1 February 2020.
It’s a place loved by many that can spark wide-eyed wonderment at a mere mention. Among others, however, it’s also bemoaned for its high price tag, package tour groups and overly manicured setup.
In all honesty, this latter group aren’t wrong, but in spite of that, I still found Alishan to be a place of astounding beauty and a touch of magic.
Nestled deep in the mountains of central Taiwan, enormous ancient cypress trees creak and groan overhead as if in deep conversation. Mossy trails and abandoned railway tracks meander through dense forests draped in an ethereal mist. Spring blooms and fiery autumn leaves wash the landscapes in colour. High alpine peaks offer up spectacular views and then there’s the famous sunrise that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Alishan is undeniably one of Taiwan’s most popular destinations, but it’s the kind of place that is popular for a reason and skipping over it in a vain attempt to avoid somewhere too touristy, well, you’re the one that will be sorely missing out.
What’s more, as many of the crowds stick to a very small section of the park, more adventurous types looking to hike rather than take a leisurely stroll between the trees will find the tour groups are actually exceedingly easy to avoid.
In this detailed guide you’ll find everything you need to know about visiting Alishan, including what ‘Alishan’ actually refers to, tips for finding accommodation, the best hikes, how to plan your itinerary and how to visit on a day trip if an overnight stay is simply out of your budget.
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Confusingly, if you type ‘Alishan’ into Google Maps, you’ll be directed to a vast mountainous area of Chiayi county that straddles the border with Nantou and Kaohsiung, rather than one specific mountain village. From here, you may also assume that the Alishan Township labelled in the map’s centre is the Alishan you’re trying to reach, but that would also be incorrect.
Then there are terms like Alishan National Scenic Area and National Forest Recreation Area thrown into the mix just to add to make matters even more complicated.
In fact, the Alishan outlined on Google Maps refers to the wider Alishan Mountains. This includes three main areas – the Northwest Corridor, Provincial Highway 18 and the Tsou Culture Area – which combined create the Alishan National Scenic Area.
Given its ease of access, the Provincial Highway corridor is by far the most popular and where you’ll find the National Forest Recreation Area which is what most people are actually referring to when they say ‘Alishan’ and where you’ll find all the key attractions listed in this guide.
Based on many of the online guides I read, I had been lead to believe that actually getting to Alishan was going to be something of a headache.
As it turns out, provided you’re not vying for one of the tickets for the Alishan Forest Railway, it’s actually exceedingly simple to get there.
Chiayi to Alishan By Bus
From the front of Chiayi Train Station (TRA), buses head to directly to Alishan almost every hour between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. and will drop you at the entrance to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
The bus is #7322 and as of November 2019, the schedule was: 5:55, 6:55, 7:55, 8:25, 8:55, 9:25, 9:55, 10:55 and 11:55 a.m., and 13:55 p.m. The bus departs from the Chiayi HSR Daya Station at this time, arriving at the Chiayi TRA Station 10 minutes later. Some buses go via Fenchihu and there are additional services which travel directly from the HSR Station.
The trip takes around 2 hours and costs $240 (€7), payable in exact change or with an EasyCard.
It’s a very windy route and there were definitely passengers on my bus who got motion sick, so if that’s you, be sure to take precautions so you don’t arrive feeling absolutely dreadful as well.
For the return journey, buses depart Alishan for Chiayi at 10:10 a.m. and 1:30, 2:40 and 4:40 p.m. (to HSR Station); 9:10, 11:40 a.m. and 12:40, 1:40, 2:10, 2:40, 3:10, 3:40, 4:10 and 5:10 p.m. (to TRA Station). You’ll find the current timetable posted inside the terminal in front of the 7-11 so it’s a good idea to check it hasn’t changed when you arrive.
You can buy your tickets on the day of travel between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from a counter inside the 7-11.
