Hiking Zhuilu Old Road
The best hike in Taroko Gorge, Zhuilu Old Road, offers the thrilling experience of standing over two thousand feet in the air above Taiwan's most famous gorge. The hike itself and the views from the cliff will leave any hiker feeling exposed to the sublime (aka. standing over something that is both beautiful and deadly). In fact, just a month before our trip, a hiker was caught in a gust of wind and fell to his death from the cliffs. Backing up to more mundane things, the trail was started by the aboriginal tribe living in Taroko Gorge about a century ago. Later, during their occupation of Taiwan, the Japanese developed the trial a bit more. Unfortunately, they used it to subdue the local Taroko people.
In spite of its ugly history the old road is beautiful. To access the trail, you have to plan ahead of time. You cannot just show up and hike. The national park locks it up tight and only people with the correct paperwork can get in. To get started on the paperwork, apply online for the first permit you need to access the trail. In total, you will need to apply for two permits. The earlier you start, the better, as they only allow about 60 people on the trail per day. You can apply online here.
To complete this application you will need your passport number (or ARC number), the address of where you are staying in Taiwan and a Taiwanese friend who will agree to be your emergency contact. If you’re staying at a hostel or hotel, see if you can enlist someone in management or at the reception desk to help you. Your contact does not have to be Taiwanese, but they do need to have a local phone number that is based in Taiwan. There is a possibility that someone will call and confirm the number with your contact. You will also need your contact’s national ID number and birthday.
Currently, the trail is only open for the first three kilometers. This is perfectly fine as the best views are at the beginning of the trail anyway. On the first page of the online application map your route as follows: Zhuilu Suspension Brigdge - Badagan Outpost - Cliff Outpost - Badagan Outpost - Zhuilu Suspension Bridge. Once you’ve completed the application, you will receive an email approving your permit within three days. It’s very fast. Again, there is a limit on how many permits are issued per day so it is best to apply earlier rather than later. Upside, there won’t be more than around 60 people on the trail at any given time. Not only does this help preserve the natural environment, but it also means most of your hike will be in relative privacy.
After receiving the first permit online, print out three copies. One is for you to keep, one is for the police office at Taroko and the last one is for actually entering the trail. On the day of your hike, try to get an early start and be at the trail head no later than ten in the morning. This means you should get to the Taroko visitor center by nine o’clock. At the visitor center, go to the police station and fill out the paperwork for the second permit needed to enter the trail. The station is located a short walk down the road from the actual tourist visitor center. You’ll probably see police cars parked out front. At the station, show your identification and the printed hiking permit. In return, they will give you the second hiking permit. It’s as simple as that. The whole process is very fast and completely painless. If the officer behind the desk in especially slow, it might take ten minutes.
Once you have the second permit from the police station, make your way to the trail head. There are two ways to do this. First, you can head to the visitor center and they will call a taxi to take you there. Alternatively, you can go to the Taroko bus stop. The buses run every hour and they do stop at the Zuilu Old Road trail head. It’s the same stop as Sparrow Grotto and you can see the entrance from the bus stop.
At the trail head, show your paperwork and identification to the gate keeper and he’ll unlock everything for you. (That’s right. This trail is cool enough to have a gate keeper. With suspension bridges, tunnels, ruins and cliffs, the only thing missing is the fairies.) After making everyone jealous with your apparent magical powers over the gate keeper, enjoy the hike. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the path is clearly marked. There’s no need to worry about maps or getting lost and there’s certainly no need to pay for a tour guide. The whole hike takes three to four hours. Be warned, there are a lot of stairs.