Monday, December 21, 2015

Qixingshan (七星山)

Fumaroles on the northwest side of Qixing Mountain
5 kilometers shuttle, 800 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Regular bus service to both the start and endpoints to this hike.

Qixingshan, or Seven Star Mountain, is the tallest mountain in Yangmingshan National Park, which protects a cluster of mountains in the northern part of the Taipei metropolitan area. Qixingshan is a notable hike not just for the wide views you'd expect at a local highpoint, but also for the collection of smelly fumaroles that crowd its north and west slopes, evidence of former volcanism in the area. The hike visits some very beautiful country of wide open meadows, steep-sloped mountains, and sulfur-stained steam pits; it's hard to imagine when hiking through the area that the mountain still lies within the city limits of the largest city in one of the most densely populated states on earth.

This hike description details a route from the Yangmingshan National Park Visitor Center up to the summit of Qixingshan and then downhill to the massive fumaroles at Xiaoyoukeng. Taipei's excellent system of public buses makes it possible to access both trailheads by public buses (during reasonable daytime hours). To reach the trailhead at Yangmingshan National Park visitor center, I took the 260 bus up from Taipei Main Station; it's a little less than an hour bus ride and is probably slower than taking a bus up from Shilin or Jiantan, but it's also a simpler route to the start. While on the bus, UVA alums should keep their eyes out for a familiar looking structure on the left when the bus passes Tatung University- the school's Shan-Chih Hall is a replica of a famed Thomas Jefferson design.

I hopped off the bus at its terminal stop, which is in the village of Yangmingshan. The true trailhead for this hike is the Yangmingshan Visitor Center, which was another couple hundred meters further uphill along the road, so I began to follow the main park road (Yangjin Road) uphill from the bus station. Along the way I noticed a trail that allowed me to reach the visitor center without walking along a high traffic mountain road, so I hopped on the trail instead and soon emerged by the visitor center. The plaza area around the visitor center offered some decent views of the summits of Qixingshan, my destination for the day.

View of Qixingshan from the visitor center
From the visitor center, I followed a side road that paralleled the main road for a hundred meters to a junction; from here, I headed back towards the direction of the main road and came to the start of the trail, which ran parallel to the road to the east. I followed the trail on a very gradual uphill, soon coming to a trail junction. The path straight continued to the follow the road; the path to the right headed in the direction of Qixingshan. I took the path to the right, the Qixingshan Trail (七星山步道), which quickly became a well-maintained stone staircase heading straight up the mountain through a dense forest.

A short way into the ascent, I noticed a particularly beautiful bird on the right of the trail with long, blue tail feathers. I also noticed an abundance of squirrels, many of which seemed habituated to humans: they aggressively approached me as I hiked by. A couple who were hiking by decided to entice the squirrels closer, which was a poor idea: when the man held out his hand to one of the squirrels, the squirrel took a bite, leaving an unfortunate bleeding gash in one of the man's fingers. Don't approach the squirrels.

Interesting bird along the trail
About a kilometer and a half and many flights of stairs in, I came to a junction with a trail to the left that led directly towards the summit of Qixingshan. I chose to instead take a longer route towards the summit and followed the trail leading straight forward towards Qixing Park. This route was relatively flat for the next 300 meters and soon emerged from the forest onto the flat, grassy landscape of Qixing Park.

View of the east summit from Qixing Park
Qixing Park is a rather odd spot- it's a wide, flat shoulder on the fairly steep sides of Qixingshan and it has been manicured into a fairly non-natural landscape with stone tables and pavilions scattered throughout. The park provides some of the first views from the hike down into the Taipei basin. Unfortunately, it was quite smoggy in the basin on the day of my hike, so it was difficult to discern much. Smog is a problem on many days in Taipei, so clear blue skies are a rarity rather than the norm.

The trail breaks into multiple paths when it enters Qixing Park. It is fine to take any of the branching paths, as they all meet back up at the far end of the park. After exiting the grassy, manicured part of the park, the trail stayed relatively flat for the next hundred meters or so before reaching a junction with the trail up to the Qixingshan East Peak, which broke off to the left.

