Finally I have traded the city and crowd for some peaceful time in one of Korea’s most beautiful nature reserves Seoraksan National Park and enjoy the autumn foliage. At least, that’s what I thought I was going to do. Apparently thousands of Koreans had exactly the same idea… This blog will describe the two days I spent in Seoraksan NP.
The Korean couple I had met the evening before had asked me to join them for breakfast in the morning. They took me to a Korean restaurant just around the corner of our motel. Unlike a European breakfast, Koreans basically have the same warm meal both for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was new to me and I was not sure if my stomach was up for spicy food this early in the morning. Hoping for the best I ordered a nice soup (don’t remember the exact name of the dish). Pretty spicy, but my stomach seemed to be fine with it. The breakfast was also my first experience with eating while sitting on the floor. And let me tell you, with my stiff muscles and long legs, this was quite a challenge.
After breakfast there was one last thing the couple wanted to show me. In a cab we drove around Yeongnangho Lake, a 10-15 min drive, to enjoy the view. From the lakeside you have a beautiful view towards Seoraksan NP and you can see Ulsanbawi. After our quick tour it was time to say goodbye.
Seoraksan National Park
From the main street of Sokcho bus 7 took me straight to the park entrance in Seorak-dong in about 40 minutes. Although I was pretty sure that all the cabins in the park were fully booked I had decided to bring all my baggage to the park just in case. Unfortunately the park rangers at the park information office (just behind the ticket office) confirmed that all cabins indeed were fully booked. Fortunately there were lockers available to store my bag age. Already at the park entrance it became clear to me that I was certainly not the only one visiting Seoraksan NP this weekend. Literally hundreds of Koreans were making there way to the park entrance. All well equiped with colourful outdoor clothing, hiking boots and poles. I had never imagined Koreans to be such outdoor enthousiasts. Besides the colourful Koreans something else caught my eye: the colourful autumn leaves! And that was exactly what brought me, and all those colourful Koreans, to the national park.
Seoraksan National Park is Korea’s northernmost national park and contains some of the tallest peaks of the country. The park stretches about 40km from east to west and about the same distance from north to south. The park is crisscrossed with plenty of hiking trails, including several multi-day hikes around Daecheonbong, the highest peak of the park. Since the park is one of the highest in the country it is usually one of the first to display the beautiful autumn colours. Most people enter the Outer Seorak part of the park at Seorak-dong. From here many daytrips are possible leading to for example the famous Ulsanbawi rock, Geumganggul cave, Biryeong Falls and Cheonbuldong Valley. A cable car leaves near the park entrance to the Gwongeumseong Fortress. The trails are well maintained and marked and, especially those near the park entrance, relatively easy. Along the trails there are plenty of places to take a rest, buy something to eat or drink or use the restroom. For those who plan to go on a multi-day hike and stay overnight in the park there are several shelters available.
3.500 KRW (adult)
Appr. sunrise to sunset
Tip: Avoid weekends, as thousands of Koreans will pull away from the cities and towards the National Parks to go hiking, especially in the autumn.
Tip: There are lockers for rent at the Seorak-dong Information Centre, which is located just behind the ticket office.
NOTE: Some shelters must be reserved in advance. This can be done at the website of the Korea National Park Service. Reservation is available from 15 days to 2 days in advance. Some other shelters are first-come-first-served, so make sure you arrive at the shelter in time. Shelter fee: 5.000-8.000 KRW.
The trail leading to the famous Ulsanbawi rock (876m) starts from the park entrance and takes about 4 hours return (3.8km one way, on a quiet day). Although the trail starts off easy, becomes rather steep about half way. From the park entrance the trail leads past a giant Buddha statue to the Sinheungsa temple, a beautiful small temple complex with four wonderfully detailed guardians carved from wood at the entrance.
A bit further the trail leaves the riverside and starts to climb up towards Heundeulbawi. As the trails were becoming narrower they were also becoming more crowded, resulting in a long line of people climbing in a slow, but steady pace. Along the trail large groups of Koreans had made a stop for a picknick.
Heundeulbawi, a large 16 ton boulder, is a popular photo stop for Koreans, who where waiting in a long queue to get a shot. I didn’t bother too much about the stone and instead took a look at the rock carvings and the Gyejoam, a man made cave hermitage, which lie just next to it.
The last part to the summit goes over a 808-steps metal staircase. Not too inspiring if you ask me, but it preserves the park and the result when you arrive at the summit was well worth it, even though it started to drizzle on my way up. Once at the summit, where another photo kiosk awaits, the clouds pulled away a bit, resulting in a beautiful view towards Sokcho and the East Sea and over the valley where I had just climbed from.
