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Climbing into history at Lion’s Head Mountain

Thursday, April 10, 2008
By Richard Saunders, Special to The China Post


It’s not surprising, considering that Taiwan has literally thousands of named hills, mountains and peaks, that some place names get used more than once to describe different summits, which can become a little confusing. Rising above Taipei’s southernmost suburb of --indian are two quite distinct peaks, both going by the name Lion’s Head Mountain (獅頭山). Both summits are well worth climbing, but it’s the higher one that especially rewards the effort taken to reach it.

This Lion’s Head Mountain—named because its massive bulk supposedly looks something like the body of a vast, crouching lion—is both the highest point in the --indian area, at 858 meters high, and one of the most impressively mountainous-looking summits within easy reach of the capital.

Although just a couple of kilometers from the high-rise apartment blocks of --indian City (as the eagle flies) Lion’s Head Mountain is unfortunately not such a convenient place to reach. Unless you’re super-fit, you’ll need your own wheels to reach either of the two trailheads, each about 10 kilometers from the main road, along steep, ceaselessly winding mountain lanes.

It’s possible to climb Lion’s Head Mountain from either end, but the most exciting approach is via the impressive, cliff-bound mass that forms the “head” of this beast. The trailhead is easiest reached by following --intan Road (新潭路, county route 105) which leaves --indian City by following the west bank of the --indian River before striking off westwards into the hills. About 10 switchback kilometers from the center of the city, the road reaches its highest point, passing a wooden viewing platform beside the road, commanding a panoramic view over wooded hills and the edge of the city 700 meters below.

Beside the platform, a wooden stepped path, raised several feet above the ground, climbs the wooded hillside. After a short, sharp ascent, the path turns to stone slabs, climbing through the forest for about 20 minutes to reach a large open area of close-cropped grass. Dominating the scene is the huge dome of the “head” of Lion’s Head Mountain, which rears up directly in front. The slope on this side is close to vertical in places, but a trail for fearless hikers scales this formidable obstacle via a set of three sturdy wooden ladders, the first of which is by far the longest and scariest.

Standing safely at the top, it’s easy to see what a strategic spot this peak would be in times of war, and indeed Lion’s Head Mountain was used just over a century ago by aborigines hiding from encroaching Japanese forces bent on destroying resistance to their newly acquired territory: Taiwan. A string of natural and manmade curiosities strewn along the path along the summit ridge of the hill provide reminders of these turbulent times, and add interest to a woodland walk that is pleasant but otherwise something of an anticlimax following the strenuous and exciting climb up here.

After an easy and more-or-less level walk through the woods that crown the ridge, turn left at the first junction in a couple of minutes, and the path descends gently through azalea bushes to a large, moss-covered tablet of carved stone commemorating the eventual “pacification” of the fugitive aborigines on the mountain by the Japanese. A little further along the trail, another side trail descends to an old and very deep well, half hidden in the undergrowth beside the path.

Just a minute or two further, the path reaches the summit of Lion’s Head Mountain, and there’s quite a good view over the --indian area from this point, although the best view, surprisingly, lies further along the trail, on the way down.

Descending toward the “tail” of the lion, turn right at the junction, steeply down the eastern escarpment of the mountain, along a steep, rocky path, passing the Bandit Cave, a deep, slot-shaped hole in the cliff just off the path to the right, big enough to hold 20 people or more. The path now descends through tall grass to eventually join a road, but first turn left along a side trail just below Bandit Cave for the very different Buddha Cave. This is a huge overhang rather than a true cave, but it’s well worth coming here just to admire the wonderful view it commands, which is probably the best on the mountain.

Following the road, it’s a long walk down to --intan Road, then back up to a vehicle parked at the trailhead below the “head,” so instead turn off the road at the first hairpin bend in a 100 meters, and a trail that follows the base of the steep escarpment. In about 30 minutes, after running along the foot of some impressive vertical cliffs, the path emerges suddenly at the open grassy area at the foot of the “lion’s head,” giving a chance to enjoy this impressive sight one last time before returning to the --intan Road, and the car or motorbike.

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