It’s just after 10.30 in the morning and I find myself on a mountain ridge, surrounded by a dramatic vista: a raw scenery of brutal cliffs and endless forestry. I am quite literally on top of the world. The only problem is that I can’t find my trail. I am on top of a ridge and there is nowhere to go but steep declines on either side, or go back. Or climb over that large rock formation in front of me. I opt for the latter, out of mere curiosity, and once I am up there and see the faint trail continue, I realise why I have just entered the ‘expert’ part of the trail. Some time after, I bump into a Korean man heading in the opposite direction.
He asks me where I am going.
Daecheongbong peak, I say.
He laughs. You must be very strong, he jokes. But he seems quite serious when he questions the time. A long way, he mutters, and wonders whether I have brought a lantern.
Luckily, I have.
I have been up since 4.30 am and I have a long way to go. I haven’t actually taken a break yet, and I feel like I shouldn’t. But even though the trail gets increasingly difficult and I am losing strength, Seoraksan National Park is also continuing to amaze me with its views and never ceases to surprise me after every turn. I didn’t know I liked climbing mountains, but now I do.
Seoraksan is South Korea’s most popular national park and has a good number of trails and peaks to hike, with Daecheongbong Peak being its highest at 1,708 m. Its most visited time is autumn, when the autumn trees create a most stunning scene, with the leaves turning red and golden tones. Apparently, it’s beautiful, but I wouldn’t know, because I went during the spring, which is also an amazing time to visit. The countless Koreans would attest to that, as they hike the park relentlessly, no matter what time of year.
When I tried to plan my trip, I found it terribly difficult to find information on the Internet. Where to go, what trails are available, how long they take, and clear guidance on what the shelters on site offer. The Korean National Park website has some useful information, but lacks in coherency. It mentions several hiking courses, but I found it difficult to navigate the maps and establish travel times and alternative trail options. It also doesn’t offer all the services it promises: the booking system for the shelters appears non-existent on the English website, even though the reservation page does give you the correct fee information. I got most of my information from other blogs, even if some were slightly outdated (especially with regards to shelter information), that appeared to include much more vital information. That’s why I am going to try to give a clear account of my journey, and hopefully someone else may benefit in turn. Of course, I only know what I know and the specific trails I took. There are many more options when you are out there, but this is at least one of them.
Most people who visit Seoraksan will stay in the nearby fishers town of Sokcho. It has a nice beach and relaxing atmosphere, and is just about interesting enough for a day out. Sokcho can be reached easily from Seoul, as buses go continuously from both Dong Seoul bus terminal and Express bus terminal, and it takes only a little over two hours if there is no traffic.
I had just finished a Templestay before the weekend, and was itching to go out to Seoraksan straight after, instead of checking back into my hostel in Seoul. But after hiking up Mt Hallasan on Jeju island, I was well aware of the increasing crowds on the weekends and the alarming numbers of excited South Korean hikers. So I stayed in Seoul for a few nights instead, and caught a Sunday morning bus from Dong Seoul at 8.59 to Sokcho (the awkward time probably to differentiate it from the other 9am bus to Sokcho.)
I had gone to the station the day before to pick up the bus ticket, which is quite untypical of me, my backpacking adventures all being arranged at the very last minute. But I was warned by accounts online of busy weekends and full buses and wanted to make sure I could get on a bus at a good time. In retrospect, it wasn’t necessary. There were even empty seats on the bus. But do know that during some weekends and public holidays it gets very busy and you should make sure you reserve in advance. A one way ticket was ₩17,300 and takes you to the Sokcho Intercity bus terminal. (Buses from Seoul Express bus terminal take you to Sokcho Express bus terminal.)
I had conveniently booked the Mr Egg Hostel, a two minute walk away, knowing that I was going to be able to catch the 7 or the 7-1 bus to Seorakdong Visitor Centre, one of the main entrances to Seoraksan National Park, from the same location (although the same buses pass the Express bus terminal as well). Plus, Mr Egg Hostel had good reviews on being very helpful, and as I still had a lot to figure out, that was exactly what I needed.
