Updated: Jul 26
Explore the Golden Grotto, Taiwan's premiere river tracing / canyoning destination
River trace through a spectacular and remote slot canyon in Taiwan on an unbelievable, once in a lifetime adventure!
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INDEX (because yeah, this is a long article...)
The Entrance Area / The River Route / The Aqueduct Route / The Tower / The Valley / The Curve / The Curve Campsite / The Canyon / The Golden Grotto / The Entrance / The Outer Chamber / The Middle Chamber / The Inner Chamber / The Nitty Gritty (GPX, info, etc)
Welcome to The Map Room's series about the Sanzhan River in Hualian!
This is the first in an occasional series of, hopefully, four articles about river tracing in the amazing Sanzhan River in Hualian, Taiwan.
Traces in this series:
The Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷) - intermediate level trace
The Platinum Grotto (白金峽谷) - advanced trace (to be released at a later date)
The Black Gold Grotto (黑金峽谷) - advanced, technical trace, further upstream from the Platinum Grotto (to be released at a much later date)
I will periodically revisit this article and update it as new information becomes available. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have new information! (last updated June 20, 2021)
All recommendations, times, and other information are for average conditions with average water levels. Please also see important safety notes for river tracing (below).
GPX, route maps, and practical information are at the end of this article.
The Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷)! If you live in Taiwan and love the outdoors, chances are you've heard of it, but you may never have been there. Located a few hours' trace up Hualian's Sanzhan River (台灣花蓮三棧溪), it's arguably the most famous of all river tracing destinations in Taiwan - and THAT is saying something! Timeless, yet ever changing, it's a place of wonder, power, and unparalleled majesty.
You may have also heard that, far beyond the Grotto, something called The Platinum Grotto (白金峽谷) awaits, and perhaps you've even heard whispered rumors of something even more remote, something called the Black Gold Grotto (黑金峽谷)? In the next post I will take you to the First Ferocious Falls (殘暴一號瀑布) the edge of the Platinum Grotto itself. It's not an easy journey, and what lies beyond is truly difficult to reach. It's not for the faint of heart, the inexperienced, or ill prepared, and I hope to do more detailed posts on them in the future. But the Golden Grotto? Well, just read on!
On the way between the Golden Grotto and the Platinum Grotto
Jumping off of the Ferocious Falls (殘暴一號瀑布), at the Entrance to the Platinum Grotto Itself
After five years, and at least 13 trips to the Golden Grotto, and several expeditions far beyond, it's finally time for me to share what I've experienced in this amazing, world-class adventure travel destination. So please, join me on an adventure like no other!
I've tried to include only the best of my photos from all the times I've been to the Golden Grotto, but as you can imagine it's been quite a challenge! That's why I've put together a gallery with additional pictures for you to check out. Please take a look!
The Entrance Area
The entrance to the Golden Grotto at Sanzhan River in Hualian, Taiwan
Starting my most recent hiking and river tracing journey to Hualian's Golden Grotto with my friend Johan.
An Aboriginal Curse!
This sign is a curse saying that, if you leave your garbage in the river area, the ancestors of the local aboriginal tribe will curse you. No, I'm not even making that up! Curses are seen as serious stuff by most Taiwanese.
The Entrance to the Golden Grotto at Sanzhan River in Hualian, Taiwan
New construction along the old trail to the aqueduct tower (see below). There are two ways to start your journey to the Golden Grotto, and here is where you make your choice! Going up (left) will take you along the aqueduct trail, which you can follow all the way to The Tower (below). This saves you time, but misses some nice tracing.
Going right takes you along this path down to the river, where you immediately cross for the first of many times. It takes a bit longer, but you get some beautiful river scenery in exchange! I've included pictures of both routes below, so have fun and take whichever one you like!
New Construction Along the Old Trail to the Aqueduct Tower
The River Route
Crossing the Sanzhan River at the Cliff Diving Tree
If you're like me, you love a good cliff dive! There's a REALLY great one, very high and very unique, just beyond this point. It's one of the first things you reach if you take the river route.
Let the Real Adventure Begin!
River Tracing Across the Sanzhan River
Cliff Diving Tree
This is the best jumping area along the whole route to Hualian's Golden Grotto, bar none! First, you climb up the cliffside, then follow the diagonal crack from the bottom left of the photo, pass under the trees, and climb up the high cliffside using the root system of the big tree. Finally, climb out from there onto one of its branches and take a flying leap about 16 meters (about 50 feet / 3 stories) into the depths below! The jumping pool is incredibly clean and clear, and usually teaming with large fish (they always get out of the way well before getting hit), so it's a crazy experience looking, and then jumping, down.
