The Ultimate Travel Guide: Alishan
Along with Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, Alishan tops the list of Taiwan’s most iconic attractions! The extraordinary natural beauty of the National Park and its surrounding township brings visitors from throughout the country and greater Asia alike who come to marvel at the rolling mountain ranges and vast green vistas of picturesque tea plantations.
For almost a century, Alishan has been Taiwan’s most popular mountain resort, and will continue to be for many years! So in that case, let me guide you on everything you need to know about Alishan!
A Brief History
Much like the rest of Taiwan, Alishan was originally settled by the indigenous tribes that still inhabit parts of the island today. Following the arrival of the Japanese colonists, the area flourished with the opening of the Alishan Forest Railway which was built to service the blossoming logging industry.
Eventually, the industry declined as the Japanese left, and in their place came a flood of tourists keen to marvel at the miraculous natural beauty of the township. From that day forward, along with Sun Moon Lake and Taroko National Park, Alishan became one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Taiwan!
Where Is Alishan?
The term “Alishan” is a little ambiguous. Alishan Township is a large mountainous region located in Chiayi county near the centre of Taiwan. The township itself is mostly made up of thick forests, endless tea plantations and a series of peaks averaging 2500m. The tallest of all these is the massif of Yushan (Jade Mountain), which happens to be Taiwan and Northeast Asia’s highest mountain.
When most people refer to “Alishan”, they’re referring to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. The national park has a collection of hiking trails, railway lines and tourist facilities, and is generally where people spend most of their time.
For this guide, we will be looking at the entirety of the Alishan Township, including the National Park, the nearby logging town of Fenqihu and also the tea fields of Shizhuo, all of which should be included in any visit to the area!
How Long Should You Stay in Alishan?
Unlike most other destinations in Taiwan, you’ll need a lot more planning to visit Alishan, and this guide is here to help! You’ll need to consider where you want to stay, transport (this is super important!), and what exactly you want to do during your time there.
Firstly, you’ll need to think about which areas of the Alishan Township you would like to visit. If you’d like to visit Shizhuo and/or Fenqihu, then you’d need to add at least another day to your itinerary, if not two!!
Do you want to catch the sunrise over the mountains? Then you’ll need to add another night’s stay, most likely, in the National Park itself.
All in all, if you want to squeeze everything in, you’re talking 4 days at a minimum. Yet, if you just want to visit the National Park itself, then you could squeeze it into a single day if you’re leaving from Kaohsiung, Tainan or Chiayi.
Plan Out Your Transportation
Unfortunately, Taiwan has a bad habit of having very little transportation available around some of its biggest attractions. Much like Sun Moon Lake, options are very limited, and if you happen to miss any of them then you’ll be in big trouble!
Though there is a train that will guide you to Fenqihu (more on that later), buses are your only option for getting between the different hotspots of Alishan. However, these buses don’t run that often and might not even turn up at the right time. I actually missed the last bus to Shizhuo because it arrived 20 minutes too early!
Check the available routes on Google, make a note of the schedule, and give yourself enough time to catch the bus!!
When Should You Visit Alishan?
Due to its high altitude and protective mountain borders, the climate remains relatively cool year-round and is usually 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the country. Even in the heat of summer, the mountains are often shrouded with a cooling mist that keeps things on an even keel.
The mountains can also fall victim to the seasons as it gets quite humid during the summer, unbearably cold in the winter and can get very wet during the rainy season from April to September.
By far the best time to visit Alishan is at the end of Spring (late March to early April), so you can enjoy the cherry blossoms in full bloom and the temperature is a manageable 20 – 25°C. Just be sure to book your hotel way in advance, as all accommodation books out fast!
On the other end of the scale, late October to November is also a great time to visit Alishan as the temperature is cooler and the views are much clearer.
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Getting to Alishan
Now, this is where things get a little complicated. For this guide, we’ll look at the different ways to get to all 3 hotspots: Alishan National Park, Fenqihu and Shizhuo.
Regardless of where you’re headed, all roads to Alishan lead through one city, Chiayi.
Getting to Chiayi
You can access Chiayi from every major city across the west coast, be it by bus, regular trains or the High Speed (HSR) variety.
