Alishan - our favourite place in Taiwan

Until arriving in Fenchihu we’d had a pretty underwhelming time in Taiwan. We hadn’t been taken by Taipei, found Kaohsiung positively dull and we Sun Moon Lake was a bit take it or leave it.

It had even got to the extent that before arriving in Alishan we’d toyed with the idea of cutting Taiwan short. But we were so glad we didn’t.

Alishan is such a beautiful area in the mountains of Taiwan, the forests in particular have a special feel to them. Mist and cloud swirl in and out of the trees and if you are lucky you may even be treated to the famous ‘sea of clouds’.

Best things to do in Alishan

The Fenrui Trail - Fenchihu

Distance - 7.19km one way
Elevation - 333m one way

It is no small statement to say that the Fenrui trail maybe one of the best walks we’ve done in Asia. We hadn’t known what to expect with very little information written anywhere about the hike but this 14km trail between Fenchihu and Ruelli blew us away.

Starting at Fenchihu, the trail begins in the forest winding its way uphill from the off. Before you know it, you’re into the incredible bamboo forests.

We’ve never seen anything like it. Completely surrounded by densely packed bamboo shoots which literally went on for hours. It was particularly photogenic in the afternoon light.

The first 1.5km is pretty steeply uphill before the tracks begins undulating for 2.5km. The final 3km is steeply downhill to Ruelli where you’ll go through the stunning “Forest of Forgetting Sorrow” and finish at some pretty tea fields.

Sadly we couldn’t find a way of getting back by bus or car from Ruelli, so did the whole walk again in reverse (yep, that 3km uphill at the start was a killer). However, we were rewarded with a sunset over the sea of clouds along the way. If you want to make this a one way walk the best idea would be to take a taxi from Fenchihu to Ruelli and walk it in reverse.

Walking back did give us the most incredible sunset of the trip though. The views from the ridge were breathtaking and if you’re lucky you’ll get the changing colours of sunset over the top of the clouds and mountain peaks. Yet another thing we had never seen before and was especially magical for being completely unexpected.

It also meant that when we weren’t treated to the sea of clouds at sunrise the next day we didn’t really mind. We also got to enjoy it completely alone, as we were for the whole trail - something very hard to come by in busy Alishan.

The trail starts from the public car park on the bend of the main road by Fenchichu (we’ve marked it on the map below). The walk should take 2 - 2.5 hours each way.


Sunrise at Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout

Well this one’s a tongue twister, but it’s the place to go for sunrise in Alishan. In fact this is one place in the world where it seems like literally everyone who visits Alishan will make the effort and get out to watch sunrise. When you get there, you’ll see why it is one of the top Instagram spots in the country.

You’ll need to get up early, our alarm went off at 4.30am ready for the train leaving at 5.20am. The train times will vary slightly according to the sunrise time so check the day before when you buy your tickets at the station. Luckily for the bleary eyed, the train drops you a 10-15 minute walk from the Xiaoliyuanshan lookout platform.

Many people head for the first platform, Zhushan, opposite where the train drops you off. Whilst this is still a gorgeous view, the better one is a short walk further up the hill.

We don’t like an uphill slog at 5.40am on an empty stomach either, but trust us, it’s worth it. The top platform is bigger, has a 360 panorama and looks down into the most stunning valley. There are also a lot less people, there will still be crowds but a lot less than at the Zushan lookout.

We got lucky with the weather, and though we didn’t get the sea of clouds it was still really worthwhile to see this incredible view at sunrise. I ended up grabbing the rock just in front of the viewing platform so there was no one else in front or around me which gave the illusion of having this special place all to myself.

This is the first lookout platform, Zhushan.

Afterwards you can wander back to town via the street food sellers (we had a Taiwanese French Toast that was a bit bland and a herby eggy pancake which was really tasty. The egg pancake was the best breakfast I had in Taiwan). The path back to town is virtually all downhill and takes you along the road and then through the forest back to Alishan.

