I’ve talked about Koreans love of hiking and how convenient it is to go for great hikes all over Seoul before. Seoraksan National Park seems like Korean hiker’s paradise and thus, it was clear to me that I had to make a visit after I fell in love with hiking in Seoul. According to Wikipedia, the park spans 163.6 square kilometers, but that number honestly means nothing to me. Needless to say, it is quite large and you will not run out of things to do for quite some time. It is sorrounded by four cities, Sokcho being one of them.
Here’s a map to give you an overview. The circled paths are the ones I managed to hike. Pretty good for a two day visit (including arrival and departure), but you can see that I barely managed to scratch the surface.
One problem is that there are six entrances in total, but only the main entrance was easily accessible from Sokcho. That means that all the hiking paths deep into the mountains – say to Bongjeongam, for example – were inaccessible to me as just making it that far from the main entrance probably would have taken all day. You could probably spend a week at Seoraksan and wouldn’t run out of things to do. In that case, access to a (rental) car would probably be very helpful to be able to reach all the different entrances. But I was more than happy with what I managed to experience in my short time there.
I won’t talk about every single hike here, and instead just focus on a few highlights. It’s worth noting that even among the small sample of hikes I was able to explore, there is a great deal of variety: Some hikes are very tough, whereas others are quite easy and require very little ascent. There is a lot of flora and fauna to admire, there are big cliffs and gentle slopes, waterfalls and peaceful ponds, small trails and large suspension bridges, untouched nature and temples right in the middle of the mountains. In short, Seoraksan offers you everything you could hope for, and then some.
The first thing you notice is the panoramic view of the sorrounding mountains (see pic above). There’s quite a bit of stuff to explore at the entrance area – a statue of the park is a perfect photo opportunity, there are a bunch of shops and restaurants to refresh yourself, and the beautiful Sinheungsa Temple featuring a large Buddha statue is only a small walk away.
You will also find the cable car that takes you to Gwongeumseong right at the park entrance.
This is the site of a former castle.You can hike up this mountain too, but the cable car is obviously much more convenient. It’s a big attraction and was absolutely packed with people even in the middle of the week, whereas the rest of the park was much less crowded. I guess this is a central point that everybody wants to visit, and then the visitors disperse throughout the park.
You have to hike for a while after exiting the cable car, but the view at the top is absolutely breathtaking:
This is quite an easy trail that is mostly level and that leads you through a forest and along a nice little stream to the titular Biryeong waterfalls. It’s a nice and relaxing walk that also leads over a large suspension bridge. And if that wasn’t challenging enough for you, then you can go for a quite steep hike up a mountain that starts right at the falls for a nice view of the sorroundings. Apparently, there is also another famous waterfall located nearby, Towangseong Falls. However, it is closed to the public.
Heundeulbawi & Ulsanbawi:
Starting from the entrance area, you make your way past Sinheungsa Temple and turn right to get to Heundeulbawi and finally Ulsanbawi. The first part of the hike is not very difficult, and you can reach Heundeulbawi in about 30 to 40 minutes. And as I do a little bit of research while writing this, it turns out that I actually missed the real attraction here. Now, what I saw was a plateau with a grotto carved into a big rock with a little prayer site inside. Pretty cool, and this plateau is a great place to hang out and relax for a bit. But as it turns out, that’s not the actual attraction here. Heundeulbawi is apparently what most people come here for. It’s a big rock standing on the plateau that moves back and forth a bit if you push it hard enough. Apparently it’s a big draw for people to try to move the rock and to feel it wiggle, and I didn’t have the slightest clue. Then again, I’m not the type of person that sees a rock and thinks to himself ‘Gee, I wonder if I could push it over. Let’s give this a whirl!’, so I never would have considered giving it a try. Oh well.
After that, the hike gets quite challenging as you have to climb a ton of steep stairs (apparently over 800) to get to the top of Ulsanbawi. It’s a very unique rock formation and famous for its great views. However, I didn’t get to see, well, anything. I went on this hike on my second day at Seoraksan and the weather changed suddenly and it became extremely foggy. From what I’ve heard, Seoraksan is kind of notorious for sudden weather changes, so look out for that. Anyway, hiking up the endless steps in complete fog that didn’t allow you to see for more than a few feet was certainly an interesting experience. I can’t tell you how many times I thought that I had finally reached the top, only to find that there were even more steps waiting for me. And once I had reached the top, I could barely see the fellow hikers standing on a different rock a few meters away. A bit scary, but definitely an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.
The hike to Biseondae also starts from Sinheungsa Temple. It’s a lovely hike that really easy. You follow a little stream most of the way, which offers you plenty of opportunities to take a break and dip your feet into the water. The trail ends at the titular Biseondae rocks, which are an impressive rock formation.
Starting from Biseondae, this path leads you right into the center of the park. It’s quite a long hike, especially considering that you already have to walk for about three kilometers to get to the starting point, so it was unfortunately not possible for me to reach some of the highlights further along the path, such as Daecheongbong Peak or Bongjeongam temple. Since I had to get back in time to catch my bus to Seoul in Sokcho, I could only take this path for about 90 minutes before I had to turn back. But what I saw was once again quite beautiful.
Alright, let’s end this with a real highlight. After arriving at Biseondae, I consulted my map and discovered a curious path. Only 600 meters long, but supposedly taking a whopping 40 minutes? I needed to find out more. Turns out I took my first and only ‘expert’ path at Seoraksan, and boy was it a struggle.
The hike is not all that long, but incredibly steep, so prepare to get completely winded and contemplating turning back. But trust me, it’s worth it to keep going. There’s a sort of platform that you can relax at and soak in the incredible views. And then, you just have to make it up one more flight of stairs to make it to this trip’s final destination: Geumganggul Cave!
For reference: See the rockbed in the picture below? That’s where the path to Biseondae is. So yeah, it’s a pretty damn steep hike.
The cave itself is carved into the mountain and is quite small. It contains a place of worship and is inhabited by one Korean man, who is sitting in this tiny cave in a mountain, engaged in the most Korean of activities, diddling on his phone. Not entirely sure if the poor guy actually lives here (he certainly seemed to have a fair share of supplies and whatnot in the cave) and what his job is, but I’m sure it’s a pretty unique job. Sitting down in that cave was a really surreal and beautiful moment that I don’t think I will forget anytime soon. Like I said, this particular hike is really challenging, but very much worth it for the cave and the amazing view.
All in all, I loved my time spent hiking at Seoraksan. If you like being outdoors and/or hiking, you will too. And even if you feel that that characterization doesn’t really fit you, I’m sure you will find some interesting stuff to do here. After all, I never would have characterized myself as an outdoorsman before coming to Korea, and I had a hell of a time.