Taroko Gorge: Touring Taiwan's spectacular marble mountains

Taiwan (CNN)With soaring cliffs, plunging canyons and a base of colossal marble slabs spliced by a torrential river, Taroko Gorge is one of Taiwan's most popular tourist attractions.

The 19-kilometer area, part of Taroko Gorge National Park, features canyon cliffs that can soar up to 100 meters high.

Taroko Gorge National Park

    Since being declared a national park in 1986, the 920-square-kilometer area has been a protected reserve in the northern section of the surging Central Mountain Range and the eastern coast of the island.
    It's connected to Taipei by the Central Cross-Island Highway, named one of the most dangerous (yet scenic) roads in the world.
    It's a ropy series of switchbacks and hairpin bends, tunnels, overhangs and jagged drops that come in thrilling succession.
    The park's main attractions can be reached via precarious bridges, tunnels and narrow twisting trails.
    The Eternal Spring Shrine is named after nearby Changchun Falls, which flow all year round.

    Towering peaks, eternal springs

    Taroko Gorge National Park has 27 of the 100 Peaks of Taiwan, a widely recognized list of top mountains.
    With an elevation of 3,742 meters, Mount Nanhu is the fifth tallest peak in Taiwan and is blanketed by rolling fields of dwarf bamboo.
    But it's not all about nature.
    Eternal Spring Shrine, perched on a hill, is a majestic monastery built to commemorate the 226 workers who were killed building the Central Cross-Island Highway.
    A bell tower and a sacred cave devoted to Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, can be found at the back of the temple.
    Some 80% of Taiwan's animal species can also be found in the park, including the endemic Formosan black bear and Formosan rock macaque.
    Old aboriginal settlements of the Taroko tribe still dot the area.
    The indigenous tribe -- one of 16 recognized aboriginal groups in Taiwan -- was once famed for its facial tattoos and headhunting rituals.

    A haven of hiking trails

    Routes are well maintained and frequently traveled by hikers, cyclists and day-trippers.
    Shakadang trail is the gentlest trekking route, a pleasant 4.4-kilometer riverside hike.
    Its entrance is marked by Shakadang Bridge, embellished by 100 marble lions.
    Meanwhile Taroko offers some grueling cycling challenges, with 3-day trails passing through thick vegetation and tackling dizzying summits.
    Free helmets are provided by the managing park.
    Trail and road conditions are often affected by weather. See Taroko National Park's official website to get the latest updates on each route.