The story of Taroko Gorge begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the accumulation of sediment and volcanic lava beneath what is now the Pacific Ocean. These materials blended with calcium carbonate from the bones of sea organisms and hardened into limestone. In due course, tectonic pressure compressed the limestone until it metamorphosed into marble, gneiss, and schist.
Approximately 6.5 million years ago, as the Philippine tectonic plate began sliding under the Eurasian plate, these layers of metamorphic rock emerged from the ocean. Rivers formed and began carving through the bedrock, creating the gully that eventually became Taiwan’s best-known natural attraction. This spectacular geological feature is thus far younger than the Grand Canyon, which scientists believe to be around 70 million years old.
Taroko’s cliffs, smoothed by grit-carrying water, are made up of white, cream, gray, silver, and beige boulders, some as big as vans. Yet if just one color is chosen to represent Taroko National Park, it should be green. Natural forests cover four-fifths of the park, with manmade woodlands bringing total tree cover to just over 90%.
Erosion continues to deepen the abyss, but because this region’s rate of tectonic uplift is one of the world’s highest – over 0.5 centimeters annually during the last glacial period, and up to 0.2 centimeters per year in recent millennia – the bottom of the ravine is still rising compared to sea level. (Some observers joke that this seems impossible, since Taroko Gorge gets so many visitors that the combined weight of tourists and their vehicles must surely be pushing the area down.)
Taroko National Park recorded 6.28 million visitors in 2014, a large proportion of them mainland Chinese on group tours. This total is sure to grow. As soon as improvements to the Suao-Hualien Highway are completed, probably by the end of 2017, the national park will become much more accessible for those coming from Taipei.
Managing the crowds is a serious challenge, admits Taroko National Park Director Yang Mo-lin, who took up the post earlier this year. “Visitor numbers have been increasing year by year, and this does cause congestion in certain places,” he says. “I’m often asked which part of Taroko is the most beautiful. Personally, I think every corner of the national park is worth visiting and savoring.”
Taroko National Park is triple the size of Taipei City. Yet within its 920 square kilometers, just three roads are open to the public: Highway 8, Highway 9, and Highway 14甲. The first is the Central Cross-Island Highway linking Lishan in Greater Taichung with Taiwan’s Pacific coast via the gorge. Only a short section of Highway 9 lies within the park; from it, tourists can appreciate the Qingshui Cliffs, which plunge dramatically to the ocean. Highway 14甲 enters the park’s southwest via Wushe and Qingjing Farm in Nantou County. At Wuling it reaches an altitude of 3,275 meters, making it the highest stretch of paved road on the island.
Tourists who venture no further than 50 meters from one of these highways, or who stick to one of the park’s several unrestricted trails, need not apply for any permits or pay any admission charges. This policy may change, however...
The rest of this article, which appears in Taiwan Business Topics special issue on travel and culture, can be read online here.
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