Hot springs & waterfalls – a hidden paradise in Wulai, Taiwan

Wulai was without a doubt my favorite part of Taiwan.  Sure I only had a long weekend to explore but everything I loved about Taipei was in this quaint mountain town’s market too.  But the real attraction of Wulai isn’t the night market you can find in the capitol, its the lush natural surroundings & friendly locals.

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Directions to Wulai
849 bus from Xindian station (end of the green line.)
Bus fare – $15 NTD ($.50US)
Taxi fare – $600 NTD ($20US)

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Wulai 2

Upon first arriving in Wulai its impossible to miss the stunning bridges criss-crossing across the river augmented by the Wulai Waterfall.  A column of water 80 meters high plummets to the river (making it Taiwan’s largest waterfall) just across from the natural hot springs where you’ll find locals inviting you to join them for an afternoon soak.

 

 


Wulai Bridge


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Taebaeksan’s Winter Wonderland – Seoul Hiking Group

Taebaeksan National Park boasts a startling 1567m of vertical making it among the highest mountains in South Korea and crowning Taebaeksan as the 5th highest national park.  More importantly its known for being full of snow-capped splendor, a key reason we were happy they got fresh snow the night before!  Seoul Hiking Group set out for another sunrise hike and we were immediately rewarded with the best night sky I’ve seen in Korea.

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Taebaeksan is remote.  Like really remote.  So frigging remote that our bus driver only took 2 hours to get to the region and was rewarded with another hour and a half of weaving through mountain roads.  Luckily that meant a few hundred meters of elevation that we didn’t have to climb oh yeah and we were hundreds of kilometers away from the city lights.  The starlight reflected beautifully off of our snow carpeted path as each branch was illuminated by its snowy coat.

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Donning crampons almost immediately we began the steep climb.  Each step brought out a warm sweat in spite of the frigid temperatures.  The first 2 kilometers were well sheltered; I found myself unzipping my jacket and alternately removing & replacing my hat in a futile attempt to keep from sweating.  Winter hiking can be stunning but if your clothes soak through things can take a sudden turn for the worse.  Hypothermia & frostbite are no joke and you shouldn’t mess around so be prepared with layers.  To keep my temperature down I took off 2 of my 4 layers before reaching the top of the main staircase.

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Our trail looked more like a ski slope than a path and for better or worse the temperature dropped the higher we got.  It meant I didn’t have to worry so much about sweating and kept the layers but my toes and fingers were less ecstatic.  Another kilometer later we caught our first glimpse of the red sun beyond the valley creeping over the mountains in the distance.

It was 6:30 AM, we had another 700 meters of trail along with a decent climb ahead as the clouds rolled in bringing more snow and minimal visibility.  Knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise until nearly 7:30 we were happy to slow our pace and give our legs a rest.

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Frozen brush at the top

Frozen brush at the top

Moments later we reached Janggunbong, the summit most famous for Cheonjedan, the “altar of heavenly fires.”   A handful of Koreans had beat us there and were set up with tripods and doing their best to stay warm with a chilling wind whipping around us from all directions.

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As more of our group reached the summit the clouds persisted at the peak and prevented the stunning views we were promised.  I was debating between heading down for a lower potentially cloudless view when an faint orange glow appeared amid “ooo’s” and “aaaah’s” mixed in with my “holy shit!”  Over the next 30 minutes we would witness a handful of cloud partings.  Just enough for me to capture a short video and snap a few photos.

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top.  What a lifesaver!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top. What a lifesaver!

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Taebaeksan Panorama

Panorama (clicky!)

 

Realizing that I already wanted to come back to this park I decided to head back down to warm up at the temple with some ramen.  Over the next few hours we trekked down the slopes slipping and sliding with childish enjoyment when we noticed a handful of Koreans using massive rice bags as a sled.  I giggled and stole a quick video before the ajjushi came over and handed me his bag!

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I jumped on at the next clear path and started what was by far one of the best experiences I’ve on a mountain.  Sledding down the trail I couldn’t have been happier!  We took turns on a few different trails breaking the language barrier and becoming instant friends!

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Just before our dreaded staircase descent we found them sledding again and were offered a second bag.  Us foreigners promptly joined kids & grandparents for this youthful adventure!   Truth be told this was one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable times I’ve ever been frozen solid and I can’t wait to come back!

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Continuing down the trail we were in awe at the natural beauty of Taebaeksan.  It was hard to believe how we’d missed this on the way up but then again the midnight stars stole our attention and only give off so much light.

