Prior to my first trip to Korea in 2010, I stumbled upon photos of gigantic mountains called Seoraksan in the Gwangon province. Literally meaning “big snowy mountain”, Seoraksan is a huge national park spreading over four cities in northeastern Korea (South Korea, that is) and boasts the third highest peak in South Korea, Daecheongbong as well as a handful of waterfalls, valleys, rocks, caves, and a temple. Mesmerized by the photos, I put it high on my priority list of what to see on my first trip to Korea.
In August 2010, I backpacked in Korea with an old friend from Florida who was living in Shanghai at the time. Oscar, the quiet chessmaster who thought he was Chinese but is really Puerto Rican/American, was my travel buddy in Korea. From south to north, we spent our days eating kimchi, crashing in jjimjilbangs, and walking endlessly in the August heat. I sweat through my clothes up the tough mountain, but marveled through every steep step.
The second time was in February 2013 with my dear friend, Liz after a trip to the Penis Park. I woke up in the most beautiful hostel, The House Hostel in Sokcho, on my birthday to be greeted with a card and chocolate from my thoughtful friend. We ventured over to Seoraksan and tiptoed around the park, unfortunately, unable to hike in the icy conditions. The scenery was still inspiring; I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday. I said to myself I want to come back to Seoraksan during every season.
Third Time’s a Charm: Seoraksan in Fall
With the upcoming three-day weekend, I vacillated with my weekend plans. Seoraksan? Camping? Bike trip with Adam? On Wednesday night, I ultimately decided to go to Seoraksan with a hiking group based out of Seoul. My two new friends also signed up, as did my CouchSurfer from the previous week, coincidentally.
So, after teaching classes on Thursday, I packed my bags and took a four-hour (with terrible traffic) bus to Seoul to meet the twenty other anxious hikers, including two friends, Ashley and Mike. We loaded on the bus, attempted to snooze, and arrived at Osaek at 3:00am. Our hiking commenced shortly thereafter. Even though it was an ungodly time of day, we were certainly not alone. Seemingly hundreds of other decked out hikers were in the parking lot stretching and preparing for the sunset trek. The first 20 minutes or so were stuck in a queue. I mean, I’ve experienced waiting in lines for roller coasters and to meet Dream Street as a teeny bopper, but never to go up a mountain.
It was people-to-people for the first few hours. I rarely even turned on my flashlight since the path was already well lit from everyone else’s headlamps. It was sometimes annoying to wait behind someone, constantly dodging people or being poked by trekking poles, but it did make the difficult hike a bit more bearable by slowing down the pace. It was too dark to be able to see any nature, but we appeared to be surrounded only by trees for the whole 5km of relentless mountain climbing. I was able to occasionally catch a glimpse of a handful of night stars, a rarity in these parts. I tripped on rocks by doing so, but the stars were worth it.
Three hours into the hike, the crowd began to break as people took snacks breaks. I zoomed between people, trying to get to the top for dawn. The sky turned all kinds of sunrisey colors and the red dot of the sun slowly lit our path. When I saw the sign for only 500 meters, it felt more like 5,000. The mountain was relentless with its steep inclines and rocky path. We ended up watching the sunrise while hiking, but I wasn’t too sad. I caught a pretty epic sunrise in Namhae during the recent Chuseok vacation, anyway.
Reaching the highest peak, Daecheongbong (대청봉) was rather uneventful and disappointing. We were literally in a cloud with heavy winds blowing the mist through my layers. The hat and gloves I brought were handy, but not tough enough to defend myself from the unexpectedly cold environment. No view was to be seen whatsoever.
Feeling defeated, we hopped down the mountain to a nearby shelter for warmth and food. I brought homemade granola bars, quinoa and lettuce, an apple, and bagel to fuel the journey. Once our feet rested and our bodies warmed up, we trekked on.
The day got warmer as the sun broke through the clouds. We were handsomely rewarded with blue skies, cool air, and majestic views of the jagged mountain ranges. While standing on a good rock, you can see crimson and orange trees in the distance with evergreen trees poking between them. Turn your head the other way and admire the grand rock formations for which Seoraksan is so famous. Glance east and enjoy the view of Sokcho Beach and all of its bluey gloriousness. All of my internal organs, bones, and blood cells were smiling.
We opted to do hike through the valley as opposed to the Dinosaur Ridge. Both routes boast divine scenery, but the Dinosaur Ridge would have eaten several more hours. Sleep deprived and numb legged, we decided to take our time down the valley instead of rush up and down several peaks. One day, I would really like to do hike the Dinosaur Ridge, though.
The choice was certainly the right one. The valley was awe-inspiring. We feasted our eyes on some dazzling colors as if the scenery was a music video to the sound of the musical streams and waterfalls. We took a nap on a sun-warmed rock next to a clear stream. Korean maple trees towered over me as I shifted my eyes from the mountain to the sky, from the stream to the trees.
We took our sweet time, savoring every breath of crisp air. The path was mostly downhill down some slippery rocks, which proved to be more challenging and tough on the knees than anticipated. Any pain, however, was numbed because my mind was engrossed with the landscapes.
After twelve hours, we finally reached the bottom of the mountain where we could see the giant Buddha and gobble some noodles. Our group aggregated earlier than expected and we headed back to Seoul for a silent ride – we were too exhausted for small talk.
A glorious shower was enjoyed at Ashley’s humble abode in central Seoul before heading out to consume a Magpie porter and pizza. We each devoured our own deserved pizza pie (to be fair, they were small). The only regret I had on my trip was not having my bread vacuum boyfriend there to eat my crust and to keep me warm on the top of the mountain, but he had his own fun.
Although my thighs disagree, Seoraksan is still my favorite place in Korea.
Seoraksan has magical vibes in the air. It makes me feel present, refreshed. It makes me love Korea again when I’ve been feeling jaded. I’ll return again one day to tackle the Dinosaur Ridge.
Here are some photos, some from Mike’s awesome camera/photography skills and some from my cell phone camera that hits the ground more than it touches my ear.
Did you ever hike in Seoraksan National Park? Which trail did you do and which do you recommend? Comment below!
Also check out Adventures by Ashley’s post reviewing Seoraksan National Park!