Kate and Anna were in the Philippines this weekend and since Lucy and I had to drive to Taipei to pick them up late Sunday night, we decided to make a [LONG] day of it and drive the cross-island highway through the western side of Yushan National Park, an area that we hadn't explored before. It also happened to coincide with a record-breaking cold snap that saw low temperatures dipping well below zero centigrade in the mountains across the island.
Due to all of the hype, I figured that there may be a pilgrimage of snow-seekers, so I tried to find the closest location that would likely see snow. Much of the north was blanketed with up to 30cm of snow on Sunday (as low as 500m above sea level around Taipei and Yilan), but temperatures were more mild in the southern part of the island. The trail to Beidawu was a likely bet, but with a four year-old in tow, accessibility was a concern. Also, Beidawu is not remotely on the way to Taipei, so Yushan National Park seemed to be the next best option as there is a well-maintained road to the Takata Visitor's Center at 2,600m. It was also just close enough to home ( about 3 hours' drive) that I reckoned we could leave around 5 AM and beat most of rush.
When I first started planning the trip, I was very seriously considering camping in Yushan or Alishan on Saturday night in order to pack more into the weekend, however upon the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a bad idea, since I didn't bring most of my winter camping kit from the US and the last thing I wanted to do was to wake up on Sunday morning in the mountains only to discover that the road had iced over and we were stuck (especially since we were due to collect Kate and Anna at the airport Sunday evening). As it turns out, we could have been fine on Saturday night, but on Sunday night, this was a very real problem in several high altitude locations around the island.
Our trip went off virtually without a hitch. We left home just before 5 AM in a driving rain that stayed with us for the entire trip and made good time since Route 3 was virtually empty. An hour later we turned off of the freeway and headed due east on Route 18 up into the mountains. As we gained elevation we picked up a couple of other cars but this didn't impede our pace at all. I took a risk on a shortcut early on - I don't know how much time it saved, but I did beat several of the vehicles that followed Route 18. After the shortcut road met back up with Route 18, we passed several hotels with people clambering to buses in the early dawn hours and this was the point that I realized that there really were going to be a lot of people up on the mountain.
From that point we moved in a line of traffic that only stopped once for about 10 minutes, just before 7 AM. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but we passed a gate shortly thereafter and traffic didn't stop again until we reached Alishan, so I'm thinking that perhaps they opened a gate here at 7 AM to allow visitors to enter.
My final pre-departure plan was to go first to Alishan to explore, and then to continue on to Yushan, later in the day, but when we arrived, traffic was backed up for several hundred meters waiting to enter the gate at Alishan, so we made the decision to skirt the traffic and continue on to Yushan first. This turned out to be fortuitous, because we made it through the two checkpoints between Alishan and Yushan before they began stopping vehicles and requiring them to chain up to continue. We didn't have chains with us, and as a rural Pennsylvania native, I wasn't too concerned. As it turned out, we spent most of the day driving back and forth up there and when we headed back down around 1:30 PM the roads were still bare. I was alert for black ice in windy areas, but didn't find any - I'm pretty sure the ground just wasn't cold enough. On the one hand it seems wasteful and hard on vehicles to require chains without a bit of snow or ice on the road, but on the other hand, I bet there were few accidents from people driving too fast on the roads!
On our way in, we didn't pick up any flurries of snow until around 2,300m but as we descended the northeastern side of the ridge, the snow was much heavier and actually didn't disappear from the ground until around 1,250m.
Since we didn't need to be at the airport until around midnight, we took the long way up and around Sun Moon Lake, since I've heard lots about the place but never actually been there. We arrived just in time to get a glimpse in the rain (we also drove past this place that looks like it might make an awesome basecamp for future explorations) before heading up to Route 6 and then on to Taichung where we slept for 3 hours in a freeway rest stop to get ready for the last hour to Taoyuan and the 3.5 hour return trip to Kaohsiung. Arriving back in our apartment just past 4 AM, this was definitely one of the longest days I've had in a while, but also one of the most rewarding.
More photos on Flickr here.