I don’t have any official statistics, but if I had to guess I would say that hiking is the Korean national pastime. A large part of this is probably due to the fact that about 70 percent of the Korean peninsula is covered by mountains and even in Seoul, the second largest city in the world, you’re never far away from a good climb. As spring slowly washes over the country, you can expect to see more and more older Koreans decked out in head to toe name brand hiking gear ready to hit a mountain.
Last spring I decided to join the masses and hike two of Seoul’s peaks. Before I came to Korea I’d hiked exactly once, in Cinque Terre about 2 years before. Luckily for beginners like myself, most of the mountains, especially around Seoul, aren’t too technically difficult. If you’re in at least moderate shape, you’ll be fine.
I decided I’d start off slow and I headed to Achasan for my first ascent in Korea. Achasan (the suffix san in Korean means mountain) is the smallest mountain in Seoul with an elevation of only 287 meters. It’s the perfect hike for beginners or those in better shape than I who are looking for a leisurely way to spend a couple hours outside. It only takes about 30 minutes to get to the summit and unlike many other Korean mountains there aren’t that many stairs making it relatively painless.
Although it doesn’t boast an impressive height, Achasan provides for some nice views of the Han River, southeast Seoul, and the nearby Gyeonggi Province.
To get there: Take Line 5 to Achasan Station and go out exit 2. Turn left at the first intersection and then turn right at the dead end. Follow the hikers and you’ll find the entrance. There is no entrance fee.
After easily conquering the small Achasan, I decided to set my sights a little bit higher and set out for the summit of Baegundae Peak in Bukhansan National Park. Bukhansan holds a Guinness Book record for having the highest number of annual visitors, so don’t be surprised if the mountain is crowded. I went in early May and didn’t encounter too many people, but I’ve heard of traffic jams up the mountain so be prepared to wait.
After reading some blog posts before the hike, I was a little nervous. This would only be my third hike ever, and at 836 meters, it would be my tallest. The ascent started off slowly with a walk near a beautiful river and very little incline. Don’t let that fool you, though, as the hike soon got increasingly difficult. The path got steeper with rocks and tree roots jutting out everywhere. Then there were the stairs. So many stairs. Once I’d completed those, I reached the scariest part of the entire hike. I would now have to pull myself up an exposed rock face using a metal rope. I’m not the most physically fit person and at this point my body felt like jelly. I was wearing sneakers with little traction. And there was a steady stream of people coming down the same narrow pathway I needed to climb up.
I’d made it that far, though, and wasn’t about to give up. I grabbed the rope and slowly made my way to the top. And, man, was it worth it! My favorite part of hiking is the elation you feel when you’ve made it to the summit and can look out at the world below you. Seeing Seoul spread out before me on that beautiful spring day made me feel like I’d conquered more than just 800 some meters.
I snapped some pictures proving I’d made it and then settled down on the peak for a picnic lunch and a chance to catch my breath before heading (slowly) back down to the city.
To get there: There a few different routes available, but I this is the one I took (after getting lost once). Take Line 3 to Gupabal Station. Go out Exit 1 and take the 704 bus toward Bukhansan. If you are unsure, just follow everyone wearing North Face jackets and you should be on the right track. There may be an entrance fee (around 4,000 won, or $4USD), but I wasn’t charged.
Hiking is a wonderful way to see Korea and experience the generosity of Korean culture. I’ve been offered food, makgeolli (fermented rice alcohol), and numerous hellos and words of encouragement from fellow hikers both times I’ve been on a mountain here. I am looking forward to getting back out there this spring. Jello legs and all.
Have you hit any really great mountains in your travels? What are some of your favorite hikes?