What To Bring
If you need to buy any additional equipment for your hike, then there are an unproportional amount of outdoor stores in Sokcho to get the last necessities. Personally, I picked up a ₩2000 rain poncho from the supermarket and then proceeded to spent a long afternoon trying to find food. Initially, I had bought some gimbap from a local store and while I was walking back to my hostel, I thought it may be a good idea to buy more vegetables ones for the hike. Unfortunately, by then the original store was on the other side of town, and I couldn’t find any vegetable options where I was. Finding food for the trek, in the end, proved a bit of an ordeal. It took me a long time to decide what to bring (I’m far from an expert, having never done a multi-day hike before) and what I could actually physically get my hands on. At the same time, I didn’t have a clue as to how much to bring. I didn’t know if there would be any stalls selling food at the start or along the way, but decided not to count on it. For Mt Hallasan I had brought plenty, but ended up only taking one break at the summit and I ate one sandwich. Some days before that however, I’d been hiking along the coast and couldn’t stop eating.
Depending on the trek you do, consider bringing a lot of water and chloride tablets, so you can purify spring or river water. The trail I did had no possibility of buying water until I reached the first shelter, which was 11 hours after I started hiking. There was also no spring water apart from at the start and just before I reached the shelter, so make sure you are well prepared.
I ended up bringing several bananas, cucumbers, a strangely large carrot, a loaf of bread and peanut butter (bought at Paris Baguette), several energy bars, chocolate biscuits and plain salt crackers. I added two litres of water, all the layers of clothing I had in my backpack, a head torch, basic toiletries and my new poncho.
Trails. Mt Seoraksan has different peaks and many different trails, and you are free to pick and choose which ones you want to do. At the park I saw maps that have signs as to the difficulty of the different stages within the trails, so you can decide for yourself what you are capable of. Most people opt for the Osaek trail, which is the shortest route to Daecheongbong Peak. It is a steep one with not many sights. On the weekends you will be butt to butt with many other people, queueing up to get up the next section of mountain. I would certainly urge you not to go on the weekend, unless you have no other choice. The hiking will not be as free and pleasurable if you do, and even though the nature will still be beautiful, it’s just not worth it, if you can avoid it.
Shelters. There are a number of shelters throughout the park. They are basic accommodation for you to spend the night. Most require booking in advance, although the park website states that some are first come, first served basis. At the same time, a foreigner I met on the beach in Sokcho, who has hiked the mountain a fair number of times, told me that some shelters keep a number of spaces for foreigners without reservations, but I haven’t seen this written or confirmed anywhere else, so can’t vouch for its accuracy. The shelters’ booking system only appears to work on the Korean website and the reservations open two weeks before. But since Koreans love hiking, the weekends will be booked within seconds. I was worried about my own stay, as the website mentioned that all of May was fully booked, and I could only hope that they were exclusively referring to the weekends. There was no way for me to check.
What To Pre-Arrange
When I arrived at my hostel, I immediately threw myself onto the poor guy at reception. I really wanted to do a two day hike, but had no idea what I would do if I couldn’t book a shelter. There was no way I could risk being out on a mountain on my own, without a place to sleep. At the same time, I still wasn’t sure what route to take. My intention was to speak with someone at the park before commencing the trek, but I had read a hilarious account of some other bloggers that decided to opt for a much longer route instead of the popular, shorter, Osaek trail, and I got it in my head to do exactly the same. It sounded like a bit of a gruesome trek, but it aroused my curiosity. It also covered the Dinosaur Ridge, which I had read about and was recommendable. After the straight up and down trail to Mt Hallasan, I was hoping for a challenge.
Luckily, my new best friend at Mr Egg was happy to help. He went on the Korean National Park website to book the shelter at Daecheongbong Peak for me. After an initial hiccup (the website didn’t work), he managed to book a spot at Jungcheong shelter, which is right at Daecheongbong Peak. When that was booked, most of my worries disappeared, and I was pretty much good to go. I was able to leave my backpack at no extra charge at the hostel for the next few days, which was a great help. There are lockers at the Visitors Centre, but what I didn’t know yet, was that the centre doesn’t open till 9am, so you won’t be able to leave your bags anywhere if you wish to start earlier.