I started up the left fork at the junction and began ascending a staircase leading directly towards the east summit. The landscape here was much different from the forested trail earlier; the entire east side of the mountain was covered with tall grasses, part of the reason why the Yangmingshan area was originally called Caoshan, or Grass Mountain, before it was renamed after a Ming Dynasty scholar by Chiang Kai-shek during his rule of Taiwan.  Large volcanic rocks occasionally littered the landscape. Views improved dramatically with every step further up the mountain, with the meadows of Qingtiangang and the other volcanic peaks of the Datun Mountains rising to the east. The trail tackled the slope quite directly, with stairs and no switchbacks, allowing for a rapid ascent of a mountainside that was at times very steep.

The meadows of Qingtiangang
Less than half a kilometer and many hundreds of stair steps from the trail junction near Qixing Park, the I reached the east peak of Qixingshan. This peak was a mere ten meters shorter than the true summit, which was visible across a small saddle. The view was quite wide: the Qingtiangang meadows visible during the staircase ascent were still in view, while the view to the north widened, encompassing the northern end of the Datun Mountains and of Jinshan, a town on the Pacific coast.

The summit of Qixingshan viewed from the east summit
I descended from the east summit into the saddle between the summits, passing by a trail junction leading downhill to the left. The grass in the saddle area was actually surprisingly tall and reached over my head. From the saddle, I made a last short push and arrived at the main summit of Qixingshan, the highest point in the Datun Mountains and Yangmingshan National Park.

The view was simultaneously incredible and underwhelming. The less hazy skies to the north, east, and west provided sweeping vistas of the park ands its steep, forested mountains. Looking to the south, on the other hand, was not much different from looking into a smoke-filled room. Taipei 101 barely broke through the thick particulate blanket; otherwise, only the most visually prominent landmarks and features, such as the Danshui and Keelung Rivers, could be discerned through the smog. The summit area is an extremely popular spot, so it's unfortunately been paved over, with a wooden pole proclaiming the name and height of the summit rising at the center of the paved platform.

View of Datun Mountain from Qixingshan
View north from Qixing Mountain
After enjoying the view and my lunch of scallion-stuffed shaobing (pastries), I began my descent down the trail towards Xiaoyoukeng, which started from the west end of the summit platform. This trail was entirely one of stone stairs, as well. The first part of the descent featured good views through the grass back up to the summit, as well as of Datun Mountain to the west. Interpretive signs along the way pointed out the view of the Danshui River and Guanyin Mountain, although Guanyin Mountain was more or less invisible in the smog.

Then came the smell of rotten eggs and the sight of steam rising from the mountainside. A fumarole! A barren patch of yellow rock near the trail supplied both the smell and the steam. Qixingshan and the rest of the Yangmingshan are are in fact the remnants of a volcano; the fumarole was just a reminder of the area's geological past. Enough magma or hot rock must remain under the Yangmingshan area that groundwater can get superheated and returned to the surface as steam.

As I hiked onwards, fumaroles became increasingly frequent along the trail. At times, steam completely engulfed the trail. Breathing in large amounts of foul-smelling sulfur-laden air was unavoidable. An interpretive sign near the trail informed me that I was breathing in a good number of poisonous compounds and encouraged me to minimize my time among the fumes.

The fumarole activity peaked when the trail began descending into a steep valley littered with smokes. I've heard that Alaska has a place named the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes; by merit, this valley has equal claim on that name. Small pockets of steam popped up from every side of the valley. At the end of the valley rose the largest fumarole of them all: Xiaoyoukeng (literally, little oil pot).

Fumaroles on the descent to Xiaoyoukeng
I descended through the spectacularly smelly valley to the rim of the Xiaoyoukeng pit. Presumably, there would be a good view down to the smoking fumarole when the winds are favorable; when I walked past this section, the wind was blowing the steam right back towards the mountain, meaning that the view down was simply one of steam and that the smell was exceptionally strong along this section of trail. I hurried through and descended down the last few staircases to the tourist viewing platforms and the end of the hike.

Xiaoyoukeng fumaroles
Xiaoyoukeng is by far the most spectacular sight of Yangmingshan National Park. Here, the west flank of Qixingshan has partially collapsed, exposing a massive fumarole that churns out a great spout of steam from an ultraheated sulfuric vent. This fumarole likely played a role in the establishment of the area as Daiton National Park during the Japanese occupation era, the first national park on the island. The fumarole is a reminder that the volcano underlying Qixingshan is merely dormant, not extinct.

I hopped on the 108 bus from the Xiaoyoukeng parking lot to return to the Yangmingshan bus station near the visitor center; from there, I hopped on the first bus heading back to Taipei, which took me down to the Shilin MRT station.

No comments:

Post a Comment