you en masse. It’s a diabolic Catch-22: move quickly and fall down or be slow and get feasted upon.

The first time I fell on the steps I actually tumbled off the trail. I fell fast and hard. It was terrifying—in the blink of an eye I went from upright to down on my back in the dirt. My neck hurt. I had my umbrella out at the time to deflect spider webs in my path but now it obscured my view, and I had broken it in my fall so it became an obstacle. I batted the umbrella away and even though I couldn’t see, I could feel that I had fallen on a slope.

My body was tilted backwards with the upper half at a lower elevation than the rest. I couldn’t see behind me but could sense that tumbling any further downslope would be dangerous and could be very difficult to get out of. My fingers were cut on some leaves but I wrapped them around some bamboo anyway to pull myself upright. It took a bit of strain but I finally got myself up. I wanted to get away from the stairs as soon as possible.

I fell at least three more times on the stairs on the way down, even though I took slow and deliberate steps (and was bitten so many times as a result). Even though I thought I had steady footing, I would feel my foot slip and that helpless feeling swept over me again and again. Luckily, I didn’t fall off the trail again, just onto the steps, which was painful but preferable. It was still raining.

My legs were shaking when I reached the bottom of the stairs. Once I got to the bridge I pulled out my phone to look at the train timetable to make a choice: turn left at the tracks to reach the much closer Dahua Station as planned or turn right and go to Shifen, which would give me access to a bathroom and a bus home?

I decided to hell with it and to go to Shifen. It’s riskier and farther away, and I really didn’t want to do it in the beginning. Most Taiwanese hikers wait for the train at Dahua.

Either way, the government does not like it when people walk on the tracks for obvious reasons. It’s illegal and there’s a fine, though it’s not terribly unsafe because the train only comes around once an hour. As long as you know when the trains are coming, you should be okay.

But I was still really freaked out and shaken up. I power-walked as best I could on the rocky stones and railway sleepers and then reached the dreaded tunnel. Fortunately it’s a straight shot; no curves mean you can see the light at the end of tunnel.

After a few more minutes of walking I reached the Shifen Waterfall area. I tried to climb in through part of the enclosure and a man told me I couldn’t do that and needed to go around. So I kept walking. I was nervous about the oncoming train, though I still had a good 10 minutes of time.

I arrived to a wooden boardwalk and saw a gap in the fence that I could pass through. I made my way up but then a woman started shrieking at me at the top of her lungs. It was a cleaning lady for the park and she was chewing me out in Hakka. She was unrelenting. My family speaks Hakka, but I don’t understand a lick of it. It’s one of those languages that make you sound angry no matter what you say and now that she was livid with me it made it all the worse.

It was a little before 10AM. All the visitors stopped and stared at me. She kept screaming. I couldn’t understand her but I imagined she was warning me to not dare step over and what the hell did I think I was doing.

I got closer to the gap and the people who had stopped asked me if I needed help to get through. There was a single plank extended into the air that I could step on to get to the railing. They also told the woman to chill out, that couldn’t they see that I had fallen down already, and to let me come through peacefully. I must’ve been quite the sight—bruised, wet, and dirty with leaves all over me. She stopped, but only for a moment to move her big trash bags to another location.

I accepted the help of some men who held my arms as I balanced myself on the plank and stepped over to the boardwalk. Once the cleaning woman was back, however, she went back into harpy mode, shrieking at me at a distance.

“She doesn’t understand what you’re saying!” One of the men shouted out to the woman in a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin. He turned to me: “Don’t be scared of her. Just stick to one side of the walkway when you make your way out.”

I heeded his advice, staring at the ground like a scolded child as I passed the woman. She didn’t stop yelling.

I started writing this post the day after the hike. It’s now three days later and I’m much more mellowed out than I was before. The Sandiaoling Waterfall hike was the first solo hike I’ve done in Taiwan this year and I know parts of it were quite dangerous and it would have been better to go with a friend.

For anyone who’s interested in going, the main trail from the trailhead to the last waterfall is not dangerous at all and is very easy to do. It’s less than three hours round-trip.

But I think it is very dumb to do the last part, from Pipadong Waterfall to the tracks, alone and in rainy weather.

I probably will return to the Sandiaoling waterfalls in the future, but not any time soon and I’ll stick to the main trail next time. In any case, there’s Yuemeikeng Waterfall (I haven’t written about it yet) that I think is more spectacular and a faster hike.