Once you arrive at Chiayi, then your next step is deciding which area will you head to first; Fenqihu or Shizhuo.
|Leaving From||Regular Train||HSR Train||Bus|
|Taipei||2 hr 34 min – 5 hrs 21 min||NT$385-598||1 hr 30 min||NT$1080||3 hr 30 min||NT$375-525|
|Tainan||15 – 27 min||NT$33-52||18 min||NT$280||30 min||NT$60|
|Taichung||54 min – 2 hrs 6 min||NT$144-224||30 min||NT$380||1 hr 40 min||NT$165-200|
|Kaohsiung||1 hr 56 min – 2 hrs 11 min||NT$148||31 min||NT$410||1 hr 40 min||NT$175-240|
Going via Fenqihu
Going to Fenqihu is not only the easiest, but also the most fitting way of getting there, as the mountain railway played a vital role in the area’s history! Sadly though, the train only runs to Fenqihu and does not go all the way to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. From there you’ll still need to catch a 40-minute bus to get to the National Park.
It takes 2 ½ hours, costs NT$384 and only runs 3 times a day.
Going via Shizhuo
The other option is to go by bus. This is the only way you can pass through Shizhuo and ultimately the only way you can get to the National Park.
There are shared shuttle bus available, though they’re a little more expensive and you need to book in advance.
Otherwise, you can take one of the public buses for which you can use the EasyCard. You can find out the times the buses run on Google, just be aware that some don’t run for hours at a time!
It can get a little complicated trying to figure out the bus routes in Alishan, so let this helpful guide show you everything you need to know!
Entrance Fee to Alishan National Park
There’s an entrance fee for the Alishan Forest Recreation Area which you’ll have to pay each time you pass through the gates. In that case, it’s better to book some accommodation in the park itself to save a couple of hundred dollars!
Tickets cost NT$150 for locals and NT$300 for us unlucky foreigners.
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Getting Around Alishan
Options for travelling within the Alishan Township, as we’ve already shown, are pretty limited. For moving between the different areas, your only real choice is to travel by bus (look above for more details).
For travelling within the National Park itself, you have a bit more variety!
Getting Around the National Forest Park
To get around the park itself, you have two options: shuttle bus or train.
The forest railway network can guide you through the parks scenic and misty forests is an iconic part of the Alishan experience! The repurposed logging trains chug along between 4 stations: Alishan, Zhaoping, Sacred Tree (or Shenmu) and Zhushan (only in the morning).
Sadly, all the stations aren’t connected together. You can find a more detailed timetable, here.
To get around you could also take the shuttle bus that travels around the park. Both costs NT$80 per trip.
Not that any of these are necessary! All the attractions within the park are within walking distance of each other or a short hike away, so why not make the most of it?
What’s To See Around Alishan?
All the areas within Alishan Township have one common theme, nature! The area is perfect for any outdoorsy hikers who just want to enjoy some peace and tranquillity amongst some misty mountains.
Of all the regions that surround Alishan, this is by far the most underrated! The sleepy little village of Shizhuo has its own fair share of tranquil hikes and gorgeous views, though it’s better known as the home of the best tea in all of Taiwan!
Alishan isn’t short of some fascinating hiking trails, with many being outside the National Park itself! Of these, the best has to be the Eryanping Trail, a small network of tracks that lead through misty bamboo forests and pristine tea plantations across the southern hills of Shizhuo. These photogenic fields are also where the iconic Alishan oolong tea comes from!
Despite that, the real highlight is found at the very end of the trail in the form of the Xiding Lookout Platform. This hilltop pavilion marks the perfect spot to fully appreciate the staggering panoramic views of the distant mountain ranges and the sea of clouds that flow amongst them.
Hike Around the Tea Plantations
Other than its extraordinary natural beauty, Alishan is renowned for its High Mountain Oolong Tea, which is considered the best in Taiwan and possibly the whole of Asia! And that particular kind of tea is grown right here in the hills of Shizhuo!
