17 April 2020.
Taiwan is a dream destination for hikers, but one of its best kept secrets is that you don’t have to venture far to escape the hum of Taipei and be surrounded by nature.
In the foothills that surround the city, you’ll find a vast network of trails that will guide you to spectacular coastlines, rugged peaks or through thick, untamed jungle.
The lush Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail is one such walk.
Located just an hour from central Taipei in the verdant forests that surround the Keelung River, this easy half-day hike weaves between three beautiful waterfalls that lie hidden in the valley with muddy trails and mossy trees in full supply.
This scenic area also sets the scene for one of Taipei’s most popular day trips with several famous villages, including Houtong, Shifen and Pingxi, being found nearby which can all be accessed via the historic Pingxi Line railway. While the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail is perfect as a standalone adventure, it can also be added as a fun side excursion when visiting any of these villages.
Here’s everything you need to know to hike the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail.
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Taipei To Sandiaoling
First, you’ll need to make your way to Sandiaoling, a tiny village surrounded by greenery set alongside the Keelung River.
Direct trains depart Taipei Main Station for Sandiaoling every hour. An adult ticket costs $59 (€1.80) one way and the trip takes around an hour. Additional trains also depart from Ruifang in case you miss the direct service. You’ll find several connections to Ruifang from Taipei by both bus and train, or from Jiufen if you’re arriving from that direction.
If you’re planning to make a day of it and visit multiple villages on either side of your hike, it may be more economical to purchase a Pingxi Line Day Pass ($80/€2.50) which covers unlimited travel between Ruifang and Pingxi. The standard fare for this trip is $30 (€0.90) each way with single sections costing just $15 (€0.45), so you’d need to make multiple stops to make the day pass worth it.
You can search all timetables and route options on the excellent Taiwan Railways website.
Finding The Sandiaoling Waterfall Trailhead
When you arrive in Sandiaoling, exit the small train station and turn right onto the paved path which runs between the river and the train tracks.
After a short way, the tracks will part turning left over a bridge across the river and right towards Dahua and Shifen. As you approach the bridge, you’ll see a small tunnel cutting under the train tracks on your right. Turn in here and continue along the path for another 500m alongside the river.
Here, you’ll reach the tiny village of Yuliao and a map of the area that marks the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail. Turn right to cross the train tracks and continue through the houses until you reach a series of stairs that will lead you into the forest and on your way to the first waterfall.
If you’re using Maps.Me for navigation, you’ll find the track marked as ‘san diao ling bu dao’ leading out of Yuliao.
From the train station to the final waterfall, the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail is just 3km one way and can be completed in under 2 hours at a leisurely pace with plenty of time to take photos or go for a refreshing dip in the river.
At the other end, there are several options for where to finish the hike depending on whether you plan to return directly to Taipei or wish to continue to another village on the Pingxi Line.
After just 1.2km of muddy trails and rain-soaked forests that feel a world away from frenetic Taipei, you’ll reach the first of the waterfall trio, Hegu Waterfall, cascading down the far side of the valley amidst a wall of shaggy green and the odd trail of mist.
The viewing platform is also encased in ferns and foliage and makes a wonderfully serene spot to sit for a bit and drink it all in.
Motian lies just 1km further along the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail and was perhaps my favourite of the three.
Along the way, you’ll need to cross two small streams, one via a narrow rope bridge, before a final ascent that brings you to the viewing platform right at the base of the impressive falls.
Motian thunders over the clifftop in white veil before erupting across the enormous boulder that lies in the riverbed below. Stand in awe for long enough and you’ll quickly become soaked with spray.
There’s also a tiny muddy trail here that cuts beneath the cliff overhang and leads you behind the waterfall. The final stretch doesn’t have a barrier and the path soon deteriorated into a gloopy mess of soft slippery clay that threatened to send me sliding right over the edge so I didn’t venture the whole way around, but if you’re visiting at a drier time of year, you may have better luck.
Pipa Cave Waterfall
Just 200m further along up a steep metal staircase lies Pipa Cave or Pipadong Waterfall, another serene and beautiful spot where the river gurgles across the rocky platform before gushing over the edge into Motian Waterfall on the level below.
Here you can jump across the rocks of the riverbed, dip your feet in the cool water and wander ever so carefully to the precipice to gaze out across the verdant valley below.
From Pipa Cave Waterfall, there are a number of options for how to finish your hike, either by returning to Sandiaoling or continuing on to one of the other villages of the Pingxi Line.
Return To Sandiaoling
The easiest and possibly most scenic option is to simply turn around and return to Sandiaoling using the same way you came. This is the closest station if your plan is to return directly to Taipei and this track will allow you to stay within the forest and spend a little more time out in nature.
If you’re enjoying the area at a leisurely pace, you can also use this as an opportunity to squeeze in a refreshing river dip.
The day I visited was very rainy and with a slight autumn chill in the air so the water wasn’t all that inviting, but there are some lovely little pools and I can only imagine that on a hot summer’s day the river banks would be a great place to chill out.
