The Mountains of Korea
Maybe Korea was once known as the hermit kingdom because it would be so easy for one to be a hermit here. The landscape folds out across the peninsula like fans on a merchant’s table: undulating layers of peaks and valleys that only slowly reveal themselves to the curious eye. Korea’s ancient Buddhist heritage means that there are indeed hermits living here, in small temples scattered through the forests and dotted far up into the mountains. Although hiking is a wildly popular pastime in this country, it is possible to escape the neon throngs and find yourself in nature. The more you explore, and the more often you explore, you can start to feel like a hermit yourself. On a stormy peak in the middle of winter, on a remote ridge at dawn, deep in the forest at sunset, in the mountains of Korea you can connect to an ancient peace and discover incredible natural beauty.
My first major mountain hike
My introduction to the mountains of Korea was in 2012. I took an organized trip to Seoraksan – Korea’s second biggest and most famous national park. It seems hard to believe now, but I hadn’t really done major hiking before! Still, as an avid runner and nature lover, it seemed like the perfect spring outing. Little did I know what a passion that one trip would ignite!
After an amazing weekend away and climbing only my second sizable summit, I immediately dreamed of more. But my first epic Korean adventure was on bikes – pedaling from Seoul to Busan that same summer. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the untapped potential of the mountains. When my husband and I returned to Korea in 2014, heading to the mountains was foremost on our minds.
We decided to start by scaling the 3 highest peaks in South Korea. We spent every weekend hiking from dawn until dusk on our local ranges in preparation, and by the end of the year, we had succeeded with our 3 peaks project!
National parks mission
But that was far from the end. Having transitioned to trail running from road running, mountains were more on my mind than ever. When I returned to Korea again in 2015, I decided to focus on climbing to the highest peak in every national park within the year. (My other focus was on preparing to run my first ultra marathon – turns out these two goals were really complimentary!) So in November 2015, my adventure partner endorsed my plan, and we began. Every Friday after work, we would pack our bags and leap on a bus or train out of town. We’d explore one park or two or even three. Two months later, we’d visited eight out of 21 national parks!
But we felt like we were just getting warmed up. So we decided to add every provincial park to our list as well!
Climbing every mountain
By the end of the year in October 2016, we’d reached our goal. We’d visited twenty-one national parks, twenty provincial parks, and some other lovely peaks besides. Our mountain mission was, without a doubt, one of the best things we’ve ever done. One of the most amazing things was that we found each of those parks to be incredibly unique and distinct from the others. Some were massive mountains with long ridgelines and challenging climbs. Others were small peaks overlooking stretches of island-dotted sea. Some parks were densely sign-posted and heavily trafficked. Others were remote and quiet, with overgrown paths. And criss-crossing the country every weekend meant that we also unwittingly did a bit of a bus route, motel and convenience store tour too.
There is so much to see on these slopes and so many trails to tread. Each is a wonderful experience for all its own reasons, and together the mountains of Korea paint a picture of a diversity and great beauty, all packed into this small peninsula. It’s a place where classic East Asian scenery has shaped the character of the food and the people. The mountains of Korea formed my lasting love for my home away from home.