Hiking to Jiufen
Hiking to Jiufen overview
The former gold mining town of Jiufen (九份), nestled in the mountains near Taipei, is a popular tourist destination in its own right and is well-worth visiting without even considering the hiking opportunities in the area. The town is especially popular with Japanese tourists due to its connection to the anime movie Spirited Away – although I personally don’t think the town in the movie’s spirit world looks all that much like the real town it’s allegedly based on!
The usual way to reach Jiufen is by bus directly from Taipei, or by taking the train to Ruifang (瑞芳) and then a bus or taxi from there. However, being situated as it is on a mountain ridge, Jiufen also makes a great goal for a hike in the area, with abandoned mining settlements for extra interest. My first attempt to hike up to Jiufen was a failure – I took the train to Ruifang and decided I’d simply try and walk up the road rather than taking the bus. It turned out that the road I’d looked at on the map is a fairly major vehicle-only affair – basically a highway which twists and turns through the mountains – and not a remotely sensible place to be walking, so I ended up walking along the river valley towards Houtong and trying to scout out another way up. I failed to find one before it was too late in the day, but I did find an information board which showed something called the Dacukeng Ancient Trail (大粗坑古道, Dacukeng Gudao) further up the valley and resolved to come back and try that another day. After getting home that night, I searched online for information on the Dacukeng trail, and found this write-up of the Xiaocukeng (小粗坑古道, Xiaocukeng Gudao) Trail from Jiufen down to Houtong, and this one of a round-trip hike going up the Dacukeng Trail from Houtong and then taking the Xiaocukeng Trail back down to Houtong. So when I went back for my second attempt to hike to Jiufen, I basically just combined the two and went up the Dacukeng trail, continued all the way to Jiufen (and up & down Mt Keelung from there), and then came back down the Xiaocukeng trail. Another time I just went up Dacukeng and back down Xiaocukeng, and last time a did it we took a bus straight to Jiufen then walked down to Houtong.
Hiking from Houtong to Jiufen and Mt Keelung
Houtong (侯硐) is the next station after Ruifang on the Pingxi Line (and is also a stop for some trains running on the Yilan Line, see below for train details) and is an interesting little town to visit in its own right. It’s a former coal mining town, and various pieces of mine-related infrastructure are still there – some lying in ruins, others well-maintained like the old coal cart bridge which now serves as a footbridge over the river. Crossing the coal bridge brings you to the mine, which you can enter on a tour riding the original coal carts – I haven’t done this but it looks pretty interesting. On the hill behind the mine entrance you can visit the remnants of an old Japanese-era Shinto shrine, which was interesting to me following my years living in Japan. Houtong is also famous for being ‘Cat Town’ – in fact this is what brings most visitors here! Hundreds of (very well-fed) cats live in this small town and are allowed free reign to go where they please, and you’ll find a bunch of them chilling out around the train station. Tourists come to photograph, feed, and pet them, and the town has cottoned on to this as a golden marketing opportunity, with stores selling cat food and cat-themed souvenirs, and mascots everywhere – to be honest there are probably more mascot cats in Houtong than there are actual cats!
As Houtong is located on the Pingxi branch line, if you’re not a hiker you can instead visit it as part of a day out exploring the towns along the Pingxi Line; a ticket window at Ruifang station sells one-day passes for the Pingxi Line, and the Taipei Easycard is also accepted at stations along the line as far as Shifen. Shifen (十分) is another good spot to visit, having a famous waterfall (which, when I visited, I arrived at a few minutes too late – the access trail closes at 6:30pm and the surrounding jungle is pretty impassable) and also a stretch of cafes and shops directly alongside the railway – the tracks also serve as a pedestrian walkway, from where you can launch the paper lanterns sold in the shops after writing messages of peace or love or hope on them. It’s a nice romantic thing to do, and it looks lovely as they fly away into the sky… but actually if you follow the lanterns as they fly out of town, you can see them eventually burning out, dropping, and crashing into the surrounding hillsides. Perhaps not the best metaphor for your message of peace and love! (and, you have to wonder, who cleans all that shit up? Bit more on that here)
Anyway, if you’re doing the hike; once you’re done looking around Houtong, the start of the Dacukeng Trail is just outside town to the north, at the top of an uphill minor road which turns off the main road on the east side of the river (i.e. the far side from the train station, back in the direction towards Ruifang).