Beautiful Azure Blue Waters of Hualian
Azure blue waters dominate the entire trace to the Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷), The Platinum Grotto (白金峽谷) and Black Gold Grotto (黑金峽谷) far beyond. While I'm not going to take you as far as the Platinum Grotto or the Black Gold Grotto on this journey, I hope to do follow-up posts for each of them in the future!
A Picture From my First River Trace to the Golden Grotto, So Many Years Ago...
A picture from my first visit to the Golden Grotto, all those years ago! I had only been river tracing for a year or so at that point, and was honestly pretty nervous about entering the legendary Grotto all on my own. I had no GPX map and not much information to go on. What if I missed the entrance? What if the river was too rough?
I've been there 13 times now, and ventured deep into the remote river canyons beyond, but no matter how many times I return, the Golden Grotto will always be a place of awe and wonder for me!
The Aqueduct Route
This aqueduct, which runs along the side of the cliffside trail, was a joint project between the American government and the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwanese) governments back before the USA recognized the People's Republic of China (i.e., Mainland Chinese communist government) as the legitimate holder of the UN security council seat. The US funded the work, and the local government used the funds to build the whole thing.
Cliffside Hiking Trail Along Hualian's Sanzhan River
This section of the trail to the Golden Grotto is carved out of the naked rock of the mountainside cliffs. It's an exhilarating feeling, like something out of the adventure movies I used to watch as a little boy.
Walking along the trail from the entrance to the Golden Grotto towards the aqueduct tower takes you over this wooden bridge in the jungle.
Jungle Trail Aqueduct
Looking Down from the Cliffside
Nearing The Tower...
The last stretch of the cliffside walkway, just before it ends at the aqueduct tower, offers an amazing view of the river.
The Beautiful Sanzhan River Aqueduct Tower, Hualian, Taiwan
This tower is at the end of the cliffside, aqueduct trail. It's a really fun place, with a great swimming hole and another of the most unique jumps I know in Taiwan. I always make a point to stop and have a bit of fun here before passing by!
Johan Looks Down from the Tower
Taking in the View from the Top of the Tower
The Beautiful Sanzhan River Aqueduct Tower, Hualian, Taiwan
The Sanzhan River Aqueduct Tower
Long neglected, this whole area has recently seen a flurry of construction and renovation. Until now, this has been one of the absolute best places to jump, despite being only about 8 meters (24 feet / 2 stories) or so high. Last time we visited, they had started installing a 'protective' chain around the edge, but hopefully this will not inhibit jumping in the future!
Jumping from the Sanzhan River Aqueduct Tower
Jumping from The Tower into the deep, azure-blue pool 8 meters (24 feet / 2 stories) below is exhilarating, but ALWAYS check the depth of any jump on a new day, no matter how many times you've been there before! I have personally witnessed the pool - normally at least as deep as the tower is high - filled so full of rock and gravel that I was literally able to walk across in ankle deep water. By the next time I returned, it had all washed out and returned to its previous depth. ALWAYS take a jump with confidence, or not at all, knowing that you NEVER leave it to chance and have checked the depth first.
Commemoration of Sino-American Cooperation
This sign on the side of the tower commemorates the cooperation between the US government and the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwanese, then still recognized as the government of all of China) governments.
An Adventurer's Dream
The beauty of places like these simply must be seen to be believed. Pictures can convey a lot, but there is truly no substitute for seeing them with your own eyes, feeling the cool water as you hike and river trace up the impossibly clear rivers and streams of Taiwan's east coast!
Chrystal Clear Mountain Streams
The waters of the river are rich and colorful, especially on a sunny day! River tracing (canyoning) here is like something out of a dream.
Notice the tunnel-looking feature running along the top of the boulder to the right (above). You can see it clearly from behind in the picture below. I've always been fascinated by this feature, and I wonder if, long long ago, it used to stand upright as part of the watercourse of some now long lost waterfall.
The Jumping Rock from Below
Take a Dive!
There are tons of places to dive off of boulders and waterfalls all along the way to the Golden Grotto, though this may be the most unique. It's a lot of fun, especially if you have extra time for all the special and interesting places along the way!
As with most outdoor destinations in Taiwan, the aboriginies come here often. No matter how far you get into the wilderness, you can bet they've been there recently!
Aboriginal Picnic Table
Only 130 km (80 miles) north of the Tropic of Cancer as the crow flies, the deep blue pools of the Sanzhan River are the image of a tropical paradise in all but name.
Smooth River Rocks
These flat river rocks make perfect skipping stones!
