Jiaming Lake National Trail

嘉明湖國家步道

Difficulty: ★★ out of ★★★★★

Start/Finish: Xiangyang 向陽 (23.247706, 120.985738)

Distance: 26km

Type: Yoyo

Time: 2-3 days

Total Ascent/Descent: 2275m

Maps: 1:25,000 ‘Sun River 17南二段縱走’

Baiyue: #16 Xiangyangshan (向陽山, 3602m), #28 Sanchashan (三叉山, 3496m)

Permits: Mountain Entry, Jiaming Lake hut booking

Transport: private transport only

Romanization: jiaminghu guojia budao

Summary: One of Taiwan’s premier high mountain hikes, the Jiaming Lake National Trail is a lovely, well-maintained ribbon of track stretching from Xiangyang, high on the Southern Cross-Island Highway, to the crystalline blue waters of Jiaming Lake at 3310m. Two of Taiwan’s finest mountain huts allow hikers to leave their tents at home, although spaces are competitive on weekends and holidays. For a true hike of leisure, three, four or more days could be taken to complete the trek. A stunning alpine route, with near constant views, most able-bodied hikers can finish it over a weekend.

More adventurous hikers can tack on the four-day extension to Xingkangshan (新康山, 3331m) and Bulakesangshan (布拉克桑山, 3020m), but this requires Yushan National Park permits, always a joy to procure.

Recommended Itinerary

Day One: Hike from Xiangyang to Jiaming Lake Cabin. (7 hours)

Day Two: Take daypacks out to Sanchashan and Jiaming Lake. (5-6 hours)

Day Three: Return to Xiangyang. (4-5 hours)

Note: For a two-day hike, combine Days Two and Three.

Jiaming Lake Cabin and Xiangyangshan.

The Walk

Day One

Xiangyang is situated on the eastern side of the Southern Cross Island Highway, the middle section of which, from Xiangyang to Meishan, has been closed since 2009, a result of the catastrophic Typhoon Morakot. A guard post, manned in daylight hours, blocks further travel west. Turn right into the parking lot in front of the police station. On the left is the checkpoint for Jiaming Lake National Trail where a ranger checks hut bookings and police permits. There is no way around, so make sure all permits are in order. Straight ahead is the police station, and the police will begrudgingly issue mountain entry permits for hikers who did not procure them prior to arrival.

Behind the police station is Xiangyang Campground, replete with gravel tent pads, cooking areas, picnic tables, info boards and a toilet block. Space needs to be booked in advance on the same website as the two huts. It’s an ideal place to spend the night prior to a hike in order to get an early start and to help with acclimatization.

After signing in with the ranger, pass through the metal barricade and walk up the road to the closed Yushan Visitor Center, now home to a pack of barking dogs. Cross the cobbled parking lot and at a yellow signpost, turn left up a flight of stairs onto trail. It’s wide and flat through the woods above the visitor center. The yellow posts tick off every 100 meters. Occasionally the screech of a bird of prey can be heard along this lower section, but watch out, as it’s probably the whine of an old motorbike’s struggling brakes. Porters use a fleet of scooters to get their 40+ kg loads as high up as possible before having to carry them.

Hardworking porters

Pass a rest area after 800m and continue up the gentle grade. Bear left at a fork, uphill. At 1.5km is a viewing platform looking out over the ‘Three Stars of the Southern Cross’ (南橫三山): Taguanshan (塔關山, 3222m), Guanshanlingshan (關山嶺山, 3176m) and Kuhanuoxinshan (庫哈諾辛山, 3115m). These three summits, in addition to the six-day South Section One, have been officially closed to hikers since Typhoon Morakot. Diggers and other construction behemoths dot the narrow highway, which disappears into Siyuan Yakou Tunnel.

An arched bridge, with a stone map at its head, crosses a steep stream and slip. Now the route is officially on trail, instead of dirt road, and the signposts have changed from yellow to brown. Fuchsia drips of betel nut spittle are splattered along the trail, the fuel of the hard-working porters.

Crisscross a creek before arriving at Xiangyang Cabin. Capable of housing 70 people, it’s one of the nicest mountain huts in Taiwan. The bunks are comfy and wide, and the creek gurgles alongside the bunkhouse. There is even a collection of books!

Xiangyang Cabin

The trail goes right up the ramp to the hut and continues up the back side. It’s noticeably steeper, climbing through bamboo and bigger trees. On the right at 5.3km lies Haohao Pond campsite (好好池營地), with stacked stone benches. The trail to the right leads 50m to the tarn.

Ten minutes later the trail enters scrubland and climbs loads of stairs and sandbags. Helpful green arrow signs point the way. The Taitung Forestry Bureau has done a lot of trail work to stem the erosion. At the top are views across the valley to Xiangyangshan and Sanchashan. The trail turns left along the ridge and soon passes the Xiangyang Tree (向陽名樹). This mingshu, a gnarled juniper, makes a lovely  place to take a break.

