It’s a little-appreciated fact that roughly 70 percent of South Korea’s surface area is mountains. Dotted with temples, they are the setting for ancient tales of mountain spirits, known as san shin (san is Korean for mountain), a critical component of Korean folklore, even today.
The result is a people whose very creation myth begins on a mountain, Baekdu, the Korean peninsula’s tallest at 2,750 metres, on the border between North Korea and China. An energy-giving life-force is said to flow from Baekdu down to South Korea’s ultimate peninsular peak, Jirisan, coursing through an uninterrupted series of ridges known as the Baekdudaegan mountain range: 735 kilometres of continuous slate and rock, the spine of the peninsula. This energy trickles over the ridges and spills into the valleys, down the waterfalls and into the streams that have created and sustained life ever since.
It is hard to exaggerate Baekdu’s importance to the Korean people. North Korean propaganda boasts that Kim Jong-il was born there in a shower of golden light. This is false: he was born in Soviet Russia, but don’t tell the North Koreans. Even south of the border, pictures of the mountain are a common sight, despite it lying hundreds of kilometres away in another country.
All this is to say that South Koreans care a lot about mountains, and today the vast majority of citizens are wealthy enough to be able to enjoy them by visiting the country’s 21 national parks in some form or other. In almost every Korean closet hangs a breathable Gore-tex shirt of neon green or orange, a solid pair of hiking boots and at least one extendable walking stick. The country’s multi-billion-dollar hiking fashion industry is so absurdly profitable that TV celebrities and famed directors are ensnared in their ad campaigns. Forget taekwondo: hiking is the nation’s true national sport.
It helps that it is all so accessible. No peak in South Korea is higher than 2,000 metres, so none takes longer than a day to summit. Population density and moderate temperatures mean hiking is consistently accommodating and safe: some families climb together every weekend. You don’t need a guide as maps (and apps) are often available and, unless you venture off into uncharted wilderness, you’re unlikely to come across any dangerous wildlife. Trails are usually well-marked and every significant mountain has a few well-stocked shelters where you can sleep and buy food, water and even gear.
With all that in mind, you are ready to strike out and explore. But where to start? The country’s three holiest peaks are also its tallest—Jirisan, Hallasan and Seoraksan—each in a distinct region of the country, each accessible year-round, and each harbouring beautifully quirky legends that illuminate aspects of Korean culture.
Jeju natives believe that their ovular subtropical island, Korea’s largest and now colloquially referred to as the ‘Korean Hawaii’ for its popularity among honeymooners, was created by a giant matronly mountain goddess. She is said to have created Hallasan out of nearby rocks she collected, and then gave birth to all the world’s plants and humans by way of a massive gynaecological/volcanic eruption. According to science this is kind of true: the island was spawned by the now-dormant volcanic peak of Hallasan around 25,000 years ago, though the pregnant goddess spin is debatable.
Hallasan is an oddity. It is simultaneously the nation’s tallest peak and one of its easiest to climb, depending on your choice of route. The crater lake at its top, Baengnokdam (literally ‘White Deer Lake’, named for the fable that 100 mountain spirits enjoy riding white deer here), is accessible from only two of the five main routes. They are the northern path, the Gwaneumsa Trail, which starts from the semi-isolated Gwaneum Temple, and the eastern Seongpanak Trail, which is the route best served by public transport. The western and southern trails don’t reach the Baengnokdam, gifting them with fewer tourists and more tranquility.
On each route, the first 10 kilometres are a breeze, set at a gradual incline only. Some Koreans jog this. The middle third is regarded as the most difficult section for its steep and crumbling stone steps and slippery rocks. Two-thirds of the way up, you exit the forest into a wide expanse of lower vegetation from where it takes about an hour more to reach the top. Because of the high chance of thick afternoon fog, park rangers stationed at the Jindallaebat and Samgakbong shelters (each at around 1,500 metres) prohibit anyone from continuing to the peak after 1pm, so rise early unless you plan on staying overnight.
The southernmost vertebrae along Korea’s spinal chord of a mountain range is Jirisan, a national park sprawled across three provinces and home to nearly 5,000 types of flora and fauna. Vibrantly pink cherry blossom in the spring, thick pine forest and some of the last remaining Asiatic black bears in the world are just three of the park’s attractions.
Though summiting the highest peak, Cheonwangbong, can be done in a single eight- or nine-hour day from the tiny eastern tourist town of Jungsan-ri, there are enough pounding waterfalls and colourful Buddhist temples scattered throughout the park to justify a two-to-three-day trek from one village to another.