Chiayi To Alishan By Forest Train
The Alishan Forest Train is considered as one of the ‘five wonders’ of Alishan taking in spectacular scenery as the historic carriages climb higher through the mountains.
However, tickets are limited and generally hard to get, particularly during peak season and on weekends. What’s more, since a typhoon in 2009 damaged a large section of the tracks, these days the train only goes as far as Fenchihu from where you’ll need to take the bus the rest of the way.
It departs at 9 a.m. from Chiayi TRA Station with an additional service at 9:30 a.m. on holidays and weekends. The return service departs Fenchihu at 2 p.m. with an additional service at 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays. The train takes 2 hours plus a 1-hour bus from Fenchihu.
Tickets are released 14 days in advance and can sell out quickly. When I tried to buy one 10 days in advance for a weekday in November, there were none available but, for example, now in February, there are plenty of tickets up for grabs. In low season, you can also sometimes get lucky buying last-minute tickets directly from the station.
New in 2020, there is finally an English booking platform for the Alishan Forest Railway which you can find here. For Fenchihu, select the Chiayi to Shizilu route. Shenmu and Zhaoping are located within the National Forest Recreation Area.
Having said that, unless you’re absolutely set on taking the train, I’d recommend saving yourself the time and hassle and just taking the bus which is straightforward and will get you to Alishan much faster.
Sun Moon Lake To Alishan
If you have both Alishan and Sun Moon Lake on your itinerary, save yourself a bunch of time backtracking to the big cities and simply take a shuttle between the two instead.
From Sun Moon Lake, the shuttle departs at 8 and 9 a.m. from in front of the now under construction Shuishe Visitor Centre. From Alishan, shuttles depart at 1 and 2 p.m.
It’s an incredibly scenic journey that runs parallel to the impressive Yushan massif via a series of twisting hairpin bends and mountain forests before emerging in a wide valley where spindly palms climb high above a patchwork of verdant farmlands. If you’re travelling from Alishan, catching the afternoon light streaming through the mountain-flanked valley is nothing short of spectacular.
The trip takes 3 to 4 hours depending on how gungho your driver is and which direction you’re travelling.
The bus station sits just outside the entrance gate to Alishan, around 500m from the Alishan Village where you’ll find all the main tourist services like the Visitor Centre, train station, restaurants and most hotels.
When you arrive by bus, you’ll be given a small yellow ticket which you’ll need to show to the official when buying your Alishan park entry ticket. The entrance fee is $150 (€4.50) per person (with the yellow ticket), or $200 (€6) per person if you’re arriving by private car.
From here, continue uphill along the main road and follow the signs to the Visitor Centre which will lead you into a large car park that marks the centre of the Alishan Village. The Visitor Centre stands in the far corner while the hotel strip can be found along the road behind it, accessible either directly along the road or via a number of staircases that feed off the parking lot.
If you’re arriving by car, you’ll find three separate car parks scattered around this area. Private vehicles are restricted in the rest of the park.
I’d recommend heading straight to your hotel to drop off your luggage so you can get exploring right away. Then stop by the Visitor Centre to pick up a map which clearly marks all hiking trails, train routes and forest roads and makes navigating the park a whole lot easier.
The Alishan National Forest Recreation Area is surprisingly compact and getting virtually anywhere is perfectly manageable on foot. But for those moments when you’re short on time or feeling worn out after a long day of hiking, there are also shuttle buses and forest trains to get you between a few key locations.
Shuttle buses originate from the Visitor Centre and stop at Zhaoping and Xianglin. There are two additional stops at the bus station and just outside the Alishan Village. Services depart every 30 minutes and cost $60 (€1.80) per trip. Buy your ticket from the small booth at each stop before climbing aboard. Some hotels, such as Alishan House, also runs a private shuttle service for guests.
There are two train lines running from Alishan Station to Zhaoping, and Alishan Station to Sacred Tree (Shenmu). Trains run almost every half hour and cost $100 (€3) per trip. Check the current schedule here or posted near the train station.