Though plantations can be found scattered all over the township, a large amount are gathered just north of Shizhuo, forming a pristine network of neatly trimmed shrubs. The series of tea fields are so vast that a number of trails lead through them, the most notable of which is appropriately named the Trail of Tea. It’s definitely one of the most photogenic hikes Alishan has to offer!
YUYUPAS Cultural Park
Taiwan is home to several indigenous tribes who have inhabited the island for centuries! Though their numbers dwindle compared to years past, Alishan is still home to a small number of the Tsou indigenous tribe, and they have the perfect place to showcase their culture!
Surrounded by immaculate tea plantations, Yuyupas Cultural Park was established following a devastating typhoon in 2009 which forced the indigenous tribes to emigrate down from the mountains to find better opportunities. Since then, the culture park brought some economic stability to the tribes in Alishan while also being a guide on the history and culture of the Tsou people.
Soon after the Alishan Forest Railway was completed by the Japanese in 1912, the tiny little mountain village of Fenqihu became the biggest stop along the agonisingly long journey. Even after the days of carrying timber and lumberjacks were left far behind, in their place came an equal number of tourists wishing to experience the glory of Alishan.
Throughout history, Fenqihu’s purpose has remained the same; to be the perfect stop-off to take a break, refuel and trade before continuing the journey further into the mountains.
Fenqihu Old Street
Every decent Taiwanese town comes with its own old street, and Fenqihu is no different! As the logging industry grew, so too did the need to cater to the tourists in the form of hotels, restaurants and a decent heaping of snacks. Along with classic Taiwanese staples, you’ll also find some local favourites such Aiyu jelly, wasabi flavoured snacks, traditional aboriginal clothing and, most importantly, lunch boxes (more on that later!)
Thus the old street has kept on running the way it has done for over 100 years! It’s that single-minded focus on servicing tourists and its peculiar mountain location which has earned Fenqihu the nickname the Jiufen of Alishan!
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Fenqihu Train Station
Much the cultural, financial and historical centre of the village, Fenqihu train station is responsible for breathing life into this sleepy little village while also ensuring its survival to this day! Unlike most stations, you’re actually free to walk along the tracks as you’ll see many other people do so they can take the obligatory photo! Just be sure to move out of the way as the slow-paced train toots its way into the station!
The tracks also lead to a small locomotive museum that houses two old steam engines that were imported from the US in the early 1900s. The museum also gives a little deeper look into the role this humble little station once played on this mountain!
Fenqihu Hiking Trails
Fenqihu is also surrounded by its fair share of pleasant trails, some of which are insanely photogenic! Two of the best are the Fenqihu Forest Trail and the Fenrui Historic Trail.
The Fenrui Historic Trail connects two popular scenic areas, Fenqihu and Ruili. During the Qing Dynasty, this dense bamboo forested pathway was used by travelling merchants to transport their wares, which continued onto the days of the Japanese prior to the opening of the track. Evidence of those days can still be seen in the form of temple ruins and preserved Japanese shrines.
Fenqihu Forest Trail might be a little shorter, though with several lookout points back towards Fenqihu and the remains of a Japanese shrine, it’s certainly one of the best! If you arrive in spring, you might be lucky enough to see fireflies at night.
For Westerners, the word lunchbox brings back memories of lacklustre ham sandwiches packed in flimsy plastic boxes with a Thomas the Tank decor. In the far East, they’re done a little differently!
A “lunchbox” or Bento is a packed meal that includes all the staple elements of local cuisine. In the case of Taiwan, they usually contain rice topped with a pork chop or chicken drumstick, marinated egg and pickled vegetables. They’re so popular that you can find them everywhere in Taiwan, even in 7/11s! But none are more iconic than those in Fenqihu!
As the village was a vital refuelling stop for trains, it played the same role for famished passengers! As each tourist got off to stretch their legs, they’d also have a chance to refuel themselves with a local railway lunchbox! There are plenty of places that sell them, but the most iconic of all is sold at the Fenqihu Hotel!
Around Alishan National Park
Now we’ve finally arrived at what many consider to be the real Alishan and the whole reason for being here in the first place! Alishan National Forest Recreation Area is renowned for its spectacular trails, vast peaks and giant red cypress forests with trees over 2000 years old. If there’s one place you should spend most of your time, it’s right here!
