Seoraksan National Park (2016)
Revisiting Seoraksan National Park was a reunion with a dear old friend. Seoraksan was only the second mountain I ever summited. When I visited this mountain in 2012, I had no idea what kind of lasting effect it would have on me. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience, and one that shaped my life thereafter. So I was incredibly excited when our mission to explore every national park brought us back to the slopes of our favorite rugged beauty of a mountain.
This time, though, there would be nothing traditional about our approach. We would stay far away from tour buses and big groups, and even avoid the main trails up and down. Although we loved the routes we’d taken on our visits in 2012 and 2014, this time we wanted to try something totally different. So we bought a bus ticket to a town that nobody recognized, spent a day in bumper-to-bumper traffic and then got off our bus on a highway in the apparent middle of nowhere. There were no restaurants or marts in sight, and we counted ourselves quite lucky when, after several misfires at closed accommodations, a surprised woman let us into one of her two small rooms for rent. Also luckily, we’d had the foresight to stock up on snacks at our favorite restaurant in Seoul. Then there was nothing to do but wait for the next morning.
The next morning dawned cool and misty. Getting an early start, we crossed a bridge into the national park and began our ascent to Sibiseonnyeotang: twelve pretty little pools steeped in legend. It was incredibly beautiful. As we climbed the many steps winding up through the valley, we saw the light of the dawn paint everything blue and then pink. There were kilometers of clear streams and splashing waterfalls. It seemed like our gamble in taking the route less traveled had already paid off!
Leaving the streams and pools behind, we climbed up onto the ridge. Shortly after that was Daeseungnyeong Pass, with an option to turn right and descend to still another waterfall – or continue straight ahead. We were after a long ridge hike, so we continued. The ridge was densely forested at first, with the few gaps in the trees revealing breathtaking views over the ridges and valleys of inner Seoraksan. We went up and down over multiple little peaks.
Suddenly, we emerged above the forest, with steep drop-offs and incredible views to either side. We were on the rocky heart of the ridge, and our progress slowed to a crawl. The dramatic beauty surrounding us demanded our attention and appreciation.
Our peak of the day was the challenging, boulder-strewn Gwittaegicheongbong. We enjoyed some baked treats here, along with the views. We couldn’t believe how lovely the route from our secret, side-entrance was. I was amazed by how many trails Seoraksan has, and how different and wonderful each one is.
Finally descending to Hangyeryeong Pass, we thought we’d be able to catch the bus we needed to eventually make it back home. But our adventures weren’t over yet. We somehow missed the bus stop, and walked all the way down to Oseak, along a narrow highway that wove down the mountain slope in steep switchbacks. In Osaek we managed to catch a bus, and grab some much needed fluid and food. Our third Seoraksan trek had been as memorable and exciting as the previous trips. We didn’t say goodbye to this park – instead, we promised to be back as soon as possible. Little did we know how soon, and how often, that would be…
Know and Go! Seoraksan National Park
Seoraksan National Park is located near the city of Sokcho on South Korea’s far north-east coast. So no matter where you’re coming from, it’s a bit of a haul to get here – but beyond worth it.
Most people drive or take the bus, especially since the new expressway from Seoul to Yangyang opened in 2016. The old highway directly to Sokcho is narrow and tends to get clogged with traffic, especially on weekends. Without heavy weekend traffic, the trip takes about two to two and a half hours. But traffic is not an insignificant factor to consider when planning your visit to this park. In the summer, Seoulites head to the beach in Sokcho in droves. In the fall, hordes of hikers descend on Seoraksan to enjoy the fall foliage. Again, it is well worth it, just plan your travel time accordingly. If you have the luxury of time, try to visit during the week.
There is access by train, but it’s considerably slower and more circuitous. There is no train (yet) directly linking Seoul to the coast, so you have to go south first, via other cities and often requiring a transfer. The trains that ply the coast are incredibly scenic, but also quite slow.
There is a true wealth of hiking options in Seoraksan National Park. Better choose a long weekend for your visit, because you might want to do all of them!
The most popular hiking route begins in Oseak, a hot springs town. From there, it’s a short but steep climb up to the summit at Daecheongbong. From there, many hikers descend to Sokcho via the beautiful Yangpok gorge. Others turn onto the stunning, rocky rollercoaster of Gongnyeong Ridge – also descending to Sokcho, but requiring a much greater commitment of time and energy.
This is also possible in reverse: ascending from Sokcho via Gongnyeong Ridge, and arriving at Daecheongbong later in the day. Each approach has benefits: an early ascent from Oseak can put you on the summit at dawn. An ascent of Gongnyeong Ridge, on the other hand, puts the peak in your sights for the whole day, and you get to enjoy the thrilling ascents and descents of the ridge first.
Other options to/from the peak include the stunning valley around Baekdamsa Temple and the long, beautiful and exciting ridge beginning at Sibiseonnyeotang. The latter is the original Seoraksan route, in addition to being our route of choice for this particular adventure.
There are a few hikes that don’t lead to the summit. The best of these is the short but dramatic Ulsan Bawi trail. This route, although only a few kilometers long, begins from the main entrance on the Sokcho side and quickly climbs an incredible, precipitous ridge of naked rock that forms the gate of Seoraksan.
There are, in fact, even more trails, but Seoraksan frequently closes some of its trails for the restoration of nature. Currently, two major trails are closed: the peak of Jeombong, to the west of Oseak, and the area around Misiryeong, a high pass to the north of the park.
Stay & Eat
Independent travelers aiming for a sunrise summit would do best to stay in Oseak. There are plenty of restaurants and accommodates to suit various budgets and tastes.
There are also lots of services clustered around the main Seoraksan entrance near Sokcho. The park entrance is just a short bus or taxi ride away for those staying in the city.
The entrances at Baekdamsa and Sibiseonnyeotang are a little trickier. Both in theory offer food and accommodation, but could be closed in poor weather or off-peak season/hours. Adventurers wanting to start or end their travels here would benefit from some knowledge of Hangul.
My husband and I visited Seoraksan National Park for the third time in June 2016. We did a 28.5 km point-to-point hike.
We ascended via Sibiseonnyeotang, and descended at Hangyeryeong (and continued descending on the road to Oseak).
The main peak of Seoraksan is Daecheongbong at 1708m, overlooking the rest of the park and the sea (or a sea of clouds, depending on the weather).
I reviewed my knowledge of Seoraksan using the Korea National Park Service website prior to our trip.