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The Golden Grotto hike on the east coast of Taiwan is a fantastic half-day river tracing adventure into the heart of the Sanzhan River valley. The hike follows the course of the river, quite literally, into Taiwan's coastal mountains and into a narrow canyon. A waterfall that empties into a small hollow at the end of this canyon, bathed in golden sunlight from a natural oculus, is the centrepiece and prize at the end of this incredible trail.
Check out this video of our Golden Grotto adventure to give you an idea of what to expect.
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Hiking the Golden Grotto
The Golden Grotto forms part of a half-day hike that follows the course of the Sanzhan River. This 11 km river tracing trail (5.5 km to the Golden Grotto and 5.5 km back) starts and ends in a small village on the banks of the river. The hike is very popular among local tour operators and river tracers so you can probably expect some company along the way.
For those don't like to get wet, this probably isn't the hike for you as the trail often crisscrosses the river which can vary in depth from ankle-high to well overhead, particularly after there has been some rain.
The main feature of this hike is a waterfall that plunges into the Golden Grotto and diffuses the sunlight that streams in from an opening above. Standing at the base of the falls and staring up into the daylight beyond is both breathtaking and surreal and definitely worth the effort!
The path is fairly clear, although not well-marked and there are a number river crossings which will require you to find the path on the other side again. The route is fairly slow-going owing to a number of river crossings and all the scrambling over boulders.
While many of the hiking trails in Taiwan require a permit to complete, the Golden Grotto is one that can be done any time and without having to sign a register.
While this is an open hike, hikers should still be sure to exercise due diligence before heading out. Make sure you check the weather forecast before you leave. The east coast of Taiwan has very wet weather all year round, and in the summer, typhoons can bring heavy downpours that cause the rivers to swell extremely quickly, so be sure to check the weather forecast for both the area you're hiking, as well as the river's catchment areas.
Hikers should also check the river levels before starting the hike. A good way to gauge if the river level is too high is to see how easy it is to do the very first river crossing at the beginning of the trail. If you're able to cross with no difficulty, then the chances are, the water level is fine. If you're battling against the current, and you're being pushed back, you may want to exercise caution along the way, particularly towards the end when you will enter the narrow canyon that leads to the Golden Grotto. If you can't make this first crossing comfortably, then rethink continuing.
In case of emergency, hikers can dial 119 from a Taiwanese mobile number to access fire and ambulance services.
We completed the Golden Grotto hike while we were living in Hualien city. Hikers commonly choose to overnight in the Sanzhan village or in Hualien city and either catch the bus or train to Sanzhan.
Golden Grotto route description
The route largely traverses boulder-strewn terrain. These mostly marble stones have been brought down over the years by the Sanzhan River. This means lots of scrambling and the odd lose rock to keep an eye out for when placing your feet. There are a few jungle trail sections and a number of river crossings as you zigzag your way upstream. All in all though, its breathtaking scenery the whole way up.
The final section of the trail is through a tributary canyon that has towering walls on either side. As the route approaches the Golden Grotto in the canyon there is a series of pools that need to be swum as they are too deep to wade, as well as 3 waterfalls that will need to be climbed in order to access the grotto. There were ropes at 2 of the waterfalls we climbed, although this may not always be a given so hikers wanting to attempt this trail should be prepared for that.
The trail should only be attempted by hikers with a fair to good level of fitness. Hikers should also have basic rock climbing skills and know how to swim. If that's an issue, then make sure you're equipped with a life jacket and don't attempt any sections that are beyond your ability level. There's nothing particularly technical about the route, but, on the whole, one shouldn't expect it to be easy going.
At the beginning of the trail, hikers can choose to take an old path on the left of the river (which hugs the edge of the cliffs) or to just follow the river bank. We'd recommend the latter option as the old path is quite narrow and precarious in places.
There are a number of crystal clear pools along the way so be sure to stop and cool off as you go. There are stunning views around every bend of the tall coastal mountains that tower around you. It's really quite something to behold.
Roughly 4 km from the starting point the river makes a sharp U-turn to the left and you should see some massive rocks on the right where a small tributary flows into the Sanzhan River. This is the entrance to the canyon. There are a few cairns around this point, however, frequent flooding means that you can't rely on any markers.