I woke up at 4.30 to make sure I had packed everything and arrived at the bus stop in time. It took me a while to figure out that the bus didn’t go from the terminal itself, but merely stopped at a bus stop in front of it. It was late as well, and since hardly anyone was around at that time, I was worried it wasn’t going to show up at all. But it did, and I was joined by only a few others that were up for an early mid-week start at Seoraksan.
I arrived at Seorakdong entrance at 6.15 and it was quiet. A lone man and a small group of Koreans were about to start their hike. I approached the attendant at the park’s entrance booth, which charged a ₩3,500 entrance fee, and asked if he had a trail map. I was greeted back with a blank face. I tried again, but soon realised the man spoke no English so I asked for one ticket and paid.
I entered and walked around in search of an information centre. When I found it, a slight panic ensued. It was closed, the English trail maps mocking me from behind the glass window. I had no idea what trail to take and there was no one to ask for advice. My main concern was the next day’s weather, as it was looking to rain and I was afraid of getting stuck on a difficult course in dangerous weather. I had no idea how difficult or easy the trails were and what to expect. I consulted my phone. There was no WiFi but I had taken some screenshots of the blog that mentioned the trail I was considering following. They mentioned a Valley trail on the way up, and the Dinosaur Ridge on the way back. I decided to go the opposite way, assuming that the Dinosaur Ridge would be less dangerous in good weather. I took some pictures of the large maps outside the information centre and started the trek. It was 6.30am.
This is the trail I ended up following on Day 1 and 2. The yellow line shows the shorter Osaek trail to the peak, which I didn’t take, but is the most popular course to get to the peak fast.
05.45 Bus from Sokcho Intercity bus terminal (10 min late, was due 05.35)
06.15 Seorakdong main entrance
06.28 Start trek to Bisondae Rock
07.22 Arrive Bisondae Rock – Start Devil’s Backbone Ridge to Madeungneong Samgeori
10.22 Arrive Madeungneong Samgeori – Start Dinosaur Ridge to Huiungak shelter
15.01 Arrive Huiungak shelter – Rest
15.39 Commence trek to Daecheongbong Peak
17.04 Pass Socheong junction
17.44 Daecheongbong Peak (Walked back to Jungcheong shelter afterwards)
19.32 Sleep at Jungcheong shelter
07.00 Jungcheong shelter – Start trek to Huiungak shelter
07.54 Arrive Huiungak shelter – Rest
08.09 Continue trek through Cheonbuldong Valley
08.17 Arrive Muneomigogae Pass
10:39 Arrive Bisondae Rock
11:23 Finish trek
The trek itself was mesmerising. I found myself starting at the same time as a group of Koreans, and being the person I am (walking slightly faster and wanting to get ahead of everyone so that I don’t find myself hindered by anyone walking at a slower pace) I quickly passed them and then had to keep up to stay ahead. Luckily, I knew that they were without a doubt equipped with everything needed for an extravagant mountain barbeque picnic, so there was no question that sooner or later, they would halt somewhere to enjoy an exuberant breakfast.
Picture opportunities were abundant. Upon passing Bisondae Rock the trail got harder, and at times I really had to pay close attention to follow the right trail rather than just watch my step, and keep on climbing until I realised I was continuing into nowhere. I couldn’t quite believe that I would be so intrigued by the unfolding nature. I got higher quickly and the beauty of the park just never ended. I never thought I cared for nature so much, but I pretty much changed my mind right there on that mountain. I took pictures quickly at the beginning, noticing the Koreans catch up with me if I stayed put for too long, but it was positive at the same time, because even though it was still early, I had a feeling I had a long way to go and I needed a steady pace to keep going.
