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September 23, 2017

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Climbing into history at Lion's Head Mountain

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 Xindian 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 Xindian 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 Xindian 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 Xintan Road (新潭路, county route 105) which leaves Xindian City by following the west bank of the Xindian 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.

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