The chase for autumn leaves peaks during October and November in Korea. It was our second autumn here and I was reasonably confident about figuring out the local transport network. And that’s how we decided to join the revelry of autumn chasers across the country. Now, it’s good to have a plan in place before travelling in Korea in the peak season. Hotels and trains/buses get booked pretty quickly. Names can sound very similar and you might reach the wrong destination — if you don’t do your research well.
Imagine your Korea (2017) forecasts the fall foliage trend for a given season. The changes in colour are first observed in the northern parts and gradually progress towards the south. Seoraksan National Park lies in Gangwon-do Province (northeast of Seoul) and was on my wish list for a long time. We only had weekends to spare and that made it difficult to escape the crowd of autumn pilgrims. But, it’s a small price to pay for the brilliant bursts of colour that we’d get to see.
We planned our trip to coincide with the peak fall sighting — somewhere in the second or third weekend of last October. Basil, A (his colleague), and I caught the 6:30 am bus from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal for Sokcho City. The journey to Sokcho City should take about two and half hours, but during the peak season, you could add another two hours — with a 20 minute pit stop. We reached Sokcho at around 11:00 am.
There’s a small tourist information centre outside the terminal and it’s a good idea to pickup maps here. We walked for 5 minutes, away from the Bus Terminal, to catch a local bus (either 7 or 7-1) bound for Seorakdong Information Centre (the starting point for outer Seorak). Our bus got stuck in the long line of cars and after half an hour, we figured it would be faster to walk to the entrance of the national park. The entrance was teaming with people and cars.
There are many hiking trails in Sereoksan National Park. The mountains are divided into Oe-Seorak (outer), Nam-Seorak (inner), and Nae-Seorak (inner). The Ulsanbawi Rock Trail is popular for a day hike and was also the trail we had chosen to explore. It was nearing noon by the time we entered the park and had to change our plans. The afternoon heat and the tiredness of the trip had slowly crept in. The cable car had a waiting period till 4:00 pm. After buying tickets for the cable car, we had a quick lunch of pajeon (Korean pancake) and makkeoli. We had about 3 hours to explore Biryong Falls before our cable car ride.
The Route to Biryong Falls
Signboards are plastered at regular intervals in Seoraksan National Park. En route, we came across a long bridge that cut through the dry river bed. It was one of the best places (at ground level) to get a vantage view of the mountain ridge.
The Forest Trail
The route to Biryong Falls passes through a stunning forest pathway. The dry river bed runs parallel for most of the early part of the forest trail.
The first 15 minutes of the forest pathway was painted bright green and thick foliage hid us from the sharp rays of the afternoon sun. We saw the leaves change colour as we walked deeper into the forest trail.
Decay was making its presence felt in the forest and anything that was weak or old — didn’t stand a chance.
The path gradually turned upwards and was littered with big stony rocks that doubled as stairs. The leaves here were turning bright red and orange.
The trail got steeper and stared twisting as we climbed higher. The pathway of stony steps gave way to a contorted boardwalk. Water was trickling on the stony mountain face and my nerves started acting up.
This is the point where I let fear make a decision for me. A and Basil climbed further up onto the stairs that hugged the mountain face. I looked nervously as they reached the suspension bridge above. According to the map, this must be Yukdam Falls.
The change in colour was more noticeable as they climbed higher. We had barely 45 minutes to make it back to the cable car centre. So, Basil and A couldn’t go right upto Biryong Falls.
Looking at these pictures — I don’t regret my decision of sitting this one out.
We had to quicken our pace as we retraced our path down the stony steps that lead into the lush forest and back to the big bridge crossing.
The cable car centre was teaming with families with kids. It’s the best way to enjoy the fall views with kids. I was nervous about the ride and was happy to feel safe on my feet — once we reached the top. From there: Sokcho city, the endless blue sea, and the mountains melted into one picturesque image.
Basil discovered a small hiking trail that continued upwards. A and I decided to stay back. After 10 minutes, I got an excited call from Basil coaxing us to take the short climb up. Reluctantly, we trudged up and were surprised to see the leaves burst into bright red flames — as we walked along the trail.
And soon enough, we saw a stunning view of the mountain ridge. I forgot how tired I was. I forgot my fear of heights. I forgot about the cold mountain breeze. Standing there, looking at the seemingly endless mountain ridge, I realised: life is beautiful — if you’re brave enough to take that extra step.