Take The Alishan Forest Railway
One of the few remaining relics of the Japanese logging industry has now become one of Alishan’s most iconic features! The forest railway networks guide visitors through lush and misty forests through 4 stations: Alishan (main station near the Visitor’s Centre), Zhaoping, Sacred Tree and Zhushan.
The authentic little cabins leisurely chug their way under the pull of the old-timey train as it makes it travels through misty forests and overhanging cherry blossoms. No matter how much of a keen hiker you are, you just have to take a ride on this picturesque little choo choo!
Three Generation Tree
Though there are countless amount of gigantic trees scattered amongst the township, some are considered much more significant than others. One of which actually demonstrates the sheer will and determination of nature better than any other.
What was once a victim of the Japanese logging industry has now become the foundation for not one, but TWO new generations of trees growing atop one other! It’s a wonderful example of how life finds a way. Who knows, how many more will grow in decades to come!
Xianglin Giant Tree
From one impressive specimen to another, we come to a tree that luckily survived those pesky Japanese blades, and even outlived the nation of Japan itself!! The Xianglin Giant Tree is a 2,300 years old red cypress that has stood in these forests since before the Roman Empire!
Standing at 45m tall with a trunk circumference measuring 12.3 meters, it’s a pretty astonishing beast! It just goes to show how primaeval this forest really is!
The Ciyun Temple
Just a stone’s throw away from the ancient tree you can find a humble Buddhist temple which is yet another result of the Japanese. It’s actually one of a number of temples found in the area as the colonisers believed that Alishan resembled the birthplace of Buddha, and thus somewhere of supreme spiritually significance!
Though the temple itself is pretty basic, it’s the platform at the back that’s the real show! It happens to be a fantastic place to witness the sea of clouds which regularly flow amongst the valleys of Alishan.
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Yet another tree which earns a mention, though sadly this one hasn’t survived to tell its tale! The Sacred Tree is Alishan’s oldest and most famous tree, coming in at over 3,000 years old, outliving the earliest forms of civilization!
Though it was fortunate enough to survive the Japanese, it could not compete with mother nature as it was struck by lightning in the 1950s. Soon after, officials decided to cut it down and left it on its side so it could return to the earth it came from.
Xianglin Service Area
The roadway that leads through the park comes to an end here at the Xianglin Service Area. This little gathering of services acts as a one-stop-shop of all your souvenir and snack-wanting needs before you head deeper into the park!
If you’re done for the day, then you can also grab the shuttle bus to head back to the Visitor’s Centre or, better yet, walk back yourself!
Attached to the service area, Shouzhen Temple is the biggest in Alishan and also holds the record of the highest temple in Taiwan! Much like other Toaist temples throughout the country, the temple is immaculately designed with intricate craftsmanship including detailed sculptures of dragons and mythical animals. It certainly brings some colour to the otherwise earthy tones of the park!
Giant Tree Plank Trail
Though you’re already deep into the park, the real show doesn’t start until you’ve followed the trail behind the service area. The Giant Tree Plank Trail zigzags deeper into the forest as it brings you into the beating heart of the forests. It’s for that and the fairytale-like trail surroundings that make it one of the most popular hiking routes in the region.
The trail also brings you past a few treats along the way, including centuries-year-old trees, the Shenyi Waterfall and, best of all, the Sister Ponds (more on that later). Even for the casual walker, it’s the perfect trail to lose yourself to the wonders of the forest and allow yourself to feel insignificant amongst the giants.
Now we arrive at one of the most iconic images associated with Alishan, and a site well worth a moment of pensive thought. The Sister Ponds are a pair of natural jade-coloured ponds with a lone pavilion standing in its centre, whose story is just as eerie as its surroundings!
The story goes that two sisters fell in love with the same man and rather than betraying each other, they both decided to drown themselves within the lake’s murky waters. It’s for that reason that one pond is called the Elder Sister Pond and the other, the Younger Sister Pond. Cheerful, right?
Watch the Alishan Sunrise
Another major tick off the Alishan list is to watch the sunrise over Yushan! Due to the vast size of the whole township, there are plenty of places to do just that, though there are still a few favoured spots.