During my visit, I relied on the shuttle buses each morning to get me from Alishan Village to Zhaoping which provides access to many of the walking trails. As most locations are relatively close by, I often found getting around the rest of the park on foot was easier (and faster) than waiting for the shuttle or train to come.
For such a beautiful place, it’s a real shame that the accommodation in Alishan leaves a lot to be desired and is, for the most part, tired, over-priced and just doesn’t offer great value.
I always rely on Booking.com for finding the best accommodation deals, but I found that most Alishan hotels aren’t listed here, so if you’re struggling to find somewhere to stay, I’d recommend looking on Google Maps instead and going directly to the hotel website for their rates and booking forms. It can be quite time consuming and you’ll quickly notice that many of the hotel ratings are rather poor, but this may be the only option if you’re booking last minute or are on a tighter budget.
These are among the better options for Alishan hotels.
Alishan House | Easily the best of the bunch, this 4-star hotel offers comfortable rooms, an onsite restaurant, a viewing deck with spectacular vistas over the forest and mountains and a spa. Located a short walk from the Alishan Tourist Village, they also offer a shuttle service to bring you to and from the hotel and other stops within the park. Check rates and availability here.
Wankou Hotel | Another decent option, this simple guesthouse on Alishan’s hotel strip offers traditional rooms, includes a buffet breakfast and has a sun deck with mountain views. Check rates and availability here.
Dengshan Hotel | Booking last minute, this was where I ended up staying and one of very few places that had rooms available. Though it’s nothing special, at $1,800 (€55) for a double it’s one of the more affordable places on offer in Alishan.
TOP TIPS FOR ALISHAN ACCOMMODATION
1 | Book well in advance, particularly in summer, on weekends and during cherry blossom season.
2 | Make sure your hotel is located within the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. Alishan refers to a huge mountainous area and plenty of properties that could be hours away from here still like to say they’re in Alishan. Technically, they’re correct, but it’s also terribly misleading.
3 | If you can’t find accommodation within the forest area, Shizhao, a mountain village just an hour away, is beautifully situated amongst the tea plantations and makes a decent alternative to Alishan Village. It’s also easily accessible by bus. Read about the other things to do in Shizhao here.
4 | Aside from a few exceptions, virtually all the Alishan hotels are located side by side on the road behind the Visitor Centre. Most include a buffet breakfast which is served at the Songhe Restaurant across the parking lot.
5 | If you’re on a tight budget, avoid weekends and especially peak cherry blossom season (March and April) when prices increase considerably.
In the name of research, I made it my mission to complete every single official trail in the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. Just two are considered actual ‘hikes’ while the rest are designed as short, leisurely boardwalks to be wandered and enjoyed slowly.
As always, I’d recommend getting an early start to make use of the morning weather and beat the crowds, particularly if you’re visiting the Sister Ponds and Giant Trees area which are a favourite for daytrippers. As many tours depart from Chiayi, they usually only begin filtering through the park at around 11 a.m. and stick mainly to this small section leaving the other trails relatively crowd free.
Without a doubt my favourite hike in Alishan, the Tashan Trail meanders through beautiful old cypress forests hung with moss and lichen before climbing steeply to a viewing platform where you’ll be rewarded by a spectacular panorama overlooking the endless folds of the central highlands.
The trail begins 600m from Zhaoping Station where you can immediately join the hiking trail or walk along the train tracks which run parallel. Both are rather pretty so I’d suggest taking the trail on the way there and the tracks on the way back.
The first 2km are relatively flat with a few small hills if you’re following the trail, while the final 1.5km climbs a series of steep stairs that are particularly brutal and seem to get steeper with every bend as you approach the summit.
At the 3.6km marker you’ll reach a building which appears to be the end of the trail, but be sure to continue around it and take the long staircase to the locked gate where you’ll find the viewing platform directly to your right at the 3.7km marker.