Heading Into the Wild
When heading back out from the Golden Grotto, watch for the massive, pointed boulder (seen standing alone at the center left of this photo). Cross from the campsite just before it and watch on the right to find one of the secret trail entrances. There are several long sections of trail, starting just after The Tower, which save you a lot of time in getting to the Golden Grotto while still letting you down for the best sections of river tracing. Don't worry - you'll still get PLENTY wet on the way! Check out the GPX file for trailhead locations, as well as some of the major landmarks to check out along the way!
There are plenty of places to camp as you make your way along the Sanzhan. This is one of the nicer ones, but even if it's occupied you can just move on to the next one.
Knowing the hidden entrances to the riverside trail can save you hours of time while sacrificing very little in terms of the best swimming and jumping spots.
Johan Traces Upriver
Did you notice the massive, upright boulder in the river behind Johan? Cross over from here on the way back to the parking lot and look for the trail on the right bank before you pass it. It's a great trail marker!
Another Great Riverside Campsite!
Dave Fords the Sanzhan River
Once you hit this rocky expanse you will come to a sharp right turn. The valley suddenly narrows and becomes much steeper. From here, it's only about 15 minutes to the Golden Grotto!
This is a photo from when a friend brought his 10 year old son (in orange) along for the trace. With proper swimming and outdoors knowledge and experience, and adult supervision, children as young as 10 or 11 can do this trace - though it will be quite a challenge for them.15 and older would be better for anything beyond the Golden Grotto.
Just Around the Bend
The last bend before the Golden Grotto entrance!
The Canyon Curve Just Before the Golden Grotto
The Final Push!
John Rounds the Bend
John Snaps One!
Johan and David Press Onward
Such Amazing Beauty!
The Curve Campsite
Though sometimes the Sanzhan River Valley can have mist, fog, or drizzling rain, other times the whole place is flooded with light and color!
The Bend Campsite
This campsite is very close to the last big bend before the Golden Grotto. For individuals or small groups, it's a great option. It's even better if you want to hit the Grotto for photography; the golden hour for this place is between 10 and 12, depending on the time of year, so starting from here in the morning will give you plenty of flexibility for catching that perfect shot. After all, it's only about 15 minutes from here to the Grotto entrance - if you can resist all the amazing photo opportunities on the way, that is!
Thre are plenty of campsites along the way. For the exact location of this campground, and a selection of others, just download the GPX file at the end of this post.
Camping on a Rainy Day
There's nothing like a good campfire to lift your spirits after too many nights in the city!
The Bend Campsite
Fog Fills the Valley
Sometimes the Sanzhan River Valley can be a foreboding place
There are plenty of bends on this river, but this is The Bend. As soon as you turn past the campsite at The Bend, you will know. The wide, angled sides of the river valley suddenly and abruptly change to the high, vertical walls of a tall, narrow canyon. It's incredibly beautiful!
That said, this is also where I bust out the helmet. The first time I ever came here, I saw a big avalanch just beyond what I did not yet know was the entrance to the Golden Grotto, and I've seen another in this exact section as well. I've also seen people injure themselves badly on the way out on jagged rocks that weren't here when we went in, so keep one eye on the beauty, and the other peeled for rockfalls.
Taiwanese Slot Canyon
From Valley to Canyon
River Tracing (Canyoning) in Taiwan
Deeper and Deeper Shades of Beauty
The closer we get to the Grotto, the more vibrant and beautiful the river becomes.
David Crosses the River
THE GOLDEN GROTTO
The Entrance to the Golden Grotto!
You have to watch for the entrance to the Golden Grotto between these giant boulders on the right. You could blow right on past it and head straight into The Gauntlet if you aren't paying attention!
Flying a Drone Outside the Golden Grotto at the Sanzhan River in Hualian, Taiwan
Johan Preps the Drone at the First Pool
The Entrance to the Golden Grotto!
At last, we arrived at the entrance to the Golden Grotto. Thanks to Johan's drone, this is finally the first time I've ever seen it from above! It's a funny feeling, at once intimately familiar on my 13th trip, and yet new and different all at the same time.
The First Pool
The Golden Grotto consists of an outer pool and three main chambers. The first three areas each contain long, narrow, deep, blue pools which must be swum across. Each time you want to access the next chamber you have to climb up one of the waterfalls that separate them.
The First Pool
Though there was a rope in place this time, it is the only time that I've ever seen one myself. Don't bet on it being there!
Crossing the First Pool on the Way Out
Jumping Back into the First Pool from Above
The Outer Chamber
Extreme Slot Canyon
Light and color envelop you as you enter the inner chambers of the Golden Grotto. At times it can feel like you've been transported to some magical fairytale realm.