We’d highly recommend the walk because it is one of the only times you will be able to walk in this stretch off forest without the crowds. Most opt to take the forest train or shuttle bus back down. It only took around 30 minutes to reach the Zhaoping station and then another 25 minutes back into the village itself.

Alternatively you can get the train back to town. The train for this journey costs $200 TWD per person each way (About $7 USD).

Tickets can be purchased at the train station the day before between 1.30 and 4pm. Check with your hotel to make sure this is still the correct timing for your visit. Whilst we did see people purchasing them on the morning of the train we had the impression from our hotel this wasn’t possible so didn’t risk it. The queue was quite long so we’d still recommend buying them the day before.

Top tip for the train journey - there aren’t enough seats for everyone. There are marked sections on the platform where you queue for the various carriages. Try and walk further down the platform to be near the front of one of these queues so you aren’t stuck standing.

It’s also worth noting that you can take a shuttle bus or walk up to the viewing platforms if you prefer.


Sunset at Ciyun Temple

If getting up before 5am fills you with dread, then head to Ciyun Temple for sunset. This little temple offers a view across the valley and you may get lucky and have a sunset go off! The view from the steps by the temple where everyone sits is partially obstructed with trees, there was a clearer view on the level below back down the staircase on the walking trail to the temple (but no seating).

It is a riskier time than sunrise, as the heat of the day often brings thick cloud that rolls in, but it might pan out and we enjoyed experiencing both.

We had the strange combination of cloud lower down and some cloud higher up which made the sky look like it was on fire! It is also worth checking out the sunset from the town in Alishan too as this was also pretty, though choose the temple if you have just one day.


Walk the train tracks to the Shuishan Giant Tree

- 3.5 km return
Elevation - Flat
Alishan is full of steep walks, so if you’re looking for something a lot more leisurely then head to the Shuishan Giant Tree track. The path starts by crossing the main road and heading along the disused train tracks. No passing trains to worry about like in Haputale, Sri Lanka.

The hike to Shuishan Giant Tree - Alishan

The track runs through a beautiful part of the forest and looks even more magical when the clouds roll in and the mist sets. The path is really flat, but occasionally you’ll find that you’ll have to watch your step for the irregularly spaced sleepers!

Eventually the path reaches a bridge before going up a series of stairs for five minutes. You have then reached the beautiful 2700 year old tree. There’s plenty of seating to take it all in and have a little rest before heading back.

This trail was not as busy as some of the others in the area and we found it very peaceful.


Feel your thighs burn on the Tashan Trail

- 9.5km return
Elevation - 421m elevation

For an epic mountain top view (well maybe…), head to the Tashan Trail. This 8km round trip walk may not seem too challenging at first, but it has a brutal sting halfway through.

The trail starts by the Sister Ponds and soon heads into the forest. We started by walking through the forest which is gorgeous but very hilly. If you want a flatter option you can actually head onto the train tracks instead (this section is in use to keep an eye out).

We opted to head onto the tracks when we saw an opportunity and learnt that we skipped seeing an army of mischievous macaque monkeys - who apparently will try and steal anything they can get their hands on so watch out!

After 2km the tracks reach a platform where you’ll need to skip back onto the path proper if you have used the train tracks route. This is where the hike gets a lot harder as you’ll climb over 400m of elevation across 2km. The track is almost entirely steps uphill and it becomes exhausting work. You might be in the mountains but somehow the track was still hot and humid!

We left with a clear sky, but timed it badly as clouds rolled in when we got to the top. Our view was a whiteout. If you are more lucky than us you will be treated to a view of Yushan, Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s tallest and one we had hoped to climb before realising you need a permit waaaay in advance.

Tip for the trail - We don’t want to demoralise you but so that you know you are still on track it’s good to know that the trail is longer than the signs suggest. The 3.7km marker is when you hit the viewing platform and you will go past a stone building which had us questioning if we’d somehow gone wrong.