The most strenuous multi-day route begins at Hwaeom Temple in the southwest, a historical wooden Korean temple that has stored aphoristic Buddhist stone tablets for 1,500 years, boasting an impressive three-story stone pagoda and ancient stone lanterns. From there, hikers head up the boulder steps and windy slopes of Tokkibong, then peak-hop along the highest ridges, past various mountain shelters that dot the course at 1,700 metres above sea level, until reaching Cheonwangbong, 1,915 metres high. From there you can descend into Jungsan-ri for a hot bowl of ramen and shots of soju.
Korean hikers tend to return to Jirisan again and again not just for its visible history and natural beauty, but also because it is so huge that you could go every weekend for months and always find a new route. The gurgling streams of Guryoung Valley, the sharp-edged Kalbawi (‘Knife Rock’), the enormous Buril Waterfall and the calmness of Cheoneu Temple are scattered around Jiri’s fringes, each easily accessible from a different small town, each with its own charm.
Only a few kilometres south of the heavily militarized border with North Korea, Seoraksan is South Korea’s third-tallest mountain, though it is more correct to view it as a massif or range of related peaks.
This is a fall and winter kind of mountain: in the summer monsoon season, the streams often flood the path. Whatever the season, keep an eye out for rare species as Seorak is one of the only areas where you can spot the Korean goral, an odd-looking goat-antelope hybrid, as well as the dwarf stone pine, a rapidly disappearing prickly pink shrub threatened by global warming.
Seorak’s postcard panorama is Dinosaur Ridge, a row of jagged rocks that shoot up from the north-eastern corner of the park and truly do resemble the spindly backside of a stegosaurus. Though the path across the ridge has been closed recently, the view from afar is what most Koreans strive for when they climb to the 1,700-metre-tall peak, Daecheongbong.
The quickest and most popular route up Daecheongbong is via Osaek Trail in the south, but this path is also the hardest, with stark switchbacks along the mountainside and slopes swinging up and down against unencumbered winds. As far as Korean mountain trails go, most of which are well maintained and readily walkable, the steepest parts of Osaek are a hands-and-knees vertical climb, treacherous if covered in snow, leaves or mud.
Shooting straight up the Osaek also shows only glimpses of the park’s character. In the northeast, for instance, is Gwongdeumseong, an ancient 300-metre-long stone temple, possibly built in the 13th century to defend against Mongolian invaders. You could also choose to believe the legend that two intrepid soldiers built the entire fortress in a single night, but there are no shortage of legends to accompany these mountains and lines must be drawn somewhere.
Another particularly adorable Seoraksan tale tells of Ulsanbawi, a bumbling sort of mountain who walked from the southern port city of Ulsan to join 12,000 other mountains as part of a god’s plan for a beautiful range. But by the time the mighty mound of stone had made it to the party, all the spaces were filled. Dejected, he began walking slowly back down the peninsula but realised how beautiful this spot beside Sokcho was, and decided to stay there. Today Ulsanbawi is one of the most beautiful (and difficult) routes on Seoraksan, with awe-inspiring panoramic views of the city and waters below.
Close to Pyeongchang, the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Taebaek is a definitively winter mountain on the outskirts of a town with the same name. It’s so definitively snowy that it hosts the famous Taebaek Snow Festival, a free event held each January that attracts thousands of Koreans who gawk at enormous ice sculptures of Mario and Cinderella and Steve Jobs, or watch a performance of ice nanta, a spin on traditional Korean drum music, only played by chopping machetes into square-foot ice blocks. Taebaek is also a popular ski and snowboarding destination, which is nice because it’s easily accessible by cheap public transit from Taebaek City, but less nice because this means it will surely be incredibly busy. There are fewer bratty kids at the 1,567-metre-high Janggunbong peak, though, or at the teetering ancient Manggyeong Temple to the bodhisivatta of wisdom, built 1,460 metres up.
A few kilometres outside of Ulsan in the southeast, Sinbulsan is barely more than 1,200 metres tall. The ascent is so steep, though, that park authorities have tethered ropes along most of the smooth rock surfaces, so even casual hikers can feel vaguely intrepid as they pull themselves up. Sinbulsan is best hiked in the spring, when cloud-like cherry blossoms and silver grass are in full bloom, and the stream that cascades down into a series of waterfalls from the top of the mountain is full of life and strength. One major draw here is that the peak is a bit out of the way, especially for non-Korean speakers, though taxis are common and cheap, and once you get there you’ll have fewer visitors to contend with.
Gayasan is one of Korea’s most spiritually and culturally rich mountain parks because of its isolation. It is so difficult to reach that Haein Temple, nestled deep in its valley, is famous for a collection of 80,000-ish wooden blocks that have survived from the 13th century. Engraved with Buddhist scriptures, they have withstood a Japanese invasion, North Korean soldiers and a fire that literally burned down the entire temple around them. It’s a common pilgrimage spot for spiritual Koreans and a beautiful sight for anyone, not to mention a good place to start a trek eastbound up Mt Gaya itself, 1,430 metres tall and covered with dry forests of pine and fir.