The Fenghuang Waterfall (鳳凰瀑布 [Fènghuáng Pùbù]; meaning "Phoenix Waterfall", not to be confused with the one in Hualien) felt like one of the more obscure waterfalls that we had visited in Taiwan. Maybe we got this vibe because Mom and I happened to encounter a couple of senior locals (coming back from doing a longer hike further up in the mountains) who never knew about this waterfall in all the years they had lived here. Add to that, the relative lack of signage except for the actual trailhead itself without any formal parking, and we at first wondered if we were in the right place or not (see directions below). From reading other blogs, it appeared that this particular spot was more known to foreigners than to the locals. Well, whatever the case may be, I thought this place was a gem of a find as it was where the Bazhang Stream (八掌溪 [Bāzhǎng Xī]) plunged 20-25m into a deep pool that was perfect for swimming. Of course as is often the case in life, the most worthwhile things typically require a little work to reach, and this excursion was no different.
Our hike started from a road shoulder nearby the signed (in Chinese) trailhead. We walked along the road towards the signage and then followed along some descending steps amongst a grove of betelenut (檳榔 [bīnláng]) trees, which seemed to be quite common in Chiayi County (suggesting it may be a key cash crop in the area). Anyways, as the concrete steps descended what appeared to be a sloping ridge, it also seemed like there was a bit of overgrowth conspiring to cover up some of these steps (at least enough overgrowth to plant some seeds of doubt in my Mom). Indeed, we had to be a bit careful about making this descent without a misstep. Something that we noticed in most trails throughout Asia (and Taiwan was no different) was that they were typically paved or were along concrete. While this could be jarring to the knees, unnaturally unsightly, and prone to damage (especially from typhoons), in this particular case, it might actually make sense. For if the steps weren't here, then it would require a very dicey descent on what would most likely be a muddy and eroded trail.
After the initial flight of steps, we crossed what appeared to be an unpaved road or trail, but we kept straight ahead on the next series of steps. And it turned out that we would still have a long descent ahead of us. I recalled in doing my trip research that this waterfall was informally called the "Thousand Step Waterfall", and as Mom and I engaged in this hike, it was clear to us how it got its name. Indeed, the descent kept persisting, and we knew we'd have to get all this elevation loss back. On top of that, it seemed like the climate was getting muggier and the mosquitos were more abundant the further down this trail we went. That said, at least the betelnut trees were behind us as we were encountering more local jungle flora.
Eventually after about 30-40 minutes of hiking, we then bouldered our way to the inviting plunge pool that separated us and the Fenghuang Waterfall. After all the sweat and exertion it took to make it down here, the cool spray and breeze generated by the falls was very welcome as it somewhat offset the humidity. This was one of those spots that we didn't want to leave, especially when we had to go back up all those steps. But eventually, after having our fill of this spot, we sweated our way all the way back up to the trailhead and eventually regaining our rental car where we really looked forward to the AC. All told, we had spent a little over 90 minutes away from the car covering a distance of about 1.4km round trip (at least according to my GPS logs).
Even though the Fenghuang Waterfall was directly east of Chiayi (嘉義 [Jiāyì]) by about 30km or so, we made our visit after leaving from Tainan (臺南 [Táinán]) so we'll describe the best route from there (which passes by Chiayi anyways).
From Tainan City Center, we made our way to the I-1 Expressway going north. The most straightforward route from here would be to follow the I-1 north for about 55km before taking the Hwy 159 at the interchange into Chiayi City. Continue driving east on the Hwy 159 through the Chiayi City for about 5km or so then keeping right to drive onto the Route 159甲 (the character is pronounced "jiǎ"). We'd then keep driving east on the 159甲 for another 20km or so as we passed by the Ban Tian Yan Zhuyin Temple (半天岩紫雲寺 [Bàntiānyán Zǐyún Sì]; at about the 14km point) and kept climbing deeper into the mountains.
This was when we noticed an aboriginal-looking roadside signpost for the Fenghuang Waterfall (in Chinese). There was no parking exactly at the trailhead so we had to drive a little further to find a legal place to pull over. We wound up finding a road shoulder near some local shack, but we also found out that another 150m to the east along the 159甲 was a grassy car park right across from a smaller shrine or temple. I would imagine that that would be the spillover parking should the closer spots be occupied. Note that had we kept driving east on the 159甲, we would have eventually reached the Alishan National Scenic Area.
Overall, this drive took us around 2 hours, but a large percentage of that time was spent dealing with traffic and traffic lights in Tainan.
As for some geographical context, Chiayi City was about 70km northeast of Tainan (or over an hour drive), 114km north of Kaohsiung (a little over 90 minutes drive), 99km south of Taichung (about 90 minutes drive), and 262km southwest of Taipei (under 3 hours drive).
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