The most popular option is to take the early train to the sunrise viewing platform at Zhushan. Tickets must be purchased at the station the day before between 1 – 4 pm and cost NT$150 per person. You could actually walk there if you so wanted, as long as you’re happy to trek in near pitch-black darkness if not for a few street lights placed along the trail.
Another option is to take a private shuttle service provided by the hotels, where a guide will take you out of Alishan National park and to a spot closer to the action. Prices usually start around NT$250-400 (per person) depending on the distance. Whichever option you end up choosing, expect to be lost in a sea of bodies!
Hike One of Alishan’s Many Trails
Alishan has more than enough trails to choose from, though some definitely stand above the rest! Leading from the back of Zhushan station (which is completely abandoned and eerier in the afternoons) is a foot beaten path that leads to the Tashan Mountain Trail. This trek will guide you to one of the highest peaks in Alishan and one of the best places to enjoy the sea of clouds! Be aware that it’s pretty demanding and not for the casual walker, as I found out the hard way!
Further along the train tracks, you can also follow the Duigaoyue Trail for a 2-hour hike towards the Duigao Pavilion, or if you’re really in the mood for a workout, keep following the trail tracks until you loop your way back to the sister ponds. Either way, it won’t be hard to find somewhere to go for a stroll!
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Where To Stay in Alishan?
The first thing you have to decide is where you would like to stay; Shizhuo, Fenqihu, the National Park, or a combination of the three.
Sadly, there are no budget hostels in the township whatsoever. Not only that, but the limited number of hotels take full advantage of their exclusivity and have high prices to match! You’ll spend at least NT$1200 a night on a hotel room no matter which area you’re in.
If you’re after the cheapest possible option, then there are a few homestays available, which are essentially just a room in someone’s house! It may not be the most luxurious choice, but with prices starting at NT$350, it’s definitely the cheapest!
Where Should You Stay?
Shizhou easily has the most picturesque accommodations in the area as many of the tea plantations double up as luxury BnBs. It’s a great way to enjoy a quaint little vacation while waking up to one hell of a view!
There are also a few hotels in Shizhuo itself, of which I highly recommend Alishan Tea Homestay 新天山茶業 (click here). They have English-speaking staff and this family-run establishment is also very accommodating! The owner was even kind enough to pick us up after we missed the last bus and dropped us off in the tea plantations the next morning!
Fenqihu also has a decent number of hotels on offer, seeing as it’s always been the main tourist stop-off! The most famous of which is the Fenchihu Hotel (click here) which also sells the most iconic lunchbox in town!
Your best option is to get a hotel in Alishan Tourist Village, though don’t expect luxury. It’s convenient as it’s right next to the park’s entrance and amenities like souvenir shops, restaurants and also a 7/11.
There are actually a few hotels IN the national park itself, but they are ridiculously overpriced and just not worth the price.
What To Eat in Alishan?
Alishan is by no means the culinary centre of Taiwan, but you can still find a few treats!
The must-eat item is of course the iconic lunchbox, which comes with a variety of vegetables, eggs and a choice of pork or chicken on a bed of rice served in an adorable traditional tin.
Of course, you should also sample some of the world-famous Alishan High Mountain Oolong Tea! Not that it’s hard to find it, it’s pretty much served in every restaurant, hotel and café for miles around!
Alishan also has the perfect conditions for growing wasabi roots, which you’ll find in pretty much every store nearby. And of course, there are plenty of wasabi related snacks to be found too…but obviously, it’s not to everyone’s taste!
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Great account of your trip and things to do. I spent a few days there having travelled by bus from Chiayi. Unfortunately, most of that time the area was shrouded in fog which diminished the views but certainly enhanced the atmosphere ! I remember the Alishan post office being one of the nicest I have seen anywhere, built in a traditional Chinese style. After Alishan I caught the bus to Taipei.
I appreciate your kind comments my friend! I think having fog half the time and clear skies the other half is rhe perfect mixture, both completely different atmospheres but both equally beautiful! Just a shame that the transport isn’t a little easier to figure out!