Soon, I was pretty much alone. I had passed the only hikers that had started that morning and I only passed several more that day. The hike through the Devil’s Backbone Ridge was a beautiful mix of climbing over rocks and wandering through luscious forested trails. At the start I found a small spring, but I hadn’t drunk a lot of water yet, so decided not to fill up. I tend to ration my water well. I know that if I don’t start out drinking too much, that my need for water during the day is less. I remember thinking that I was positive that I was not going to regret not filling up my water bottles. Surely if there was a spring at the start, there would be one later on…
It wasn’t until I started the Dinosaur Ridge that I realised why it was distinguished as an ‘expert trail.’ I lost my trail and realised I quite literally had to climb over a rock, something that didn’t appear to be a possible trail at all. But I was surprised by my ability to just get on with it. Soon there where sections over rocks that were so steep that there were ropes to hoist yourself up or down. I had always thought that those things would terrify me, but I got a rush of adrenaline and loved going up and down, feeling surprisingly safe and secure while I did it. During this stretch I met more people going in the opposite direction. They all gave me the thumbs up when they realised I was hiking on my own, but seemed worried when I said I was going all the way to Daecheongbong Peak. It was only early in the afternoon, but they thought I may not make it before dark.
I only found out afterwards that the Dinosaur Ridge is nicknamed as such, because of the five jagged cliffs you climb over. They are basically shaped like the back of a dinosaur. This is the section I loved the most, and even though I was getting very tired, I wouldn’t let myself stop. A few times I sat down to get food or water out of my bag, but I never rested for more than a few minutes. I was concerned about the time, but I had no idea how long the trek was supposed to take. However, I did realise I was running out of water, and of course, began to regret not filling up my bottle before. I started to get a headache but there was nothing I could do but ration my water and keep on going. I began to check the time in between the signs and established I was averaging 1km per hour on the Dinosaur Ridge. I had many hours to go before I would arrive at Huiungak shelter, which was the first possible location that should have water.
The climb when on but at a certain point I entered a more forested area and went downwards. There were leafs on the trails and the usual rocks. This is the only time I fell. I’m not sure what happened, but I assume a combination of leaves and a loose rock, but I was walking one moment and the next I was hanging onto a baby tree, head and backpack dangling down. I wasn’t hurt, but it was a bit of a shock.
Not long after I found a spring and couldn’t be more relieved. I quickly filled up my bottles with the clear water. About half an hour later I arrived at Huiungak shelter, where water was sold but a water pump allowed you to pump free water up from the river below. I added chloride tablets to the water I had already filled up my bottles with and laid down on the terrace. It was 3pm and I had been hiking for 8.5 hours without a rest.
I woke up 40 minutes later. My first break of the day. I never nap, and quite frankly, I find it a very uncool thing to do, but I was absolutely exhausted, and my body felt broken beyond belief. I still had to get to the peak.
The website I got my trail from, called the following section ‘hell’. I soon understood why. Sections of steep rocks and staircases are not the most fun trail options, and it was almost impossible to pull myself up. Every few steps I had to rest, leaning from a handrail or protruding rock and hanging my head down, panting.
When I got closer to the peak and passed Socheong junction, it got a little busier. More people who had finished different sections came to the peak and were happily walking around. They clearly hadnt done my trail. The sun was beginning to go down slowly, and was hiding behind the clouds that had started to appear. The final trek to the top from Jungcheong shelter was not that impressive. The view had nothing on the mountain views I had enjoyed all day, but I continued up and reached the summit at Daecheongbong Peak at 17.44.
After taking some pictures at the top, I walked back to Jungcheong shelter, which is a little bit down from the peak. It was the shelter I had booked for the night and I soon saw that I was the only foreigner there. Groups of South Koreans huddled over barbeques and camping stoves, making three course meals while chatting and laughing. I was cold and tired, and simply wanted to clean myself, somehow. Unfortunately, I realised the shelter had no running water. There were no sinks in the toilets (read: holes in the floor) and I had no choice but to wet-wipe my hands and face in an attempt to feel a bit cleaner. The shelter had cooking areas, but they were mere metal tables and no amenities, but a large water tank, which was the only water available for cooking, apart from the expensive bottled drinking water. I walked in, probably looking a bit lost, rather desolate and generally disshevelled. I stood at a table where I considered spreading my bread with peanut butter. It seemed ridiculous, in the midst of people cooking proper meals. I’m sure people took pity on me because I had no idea what to do, and someone even offered me his stove, which I politely declined, as my bread didn’t need toasting. Instead, I went outside and sat on a picnic table by myself, making peanut butter sandwiches and eating some chocolate biscuits. It was cold and I seemed to be one of the only people who was hiking solo.