The way down went a lot faster and I managed to catch up on some lost time, but still the 4 hour hike had taken me 5 hours. Back at the cable car base station I was starving, since I had skipped lunch and it was already past 3 ‘o clock. I decided to take a break and enjoy one of the popular hiking meals, haemul pajeon, a Koran style pancake with green unions and squid. Delicious! Unfortunately there was no time left to do the full Biryeong Falls trail (2.4km, 50 min) before the park would close, so I only made it to the first fall before having to return. Back in Sokcho I decided to return to the motel where I had stayed the night before, since the room was quite OK. And and a nice bonus: since the weekend was over the price was reduced to 30.000 KRW! Tired from the long hike I crashed right into my bed after taking a shower.
For day 2 in Seoraksan NP I had another big day of hiking planned. The first and main item on my schedule was Cheonbuldong Valley. Supposedly this is one of the most beautiful valleys in the Outer Seorak. It was named Cheonbuldong because the many peaks on either side look like a lineup of a thousand Buddhist statues. This is also the valley that leads to Daecheongbong. The trail follows the stream in the valley past beautiful waterfalls and steep cliffs. As a day trip you can follow the valley for a couple of hours, for example up to Yangpok shelter or Cheondang Falls, and turn around.
The first part of the trail starts of easy on a wide paved path. After about 1 hours you’ll arrive at Biseondae. Writers and poets have long been inspired by the beauty of the surroundings and some of there writings have been engraved in the rocks. One thing that immediately became clear to me when entering the park again was the advantage of being here on a weekday. From the overwhelming crowd that was there the day before only a handful of people was left. Although it was still pretty much impossible to be alone for more than a few minutes this appealed to me a lot more than hiking in a long queue.
Past Biseondae the trail becomes a bit more challenging and goes uphill over narrower paths and sometimes metal staircases. This was also when the scenery really started to amaze me. Beautiful peaceful quiet streams run through the valley surrounded by high rock faces and colourful autumn leaves. The last part from Yangpok shelter up to Cheondang Falls goes over steep metal staircases. Unfortunately it started to rain a bit and the wind made it very cold at the falls, so I didn’t stay around long. Since I had a lot more hiking planned I decided to turn around. On my way back I passed a man who had slipped on the wet rocks in his enthousiasm and fallen down a couple of meters. Fortunately, as I wrote before, it was quite hard to be alone for more than a few minutes and many helpful Koreans had already gathered around him. The man was seriously injured and had to be evacuated by helicopter. And therefore: never go hiking alone!
Back at Biseondae I took a turn out of Cheonbuldong Valley to make the steep climb to Geumganggul, a small cave in a near-vertical rock face and a place of meditation. The cave can be reached by very steep staircases in about 20 min from Biseondae. For those that don’t dare to take the full climb up, there also is a nice viewpoint some 50 meters below the cave. The height of the cave makes it perhaps a bit hard to relax and meditate, but the view over the valley is certainly amazing. My timing seemed to be perfect, because just when I reached the cave the sun suddenly broke the clouds.
Gwongeumseong Fortress (Cable car)
After staying around for a bit to enjoy the scenery and sunshine I returned towards the park entrance for my last stop of the day: Gwongeumseong Fortress. I had timed my schedule such that I would be able to take one of the last the cable car fares up to Gwongeumseong Fortress to enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately when I arrived at the ticket office it was already closed. A bit disappointed I wanted to walk away when a Korean lady came to me and asked, in her best English: “You cable car? Come, come!”. At first I was a bit sceptic, but since she was not really able to explain more to me and I was curious what she wanted I walked with her to the queue. It turned out that she had bought a group ticket and had one place left in her group. Another great example of Korean friendliness. I payed her the price for the ticket and we were both happy. She perhaps even more than me, since she had ‘scored’ a super tall handsome (not my words) European. At the top cable car station it was a few more minutes walking to the summit where I could relax and enjoy the sunset. There’s not much left of the fortress, but the view is beautiful. A great end of my time in Seoraksan National Park.
The Sogongwon Cable Car is the best way to see something of Seoraksan National Park if you only have limit time in the park. It takes you up to Gwongeumseong Fortress, where you have a beautiful view over the valleys and peaks.
9.000 KRW (adult)
7:30 – 17:20 (Oct-Nov)
Back in Sokcho I got off the bus at the city centre to get something to eat. After a quick tour through the city centre past the Gaetbae ferry and the large indoor food market, where you can buy everything from fresh vegetables, seafood, meat to ready made banchan. To finish of my day I went to a seafood restaurant and enjoyed the local delicacy ojing-eo sundae, stuffed squid.
In my next blog I will share about my time at the countryside in Andong Hahoe Folk Village.