The Shifen waterfall is a once-private-now-publicly managed waterfall which sits just outside of the small railroad town of Shifen 十分. This is a must-see destination for people who are coming to the Pingxi 平溪 area on a day trip. The weekends get crowded and riding the tourist train can be a bit intense, and this write up focuses mostly on the waterfall which should be one of many stops on a full day trip along the old Pingxi rail line.
The main drag in Shifen was built with the railroad running right down the middle of it and you used to be free to walk the rail lines unless the train was coming. There are new crowd control barriers but there is only one track so rail service is slow so you shouldn't be afraid of a passing train. Don't be afraid to walk out and grab a few pictures in downtown, although being on the tracks is technically a punishable offence. Getting shots of yourself and a passing train mere feet behind you are also an obvious must.
This street is a famous spot for launching lanterns into the night sky, which is a must do for tourists who find themselves here after dark. Beware the volume of sales people waving placards for lanterns, and know the smart shopper price is about 150NT. There are only limited food options here as nearly every store is just a lantern hut.
Downtown Shifen when it was deserted. Note the lack of barriers.
Packed full on a weekend night.
After you've taken your share of photos on the old mining railroad, start following the tracks northward towards the waterfall. There are sections where you quite obviously shouldn't be walking on the railroad, namely a bridge which spans the river. It's tempting every time I go there to do it, but it would be mighty awkward if the train came while you were on it. There is a well made pedestrian walkway which leads you right to the waterfall park entrance via a staircase.
It'd be cool to have your photo here, right?
The pathway follows along the railway quite closely most of the time, so you'll have a chance to really see the train up close if it passes you on your way by. The falls is located on your left as you get towards the end of the path, and there are now two entrances to the falls. One is at the end of hte suspension bridge, and the other is over a concrete walkway that winds its way to the observation deck. Everyone gets free entry.
In times gone bye you had to pay to get in, but you also got a direct view of the falls which you can't enjoy anymore. The picture below was taken during a drought phase, so the trickle of water over the falls was a little disappointing given the expectations we had before going inside. The entire left side of this photo is now a four floor observation center.
Pretty, but you can't take this photo anymore.
From the observation deck. The closest you can get.
The basin, with the old viewing platform visible in the forest.
It used to be nice to spend some time hanging out in the park which is built just upstream of the river, and then enjoy some of the casual walking paths up to a large statue of one of the incarnations of the Buddha. The park is now cemented over to make a winding approach to the falls to accommodate the higher volume of foot traffic and the park is still partially under reconstruction. There is the usual host of night market fare, a snack bar, and some drink machines. In all, it's better to bring some snacks and drinks if you plan to sit and enjoy the river.
This pond and the river view are now a cement viewing platform.
The remains of the old park. Heavy construction off camera to the left.
The only feature of the old park that survived the transition.
Here's a story to highlight how things progressed with this waterfall. My first visit here we spent some time in the park during some down time on a day otherwise full of hiking. There were a lot of nasty bathrooms in the park, and all of them had toilet paper vending machines outside of them. I had forgotten the cardinal rule - always bring your own tissues - and was increasingly concerned because all of the vending machines were out of order or out of tissues. In a last ditch effort to avoid a thoroughly uncomfortable walk back to the train station I knocked on the door to what turned out to be the management office. After explaining the situation to the woman who let us in, a man's voice boomed in from somewhat out of sight telling us to make ourselves at home.
It turns out the man who owned the waterfalls was having a casual afternoon in the office and was interested in hanging out with his two unexpected foreign visitors. It was long enough ago that I can't remember his name. What I do remember is his English was very good and he was an excellent host. Because the waterfall was running at a trickle he took out all his old photos and showed us all of them, talked about the falls and how he came to be the owner and manager, as well as inviting us back to see it as his personal guests when it was the right season for great photos.
At some point New Taipei City took the park back over, paved the natural parks, closed the best viewing platforms directly across from the falls, and built an ugly but much needed viewing platform near the falls itself. It killed the "keep it natural" mantra of the old owner, and I can't say all the improvements of late have been for the better.
Once you've seen the park and taken all the pictures you want, head back towards Shifen to grab a bus or the train to your next destination. There are tons of awesome hikes down here - which deserve a full write up of their own - and the small towns along the rail line are all super cute. The best way to see everything is a scooter or car, but the rail line is definitely the most popular way to get around.
Here is the practical advice for a stress free trip to and from Shifen. Take bus 795 from Muzha station on the brown line, now called line 1. I personally avoid taking the train to Ruifang and then switching to the tiny Pingxi train. That second train is small, it's always over crowded, and service is basically once an hour. Despite this warning, it IS a very good idea to get on the train at least once, because it's a big part of this area's history and identity. It's just smart to do it to get to the smaller towns which are in the middle of the run where you're let off in the literal middle of town.
Taking bus 795 home means you can get off at Shenkeng on your way back to Taipei and take in their old street which is packed with stinky tofu vendors. You could take bus 846 to Ruifang to grab another bus up to Jiufen if you're dead set on hitting up all the big tourist sights in these mountains. Keelung night market is a short ride away from there as well.