This Hidden Hiking Trail in Taipei Leads to the Most Gorgeous Viewpoints — Especially at Sunset

The steep climb is well worth it for the mix of natural wonders, stunning viewpoints, and cast of characters.

<p>Rachel Chang/Travel + Leisure</p>

Rachel Chang/Travel + Leisure

After winding through the backstreets of Taipei’s Xinyi district in the late afternoon, I finally arrived at the sign I had been searching for: the trailhead of the hike to Xiangshan (Elephant Mountain). I glanced upwards with a mix of dread and shock — there was no way this uneven stone staircase tucked in the back corner of an urban neighborhood could lead to one of the most stunning views of the Taiwanese capital.

I ducked into a shrubbery-shrouded corner, debating whether to let my foot issues win out and admit defeat already. But then I heard a gaggle of Taiwanese women chattering away, practically skipping down the stairs, with joy springing out of every step. They must have been decades older than I. Coveting that same spirit, I exhaled deeply and started my ascent.

Named for its shape resembling the trunked mammal, the sandstone mountain Xiangshan path is part of the Nangang Mountain System. It has long been a favorite of Taiwanese locals for evening strolls as it winds up craggy cliffs and rocky terrain through endemic plants like the Taiwanese Cibotium and flying spider-monkey tree fern, both markedly verdant and slightly fantastical, enveloping hikers into a subtropical paradise hovering above Taipei’s basin.

For the last two decades, the pathway has led to the most postcard-ready views of the city. More recently, it has captured the attention of photographers and Tiktokers alike ever since Taipei 101 — the tallest skyscraper in the world when it opened in 2004 and now in 11th place — went up, becoming one of the city’s most recognizable icons.

Technically opened 24 hours, twilight has become the choice time to climb the mountain, hopscotching through the pathways through various platforms, each with its own gasp-worthy vantage point at varying elevations.

Along the way, the trail tosses in a dose of Grand Canyon-like vibes as it passes through a group of massive stones called Laolaixia (Six Giant Rocks). Feeling dwarfed between the natural walls, I looked up to see fellow hikers climbing atop them, some posing for impromptu photo shoots, others enjoying picnic meals, but all with eyes on the colorful drapery of the sunset just starting to wash over the entire scene before us.

I looked for a spot to plant myself here among the mix of locals and fellow travelers, who had assembled to watch the sunset. With spectacular natural rocks in the foreground, the iconic skyscraper background, and fern-filled foliage in between, surely it couldn't get better than this.

Then I saw a few people proceed upward. Curious, I followed.

The steps grew steeper and narrower, but not long up the path was a sign that read “Xiangshan Peak 184 meters.” Out of breath, but satisfied, I reveled in stumbling up to the summit. Just around the bend was an elephant silhouette frame, perfectly framing Taipei 101 in the center, an Instagram-worthy way to commemorate the ascent to the top of the 604-foot mountain.

As fellow travelers and I took turns exchanging phones to take our summit shots, squeals of delight erupted spontaneously as buildings started to light up. Slowly, the colorful sunset scene morphed into a beautiful skyline of city lights, with the biggest "oohs" and "aahs" coming when Taipei 101 illuminated.

In that one 90-minute hike last spring, I had managed to see three sides of Taipei — standing strong and bold by day, feeling romantic and flirty by dusk, and finally showing off its magical night lights after dark.

Fortunate enough to return to Taiwan again in the fall, I make a point to repeat the experience, but this time changing the setting by venturing out in the morning.

The scene was notably quieter. At every intersection, I chose the path I hadn’t taken on my first trip, finding new corners of Nangang Mountain, at one point feeling like I had wandered straight into a "Harry Potter"-adventure passing through a mini cave.

But on this trip up Elephant Mountain, it wasn’t so much the views, but the people that drew my interest. My journey literally doubled in length to a nearly three-hour adventure, as organic conversation sprung up with fellow hikers, both in English and Mandarin.

I sat down for a chat with a group of Americans from Utah and Florida, who shared their tips for where else to visit on the island, while a pair of young Taiwanese women told me about their lives jetting between their hometown and their jobs in Mexico. I passed by a Gossip Girl-type atop the hill, lost in her phone with a Chanel shopping bag in hand, and then ran into a group of Korean businessmen, as we tried to figure out how to navigate a tricky portion of the trial. Together, we ran into a neighbor local, who amusingly told us she couldn’t help us with directions since she can't read maps and had to continue on her daily route.

While Xiangshan may lure hikers up through its maze of trails to find varying perspectives to take in the city, it's the playful interactions with the people along the way that make this elephant experience one that's truly unforgettable.

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