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(© Michael Yamashita/Corbis)
The Light of Zen Temple and Eternal Spring Shrine. (© Marc Dozier/Corbis)
(© Michael Yamashita/Corbis)
Bridge over Taroko Gorge (© Ron Watts/Corbis)
Buddhist temple overlooking Taroko Gorge. (© Ron Watts/CORBIS)
Hsiang-te Temple. (© Matthew Wakem/Aurora Photos/Corbis)
Tienfeng Pagoda. (© Ron Watts/Corbis)
(© James Marshall/Corbis)
(© Ludovic Maisant/Hemis/Corbis)
(© Pasmal/Amana Images/Corbis)
(© Ron Watts/Corbis)
(© 68/Allen Lee Taylor/Ocean/Corbis)
(© Top Photo Corporation/Corbis)
(© Ludovic Maisant/Hemis/Corbis)

Photos: Hike Through Towering Walls of Swirling Marble in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge

The Liwu He River carves a dramatic canyon through Taroko National Park

Just 15 kilometers north of Hualien City lies one of Taiwan's most scenic and accessible national parks. Taroko National Park stretches over 1,200 square kilometers, ranging from the sheer Qingshui Cliffs on the island's east coast to the breathtaking snow-capped peak of Mount Nanhu. But no part of the park is as celebrated, or arguably as stunning, as Taroko Gorge, an 18-kilometer canyon cut through towering walls of colored marble.

Four million years ago, the Eurasian tectonic plate began pushing against the Philippine Sea plate forcing huge blocks of metamorphic rock skyward, forming Taiwan's Central Mountain Range. Over time, the Liwu He River slowly etched its way through softer rock layers carving a twisting and narrow canyon with walls that stand over 300 meters tall in places. The continued friction of the region's tectonic plates, coupled with ongoing erosion from the Liwu, deepens the gorge by an average of .5 cm (.2 in) each year.

The park has been inhabited by various aboriginal groups for over 3,000 years. The Taroko tribe that calls the park home today moved into the mountainous region in the 17th century and lived in virtual isolation until Chinese settlers began moving into the area in the late 19th century. Although many members of the tribe were forced to relocate during the Japanese occupation, when the area was exploited for timber and mineral resources, isolated villages still dot the area.  

Today, thousands of tourists come to marvel at the canyon's vertigo-inducing cliff faces, sparkling waterfalls, tumbling rapids, ornate shrines and Taroko craftworks. Visitors can access the gorge by car or bus, but many of the park's features are best seen on foot. The park boasts close to 40 hiking trails, many of which started as Taroko hunting paths. Most are accessible directly from the main highway and are marked according to difficulty.

Two kilometers past the park headquarters, a short 1.4 kilometer trail leads across a suspension bridge to the beautiful Light of Zen Temple perched atop a spring-fed waterfall. Nearby, the moving Eternal Spring Shrine honors the workers who, a half a century ago, lost their lives constructing the perilous road through the mountains.

Seven kilometers further west the Swallow Grotto, named for the birds that once roosted in the pitted marble walls, is open only to pedestrians. Here the canyon walls seem to lean in and almost touch, creating remarkable rock formations.

Further inland still lies Tianxiang, a terrace cut into the cliffs by the Liwu before it shifted to its current course. Visitors can cross the gorge by suspension bridge and climb a winding staircase to view the giant golden Bodhisattva of Xiangde Temple or explore the magnificent, red, seven-story Tianfeng Pagoda. The tower offers stunning views, particularly in early morning when the mist clings to the lush mountains like a scene from a classic Chinese silk screen. Pause to listen for the call of the rare Formosan rock monkey, and watch for the over 108 species of butterflies and 122 species of birds that fly through the gorge's narrow channel.

Cycling along the main highway has also become an increasingly popular activity in the park and offers outstanding mountain views. Take a day trip to Tianxiang or, for those looking for a challenge, climb Wuling Pass, the highest section of road in East Asia at 3,275 meters above sea level.

Bikes, cars and scooters can be rented from the Hschincheng train station, and buses run between the park, Hualien Airport and the station daily. Many accommodations near the park and in Hualien also provide transportation. Silks Place Hotel, a beautiful 5-star hotel located within the park boundaries, offers shuttles to and from the airport and train station, guided tours, bicycle rentals and transportation to hiking trails—not to mention spectacular views of the gorge.

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