The coal mine and Japanese shrine are en route to the trailhead – the mine is located immediately on the far side of the footbridge; turning left (north) from there, the shrine is on top of the hill on your right, which has a few footpaths you can take up. Once you’re done with those, head north along the road… if you come to the police station, you’ve gone too far – it’s the right turning before the police station, going up alongside a stream flowing down to the river, and signposted for Jinzibei:
The hiking trail proper starts at the top end of this road, 15 minutes walk up the hill. Part way up, there’s a bridge crossing the stream:
Don’t cross the bridge! If you do, you’ll be going up to the ridge along the Jinzibei Trail, which is the wrong direction for Jiufen; instead, keep following the road up to the Dacukeng Trail.
(Also see here for a faster alternative route through Houtong, skipping the mine and shrine).
The start of the hiking trail:
Going over this second small bridge brings you to this old mine shaft around the corner:
On the left before the bridge you’ll see this sign:
The sign’s on a footpath running up the side of the last building on the road. This is the lower end of the Dacukeng trail.
The Dacukeng trail
Dacukeng is actually the name of an abandoned gold mining settlement halfway up the mountainside, with various buildings including houses and a school which are in various states of disrepair, crumbling and overgrown with vegetation. There’s a temple there too, which is still maintained – I waved ni hao to a man and his dog who appeared to be doing some upkeep work as I passed.
(Update: last time I was in Taipei I went back and did this trail again, and the dog had since had puppies; as I was walking past the temple, this pack of dogs came running out barking and charged me! They weren’t quite fully grown, but they weren’t exactly cute little puppies any more either, and as I was already past them I legged it away up the path. They continued to chase and obviously I couldn’t outrun them, so I turned to face and threw a half-full can of energy drink at them; it hit the lead dog on the nose, made a loud clattering noise and sprayed liquid everywhere, and that was enough to make them retreat. I guess the bloke was snoozing somewhere; they’re probably not dangerous dogs, but they were in a pack and excited, and this was just a couple of months after a dog bit me in Bangkok so it got the adrenaline pumping. If you’re jumpy about dogs, I’d suggest going up the Xiaocukeng Trail instead. Update: doing this trail again recently in a group of 4 the dogs (now full-grown) barked and threatened as we walked through, but allowed us to pass along the path)
Not long after the old town you come to a flight of elevated steps (which from a distance look somewhat like an escalator rising up out of the forest – quite an odd sight), and turning left at the top of the steps soon brings you to the upper end of the Dacukeng trail. The views looking back from the top of the staircase are nice.
From the upper end of the trail, you just turn left and walk a few metres next to the highway to a gated road on the left, which you can pass through on foot. A short distance after that, you bear right along a footpath here (leaving the wider concrete path, which goes over to some communication towers):
…and then you can either take a flight of steps up to the left which takes you directly to the Xiaocukeng trail back to Houtong, or you can continue on the path to the right to go down to the town of Jiufen:
Taking the right fork brings you down towards this:
Jiufen and Mt Keelung
Continuing along the path you’re looking down on Jiufen on the saddle between mountains, and across at Mt Keelung behind the town, with the blue expanse of the Pacific beyond that. The path brings you down to Jiufen after a short descent, passing the elementary school located at the town’s highest point. You’ll find yourself in a quiet residential area, houses clinging to the slopes with footpaths running between (and even under!) them at seemingly random angles. If you want to head to Jiufen’s famous Old Street, you need to keep going down below the school; bearing right here instead will take you straight across towards Mt Keelung via a large hilltop cemetery. Jiufen Old Street is a great place to make a pit stop, get some lunch and a coffee down you and snap some photos of the narrow, cluttered, atmospheric streets – but be prepared for an absolute horde of group tourists and their elbows.