The return hike is 7.5km with a recommended time of 4 hours, but at a good pace it can be completed in 3 hours – 1.5 hours up, 1 hour down and 30 minutes to recuperate and enjoy the views at the summit.
Try to begin the hike as early as possible in order to reach the viewpoint before the clouds descend. I had a clear view for just 10-minutes before Alishan’s notoriously thick fog rolled across the mountains transforming the forest into an achingly beautiful and eery scene, but leaving the poor hikers that followed with no view to enjoy at all.
I hiked this beautiful moss-covered trail just after sunrise when soft rays filtered through the trees dappling the spongey forest floor with golden light.
The views are impressive, similar to what you’ll see from Mt Ogasawara (the famous sunrise spot), and you’ll find the best vantage point along the trail about 50m from the final pavilion which is encased in dense trees.
This is another of Alishan’s proper hiking trails, though at just 3.5km return, it can easily be completed in 1 to 2 hours. If you’re looking to escape the crowds but don’t have the time or patience for Tashan, Duegaoyue is a great alternative.
The trailhead sits near the Zhushan Station and can can accessed via the Zhushan Footpath from Zhaoping and the Forest Road, or after viewing the sunrise at Zhushan.
Following the abandoned Zhongzhi train tracks through a beautiful stretch of forest filled with fragrant cedar and cypress trees, this trail ends along a short paved footpath that brings you to the Shuishan Giant Tree, an enormous Taiwan Red Cypress estimated to be some 2,700 years old.
At just 1.8km return, the trail is mostly flat and can be completed in 30 minutes to 1 hour. It also manages to escape much of the day-trip crowds. You’ll find the trailhead a short way to the left of Zhaoping.
SISTER PONDS + GIANT TREE TRAIL
Veering off the road near Zhaoping, the Sister Ponds and Giant Trees area are among the most accessible in the park and therefore also the most popular. For anyone you’ve heard moan about the large clusters of often noisy tour groups, this is most likely where they’ve encountered them. Still, if you set off early enough, the walkway can be wonderfully peaceful.
Built as a boardwalk for most of the way so as not to damage the fragile ecosystem, the path meanders across the forest floor carpeted in moss and tiny saplings beneath a canopy so dense that barely any light filters through. The Sister Ponds, a pair of small pools with a pavilion jutting into the middle, are a pleasant place to sit and relax before moving on to the Magnolia Garden. By late autumn this areas was looking rather drab, with the trees free from both leaves and flowers, but I can only imagine how lovely it must be in spring and summer when the new blossoms begin to unfurl washing the garden in colour.
The trail ends at Xianglin Service Area where you’ll find Shouzhen Temple and a collection of food stalls and souvenir stands.
Onwards, you’ll find yourself amongst a sea of giants with hundreds of ancient red cypress trees climbing high overhead. If you can get here before the hoards, these forests are incredibly beautiful and feel old and full of wonder. Walk slowly, look up and soak it all in.
Leading off the main circuit are two separate raised boardwalks that will bring you past a number of impressive millennia-old trees that are labelled alongside the trail. Most famous is the Alishan Sacred Tree which stands at the edge of the forest near Ciyun Temple and dates back 2,300 years. This is a drop-off point for the tour buses and the enormous tree trunk is a favourite selfie spot so expect the crowds here to be inescapable after mid-morning.
The entire walking distance between Sister Ponds and Ciyun Temple via the forest is 2.3km which can take 2 or more hours to explore at a very leisurely pace.
Though these areas are best visited together, it’s also possible to separate them and return from the Xianglin Service Area where there is a shuttle bus stand.
Witness The Famous Alishan Sunrise At Zhushan Or Mt Ogasawara
An iconic experience on any Taiwan itinerary, witnessing sunrise is without a doubt the most popular thing to do in Alishan and, for many, their entire reason for visiting in the first place.