Xiangyang Sacred Tree

Follow the rocky ridge, with views over Guanshan and the peaks of the Southern Cross. Notice the “white woods” dotting the slopes, dead pines that have been bleached white by the high elevation UVs. Climb up the ridge, flattening out through pines along the back to reach a junction.

Approaching the summit of Xiangyangshan.

Leave gear at the intersection and turn left for Xiangyangshan. It’s about 45 minutes round trip. In fine weather it’s a clear route to the peak. Scramble over boulders for the last stretch to the 3602m-high summit of Xiangyangshan. It’s also known as Lanwusitaola (蘭烏斯滔臘) and Hongyeshan (紅葉山). Yunfeng, the massive peak blotting out views of Yushan to the north, is on Day 3 of South Section Two. Return to the junction. (There is another trail continuing off the east side of the peak, but it’s a rough, overgrown route and takes longer than backtracking.)

Up on Xiangyangshan.

Now take the right fork towards Jiaming Lake Cabin, flat along a contour. Pass a huge rock outcropping and descend across a boulder field. Eventually the hut pops into view. The six tent pads are on the far side of the hut, along the trail. Make sure to check in with the warden. Jiaming Lake Cabin, with its cute blue and white interior, houses 70 people. It has water piped in from a spring high above the trail.

Jiaming Lake Cabin

Day Two

            Pack a day bag and continue northeast along the trail. It’s a cruisy 15 minutes around to the north side of Xiangyangshan. Back on top of the ridge, you can see the west coast over the Alishan Range one minute, and the east coast over the low Coastal Range the next. The trail stays level under Xiangyang North Peak (向陽山北峰, 3462m) and then starts descending. The whole trail to Sanchashan can be seen ahead, as it runs through exposed caneland. Pass a tarn on the right, and then hike through a gap with twin white, withered snags.

Approaching Sanchashan (back right).

            Climb steadily up to a fork. Turn left at the sign for Sanchashan, 850m away. The right fork leads directly to Jiaming Lake. Gradually climb the grassy slope, and the last 100m dips across to the trig of Sanchashan. Sancha translates to ‘Three-way intersection’, thusly named because it straddles the borders of Kaohsiung, Taitung and Hualien counties. There are several signs, and spectacular vistas north over South Section Two. The lake is hidden to the south.

On the summit ridge of Sanchashan.

            Take the right fork 600m down to the helipad. Keep straight (right fork) and Jiaming Lake finally appears down below. Second in elevation only to Cui Pond, the clear blue teardrop was originally thought to be a meteor impact, but in reality is a glacial tarn, like the rest of Taiwan’s alpine lakes. Follow any of the numerous, rutted tracks down to the lakeside to fetch water or to circumambulate the lake. The hillside overlooking the lake makes an excellent spot to picnic.

Jiaming Lake
On the water’s edge.

            Retrace steps back to Xiangyang.

Logistics

            The booking for Jiaming Lake Cabin and Xiangyang Cabin can be made at http://jmlnt.forest.gov.tw/ Applications open 45 days in advance, and a drawing is held 30 days in advance. Spaces can be booked no later than 8 days in advance, but this is only helpful if going on a weekday, as weekend spots are almost always filled 30 days in advance. Often times there are hundreds of people vying for weekend dates. After securing spots, the Forestry Bureau requires payment, usually by bank transfer. Bunk spaces are NT$400/600 (Monday-Thursday/Friday-Sunday & holiday). Tent spaces at Jiaming Lake Cabin (one space for four people) cost NT$500/600. There is no camping allowed at Jiaming Lake proper, or anywhere else along the trail.

            To get to Xiangyang without your own car, take the train to Chishang (池上) and hire a taxi at the station. This costs NT$2000-3000 each way, depending on your haggling skills. Always agree on a price beforehand.

            Taiwan Vista Tour (http://www.taiwanvista-tour.com/), based in Hualien, can arrange transport from the East Coast (Hualien, Yuli, Guanshan, etc.) to Xiangyang for a similar price. Contact Jeff Chao at taiwanvista.tour@gmail for more details. (Most other Hualien-based tour operators are only interested in Taroko Gorge and are of little use to serious hikers.)

            The excellent Huadong Valley Charter Taxi Company in Yuli can be reached at 0937-974-188 (Chinese only) or on the messaging app LINE at GOGO0937974188. They can quickly arrange drop offs or pickups anywhere along the East Rift Valley, including Xiangyang. Just use Google Translate in tandem with LINE to bridge any language barrier.

            If the Southern Cross Island Highway were to ever reopen, it would be much faster to reach Xiangyang from the west side of the island if coming from Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, etc.