The mix of boisterous Chinese package tourists and Japanese Spirited–Away-selfie-pilgrims makes for some dense crowds, which can be quite jarring after hiking in the mountains for a couple of peaceful hours from Houtong. Jiufen is much more charming in the evening after the day-trippers have returned to Taipei and the red lanterns do their thing, so you could consider staying in Jiufen overnight before hiking back down. It definitely isn’t necessary to do so, but it would sure be nice. Or you could end your hike in Jiufen to have dinner there, then take a bus back to Taipei.
The mountain on the far side of town is Mt Keelung (基隆山), also called Mt Jilong (雞籠山), which you can treat as an optional extra. From Old Street to the trailhead, up to the top, and back to Old Street, took me around 90 minutes going at a fair pace (easily navigated using the public maps around town). The views from the top are cracking, and I recommend doing this if you have enough time.
Once you’re ready to leave Juifen and head back down to Houtong, make your way to Songde Park (松德公園, Songde Gongyuan) on the edge of town (it’s well marked on the various town maps and information boards), and from there you can take the Xiaocukeng trail back down to Houtong as also described here. It’s a small park, and the trail starts just behind it; initially it climbs up from the park, eventually meeting the path coming down from the top of the mountain (where you’ve already been), and a right turning signposted for Houtong (this will be a left turning if you skipped Jiufen and started descending directly from the top of the mountain). The first bit of the trail from the park up to the turning is fairly narrow and overgrown in places, and is home to lots of these large orb spiders:
They’re perfectly harmless and actually rather beautiful creatures in my opinion, but if that photo freaks you out you’re not going to be happy on that first part of the Xiaocukeng Trail (you can get around the long way by going back up out of Jiufen to the top of the mountain, then descending from there).
Xiaocukeng is another abandoned gold mining town on the mountainside (the xiao (小) of Xiaocukeng means small, while the da (大) of Dacukeng means large), which has also been surrendered to the forest and the buildings have been almost completely swallowed up by the encroaching jungle. Be careful going down here, as the path is pretty rough and some of the rocks are moss-covered and treacherous – I actually slipped on one and went down, thankfully without injury (just plenty of cursing). Darkness had fallen before I’d quite reached the bottom, and though I had a good LED light with me I misjudged the sloped upper surface of a rock in the fading light, so do be careful – try not to get caught on the trail in the dark, and definitely take a good source of light with you (I’d have been in a spot of bother without one). Also, there are some openings to ventilation shafts from the mines right next to the path in places:
Though they’re fenced off, a typhoon could at some point easily knock the fences out so you do need to pay attention that you don’t walk into a gaping hole in the ground! You’re pretty screwed if you do. One nice thing about doing the final 30 minutes of the walk in the dark was that I was accompanied by a few dozen fireflies – bringing back memories of this crazy journey in Laos.
The trail finally brings you back out on to Route 37, just a little to the north of the original turning-off you took for the Dacukeng trail, so from here you can turn left and stroll back to Houtong station to head back to Taipei. This entire hike took me six hours, including Mt Keelung and with around an hour checking out Jiufen Old Street. I made quite a late start – I caught the train at 11 and thus started hiking after midday – so to avoid finishing the hike in the dark get yourself on the train in good time! If you just go up the Dacukeng and down the Xiaocukeng trails (skipping Jiufen), the time given here is 5 hours, though my time when I did just the Dacukeng/Xiaocukeng loop (at a fast pace without any rest stops and only brief photo stops) clocked in at 2.5 hours. I’d recommend taking your time a bit more than that if it’s your first visit to the area though.