Water like Blue Glass
As you swim ever deeper into the Grotto, the water turns as blue as turquoise, and every rock, stone, and pebble on the bottom seems transformed into a sapphire. Impossible combinations of dark and light, of bright colors and dark tones of brown and black, mix and match like a collidescope of stone, water, and light.
Between the First and Second Pools
The Second Waterfall
David Sitting by the Second Waterfall
This is the second of three waterfalls you have to climb to get to the inner chamber of the Golden Grotto. While it's much shorter than the third, and barely taller than the simple climb that is the first waterfall, it's by far the most difficult of the three. Hand and foot holds are few and hard to find, and without a rope only the most accomplished of swimmers and climbers can get to and up it. Thankfully, it's not slippery - the water tumbles over it way too fast for anything to grow there. Also, thankfully, unlike the First Pool area, there usually IS a rope in place here. On this occasion, though, there wasn't, so I had to climb up and put one of my own in place before everyone could pass.
Climbing the Waterfall at the End of the Second Pool
Though people do often leave ropes in place inside the Grotto, it's far from, a sure thing. Bring your own rope, or be prepared to climb unassisted!
The Second Pool
Jumping for my Life!
The Golden Grotto is a beautiful place... deceptively beautiful! It can be deadly, make no mistake!
On the way out after one trip, we were lined up and ready to take photos of us jumping down into the Second Pool. Just as John pushed the button to shoot this picture, a pile of huge rocks collapsed into the space we had been standing mere second before! There was no warning and no time, we could only jump for our lives and hope we didn't get hit. John had been ready to shoot and I had been poised to jump, so incredibly, we got this in the exact instant it all happened. If you look closely, you will see rocks flying through the foreground. It was a miracle nobody got hurt - even more so because, at that time, we hadn't yet started using helmets. We use them on most traces these days, and we strongly recommend them.
The Middle Chamber
Looking Back from Above The Middle Chamber
Extreme Slot Canyon
Though it is technically a slot canyon, the walls narrow so much at the top that they almost touch. If you look up in the First Pool area, you will even see stalagtites! Any closer, and it would be a cave!
Climbing the Third Waterfall
There are two ways to climb the third waterfall...
...with a rope...
...and without a rope!
The Inner Chamber
The Third (below) and Fourth (above) Waterfalls
Johan takes it all in. This is the main waterfall in drought conditions
Here is a shot of the main waterfall in normal conditions. What a huge difference!
The Final Chamber of the Golden Grotto
The Inner Sanctum!
At last we reached the inner chamber. There are few places like this on Earth. Coming here is guaranteed to be an experience you will remember for the rest of your life!
The Final Chamber of the Golden Grotto
Checking out the Debris
This time we came with helmets!
So now, there's only one question left after all of that... what about that the Platinum Grotto (白金峽谷) and Black Gold Grotto (黑金峽谷) I mentioned way back at the beginning of the article? Well, each is an amazing story of its own! I'm excited to explore them further and share the experience with you... but those are adventures for another day, and for other posts. They will come in due time. In the next post, I will take you to the First Ferocious Falls (殘暴一號瀑布) the edge of the Platinum Grotto itself. Until then, keep exploring!
Want more? Don't forget to check out The Golden Grotto 黃金峽谷 BONUS GALLERY!
5-8 hours. I can easily reach the Grotto within two hours and have plenty of time to jump and swim at select spots along the way, but I'm very fast and I know the side trails. I recommend you start in the morning, make a day of it, and come out happy and amazed in the evening!
Before the tower at the head of the aqueduct, you should probably bring your own, due to runoff from local farms and tracing traffic. After that, you can generally rely on the river. See also notes on water (below).
Gear and provisions:
River tracing-appropriate shoes and clothes (see remarks), helmets (not really necessary until you turn the last bend towards the Golden Grotto, after which it's much more prone to rockfalls), waterproof backpack, life jackets for anyone who is not a strong swimmer, water filter or other treatment options (see below), a waterproof headlamp or flashlight, a lighter (always!). A rope may definitely be useful, and is likely highly necessary for any but the strongest of swimmers. A first aid kit is recommended.
Definitely, the entire thing except the Golden Grotto itself is extremely hot and explsed. Ironically, it's often a bit chilly inside...
With proper swimming and outdoors knowledge and experience, and adult supervision, children as young as 10 or 11 can do this trace - though it will be quite a challenge for them. This is based on the experience of my friend, who brought his two boys along for the trace.
