If all you have is a day to check out Taroko from Taipei and you're on a budget, there's Taiwan Tour Bus to get you around. It's pretty much a small bus taking you around the major sights in Taroko and Hualien for a half-day, maybe from 11am to 4pm. The stop is just outside the train terminal in Hualien. Unfortunately the driver doesn't speak English for this trip, though luckily there were some English speaking tourists who could translate. Lunch isn't included but you stop off at the Grand Formosa Hotel within the Park boundaries, where there's not much to choose from. And of course, you have to make a brief stop for some shopping after the tour is done. That said, the area is still beautiful and if you're low on time and money (and you don't want to fly down to the area), I'd say this is the way to go.
The train is a scenic way to get from Taipei to Hualien and the Taroko Gorge area. It's about 3 hours one way, so you can get an early start from Taipei and sleep on the way. The train was booked as part of a package through Taiwan Tour Bus, which included the train transport return and the half-day bus tour through Taroko. You can book the tour through this travel agency, and they'll book the train reservations for you. The train wasn't crowded heading down to Hualien on an 8am Friday train, but on the way back at about 6pm it was pretty full. It seemed to be a tourist-oriented train, as the outside was painted with tourist scenes and the train attendants were dressed up. So the ride was pretty comfortable all-in-all. Cheaper than flying, so consider this as a way to go.
There are VERY limited public transportation to and within Taroko Gorge. We got there by bus from Hualien to the visitor center in Taroko, stopped by for a bit, then took another bus to Tienshiang.
The bus service between Taroko and Tienshiang was infrequent, less than 10 buses on a day. So plan your activities with the bus schedule in mind.
We decided to walk from Tienshiang to Yentzukou (Swallow Grotto), which was a downhill walk on the Central Cross Island Highway, which wasn't that bad. But be sure to bring a flash light as you'll be walking in tunnels with traffic going right by you!
It was about a 5-hour walk, including the resting and stopping time to take photos along the way. We then took the bus at Chinheng Garden to go back to the Hualien train station.
As posted in the forums and tips, the bus back does have infrequent service, but if you are on the main road, you can flag it down and they will pick you up even if you are not at a designated bus stop.
I personally took the bus up, walked down for a few hours, doing some of the hikes and loops myself. As I was waiting for a bus to pick me up, there were countless taxi's passing by. I negotiated one down to a couple dollars with another guy on the street and we shared the fare back to the train station.
Alternatively, there are a few places that rent bicycles. I do not know if the contact information that I posted separately is still valid, but the information booth at the train station will give you full information. But you must pick up the bike before a certain hour (maybe 1pm) because otherwise they will not rent to you for fear that you will not make the return journey in time for closing.
I have also read that there is a new hop on/off bus that started this last year, but I don't know any further details on it.
A few of my friends had done this and recommended it to me, but unfortunately I did not arrive at an opportune time of day to make this a reality. But I will tell you that after walking in the gorge for ~3 hours, I would have loved to have had a bike. There were many other people riding bikes all around.
There are a few bicycle rental companies in Taroko that will rent bikes for 2/4/8 hour blocks (pick-up and return bike near Taroko entrance. Prices are currently 150/250/350 NTD respectively.
You can also have them take the bike all the way up to Tiansiang so that you can have it for a one-way downhill trip (return bike near Taroko entrance). Price is currently 450 NTD.
This is only allowed for a pick-up in the morning.
Visit the website or the Hualien tourist office at the train station for more details. You will have to hire a car or take a public bus to the entrance of the Taroko Park. The website give exact location of offices.
To get here via train you need to go to Sincheng. From there you can catch a connecting bus into the national park. It is best to set off early to have enough time to see what you want and/or get accommodation.
My wife, her parents and myself were guided through Taroko Gorge by the wonderful Ms Tiffany Chang in her new model Toyota sedan taxi.
Tiffany was the consummate guide - friendly, considerate, informative and always offering to take photos without needing to be asked. She is a very warm lady who felt more like a friend than a guide. Her English was functional and I had no problem communicating with her - both by email when making the booking and during the tour. My wife and her parents spoke with her in Hokkien and Mandarin.
She drove us through the gorge stopping at nine sites along the way and finished at a popular beach in Hualien eight hours later. The cost was a very reasonable 2500 TWD which we considered to be great value considering the level of service Tiffany provided us with and the number of sites she drove us to. Furthermore, when taking into consideration that bus tours of the gorge with only half the number of stops start at around 650 TWD per person, going with a private guide/driver in a taxi is an obvious one for me. The entire process was smooth and the day spent with Ms Chang was the highlight of our 6 day Taiwan sojourn.
We also had the pleasure of meeting Tiffany's equally welcoming husband who also drives a taxi and is available for tours.
If you would like any further details regarding our tour with Ms Chang, please do not hesitate to contact me or contact Ms Chang directly through the email address provided.
99% of all tourists will visit Taroko Gorge by tour bus. Others take a bicycle as I pointed out in my other tip.
But as some other people have noted, there are public buses that go between Hualien and Tiansiang (top side of the Gorge). These buses are infrequent. They operate about every ~2 hours and the last return bus leaves Tiansiang about 6:30pm.
There are no bus stops along the main road, so you have to simply go to the road in time to catch the bus and flag it down.
When I arrived in Hualien, I did not want to wait the additional 1hr45min for the next public bus. A few other tourists were in the same situation. I recommend you make some friends in/near the tourist office and collectively barter a taxi into the gorge. We were able to negotiate a one-way taxi from Hualien to Lyushui (2km below Tiansiang) for about $8 USD per person.
[It was recommended to me that the 2km between Tiansiang and Lyushui did not have much to look at compared to all the other sites]
From there I walked down, taking all the trails along the way. The road traffic in this area can be few and far between, but they are accustomed to seeing people walk along the roads. They will even pick up hitchhikers.
Instead of waiting again another ~2 hours for the next bus, I stuck out my thumb and was picked up in about 15 minutes. I had a free ride back down to town. If you do not feel comfortable doing that, there are always a few taxi drivers up in the canyon looking to take advantage of stranded tourists. You can negotiate a return ride if you need.