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Major jump-off: Sitio Dampay, Brgy. Dampay-Salaza, Palauig
LLA: 15.4833 N, 120.1166 E, 2037 MASL
Days required / Hours to summit: 1-2 days / 6-12 hours
Specs: Major Climb, Difficulty 5/9, Trail class 1-3
Features: Pine forests, views of West Philippine Sea
Hiking amidst pine trees in a semi-temperate climate is an experience usually attributed to the Cordilleras, Mt. Pulag in particular. However, Mt. Tapulao in Zambales possesses the same charms. In fact, its name, tapulao, means pine tree in the local dialect, and it is truly an apt description. However, it has a character of its own. Many hikers never forget the rocky road that constitutes 85% of the trail! On the other hand, what is seemingly an endless sojourn along the path becomes a beautiful trek across pine forests, and into a mossy forest, at the end of the trek.
Mt. Tapulao was traditionally done as a two- or three-day trek. Since 2009, however, the bus schedules have made it very feasible to do it as an overnight trek, or even an extended dayhike.
Mt. Tapulao can get very cold, especially at night: this is one of the charms of the mountain. However, it can also be very hot during the day. After all, the trek starts from a very low altitude: 100+ MASL, giving it one of the highest altitude gains in the whole country, at par with the Akiki trail of Mt. Pulag!
Because it can be quite hot, starting very early is recommended, and is feasible according to the bus schedules to Iba, Zambales.
If you start early, you can starting trekking through the open fields even before dawn, such that when the sun is already high, you would’ve already passed the two water sources and reached the ‘cool part’ – with temperatures ranging from 19 C to a nighttime, yearend temperature of 6 C. After the open fields a rain forest, with trees hundreds of feet high, ensue, before the pine forest. From the start of the pines, it will take three more hours to finally reach the bunkhouse. Here, there is a steep path that leads to the ‘secret campsite’ which guards the entrance to the forest line. If your group has 4 tents or less, it is best to camp here. There are also campsites you will encounter before you reach the ‘Bunkhouse’ (which has a water source), which is the main base of hikers who amp. Alternatively, you can continue to the main road to reach the ‘Generator campsite’ although as of May 2012, this seems to be a defunct campground, with most people camping within the Bunkhouse area.
Right in front of the Bunkhouse, a steep ascent via the pine forests takes you to a mini-campsite and right beside it, a forest line which leads to the summit, at 1875 MASL. Usually assaulted with light packs or just water and cameras, it takes 30-45 minutes to negotiate this final leg before reaching the summit.
Here, the flora and fauna are marvelous! You will see numerous insect species, birds, as well as varicolored flowers and exotic plants. Foreign scientists, the miners used to say, go all the way to Tapulao to survey the rich biodiversity.
The peak does not afford splendid views, contrary to what one might expect from a mountain with that stature and with its position relative to the West Philippine Sea. This lack of views is because it is not a bald peak; trees continue to thrive in it – which is a good thing. A beautiful ‘world tree’ serves as summit marker. At any rate, a limited view of the West Philippine Sea can still be seen.
This summit can also be accessed from Mayantoc, Tarlac, in what is perhaps the most challenging hike in Central Luzon: The Mt. Tapulao Traverse. This Tarlac trail to Mt. Tapulao has a separate itinerary and discussion in PinoyMountaineer (see link).
Mt. Tapulao, being closer to Manila, is being touted as an alternative to Mt. Pulag. Old timers used to dub this mountain as the ‘poor man’s Pulag’. The Tapulao experience, however, makes it much more than an alternative, but a destination in its own right, unique from the Cordilleras and special in its place as the High Peak of Zambales mountains.