In & Around Sereoksan National Park
Seoraksan National Park is located in Gangwon Province and the easiest way to access the park is from Sokcho City. We took an intercity bus from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (in Seoul) to Sokcho. Under ideal conditions, the journey should take around 2 and half hours, however, on holidays (like Chuseok, Seollal, or peak autumn weekends), traffic can cause major blockades. It took us nearly 4 hours to reach Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal. After an early lunch, we waited for the bus (7/7-1) to Seoraksan National Park. Buses generally arrive at 20 minute intervals and it was a pain to wait for the bus. It’s a rather longish ride to the park, about an hour with signals, and we didn’t want to spend money on an expensive taxi ride.
There are many stunning trails to explore in Seoraksan National Park and it’s better to stay near the park. On our last trip, we had stayed in a dorm/hostel room. This time, we booked a room in HK Resort, a homely bnb. The owner was a very good host and explained every single detail in the rooms. It was a bit strange because we’ve spent 3 years in Korea and have mostly figured how things work. On the day of our hike, we left our bagpacks in their luggage room, and collected them afterwards. The owner gave us free melon ice creams after the hike and won us over. There are many hotels and even campgrounds on the main road leading to the park. Although HK Resort is just 2 stops away, it’s a rather long walk from the park entrance to the bnb. The other hotels are further away and I was rather happy with Basil’s choice.
Seoraksan National Park Trails
It was our second visit here and we were already familiar with some of the trails in the park. Two years ago, we had visited Seoraksan National Park in autumn and had explored a bit of the waterfall trail. Read our post here. We wanted to check the trail map for Ulsanbawi Rock and went to the park before our bnb check-in. It was a cloudy day and the predictions had indicated rain. I was happy to take in the views of the mountains without hoping to get any closer.
Maps & Guides
Trail maps are available at the tourist centre just outside Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal. Surprisingly, there weren’t any printed maps available at the Seorakdong Entrance of the park. Bear in mind, there are multiple entrances to the park. Always follow designated hiking trails (please protect the natural habitat) and plan your hike according to the park regulations on time. You can find out more information on the Korea National Park Website. Always get back whatever goes up with you. Dustbins are hard to find and that means you’ll have to carry a spare bag to store your trash.
Ulsanbawi Trail Hike
On the next morning, we woke up at 7 a.m. and caught the bus (7/7-1) by 7:30 a.m. to the park entrance from our bnb. We had a light breakfast at the cafe and started walking by 8:30 a.m. on the Ulsanbawi Hiking Trail. The sun was out and the sky were the prefect shade of blue. I took it as a sign to alleviate my underlying anxiety.
Maps & Guides
This trail is dotted with information boards in English. We found these boards next to Sinheungsa. Ulsanbawi Rock trail lies on the Oeseorak or Outer Seorak section of the park.
Bronze Jwabul Statue
The Bronze Jwabul Statue is the first buddhist sight on the trail. It’s an easy walk from the eating area and cable car entrance to get to this statue. Unlike the earlier evening, there was barely anyone in the morning.
A 10 m high bronze statue of Buddha (Bronze Jwabul Statue) rises above a granite terrace surrounded by a lush green lawn. Interesting figurines double as incense stands — in front of a stairway — leading to the statue.
There are two bridges that are built over a gushing river. Hyeonsugyo Bridge (the one to the right) connects the path from the bronze buddha statue to the main complex of Sinheungsa. There’s also a restaurant at the intersection of the two bridges.
Seoraksan National Park is one of the most famous places in Korea for autumnal colours. It was mid-September, I was hoping to find some changes in colour, but we were too early. I was also very happy to absorb the green around me and etch those visuals in my memory. Winter is a couple of months away and I don’t like bare trees.
We decided to explore Sinheungsa Temple on our way back. It’s always better to start early and have the trail to yourself before the crowd arrives. The main doorway, Cheongwang, has four larger-than-life statues of kings holding different objects.
The temple complex is very impressive and has many interesting prayer halls to explore. The main dharma hall has a seated triad of Amitabha Buddha statues — carved by monk sculptor, Muyeom, in 1651.
Back to the Trail
The next section of the trail is an easy walking path that leads into the woods. The natural scenery is the best part of this walk. Gushing rivers, lush green trees, and interesting rock formations (probably buddhist stupas) are peppered all along the trail.
We passed by the second temple, Anyangam, on the trail. The morning sun made the colours of the temple pop.
We had to take a slight detour and walk on a bridge of metal sheets over a gushing river. Korean construction work takes places at lightening speed (palli, palli) and I believe: this part of the trail would be complete by the time I publish this post. I’m not too good with rickety bridges over water and tried to focus on the towering peaks ahead.
From thereon, the trail transforms into a stony pathway in the forest. The rain had uprooted a tree and the path was slippery in spots. I should have worn my hiking shoes because the grip on wet mud isn’t too great with sneakers.