Stroll around the Sister Ponds and Giant Trees

Depending on how busy it is, this can be rural bliss or tourist hell. We sadly had the latter and did this short walk when a huge school group arrived (incredibly noisy and a teacher with a loud speaker to herd the rabble!).

The track starts at Zhaoping Station and walks downhill through a dense forest to the Sister Lakes. This area is still beautiful and should be peaceful if you manage to time it right, early morning is likely your best bet. You can walk around the lake before heading onwards to the Giant Trees boardwalks.

The track continues downhill towards the Shouzen Temple. There are many boardwalks with lookouts along the route to and around the Giant Trees and Shenyi Waterfall (that was more of a river). You will also pass the Sacred Tree Train Station if you want to shorten the walk a little. It’s ideal to combine these short tracks with sunset at Ciyun temple as it is just a short distance from the train station and Giant Tree boardwalks.

The whole thing is a pleasant stroll through breathtaking forest, although it would be much nicer without the ever present crowds.

Read more: The truth about the “best things to do in Taipei”. What to do and what to miss

Take the forest trains

If you’re a good planner, you can organise a ticket on the forest train from Chaiyi to Fenchihu. This only runs once a day and is incredibly popular, so you’ll need to book in advance. The website was all in Mandarin and we just couldn’t make it work, if you want to give it a go the website is here.

The forest train in Alishan

For those who aren’t so lucky, you can take short train journeys around Alishan to the start of the walking trails. It’s a pleasant way to commute around this rural area and get a feel for the train without making the longer journey from Chaiyi.

The train costs $100 TWD per person, per journey for the short hops (about $3.50 USD).

Read next: Jiufen & Shifen - beautiful old streets, mountains & waterfalls

Know before you go

Make a stop at Fenchihu

Fenchihu is a really small one street kind of town but is the base for the not to be missed Fenrui Historic Trail - one of our favourite walks in Asia. The food isn’t great - neither is the accommodation - but it’s worth putting up with for hiking through the magnificent bamboo forests. We found everything very overpriced here but despite this were glad we stopped. If you don’t fancy rice or noodles for breakfast you can pick up grilled donuts at a couple of the stalls on the main street, we felt this made a great bread based breakfast.

Where we stayed in Fenchihu

Yeahshow Villa

It was ok, we were extremely grateful that we had our room upgraded when we arrived as we saw the one we had booked and it was tiny! The upgraded rooms upstairs all had windows with village and tree views and were large.

The room was clean and had the usual basic wet room style bathroom, hot water is only available in the evenings, I think it was from around 5pm - 11pm. Again pricey for what you get but in our experience that was all of Taiwan!!

Food in Alishan

Like a lot of Taiwan, food in Alishan village is tricky - especially for the budget traveller. The options are dining in expensive restaurants, a couple of stalls selling rice & braised pork or 7-11. The stalls were ok and cheap, but there’s only so many times you can eat a tiny bowl of rice and pork. They also had a couple of veggie options like fried rice and rice with mushrooms.

It was hilarious to see that 7-11 was by far the most popular place in town as the food in the restaurants if you weren’t eating at the food stalls was very pricey - and repetitive.

However, we found the best food was served in the food stalls by the Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout for sunrise. We picked up a form of pancake and french toast which - although it wouldn’t receive a mention anywhere else - was the best food we had in Alishan.

Read next: An action packed 7 day Taiwan itinerary

Getting to Alishan

Getting to Alishan isn’t as straightforward as getting a bus or train from Taipei! Sadly you’ll require at least one change and maybe more if you want to go via Fenchihu.

Public Transport to Alishan

If you want to use public transport, you should take the train to Chiayi. There are only 4 buses that run from the HSR station (9.30, 10.10, 11.00 and 13.10). If you can’t get to Chiayi before then, we recommend taking the free shuttle bus to Chiayi Train Station in town (this takes about 30 minutes, but you could wait for a while to get there).

At Chiayi Train station there are buses that run at least every hour until 17:10 in the evening.