On a perfect morning, you’ll watch night shift into day as mountain peaks become silhouetted against a sky stained crimson and fuschia and the first shimmering rays of light wash across a wide valley filled with fluffy white clouds. It’s important to note however that despite this cloud inversion being Alishan’s star attraction, it’s surprisingly rare to see and requires a precise combination of conditions.
Regardless, on the morning I visited, the anticipation of the waiting crowd was palpable and, clouds or not, it still felt every bit as magical as I had hoped.
The Alishan sunrise is best viewed from either Zhushan Station, or better, Mt Ogasawara which is a 10-minute uphill walk along a narrow road from the station.
The forest train is a big part of the experience and you’ll need to buy your train ticket from the station the day before for $150 (€4.50) between 1 and 4 p.m. Trains depart from Alishan Station in the wee hours every morning based on the time of sunrise so be sure to take note of the schedule. See here under Chushan Line.
The platform and carriages get incredibly crowded so I’d recommend arriving around half an hour before the actual departure time to join the line early. Once through the ticket checkpoint, you’ll need to line up along the white lines on the platform so try to find the shortest queue to help ensure you get a seat.
An alternative is to reach Zhushan on foot via the Zhushan Footpath and Forest Road which takes about an hour.
Don’t forget to dress warmly as it’s a long wait for the sun to rise.
Wander The Cherry Blossom Trails
Alishan is Taiwan’s premier destination for petal peeping and no time is more popular than cherry blossom season when over 1,000 trees erupt into a sea of dreamy pastel pinks.
Lining many of the park’s forest roads you’ll notice rows of naked trees, but come spring these form a network of beautiful blossom-shrouded avenues. The Cherry Blossom Trail near Zhaoping has a tight cluster of trees, while the forest trail between Alishan Village and Xianglin also showcases a number, including the King Cherry Tree which is over a century old.
Peak flower season runs from mid-March to mid-April when both cherry blossoms and rhododendrons bring colour to this pocket of the mountains. With warming temperatures however seasons are shifting slightly.
Catch Sunset At Ciyun Temple
While sunrise in Alishan is quite the spectacle, sunset can also be a beautiful experience if the skies remain clear.
One of the best sunset spots is from the viewing platform a few hundred metres from Ciyun Temple which is just a 20 to 30 minute walk from Alishan Village.
On a two-day, one-night visit to Alishan, you can see the entire forest recreation area at a reasonably slow pace. To explore the picturesque countryside around Fenchihu, Shizhao (read the full guide for these villages here) and the wider Alishan Mountains, you’ll need to allocate a few more days.
Here’s how I planned my Alishan itinerary, perfect for those who love hiking and want an active experience. If you’re planning to visit on a day trip, scroll down for my tips.
DAY 1 | Arrive Alishan, Hike Tashan and Shuishan Trails
Take an early morning departure from Chiayi to allow yourself as much time as possible to enjoy the area.
When you arrive in Alishan, buy your entry ticket and make your way to your hotel where you should be able to store your luggage until check-in.
After a brief stop at the Visitor Centre to collect a map, walk or take the shuttle bus to Zhaoping to begin the Tashan Trail which should take around 3 to 4 hours. I’d recommend bringing a packed lunch or snacks with you to enjoy at the summit.
After the hike, make your way back to Zhaoping and follow the abandoned railway of the Shuishan Trail.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on the time and be sure to make it back to Alishan Station before 4:00 p.m. to buy your train ticket for sunrise the following day.
If you’re still feeling energetic and the weather is clear, head to Ciyun Temple for sunset before dinner back at Alishan Village. You’ll find a few sit down restaurants scattered around the parking lot, or a covered arcade with a number of hole-in-the-wall food stands offering very affordable local dishes. Otherwise the 7-11 is always a popular choice.
DAY 2 | Alishan Sunrise, Duegaoyue Trail, Sister Ponds and Giant Trees
The moment you’ve all been waiting for, sunrise will require a very early start in time to catch the train. You’ll be dropped at the Zhushan Station but I’d recommend continuing up the road to the Mt Ogasawara Viewing Platform instead as the views are far better with fewer crowds.
