Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hiking in the Backbone of South Korea: Seorak San National Park 설악산 국립공원

TUCKED away in the eastern corner of South Korea is a dramatic crown of mountain tops plunging into the ocean: Seorak San National Park, spanning over 150 miles of peaks in the Taebaek Mountain Range. They are dressed in shades of fiery red in fall, glacial blue in winter, and cherry blossom pink in spring.  The park is named after the third tallest mountain in South Korea: Seorak, so named because for the longest time, the snow never melted. 

We caught a bus from the East Seoul Terminal which took us over the pass and into little seaside Sokcho City in two hours. Just around the corner was the House Hostel, which had fantastic English-speaking service (Their website is available in Korean, English, and Japanese). The owner’s son sat down with us and helped map out the highlights of the area: Wangshi Riku Hanmadang, the rustic all-you-can-eat seafood buffet for 8,000 won (6 dollars), and Seorak Waterpia, a steamy hot springs--the perfect end to a day spent trekking the well-maintained trails of Seorak San. 

The 7 and 7-1 bus take you straight to the park entrance. We headed past the statue of the rare Asiatic black bear, and followed the overhanging string of colorful lanterns out into the wilderness. The scent of incense lingered in the air, offerings to a gigantic bronze Buddha housed in a broad pavilion. 

From there, well-marked trails split off, each leading to a spectacularly different hidden treasure: the Biryong Falls trail is leisurely and well-suited for families, and leads directly along the gorge. Iron cages protect hikers from the slippery rocks and mists. A more moderate hike that does involve a harrowing staircase up a cliff face is Geumganggeul Cave. The hike is well-traveled up to a red bridge and restaurant hidden up the valley, but upon emerging from the tree lines, the stairs go on for what can seem like forever. It’s well worth it. The cave itself is a slim doorway overlooking a vast sea of trees: emerald in springtime, and a halo of fire in autumn. This cave is, in fact, a Buddhist shrine, an ideal place to meditate with only the wind to whisper in your ear. 

The highlight day climb of the park, which can be done by all age groups if properly equipped, is Ulsanbawi Rock. The trail is a ponderous climb through the misty valley floor, in which tiny Buddha statues wink at you from the arms of cherry trees, past the steady beat of a local monastery’s drum, and then, finally, to the foot of a worn red staircase. You’ll be all too familiar with stairs by this point, and the climb to the summit can be eerie, surrounded on all sides by rolling fog. In the brief breaks, the steep granite faces plunging down on either side of you are mesmerizing, but take advantage of it quickly: all too soon, waves of clouds will swallow the view whole. We were surprised by several showers on our way up; the Koreans we fell into company with instantly pulled out umbrellas or donned ponchos. The range of ages was a surprise—the young, twenty-somethings were failing to represent; instead, a fleet of grandmothers and grandfathers charged their way up those steps.  Round trip will take anywhere from 3-5 hours depending on experience level with Stairmaster. (This is a hike you definitely want to take time to enjoy)

When we saw the Korean flag waving at the summit, we all celebrated together. Winds whipped about our ears and plunged into endless chasms, and a whole range of mountains bucked up and down like a rodeo for as far as the eye could see. This was the whole of Seoraksan, one of the most unique national parks I’ve seen in my travels; it’s a view so incredible that you welcome the rain and the roaming fog—it only makes the rugged backbone of peaks more extraordinary. 

For serious backpackers, there are more multi-day hikes available into the back country, such as the famous Dinosaur Ridge (Gongryong) that spans 13 up-and-down miles. It’s advised never to hike alone, but the Koreans are quite friendly and curious about foreigners they encounter on the trails. My recommendation is to bring along extra snack food, because you might find yourself sharing some kimbap—popular rice rolls wrapped in seaweed—with that elderly Korean woman you’re fighting to keep up with. 

For more information on Seorak San National Park, visit:

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