Going to Fenchihu first

Going to Fenchihu first is difficult as there are only 3 buses from Chiayi Train station (7.05am, 9.35 am and 12:05pm) and one from Chiayi HSR. Alternatively you can take the Forest Train, but it’s incredibly popular and gets booked up weeks in advance. There’s only one service a day on weekdays (9AM, 2 hours 20) with an additional one for weekends (10am, 2 hours 20).

We’d recommend using Tripool instead if you can spare the money. It is like Uber but designed for longer distances. We took Tripool from Taichung to Fenchihu (2 hours) and it cost $1,800 TWD (about $60 USD) for the both of us. It is a lot more expensive than public transport, but at least you can set your own timetable.

Going between Fenchihu to Alishan

Once again we choose Tripool for convenience and it cost us $800 TWD ($26 USD) to go 45 minutes to Alishan in the morning or you can take a bus which will be around an hour. We were told the only bus ran at 3pm which didn’t suit us although we’ve heard since there may have been more.

Read next: Taiwan Budget - what to expect for your trip

Avoid the weekends

Like most of Taiwan’s touristy places, avoid Alishan at the weekends if you can. The place becomes even more rammed with tour buses and groups, making for a much less enjoyable experience. The hotel prices also go up considerably, (think treble for our dates) and even getting a room can be pretty tricky. This is not somewhere to turn up without a reservation.

There are crowds midweek too, but it isn’t as bad.

Check the location of your hotel

One of the common cons we noticed were hotels and airbnbs (including one that looks gorgeous but watch out!) claiming they were in the Scenic Area when they weren’t. We were really close to booking an airbnb that claimed it was in the Scenic Area, only to find that it was actually a 45 minute to one hour infrequent bus journey away on very windy roads. This would have spoilt our whole time in Alishan.

You have to take into account that even moving between sights and trails and lookouts involves a lot of walking or more transport so you really want to be in the Scenic Area. Also we had to get up at 4.30am for sunrise where we were, it would be more like 3am from outside the reserve.

Always check on google maps as there are only a few hotels in the Scenic Area.

Rooms are limited, so book in advance

Rooms in the Scenic Area sell like hot cakes, so planning in advance will enable you to get one of the few rooms there. This is especially important if you are on a budget, budget options sell out first. We were lucky to snag the last cheap room booking on the same week we were going but could only secure one night when we wanted to stay two, you’ll be in trouble if you just rock up and hope to haggle for a room.

Alishan Scenic Area Entry Fee

You have to pay a fee to enter the reserve. This varies on whether you arrive on public transport or by private car.

Public transport fee per person - TWD $150 (US $5).

You pay slightly more to arrive by private car but we can’t remember exactly how much, we think it was TWD $250 per person.

Getting Around Alishan Scenic Area

You can get to most sights on foot but you are adding to extra kilometres onto the hiking trails, we did this sometimes but also used transport at times too.

Shuttle buses take you close to the start point for various trails and attractions and cost TWD $50 (US $1.60). The journeys are usually just 5-10 minutes and leave from the visitors centre in town. They depart every 5-10 minutes.

You can also use the forest train to hop between town and Zhaoping or Sacred Tree Station. These journeys are around 10 minutes and there are usually only one an hour, see the timetable below. Journeys cost TWD $100 (US $3.20).

Where to stay in Alishan Scenic Reserve

Alishan Shermuh Hotel

This is where we stayed and it was an ok budget option.

It is right in town and the room was clean with hot water. The bed however is the worst we’ve slept on since a wooden plank on a boat in Bangladesh. If you can cope with that it’s a decent budget choice in a phenomenally expensive area.

Alishan - Alishan House

Sadly, Alishan is an expensive place that doesn’t offer great value. By far the best choice in town is Alishan House, but at nearly $200 USD for a place that isn’t a five star hotel was hard for us to stomach on a backpackers budget!

If we were on holiday we would have just stumped up the cash. The location is in the middle of the Scenic Area, the rooms are spacious and nicely furnished and it is the pick of the bunch.

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