Once the sun is up, people start to disperse rather quickly but it’s worthwhile staying to watch the morning light flood through the valley.
From here, there are a few possible ways for you to spend the morning which will depend on what time of year you’re visiting and what time the sunrise actually is. In June, for example, it rises about 90 minutes earlier than in January which will give you plenty of extra time before you need to be back at your hotel.
So, you can either return to the station and take the train back to Alishan Village for your hotel breakfast – there are just a few departures after sunrise that are included in your ticket – and skip the Duegaoyue Trail altogether. While the walk is beautiful, the views are similar to those from Mt Ogasawara so you’re not missing much from that perspective.
Alternatively, the option that I took was to go straight from Mt Ogasawara to the Duegaoyue Trail which is located nearby and then race back in time to eat breakfast and check out of my hotel.
Honestly though, the buffet breakfast in Alishan Village isn’t particularly special so what I’d actually suggest if you have the time, is picking up a snack from one of the food stalls near the Zhushan Station – scallion pancakes are always a good idea! – and enjoying the hike at a leisurely pace before returning in time to check out from your hotel. If you choose this option, try to have your luggage packed the night before so you don’t need to waste time doing this at the last minute, or consider checking out when you leave for sunrise so you can avoid going back altogether.
If you’re in need of a pick me up at this point, stop in at one of the food stalls or the 7-11 in Alishan Village for a snack or a drink. If you’re visiting during peak season, you may also want to buy your bus ticket now to avoid missing out later in the day. Be sure to have your Alishan entry ticket with you to show the officials at the gate so they allow you to come back in.
Next, walk or take the shuttle bus to Zhaoping and follow the road towards the Sister Ponds Boardwalk and Giant Tree Trail. Spend the next few hours wandering slowly between the magical moss-carpeted forests, taking detours to visit all the giant trees, as well as Shouzhen and Ciyun Temples.
Finally, make your way back to Alishan Village via the forest trail to take the bus out. I was departing to Sun Moon Lake at 2 p.m. and so this filled my day perfectly. If you were leaving on a later departure and had skipped the morning hike to Duegaoyue, you could consider squeezing it in now instead.
In short, absolutely!
The high cost of accommodation in Alishan means many budget travellers are put off from visiting, but the good news is that a day trip here, albeit a very long one, is entirely possible. Of course, it means plenty of time on the bus and you’ll miss the famous sunrise, but you’ll still be able to experience the stunning hikes and fantastic ancient forests which, in my opinion, is a far better alternative than skipping the area altogether.
To get the most out of your day, I’d recommend staying overnight in Chiayi (or somewhere even closer like Shizhao) and taking one of the very first buses which will get you to Alishan around 9 or 10 a.m. If you’re starting from Taipei or Taichung, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest trying to visit Alishan as a day trip as you’ll spend far more time travelling than actually enjoying the sights.
If you’re an avid hiker, start with one of the longer trails like Tashan or Duegaoyue. For a more leisurely morning, skip the hike and take a train or shuttle to Zhaoping and continue on foot towards the Mt Ogasawara Viewing Platform, famous as the sunrise vantage point, but just as beautiful at any time of day.
After lunch, visit the Sister Ponds and Giant Trees Trail or return to Zhaoping to walk the Shuishan Trail before making your way back to the bus station. The final departure is usually around 5 p.m. and I’d recommend buying your ticket when you arrive in the morning to ensure you don’t miss out.
It’s also possible to visit Alishan on a day tour, though do keep in mind that many focus on the lower tea growing region and often spend just an hour or two in the Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
This highly-rated full-day Discover Alishan Mountain tour includes a stop at Fenchihu for their famous lunchboxes and a stroll through the village’s historic street before reaching Alishan to explore the ancient forests and take a brief trip on the forest train. Check rates and availability here.