Taiwan‘s mountains are pretty famous and it does get the occasional earthquake, but did you know that it still has an active volcano, and you can visit it quite easily? I love Taiwan’s offshore islands, but when I found out that Turtle Island or Guishandao 龜山島 is also its last active volcano, I knew I definitely needed to check it out. Here’s everything you need to know about how to visit Turtle Island.
Why visit Turtle Island?
Guishandao literally translates into ‘Turtle Hill Island’, which is a pretty straightforward descriptor about how this island looks like from certain angles. If you fly back to Singapore from Taipei and are seated on the left side window of the plane, you might be able to spot Turtle Island below you.
Turtle Island is ostensibly the only active volcano in Taiwan (this news article says it may not be the only one now), though its last eruption was way back in 1785. Fishermen used to live there back in the day with a population of around 700 at its peak, but the last villagers were moved out to Toucheng in the 1970s. After that it was temporarily a military base and today, access is limited to the island – it is uninhabited and home to over 300 species of flora and fauna.
I first wrote about my Turtle Island adventure in this post about cool things to do in Taiwan during the hot summer season.
What you can see on Turtle Island
Yuanyang Sea 鸳鸯海
The island isn’t far from the shoreline, but as my boat rounded the island towards the Turtle’s Head or Guishou 龜首*, the dark blue sea water suddenly turned a milky light blue colour, and the stench of rotten egg sulphur was in the air. This effect is what the Taiwanese called the Yuanyang sea and is the result of the cold seawater mixing with the hot spring waters emerging through the cracks in the seabed.
*Usually ‘head’ is translated as 頭 ‘tou’ but Guitou is kinduva slang for part of a male appendage that looks like a turtle’s head…
Unfortunately, my tour didn’t include any dolphin or whale watching, but the best time to do that in Yilan is typically between April to October.
We hopped off the boat at the harbour near the tail and took a quick walk to the Visitor Centre nearby. That’s where you have toilets and a small shop where you can pick up food, drinks and some small souvenirs.
Turtle Tail 神龜擺尾
On the way up to the 401 Peak, there’s a viewpoint where you can get a better view of the turtle tail or Guiwei 龜尾. The tail faces the mainland and is made up of rocks from the surrounding cliff face. It also ‘wags’ and apparently curves in different directions depending on the time of year and the prevailing waves.
401 Peak / 401 高地
Here’s something you might not know about the 401 Peak – located at the top of the turtle’s ‘shell’, the actual peak is only 398m high, but they built a watchtower that’s 3m high to make it 401m tall.
You will need to climb a grand total of 1,706 concrete steps to reach the peak. The path is quite well maintained overall – seasoned climbers like the group of mountaineering-loving Taiwanese uncles in my tour group had no problem getting to the peak within an hour or less. Slowpokes like me took about 1.5 hours to make it to the top.
Mind you it was pretty damn hot on the day I climbed and all sorts of humid. I’m no mountain climber at all >_<
I suggest pacing your climb as it can feel pretty steep at points, but it does pay to ascend as quickly as you can or you might end up with some unexpected fog that tends to cover the 401 Peak in the later part of the day. When I started climbing, the peak was clear and unobstructed but by the time I made it up, the fog had descended so I missed out on that spectacular 360 view of the yuanyang sea and the green stretch of the turtle’s head.
I was surrounded by a fog that refused to lift and could onlysee quick glimpses of the yuanyang sea view through the fog, which had apparently come down just a few minutes before I made it to the top. One of the nice mountaineering uncles kindly shared a video that he had taken earlier when the weather was still clear.
After a bit, it was time to head back down that same flight of stairs. Definitely an easier task but no less taxing on your knees.
The first recorded people living on Turtle Island were recorded in 1853, and at its peak the village saw 700 people in total. No one is allowed to stay here overnight these days, but you can still wander around the old stone houses. If you spot houses without roofs, that’s because they were thatched roofs that caved in after the people moved out.
