Ode to Taroko National Park

Taroko National Park caused my home away from home. A canyon national park that served as a tourist attraction and the backdrop of my research and many epic adventures, it features 11,000 foot mountains and 3,000 foot marble cliffs. The park is essentially one watershed, but the variety of terrain is astounding.

There is a highway that winds through the park, and traces its way below the marble cliffs and through a series of alcoves and tunnels that give window glances to the striped stones outside. The river most often runs the aquamarine that is caused only by certain minerals released as it relentlessly wears away the stone. The vegetation, where it can find purchase is a lush, sub-tropical mix of ficus forests where myriad birds make their distinctive songs in my mind and monkeys wander. The marble itself is rough and almost unnoticeable until it encounters the steady flow of water. There, it is polished more gloriously and brilliantly than the most unkempt of shopping-center floors, and it reveals all of the variation and wonder that water can carve out of a gorge.

The traces of man are most prevalent in the lower reaches of the park where the Eternal Springs Shrine perches over a gushing cascade, monasteries and temples are nestled near to the most luxurious of hotels. Tour buses flow past hard-hatted visitors that have half a care for the wonder of nature that the park is and half a care for their selfies. As the highway wanders up into the mountains, it passes marble hot springs and the first of the main hiking trails to a small lake hidden behind the screen of a thousand-foot-tall sheer cliff. There are still some traces of humans as aboriginal farming communities cling precariously above the leaping, dragon ridges that begin to climb in earnest.

Here you find the haunted temple, the fruit farms and lone school of the area, yet the majesty of remote nature begins to unfold before you. The gaping wonder sensed as you stared up at monumental cliffs is replaced by a maze of mountains and valleys. Waterfalls are heard and peak out from behind unexpected bends and the jungle covers everything hinting at the bears, water-deer, and perhaps a vague hope that leopards thought to be extinct might yet lurk wisely unseen in their depths. Muntjacs make their haunting calls, and mountain sheep scale the cliffs. This is only the second of four layers in the parks unbelievably tall mountains.

They rise again into a mix of jungle and pine forest where you begin to get a sense of seasons. The views begin to look down into valleys instead of up at mountains, and breathtaking vistas explode into view, occasionally showing my favorite mountain in the world: 立霧山 or a glimpse all the way down to the pacific ocean, barely distinguishable from the sky.

Again the road and mountains rise past sacred trees of epic proportions, the best little coffee shop in the world perched over a cliff and then skirts the very edges of those cliffs. You can look over the edge of the road and down a precipice that seems to never end and gives a sense of vertigo from across the entire roadway. Here is the high country, where in the states it would be mixed aspen-conifer, the aspen are replaced by bamboo. The conifers grow straight or with that strange, looping grace that comes straight from a 山水 painting. The alpine grasslands are in fact miniature bamboo forests where only the most hearty of birds rustle. The winds may be great or little, the sun harsh and warming, the view rarified.

The Many of the 100 peaks over 3,000 meters await, and the grand adventure of hiking and mountain climbing. The distances are deceptively short for so steep and high an ascent. The hiking often becomes scrambling or climbing and occasionally vertiginous.

The clouds may form of the peaks in giant thunderheads that dwarf the mountains themselves, yet often they come in stratus form, layered over the park as the mountains have their stages. A layer topping out around 2,000 meters often forms which may have another above 3,000. As you ascend, the fog becomes a glowing mist and then suddenly you find yourself leaping in and out of a cloud sea as a dolphin of land and air. The sun rises in all its myriad, glorious colors and paints the world above and below in crimson hues. The sound of a distant waterfall accentuates the silence, the pre-lude to the morning chorus of avifauna. This is Taroko.