Hiking the Fairytale Land That is Seoraksan National Park

Seoraksan National Park, South Korea

Seoraksan National Park

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).

Hiking Ulsanbawi

Seoraksan - 72

Ulsanbawi, Seoraksan National Park, South Korea4km / 2~3 hours / 876m / intermediate level

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.

Seoraksan National Park, South Korea

Cable Cars up to Gwongeumseong

Seoraksan National Park, South Korea

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

Seoraksan English Map

Happy Hiking :)

 

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20 Comment

  1. This was an awesome read! We’ll try our best to wake up at 3:30 like you did haha question tho — is your drone licensed? Did you ask permission to fly your drone there? Really wanted a drone while travelling here in korea but im scared with the rules :/

    1. Kirsten Joelle says: Reply

      This was a couple years ago when drones were still relatively new, so there weren’t any laws prohibiting them! We didn’t get a permit but there were barely any other people on the mountain (for sunrise, anyway!) so we didn’t have any problems!

  2. Also, your theme is super sweet, and I’m kinda jealous!

  3. Absolutely LOVE the photography and the way you put the sequences together! The weight-sharing/acrobatics stuff was also very impressive

  4. Nailah says: Reply

    Wow! Really ambitious travel plans here :) I don’t think I’ve been that enthused about anything I’ve done in Korea thus far?? But it seems you right to be so enthused. Great photos! Looks like I’ll have to go this one in the spring though.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos.

  5. Andrew says: Reply

    wow…it’s incredible how different the place looks with a lot less leaves and a different palette to the landscape! Still just as beautiful though :)

  6. Taylor says: Reply

    This hike has been number 1 on my list for a long time and your post (and awesome drone video) have only confirmed this. i think we will be waiting until spring though. i’d hate to go with all the leaves already gone!

  7. Oh my gosh, these photos are absolutely stunning. I went to Sokcho recently with the intent of hiking, but never made it for various reasons… Really disappointed but hoping to make it up there next autumn for the beautiful leaves. Isn’t Sokcho such a quaint little town? I loved it!

  8. Reading this made me a little sad that the colours of autumn have pretty much passed- just can’t imagine making this hike any other time after seeing your amazing photographs! I wonder if my thighs could endure those insane stairs without turning into complete gelatin?! It is pretty obvious that I am going to try harder to make time for more hikes next year…thought my husband and I were doing a good job, but then another amazing must-do spot surfaces…another reason to visit the Sokcho area (lately it seems to keep popping up on my radar as a place with so much going on…)

  9. LOVE your photos! The colors are phenomenal! I think hiking is a bit too enduring for me especially seoraksan but I can understand why people do it…the views are AMAZING! Those fall leaves…don’t even get me started. I’m obsessed. Keep posting all the nice nature things that I know I’ll not be doing anytime soon!

  10. Amazing! I really really want to hike here. I wanted to go in the peak of fall foliage, but never made it. I need to go before it gets too cold, as I don’t think I can wait until Spring! I am showing this post to my boyfriend now and am going to try and convince him to go next weekend!

  11. I absolutely loved Seoraksan and your photos are stunning! When I hiked Ulsanbawi it was SO foggy I could barely see anything from the top, we were in the clouds! It looks like you had a much clearer view – I’ll just have to live vicariously through you and your photos!

  12. Those stairs haunt me to this day still. Walking back from the top, I was counting steps to cope with the fear. That place is too beautiful to avoid. You really captured that and were lucky to go when the leaves were changing. It’s too bad the day was foggy but that’s ok, eh? Thanks for sharing this!

  13. It really IS magical!! I was hoping to make it up there again this Fall, since we haven’t been there since our first year in Korea, but it sadly didn’t happen! :( Loved all the photos!

  14. Great post- I love Seoraksan! It’s so beautiful, and like you, I planned my trip for autumn and so got to see all the beautiful colours! Very dedicated of you to take such a long journey to get there too, I’m glad it was worth it!
    Also- I agree about the stairs, horrible! But doable, thank goodness they don’t go on for longer!

  15. Elle says: Reply

    I went to Seoraksan about 3 weeks ago and did a similar thing by hiking in the middle of the night to catch the sunrise! For us, we were able to glimpse the sun but only because we sneaked under a “do not enter” fence to get on the other side of the Ulsanbawi rock. Totally agree about going early if you plan on hiking. On our walk down around 8 or 9am there were so many people! I’m so glad we opted to hike in the dead of night.

    Also, I love the footage captured by your drone! How is it hiking around carrying one of those? I’m planning on a year long backpacking adventure in New Zealand soon and am wondering if it would be worth lugging around for a year…

  16. Emily says: Reply

    I loved you pictures. I’m hoping to explore the park in the spring. Thanks for all the great info!

  17. That looks incredible. Even though you missed the peak of fall, the views you captured are gorgeous.

  18. Man, oh, man. You aren’t lying about those stairs. As someone who thought he was in shape, my legs ached horribly for the next two days. It literally hurt to walk the first day afterwards. But it was definitely worth it. At the top, you are literally in the clouds.
    Unfortunately, I didn’t go in the fall. But your pictures of the colorful landscape are awesome!

  19. Vonnie says: Reply

    I love autumn! Lovely scenery

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