Exactly five months ago, my friend Katrina told me about this magical place her friend had gone hiking in Korea – Seoraksan National Park. I’ve been obsessed with the place ever since – constantly Googling and researching it, incessantly checking #Seoraksan on Instagram, and trying to find the PERFECT weekend to go. I learned that it’s the best during autumn because the fall foliage is pristine. And have I mentioned I’m obsessed with everything fall?
The leaves of Seoraksan
I’ve been waiting for the leaves to turn that stunning red, gold and orange. Summer seemed to stretch on forever this year (not that I’m complaining) but in October, it had gone from beach weather to boots and scarf weather almost overnight. We decided to go the weekend of Nov 7-9 and took a 9pm overnight bus from Busan to Sokcho (a beach town about 25 min from the park) on Friday night (details/info below). Our 7ish hour ride ended up taking 5 hours and we got to our hotel around 3am and were cabbing to the park by 330. Our plan was to see the sunrise, although little planning was actually made (okay so maybe those 5 months of “researching” may have just been 5 months of perusing pictures).
We entered the park (admission: 2,500won each) and besides the small group of Koreans who we quickly parted ways with, we were absolutely alone on the mountain with only the luminous moon above us and our cheap flashlights to guide us. Signage was sparse but we managed not to get lost. The first half(ish) of the trek was relatively flat – weaving around giant boulders and across smaller boulders. We passed a couple of temples, barely visible in the moonlight, and finally made it to the stairs.
The stairs were a bitch, I’m not gonna lie. Mind you, I’m incredibly out of shape and can count the number of times I’ve exercised in the past 2 months on one hand. Granted, I’m still somewhat healthy and didn’t die during this hike, so I’m sure pretty much anyone can do it. The last kilometer of the trek, you’re climbing up super steep stairs straight up the rock face. Korean treks are usually pretty developed and so the entire pathway up had rocks arranged in a stairwell shape or an actual staircase was built all the way to the peak. The steps even had a thick, non-slip layer on, which was helpful since the previous day’s rain was still present on the mountain.
We stopped to rest an embarrassing amount of times (thankfully we were the only ones on the mountain) but eventually made it to the top well before sunrise. We hung around the top by ourselves and watched our surroundings start to glow brighter and brighter. The sunrise wasn’t actually visible, but the early start was worth it enough to miss the crowds and be able to be alone with this:
The hike down was even better because we could actually see the magical fairyland that surrounded us (yes, MAGICAL. Seriously. Just look at these pictures, even though they barely do it justice). The hike up was fast because we rarely stopped, besides the occasional snack/breather/pee-off-a-cliff break, but I’m fairly certain the hike down took [at least] twice as long because I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
We actually missed the peak of fall (AKA the time when the leaves are the most colorful and still on the trees) but this place still looked incredible. Every single turn brought us to another river or creek or gnarled tree or “perfect leaves” that I absolutely HAD to photograph. Once you get down to the bottom where the visitor center/information is, the trees are a bit thicker and more colorful. You also get a view (or a half-view if it’s as foggy as when we were there) of Gwongeumseong where the cable cars go up to.
Cable Cars up to Gwongeumseong
The cable cars leave from the entrance of the park, close to the information center. Each roundtrip ticket is 9,000won (~$9) for adults (cheaper for kids or ajummas) and the ride lasts about 4 minutes. We got our tickets around 11:30 for the 12:45 time slot – they depart every 5ish minutes with around 20 people on each so buy your tickets as early as possible.
The view probably would’ve been better if most of the mountain wasn’t engulfed in fog, but it was still pretty amazing:
Once you get to the top, you can take a short 10ish minute hike to Gwongeumseong Castle/Fortress (which is pretty much just a giant rock). We climbed as far up as we dared, found a place to sit and drank a beer while looking out into the fog. I assume it probably would’ve been a killer view, but all we could see was a cliff that dropped into the gloomy fog so dense it seemed almost tangible.
It was an amazing day and I can’t wait to go back to this beautiful place. We barely scraped the surface of Seoraksan so we’ll definitely be back to explore more!
Where To Stay at Seoraksan:
It was just me and the boyfriend so we splurged a bit (considering the options available) and stayed at Hotel Amaranth for 60,000won (~$60), which we booked through Agoda. Super clean and comfortable and about 10-15 minutes (and about an 8,000won cab ride) from both Seoraksan National Park and Sokcho Beach. There are tons of different hotels, hostels and “ondol style” places, starting at about 15,000won a person. We booked about 4 days in advance and had no problem finding a place.
We opted to take the overnight bus from Busan to Sokcho (buses only come here and not directly to Seoraksan) to save some time since we only had the weekend. From Busan Dongbu Intercity Bus Terminal, it says it takes 7ish hours, but it’ll probably take around 5-5.5. There are 3 overnight buses (as of November 2014) at 21:10, 22:40 and 23:50.
Busan Dongbu Intercity Bus Terminal is located next to the Nopodong Metro stop (line 1). You can book a one way ticket HERE and then book your return when you get there (the website doesn’t let you book a roundtrip). Tickets are 46,000won for a one way adult ticket. The 1:30pm ride back took the full 7.5 hours and was pretty miserable. Next time we go, we’re thinking of also taking an overnight bus back, possibly the same day to save on accommodation/time as well (click here for a Sokcho Bus timetable)
NOTE: The “English” version of the Busan→Sokcho bus website kept coming up with an error every time we tried to book (even when using Korea’s beloved Internet Explorer) but the Korean version works (you can change the language on the upper right hand corner of the site). If you use Chrome, it’ll translate it for you, but some of the translations are wrong (for example, Busan Dongbu translates to “East London Terminal”). Your best bet is to ask a Korean to do it for you, or go through it in English first to familiarize yourself with the buttons and where to go. (Booking over the phone also isn’t possible. Korea loves to make things difficult).
Tips for Hiking Seoraksan
• GO EARLY. Most people I’ve talked to have had to suffer the insane MASS crowds that come here and wait in queues for ages to get cable car tickets and also during the hikes themselves. There are “waygook” group trips that don’t usually arrive until around noon, when everybody else does as well. I promise climbing a thousand steps would SUCK with a hundred ajummas trying to elbow past you.
• When we went, there wasn’t a queue to get cable car tickets, but by noon, the line was out the door. We had an hour and a half to kill but arrived at the upstairs queue to board about 15 minutes early. People will literally just cut in front of you because forming lines isn’t widely practiced in Korea. The cable cars fit about 20 people and so a window spot is ideal.
• Bring a bit of cash for cabs (a lot of them don’t take cards), park entree fees, souvenirs if you want, and food on the mountain.
• Bring lots of water, snacks (for both the overnight bus and the hike), layers cuz it’s fricken cold at the top (I wore snowboarding first layer-thermal types of pants and long sleeve + a flannel, hiking jacket, hiking gloves and running shoes), a map (there are a few along the pathway but it’s handy to have your own because there are lots of crossroads with no signage), a flashlight if you do a “sunrise” hike, and a drone. Because THIS:
*Nate’s DJI Quadcopter Drone footage of Ulsanbawi
Map of Seoraksan National Park