Continue To Dahua Station
Ending the hike in Dahua is the most popular option from where you can either continue your journey along the Pingxi Line or make your way back to Taipei.
Near the Pipa Cave Waterfall, you’ll find the last remaining section of a wide rope ladder hanging off the muddy cliff which is your exit route from the hike. It’s a very short but almost vertical climb so be sure to hang on tightly, check your footholds if your shoes are muddy and, if you’re nervous about heights, perhaps don’t look down.
At the top, the path continues on through the forest with signs directing you to Dahua Station. After 500m you’ll reach a road where you’ll need to turn right and a short way further you’ll see an old paved track veering off to the left which will lead you toward Xinliao where you’ll rejoin the road.
Scattered around Xinliao is a another collection of waterfalls and cascades that lie along a 1km circuit near the village for those keen to keep exploring. There are two trails to get there – the first intersects the path a short way after you turn off the road and the second is a small trail that veers left just before you rejoin the road in Xinliao. Both come out near Innisfree Waterfall.
Otherwise, continue along the road into Xinliao and turn left at the intersection which will take you past the Xinliao Waterfall and into a parking lot. From here, there’s a rather precarious downhill staircase that will lead you to a red bridge across the Keelung River and back to the train tracks. Turn left and follow the tracks for the final few hundred metres toward Dahua. Trains are not all that frequent here but these tracks are still in use so be sure to keep an eye and an ear out.
This route is just 3.5km from Pipa Cave Waterfall to Dahua Station, plus an extra 1km if you add on the waterfall circuit from Xinliao.
It’s important to note though that if you’re using Maps.Me to guide you, the final section along the tracks is not labelled as a ‘pathway’ so it will try to take you along a different, much longer route. Instead, navigate to Xinliao or Xinliao Waterfall and from there you should be able to see the parking lot and stairs leading to the river.
Continue To Shifen
Having heard so much about Shifen – it’s the most popular Taipei day trip after all – I decided to add this small village to the end of my hike. It’s slightly longer than the other options and much of the way is along the road, so instead of going on foot, an alternative would be to make your way to either Sandiaoling or Dahua and arrive by train.
To walk there, follow the directions above for getting to Xinliao, except instead of turning left at the intersection in the village, continue straight ahead. After 500m you’ll reach the main road where you’ll need to turn left. From here, simply follow the road downhill as it winds its way into Shifen.
The entire route from Pipa Cave Waterfall is 5km, but after you turn onto the main road, you’ll pass the turnoff to the Shifen Waterfall after 1.5km and the entrance to the famous old street a further 1km down the road.
After a wonderful day spent in nature, Shifen was unfortunately a place that I felt just didn’t live up to the hype.
The old street was unbearably crowded, even on a rainy mid-week afternoon, with the train tracks and narrow walkways completely overrun with visitors. This place is particularly popular for setting off lanterns which also meant I was constantly dodging people lighting the flames and posing for photos, not to mention the oncoming trains.
For me, Taiwan just has so many other charming and lesser-visited villages that I wouldn’t hesitate to skip Shifen in favour of another village were I to do my day over again.
Also, as a tourist please resist the urge to send off a lantern of your own. These are absolutely terrible for the environment and as you make your way around the area you’ll see the fallen lights littering the rivers and roadsides, or trapped in the forest canopy which is such a shame.
If you’re still keen to visit Shifen, I’d highly recommend arriving early to avoid the crowds and either taking the train directly to Sandiaoling to begin your hike or doing it in in reverse from Shifen.
Wear Hiking Boots | The trail may be short and relatively easy, but it gets incredibly muddy and slippery and wearing proper waterproof boots is definitely a good idea.
Bring A Rain Jacket | As is the case with much of northern Taiwan, there’s a reason this beautiful pocket of forest is quite so lush and brimming with countless waterfalls – it receives an absolute deluge of rain. A rain jacket is essential!
If you’re visiting outside of summer, a rainy day can also make this area feel somewhat colder than the city so consider bringing a light sweater or long-sleeved shirt just in case.
Bring Snacks | Unless you’re planning to stop at Shifen or Pingxi, there’s not really anwhere to buy food along the trail so it’s best to bring your own. Though the hike is not long or particularly strenuous, when you factor in transport, the entire trip may take around 6 hours from Taipei so it’s a good idea to come prepared.
Use Maps.Me For Navigation | The trail itself is well-trodden, well-marked and easy to follow, but getting to the trailhead and making your way out on the otherside can be a little confusing. Maps.Me has the entire hiking trail marked as well as all the villages, train stations and alternate paths listed in this guide making navigation a breeze.
Screenshot The Train Timetables | Trains travelling the Pingxi Line are relatively infrequent so I’d recommend taking a screenshot of the timetable on your phone so that you don’t accidentally miss the only direct service that hour or have to waste too much time waiting to reach the next village. Search the timetables here.