For a small island, Taiwan is one of the most mountainous places in the world. In fact, about 70% of it is covered with densely forested mountains, including 286 known peaks above 3,000 meters (9,842 feet). As the result of Taiwan’s location on two major tectonic plates, this number continues to grow. Moreover, the collision of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plates, which formed Taiwan approximately 4 to 5 million years ago, continues to uplift the island at a relatively rapid rate of 2 to 4 millimeters per year.
Given its mountainous terrain and rich ecology, it’s no surprise that Taiwan is a hiker’s paradise. To promote high-altitude hiking there, a group of outdoor enthusiasts created the 100 Peaks of Taiwan (Baiyue 台灣百岳) in the 1970s—a curated list of mountains selected for their uniqueness, danger, height, beauty, and prominence. It’s since become a bucket list of sorts for hikers, with the Five Greats, Three Spires, and One Ogre (五嶽三尖一奇) serving as a common goal.
Of Taiwan’s 286 tallest peaks, 274 are “three-thousander mountains.” These are mountains with an elevation between 3,000 and 4,000 meters (9,842 and 13,123 feet). This is particularly impressive when you consider Taiwan’s size relative to other islands nearby. For instance, compared to Japan, Taiwan has nearly ten times more three-thousanders despite being one-tenth its size. Moreover, Taiwan is home to East Asia’s tallest mountain, Yushan (Jade Mountain), which towers 3,952 meters (12,966 feet) above sea level.
Taiwan’s mountains make up five principal mountain ranges: the Central Mountain, Xueshan, Yushan, Alishan, and Coastal Mountain Ranges. You can find the three-thousander mountains in the Central Mountain, Xueshan, and the Yushan Ranges, although the tallest peaks are largely concentrated in the Central Mountain Range. The Alishan and Coastal Mountain Ranges are relatively shorter, with elevations below 3,000 meters.
Taiwan’s mountainous landscape has greatly influenced the island’s history and development. Since the Central Mountain Range runs from north to south, it naturally divides the island into two parts: the western plains and the more rugged east. Because of this, the main lines of Taiwan’s railway system form a loop to connect major cities on each side; no direct east-west lines exist. Despite this inconvenience in transportation, many people think of the Central Mountain Range as “Taiwan’s Protector” since it weakens what might otherwise be very severe typhoons.
Hiking and mountain tourism have grown tremendously in recent years, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Taiwan’s mountains were open to the public. Traditionally, the mountains were home to Austronesian aboriginal groups, but under Japanese colonial rule and the Kuomintang government later on, access was restricted as a form of surveillance and control. In the last 40 years, however, Taiwan’s government has taken steps to promote mountain ecotourism, drawing locals and foreigners alike to explore Taiwan’s majestic peaks.