Astonishingly, we once encountered a group with a dog FAR beyond the Golden Grotto, so yes, it can be done. Caveat: The dog had a special harness with a handle on top for lifting him over multiple sections which would have otherwise been completely impassible for him, and he had a custom life jacket. Respect!
Camping /overnighting options:
See above, and the points indicated in the GPX tracks. There are a number of places to stay overnight on the riverside, and several that are ideal. I've even camped inside The Tower twice, which was fun but DEFINITELY required earplugs.
Entry and other fees:
To date, there is no charge to park or enter. However, it is rumored that they may soon start charging a fee, and the current construction in the area seems to support this. If you find a fee being charged, please contact The Map Room on Instagram of Facebook and we will update this information right away! As I said above, I will update this article regularly as I learn more, and revisit it as things change over coming years.
GPX file: Golden Grotto 1 - The Map Room 黃金峽谷-地圖寶庫
Update (Oct. 30, 2021):
There have been consistent reports of people entering with neither permits nor hassle.
June 17, 2021
While the local police looked at me like I had grown a second head when I asked for a permit on my first visit, much has changed over the years. Due to a series of recent deaths, permits are now required to enter the area - though we have not encountered anyone looking for them on any visits to date. I will update this article regularly as I learn more, and revisit it as things change over coming years.
Though rockfalls are not a major concern along the first stretch of this trace, once you pass the last curve into the canyon just before the Golden Grotto entrance, things are much different. I have personally witnessed several major rockfalls in this stretch, and barely escaped one inside the Grotto itself with my life. There have also been several high-profile rockfall deaths recently inside the Golden Grotto. Take a helmet, keep your head about you (literally), but still go. It's absolutely amazing!
River tracing gear and provisions (for basic not requiring rappelling and rock climbing skills and gear):
Clothes: Should be ok for swimming and getting dirty/torn, protect from scrapes. Quick drying, non-cotton, close fitting. UV reflective for hot traces, wetsuit for colder traces.
Boots: Neoprene or other river tracing specific boots (not shoes, NOT rubber or fishing boots!) to prevent blisters. High tops to keep stones out, soles to provide good grip and prevent slipping. I prefer felt soles for extra padding, especially after prior injuries. Some prefer alternatives which prevent organisms from being transferred between various streams and rivers.
Helmet: Designed for rock climbing.
Backpack: Waterproof. IPX 8 rating (protected when immersed in water over 1 meter / 3 feet) recommended.
Rope: Non-climbing rated, floating rope (that does not absorb water and get heavy) with knots is helpful, but NOT for doing serious climbs. Use ONLY for pulling weaker swimmers through more challenging stretches of water, and perhaps helping with scrambles up short sections of difficult terrain. For advanced climbing or rappelling, get advanced climbing rope, gear, and training!
Life jacket: If you are not a strong and confident swimmer.
Phone case: IPX 8 rating (protected when immersed in water over 1 meter / 3 feet) recommended.
Water filter or other water treatment options.
Waterproof headlamp or flashlight. IPX 8 rating (protected when immersed in water over 1 meter / 3 feet) recommended.
The Map Room recommends Fenix headlamps, and personally uses the 1600 lumen Fenix HM70R Headlamp - (Amazon affiliate link*)
Optional gear: A bandanna, headband, or other light cloth for wiping sweat is also often useful when you are not fully immersed in water.
Choose water from a fast moving, clean source. This kills certain parasites, like giardia. Check upstream for polluting factors (dead animals, droppings, etc). Look for signs of pollution (vehicle tracks, lots of footprints). It's best to filter, and possibly either boil or otherwise treat it as well.
The Map Room personally uses and highly recommends the Sawyer Squeeze water filter (NOT the Sawyer Squeeze Mini - Amazon affiliate link*)
Important river tracing safety notes:
Strength and water levels of rivers change with rain, seasons, and other factors.
ALWAYS check the weather in advance of a river trace. If there is rain upstream, it is not advisable to go, due to the risk of flash floods.
If it has rained recently, rockslides are more likely. If the sun then comes out and evaporates recent rain, they are more likely still. Wear a helmet, and be sensible!
Stopping to rest in rockfall areas, under rock overhangs, or near sheer cliffs is not advisable due to the risk of rockfalls. Look for a wider, open area with less steep rock walls.
So now you're ready to go! Get out there, enjoy nature, and have an amazing time!
All information on this page is intended for reference only. Preparing adequate food, water, and gear for your adventure, as well as following local rules and laws are, of course, your own responsibility! Always make sure that you check the weather for outdoor destinations, be careful and sensible for enclosed spaces like tunnels and bunkers, and bring a lighter - you never know when it could save your life! Now... get out there and have an amazing time!
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