We followed a path that looped around the Guiwei Reservoir 龜尾湖 – this is a brackish reservoir, a combination of sea and fresh water. There are lots of plaques that provide English and Chinese explanations about the history and flora/fauna on the island.
Finally it was time to leave – the boat headed straight for Wushi Harbour and reached at about 330pm.
Lanyang Museum 蘭陽博物館
I recommend stopping over at the impressive looking Lanyang Museum located just by Wushi Harbour to learn more about the geography and culture of the surrounding area. The unusual shape is meant to call back to the mountains that border the Lanyang Plains that make up Yilan. In the event of Yilan’s rather unpredictable tendency to rain whenever, it’s a great place to hang out in for an hour or two and makes for some dramatic pix.
The museum has explanations in English and Chinese and is both interesting and educational, with some large display dioramas like an actual fishing boat and a whale skeleton to wow you over 4 floors of exhibits. It explained some of the natural phenomena from Su’ao’s Cold Springs and Nanfang’ao‘s formation to the animals and plants found in the Yilan region as well as the aboriginal people who used to live in the area.
Address: No. 750, Section 3, Qingyun Road, Toucheng Township, Yilan County 261宜蘭縣頭城鎮青雲路三段750號. A full ticket (permanent + temporary exhibition) costs 130 NTD (S$6)
How to get to Turtle Island
Turtle Island is located off the coast of northeastern Taiwan’s Yilan County, which is about an hour by coach from Taipei, though these normally stop at Yilan City or Luodong.
You will need to head up to Toucheng 頭城 located on the Northern tip of Yilan and find your way to Wushi Harbour 烏石港 to catch the boat to Turtle Island.
If you are coming directly from Taipei, you can get to Toucheng by:
- Taking a train from Taipei Main Station to Wai’ao Station 外澳, and walking south along Wai’ao Beach to get to Wushi Harbour
- Taking Kuokuang Intercity Bus #1877 from Nangang Exhibition Centre 南港展覽館 to Wushi Harbour
Turtle Island is only open to the public from 1 March to 30 November every year, 9am- 5pm. Summer season from June to August offers slightly extended hours 8.30am-5.30pm. Wednesdays are typically reserved for school and academic institution groups, and the island sees much more visitors on weekends, so pick a weekday to visit if you can.
Access is limited to Turtle Island – you need to get a special Island landing permit which must be applied at least 3 days in advance and limited to 100pax per day. Bring your passport with you for verification purposes.
The island tour I took was conducted in Chinese, most of my tour group was Taiwanese and pretty surprised that a Singaporean had somehow found her way into their midst. The tour basically involves following your tour leader around and listening to them on their loud microphone, and you aren’t allowed to wander around unattended.
How to book a Turtle Island tour
The easiest way for Singaporeans is to book through a site like Klook – they offer boat ride and island landing packages, as well as dolphin and whale watching experiences with prices ranging from around S$45-70. See more details here [klook affiliate link]
I booked a tour with Wushi Chuanqi 烏石傳奇號 through my Yilan guesthouse lady. My tour was a combination of Island Landing + 401 Peak Climb – the 401 Peak climb requires an additional permit on top of the Guishandao island landing permit (with just 100pax allowed per day) and took most of the day, starting from about 9am and ending about 3.30pm. This tour cost me 1,500 NTD (~S$70).
You can check out the permit numbers available for each day on the government’s NEYC website and even make your own permit booking (if you manage to figure out all the things you have to click, I can read Chinese but man this was tricky even for me). Ultimately you still need to find a boat operator, so I recommend just booking a tour with one of the companies directly rather than trying to figure out the whole system yourself.
You could check out this other website which has some English but I don’t have personal experience with it
You can also make a booking down at Wushi Harbour, but it might be difficult to get a slot especially during high season, and you will unlikely be able to do an island landing if you book on the spot.
If you love Taiwan’s offshore islands, check out some of the other islands that I have visited to date:
Apologies about the extreme tiltshift effect in some of the photos – I dropped my phone and my camera lens was pretty wonky, blurring out everything around the edges!