Published on : Thursday, December 26, 2013
Jialuo Lake is not just one lake, but a collection of some 20-plus lakes situated in the northern reaches of the Central Mountain Range in northeastern Taiwan. Visiting the lake involves a fantastic 2-day camping and hiking trip that takes you deep into the mountains.
The lakes were well known during the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial era, when the area was developed for logging, but then apparently almost forgotten until 1999, when a man-made fire burnt down some 50 hectares of surrounding forest and the exposed lakes were rediscovered.
The hike begins off an old forestry road that once was used for logging, just above the small indigenous village of Siji, which is located along Provincial Highway No. 7A in Yilan County. The forestry road is normally passable by motorbike; but on my most recent visit, in May 2013, only travel on foot was possible, adding a couple of hours to the hike.
At the end of the road is a small stream and waterfall. My fellow hikers and I stopped there for lunch, taking advantage of the water supply to make some coffee and fill up canteens. While the water is clean and clear, it can’t be drunk unless it has been boiled or treated with chlorine.
The trail proper begins just 100 meters beyond the spot where we lunched and is easy to find. Next to the trailhead is a giant red cypress that is at least 70 meters tall. The tree towered above us, and we all strained our necks trying to see the top! I always find it amazing that in places like Jialuo Lake and Alishan, where there was so much logging in the past, the odd giant tree such as this one was left intact. It’s almost as if the tree was so huge that no one dared cut it down.
Although the hike up from the trailhead is a tough, relentless uphill slog, it takes you through a gorgeous pine forest. The floor of the forest is covered with large ferns, making the scene especially beautiful. As we headed up ever higher, the clouds that had been threatening to rain on us instead began to part, and we were treated to beams of ethereal light breaking through the forest canopy.
As we carried on walking the ferns began to disappear, replaced by sturdy dwarf bamboo – which meant we were nearing the top. After four hours of hiking we finally climbed over a crest, finishing the hardest part of the hike.
From this point, it’s like you’ve entered a completely different world. The trail is totally surrounded by two-meter-high silver grass. In places, if the person in front of you gets more than a couple of meters ahead he/she completely disappears from view! Many branches shoot off the main trail – the area is riddled with trails – so care needs to be taken to avoid becoming lost. In amongst the silver grass, you can also see hundreds of white, dead trees, killed in the 1999 forest fire.
Pressing on, we crossed another ridge and passed several smaller lakes, all the time in ankle-deep mud, before finally arriving at Jialuo Lake in the late afternoon. It seems the hike is gaining in popularity, as there were at least 20 tens already set up by the lakeside. We decided to camp on ground a little higher and further away in the hope it would be a little quieter.
The next morning we woke to brilliant blue skies. There wasn’t the slightest breeze, so the reflections on the lake were perfect, a photographer’s dream. After spending a while exploring the lake, we packed up and started back.
Along the way, half of our group decided on a detour in order to climb to the top of nearby Mt. Jialuo (2,320m). It is a challenging climb; the path is steep and the bamboo is so thick that in places you need to get on all fours to crawl through it. Soaking wet from the dew-covered bamboo, we arrived at the peak to be greeted by a spectacular sea of clouds sitting over Yilan far, far below us. The half of the group that didn’t come with us had really missed out!
A mountain entry permit is required for the hike, and can be applied for on the spot at the police station in Siji village. It can get very muddy, so gaiters are a good idea. Also, the thick silver grass is very sharp; wearing long sleeves and trousers reduces the risk of cuts and scratches.