The accommodation itself was another adventure on its own. The shelter itself cost ₩8,000 for the night, and you could hire blankets for ₩2,000 each. Everyone got two. One to lie on, and one to cover yourself with. I did the same. I found my spot on the timber platform, where everyone sleeps next to each other, and kept on enough clothes to stay warm. I anticipated getting very cold during the night, but it seemed like there was underfloor heating and I got so warm I even had to take clothes off. Many people were sleeping with their hiking clothes on though, ready to start the day the same way it had ended.
Originally, I had thought to start hiking early. I heard accounts of people starting at 3am, to catch the sunset, but I knew the weather would not be good and I soon realised noone was in a hurry to get up. I had lied down at 19.30 and noticed the lights went out at 9pm, and even though I had set my alarm for 4am, I didn’t get up until 6am the next day, like most others. When I was getting my things together, a Korean woman noticed me and seemed concerned. She didn’t speak much English but she said the weather was really bad, and she was afraid it would be dangerous. When we got outside, I couldn’t see anything because of the mist. It was raining, cold and absolutely miserable. I bravely said I would be fine but the woman and her husband hushed me inside to have some of their coffee. It turned out we were doing the same trail that day, but I ended up leaving on my own anyways.
Even though the weather made it trickier at first, I was happy to go my own pace and head down as fast as possible. I had put on all the layers I had and added my supermarket poncho, to shelter me from the rain as much as possible. I passed a group of Koreans at the start, all of us clambering through the mist, and when I got to Huiungak shelter, they quickly followed and started to give me all sorts of snacks, keeping me there for a little while to eat some of it. I then bid them farewell and hurried down the rocks, towards the Cheonbuldong Valley trail I had not taken before.
As I hiked down, the mist slowly disappeared and revealed the stunning trail. I was surprised that, despite the weather, the scenery was still beautiful. The Valley trail follows a river and even though it’s all the same rocky, watery scenes of nature with lots of little waterfalls, I was gaping at the views consistently as I went down. The rain got me very wet below poncho-line (I did get sick afterwards) but I didn’t mind so much at the time. The hike was easy and I was able to keep going at a reasonable pace.
I assumed the second day would be at least another ten-hour hike, but I was very wrong. I didn’t know the trail would be so much easier, and I kind of forgot that I would be going down all day, making it a lot faster through that fact alone. I was at Seorakdong park entrance before 11.30am, in the midst of all the day trippers on their friendly daily stroll. After hiking for two days, I had gone a bit mad and I looked at all those people, thinking, if only they knew! What I really want to do was, grab these daytrippers by their shoulders, shake them around a little bit and shout, I was on that mountain! I hiked the Dinosaur Ridge yesterday! I have been on that mountain for two days! But I didn’t, because that would be like a crazy person, plus they wouldn’t understand me anyways.
Do this trek.
Do the Dinosaur Ridge.
Simple as that.
After completing the trek, I understood why people tend to do the Dinosaur Ridge on the way down from Daecheongbong Peak, rather than the way up, which is what I did. The up and downs of the cliffs are difficult enough, and doing this trail on the way up makes it twice as exhausting. The Valley trail however, was much easier since I took it on the way down. If you want a challenge and you’re a bit crazy, do the Dinosaur Ridge on the way up. Because it’s amazing and you will feel proud of yourself. If you are more sensible and want to balance your days a bit more, do the Valley trail on the way up, and the Dinosaur Ridge on the way down. Unless it rains. If it rains, then do what I did. You don’t want to scale those rocks and ropes in bad weather. You could, of course, but it would be risky and not much fun.
Upon finishing, I took the bus back to the hostel in Sokcho, where I was reunited with my backpack and they let me rest on their sofas. I took the time to clean up little bit and decided to head straight back to Seoul. Soon I found myself on a bus back, a bit bewildered at being off the trails so suddenly and sitting on public transport. I looked at the mountains from the windows. Wondering if I would ever do this trail again. At that point I thought, no way. But really, yes I would. Definitely, most certainly, I would.