We were practically the only ones on the trail. Occasionally, we’d bump into Korean or foreign hikers who had probably tried to do the sunrise hike. Although, I dislike stone trails because it’s a bit hard on the feet, I enjoyed this gentle climb in the forest. I was getting my confidence back and hoped the rest of the trail wouldn’t be too bad.
Shrine & Stupa
We took a rest break at the shrine and stupa. Stupas are structures that hold the relics of buddhist monks. If I’m not mistaken this place is called Naewonam on the map.
Once again the trail changes from a stony pathway to a padded stairway — between the rocks.
We reached Heundeulbawi Rock, and from there, we got a better view of Ulsanbawi Rock. It looked brilliant against the blue sky. There was a smaller boulder (not in pic) on which a family was eating their meal. I greeted a Korean couple and eonni (older sister) was pleasantly surprised. We spoke for a bit before they proceeded further. Ajusshi, from the other group, offered us makgeolli (Korean rice wine). I laughed and politely declined after thanking him. Makgeolli should be drunk after completing a hike and I wanted to wait.
The trail gets narrow in parts and I was glad that we didn’t have overenthusiastic groups of hikers bulldozing through the trail.
Kyeojoam Seokgul (Hermitage)
We had walked/hiked about 2 km and it took about 45 minutes to reach this hermitage. I was pretty happy with my speed so far and my knee was in great shape. Eonni and her husband had found a place to sit and take rest. We took a break here (also on our way down) and had a bite to eat.
Kyejoam Grotto is built in a cave under a cluster of rocks. A serene statue, of a seated buddha, adorns an austere prayer hall.
Eonni (like many other hikers) had decided to end her journey at the hermitage. She said the trail above would take around 45 minutes. I have a feeling she had never hiked on that trail because it took me nearly 2 hours (with breaks) to get to the top. Early on the trail, we found this stunning observation point with gorgeous views of the peaks.
We met a 65-year-old ajusshi who hiked this trail, every year, to test his fitness. He asked Basil about his job and didn’t seem too impressed with scientific editing. He was a civil engineer with his own business in Seoul. I felt as if we were characters in the K Drama, ‘Sky Castle‘.
We had got closer to the towering peaks of Ulsanbawi Rock. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue and the sun turned the spotlight on those gorgeous granite rocks. I was a bit nervous because those rocks seemed to be farther up and I wasn’t sure if I’d make it.
There are many ways to reach the same point on a mountain. These rock climbers (next to the logo) had found the shortest way up.
The trail alternated from a padded stairway to rocky steps. It was getting hotter and I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about making it to the top. Ajusshi looked behind and told Basil that he’s fit, but wasn’t too sure about me. And this is what I don’t get. Why do men (I know there are exceptions) have to pass their judgement without knowing the potential of a woman? In contrast, a Korean emo (aunty), gave me a thumbs up and said, ‘Phighting!’. Isn’t that what a hike is about? Conquering your own fears and underlying doubts?
The last stretch is a steep climb between the crevices of the rocky face of the mountain. It’s really bad for anyone with a fear of heights! I looked up (tried not think about how I’d go down) and focussed on how the view would look from the peak.
When I saw those views, I knew: I had to keep going. It was worth every bit of fear that I was struggling to conquer.
The stairway connects multiple viewing points on the top. The first point gives a view of these rocks resembling animals.
We met ajusshi again and he was surprised to see me. I laughed and said that I had made it. I was too happy to hold grudges. The view was spectacular and I didn’t bother to find the highest peak of the cascading mountain range.
Another smaller walkway leads to the other viewing platform. You get to enjoy the views of the ridge as well as Sokcho City below.
This furry squirrel was fed by the groups of Korean hikers who had made it to the top. We saw kids and grandmas make it here. Basil and I shared a kimbaap and enjoyed the view.
Tafoni, round holes (formed by weathering) in granite rocks, dotted the narrow path of the ridge. Walking on the ridge wasn’t a very pleasant experience and I was happy to get to the safety of the massive boulders.
The past few months haven’t been too great for me and the lows have outwieghed the highs. Expat life is harder than it looks and very few people understand it. Thankfully, there aren’t any lows on these highs.
We met 2 Dutch travellers who were exploring Korea and we asked them to click our picture with that gorgeous backdrop — in return for a picture clicked by us.
Going down wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. The staircase was a little scary, but I managed to cover the trail till Kyejoam Grotto in 45 minutes and the trail to the start in 35 minutes. It’s the fastest I’ve gone down a mountain and my knee had no problems whatsoever. An emo slipped and hurt her head on her way down, but she was alright. A foreign couple, with a baby, hiked this trail and the baby’s father slipped (didn’t fall) twice next to me. I guess I was his jinx.
We had potato pancake and makgeolli to celebrate our hike in true Korean tradition. Basil seemed to be rather happy after drinking his magkeolli and I was happy to complete another Chuseok hike.