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We ended the day eating some traditional Korean food, hanging out at the sauna (jimjilbang) and with a few hours in Taebaesan’s winter festival!  I can’t wait to head back to Taebaek, hopefuly the clouds will behave next time.

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Nothing like a delicious kimchi jiggae to warm you up!

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This is my new favorite winter hike, what’s yours?

Geumsan, Namhae Morning Hike – Seoul Hiking Group

Namhae island sports a beautiful array of forested trails so of course Seoul Hiking Group picked the best one for our sunrise hike!  The bus left our sleeping counterparts at the pension at 6am and we arrived at the base of Geumsan shortly after.  The hike began fairly flat through the woods for the first 30 minutes and was a great way to detox from yesterday’s Namhae Oktoberfest and the Jinju Lantern festival two days prior.

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As we neared the mountain the trail grew steeper before we were surprised with a gorgeous cave! Turning around we were awestruck at sunrise peaking over the islands in the distance.  Beneath us sleepy fishing village slowly began waking up on this Sunday morning as we kept climbing.

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A few moments later we found ourselves at a traditional Buddhist temple where we gladly sipped the freshest mountain water I’ve ever had.  Upon refreshing ourselves some remained at this beautiful scene while another handful of our group continued to a few more minutes up to the peak.

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The views from Guesan reminded me of my first trip with Seoul Hiking Group on the island of Saryangdo.  Blue waters surrounding us with small seafaring communities littered the shoreline.  Fall colors enhanced this scene making it even more beautiful than the March island hike that Saryangdo sported.

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Hesitating a few moments more at the shrines of this gorgeous temple we had to turn back down the mountain to catch the bus or run out of time for sea kayaking!

Lake Jusanji & Juwangsan with Seoul Hiking Group

Friday night; might as well hop a midnight bus to Juwangsan with Seoul Hiking Group!  In the wee hours of the morning we arrived at Lake Jusanji to find a nearly full moon illuminating our path before us.  A short 30 minute hike brought us to the lakeshore where we found a light mist gliding over the surface of the lake.  A few of us broke out sleeping bags and napped as the chilly morning air combined with a slowly moving morning sun.  We lingered a few moments after the sun rose capturing the serenity of this picturesque lake featured in Korea’s famous film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.  If you get to the bottom you’ll even find a fun video of the whole excursion!

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Lake Jusanji

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Lake Jusanji

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Lake Jusanji

Next up was a short bus ride to the “long hike” through the waterways beneath Gamebong, one of Juwangsan’s sister peaks.  The flat path switched back and forth along the river as we splashed our way along.  Despite the pristine beauty surrounding us Juwangsan proved to be the emptiest Korean National Park I’ve been to yet.

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

I ran across the other side to snap photos of everyone crossing when suddenly I heard a scream!  Turns out a member of our party happened upon a swimming snake; Warren warned us that they were likely venomous so we kept our distance.  Sort of.  A go pro on a selfie pole kept scaring it towards the rest of our cameras and it seemed particularly keen on heading in my direction.  Luckily we were able to keep our distance in spite of its speedy swimming and snapped some splendid shots!

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park – river snake. Anyone know the name of this snake?

Continuing along our trek we quickly came across another baby snake scooting along above the water.  He was much more timid and just hid in the brush as we passed.  The chilly river water flowed freely down the rocks creating a beautiful series of waterfalls.   It was tempting to take a dip but we continued onward eager to reach the summit and break for a snack.

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Jirisan – The Descent

Descending Jirisan is no simple task.  After relaxing on the peak for nearly an hour and seeing a helicopter rescue we finally decided to get moving.  Before we actually climbed down we had a few kilometers of trail to cover on the ridgeline.

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Traveling among the clouds we enjoyed the youthgiving mountain air and stunning views. To the horizon and beyond all you could see were mountains and valleys.  Although Spring was blooming below it was oddly dead at this altitude.

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The ridgeline’s steady downgrade only had a few uphills thrown in.  It made for a wonderful stroll before we got to the first shelter.  While there we had a chance to refill our water, sit in the shade and enjoy a few “choco pies” from the quartermaster.  Silly me only brought a giant bag of trail-mix thinking I’d be able to pick up gimbap along the way.  I devoured a few of these snacks before beginning the real descent and seeing my first greenery of the day.

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Steps after steps; for some reason we forgot that 1900+ meters up also meant 1900+ meters down:(    At least there was a babbling brook to follow.  By now all the animals of the forest had woken up and birds and insects joined the river’s beautiful symphony!

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Playing with my tripod & long exposures

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Playing with my tripod & long exposures

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Playing with my tripod & long exposures

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