For just the Xiaocukeng trail down, the time given here is 3 hours though again my time was significantly less (around half that). Everyone walks at a different pace – if you consider yourself a fast hiker, you can probably plan for 2 hours from Houtong up to Jiufen on the Dacukeng trail, 90 minutes for Mt Keelung if you choose to climb it, and then 90 minutes from Jiufen down to Houtong on the Xiaocukeng trail. If you consider yourself a slower hiker, or want to have plenty of time in Jiufen or for photography, adjust accordingly.
How to Get to Jiufen
Instead of walking up to Jiufen from Houtong as described above, you could travel direct to Jiufen then walk down to Houtong. The easiest way to reach Jiufen from Taipei is by direct bus from Zhongxiao Fuxing Station (on the blue & brown lines), which runs every 30 mins or so and takes around 90 minutes for 100NTD. It’s bus #1062 and the stop’s to the right outside exit 2. If you come up the escalator from the blue line turn left, if you come down the escalator from the brown line turn right, this way:
Then look to the right and you’ll see the stop:
The final destination shown on the front of the bus is Jinguashi (金瓜石), the next town just beyond Jiufen and the starting point for the Teapot Mountain hike. You’ll probably be approached by the crew of taxi drivers who usually work the bus stop; they’re not scammers, but they can be a bit misleading about how long the bus will take to try and persuade you to take a cab. If you definitely want to take the bus, just politely decline and wait for the bus to turn up. If you have a group you may want to take a taxi, they charge a flat fare of 1000NTD and can sort you with a minivan so if you have a group of 6 it isn’t much more expensive than the bus and will get you there in an hour. You can also board the bus at the bus terminal outside Songshan Station (east end of the green line), it’s maybe 20 mins faster from there but if it’s a weekend or holiday you won’t get a seat and may even have to wait for the 2nd or 3rd bus before you can get on at all.
The other option is a train (from Taipei Main Station, Songshan Station, or Nangang Station) to Ruifang (45 minutes from Taipei Main). At Ruifang the bus stops are right in front of the station with frequent departures heading up the hill to Jiufen.
If you’ve hiked up to Jiufen but don’t feel like hiking back down, you can do all of these options in reverse; in fact it’s a nice idea to end the hike in Jiufen to enjoy a feed and some sunset beers on one of the town’s many terraces before heading down. The downhill bus stop in Jiufen is located on the main road through town near the top end of Old Street, just up from the 7-Eleven. Buses to Taipei or Ruifang all stop here, and you can usually find taxi drivers knocking around looking for a fare back to Taipei. If they’re Taipei based they’ll be happy to score one on the way home so you might be able to score a ride for 700NTD or so.
How to Get to Houtong
The train from Taipei to Ruifang takes around 45 minutes, and Ruifang to Houtong is another 5 on the Pingxi Line; some trains allow direct travel from Taipei to Houtong via the Yilan Line, taking 55 minutes. The train schedules don’t allow for quick connections in Ruifang though, leaving you waiting on the platform for 40 minutes or so (so, 90 minutes all in) – the direct Yilan Line trains are therefore far better. If you do have to transfer at Ruifang but don’t want to wait, a taxi from Ruifang to Houtong would be inexpensive and would only take around 10 minutes. You could also walk from Ruifang Station to the Dacukeng trailhead in 1h15 or so, as shown on this Google Maps screenshot:
As you walk out of Ruifang, it’s definitely better to take the route along the south side of the river as you eventually get on to a nice walking / cycling path alongside the railway line; walking on the north side of the river involves some fairly unpleasant roads.
A nice idea when heading back to Taipei is to get off the bus or train at Songshan Station and visit Raohe Night Market for some well-earned street food treats – the famous hujiaobing (pepper pork buns) go down a treat after a good day’s hiking! See my night market guide for more information.
Have you been hiking around Jiufen and Houtong? Do you have any questions about the Dacukeng and Xiaocukeng trails? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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