The crunch of gravel beneath your hiking boots. The satisfying splash that comes with cannonballing into a river. The uneasiness of crossing a gorge via a narrow footbridge. These are just a few of the reasons why river tracing—also known as canyoning—has become such a popular sport throughout Taiwan.
River tracing is like hiking, but better: Rather than sticking to a well-groomed trail, river tracing expeditions involve scaling boulders, wading across currents of water and scurrying through caves inhabited by bats. In other words, these day hikes are not for the faint of heart.
Over the last decade, river tracing has gained popularity throughout Asia, with outfitters cropping up in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, where it’s believed to have gotten its start. Professional river tracing outfitters lead expeditions for anyone daring enough to come along for the ride, but until fairly recently, most geared their trips toward locals.
But not anymore: Enter Hualien Outdoors, a company based in Hualien County, a mountainous region about 100 miles south of Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. The outfitter customizes its trips specifically for foreigners who are unfamiliar with the area and who more than likely face a language barrier, along with the other challenges of the trail.
Owned by Matt Hopkins, Hualien Outdoors has been leading river tracing adventures in Taiwan since 2011. The company began in 2008 as an outdoor school for children, but eventually began taking groups of adrenaline junkies to some of the farthest reaches of the country. Now Hopkins and his colleagues accompany river tracers to places with storybook-sounding names like Golden Grotto, a slot canyon complete with an Instagram-worthy waterfall, and Emerald Valley, known for having a body of water the same shade as the green gemstone.
As lead guide, Hopkins says he caters each tour specifically for each group, which can include anywhere from two to more than eight people. Creating each itinerary, which can range in length from a two-hour jaunt to a grueling eight-hour journey, requires a lot of planning. Hopkins prides himself on the fact that no two of his tours have ever been the same.
“Each destination is chosen the morning of the trip based on group size, experience and preferences,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “Our trips take our guests to the places no one else goes.”
For example, one expedition might involve cliff jumping tempered by a relaxing soak in a hot spring or volcanic clay bath. Another could include river wading and a hunt for jade. Hopkins says that it’s also not uncommon to spot some wildlife along the way, such as monkeys and snakes. And spending quality time soaking in one of Taiwan's crystal-clear rivers is one of the highlights of the journey.
“Imagine 95-degree-plus temperatures with 100-percent humidity while [soaking in] a river that is just the right temperature of coolness, surrounded by massive marble cliffs, canyons and jungle,” he says. “[You've got] a wilderness river filled with massive boulders and glass-clear drinkable water to hike and swim up, or [you can] relax in a waterfall and feel cleaner for having done it."
But, warns Hopkins, all of that sereneness and solitude also comes with the potential for danger. He says that his guides have helped guests contend with everything from flash floods to falling rocks and snakes. Having a guide—and facing challenges with a mantra of "stop the problems before they happen," helps mitigate the dangers that come with clambering over and across boulders and streams, he explains.
Could there be a better way to experience the Taiwanese countryside? Maybe not—but to truly trace Taiwan's rivers, get ready to get wet. After all, says Hopkins, "The most comfortable place is in the river itself.”