These final few hundred metres in the canyon before entering the Golden Grotto are the most difficult part of the hike. Firstly, there is a short rope climb (nothing too crazy) up to the a pool where you'll start a series of swims and waterfall-climbs to get to the Golden Grotto. It's worth noting that, even on a hot day, it gets quite chilly along this last stretch as you're in the shade all the way and wet from all the swimming.
There are 2 smallish waterfalls that you'll need ropes to climb. Whenever we've done the trail there have been ropes at theses points left by tour operators for their groups, but don't count on them always being there. Be sure to test the ropes before you climb them and be sure to throw them back down once you've used them.
The 3rd waterfall is much larger than the others, and depending on how much water is flowing, can be a simple climb or require rope assistance. If the water is flowing beyond the level to which you feel comfortable, do not attempt to climb it. It's a significant drop if anything goes wrong, and you are far from help.
Once you're at the top of this last waterfall you'll find yourself in the Golden Grotto - a large stone chamber into which flows a beautiful waterfall.
Spend some time taking it all in and getting some photos with your waterproof camera before heading right back the way you came. The hike back is significantly quicker, especially if you take advantage of the river current and drift some of the way, which is also a lot more fun.
Important information for hikers
Approximate trail distance: 11 km (6,8 miles).
Approximate time: 3-5 hours at a comfortable pace.
Permit details: There is a tourism office in the Sanzhan village, however, we've never needed a permit to do this hike.
Weather considerations: Be sure to check the weather forecast before you go, or get advice from local establishments who can advise on current conditions. The weather changes quickly on the east coast of Taiwan so always be prepared for rainy weather, even if there are blue skies when you begin the hike.
Path condition: Although the path is mostly obvious (just follow the river) it is not very well-marked and it's very easy to walk right past the canyon entrance to the Golden Grotto. You're pretty much looking for a sharp left bend with some huge boulders on the right river bank, about 4 km from the starting point.
Hiking in groups: Hikers may choose to join a tour group or take a guide who will be familiar with the route, river conditions and carry with them all the necessary safety gear needed. If you're attempting the trail unassisted then be sure to travel in a group as there is a high degree of danger on this trail and if something goes wrong you do not want to be out there on your own.
Map of the route
Places to stay
There are a limited number of places to stay at in the Sanzhan village so you may find a better selection of hotels and hostels in the nearby Hualien city.
What to pack for the Golden Grotto Hike
- Clothing that can cover you from the sun and get wet (there is a lot of swimming).
- If you feel the cold, you may want to bring a wetsuit, especially during winter when both the water and air temperature can get pretty cold.
- River tracing or old hiking shoes (something with thick soles, good grip and can get wet).
- A dry bag to store electronics and a dry towel.
- Sun cream and a hat.
- Drinking water and trail snacks.
- Safety gear: A helmet and life jacket (these are optional, but definitely recommended).
- Climbing rope (there are ropes at most of the points where you need it, however, you can't always count on that).
Getting to the start of the trail
The trail starts at a car park in the Sanzhan village just north of the main city of Hualien. To get to the village, one can catch a train to Jingmei Train Station and hike/cycle the way to the start or catch a local city bus to the Sanzhan village. Both options are really cheap and can be arranged from the main Hualien Train Station.
Another option is to rent some bicycles and cycle there and back. The road is flat and it's pretty easy.
When to go
The Golden Grotto hike can be done any time of the year. Summer daytime temperatures can be extremely high so protective precautions need to be taken and hikers need to drink lots of water.
Try to leave as early as possible to:
- Beat the heat,
- Catch the sunlight in the Golden Grotto (which happens around noon when the sun is high).
- Avoid the rainfall that usually comes in the afternoons.
When not to go
- During, or shortly after a typhoon.
- Shortly after any heavy rains or when the river's water level is high - you can tell this by how fast the water is flowing.
- Shortly after an earthquake (which are quite common in this area).
- Beware of loose rocks along the riverbank as you scramble over the boulders.
- There are a number of poisonous snakes around the trails in Taiwan, particularly in the summer time, so keep a sharp eye on where you step and beware of grabbing onto branches in the jungle sections without checking them first.
- Watch out for rockfalls in the canyon section of the trail. Even small stones falling from a height can be very dangerous.
- Beware of strong river currents and of flash flooding.
- Taiwan emergency services: 119
- Taiwan police services: 110
- The Taiwan Central Weather Bureau: https://www.cwb.gov.tw/eng/