Driving in Jeju
Jeju is South Korea’s paradise island and is perfect for a weekend getaway from Seoul. Travelling around Jeju can be quite a task with its crawling transport system — often making distances appear farther away. We had tried tourist transport, local buses, and taxis on our earlier trips. Last June, Basil finally exchanged his driving license for a Korean driving license and we explored the southern part of Korea. In November, we decided to do a weekend road trip in Jeju — exploring a new trail every day.
We rented a car on the earlier evening. Most car rentals offer an airport pick-up service. We didn’t know that rental car agencies, in Jeju, are very strict about their policies and require about a year of driving experience. Basil has driven for over a decade, but we didn’t have proof of it, and couldn’t find the documents of our June road trip. We almost gave up on the idea after a few heated exchanges with the staff. Fortunately, Basil found an email with our old car insurance from 2016 and it was a smooth process thereafter. It’s always better to know all the rules (official site) before renting a car in Korea. The rules might vary for expats and international tourists.
The map above is for representative purposes and doesn’t indicate the actual time required. It is quite complicated to get to Songaksan (from the north) and Google probably used bus times to calculate the average time.
Our pension house was bang opposite north Jeju’s Yongduam Coastal Road. Jeju’s coastal roads are a treat to explore. We decided to cut across the island using the main highway (1115) and drive along the coastal road on the way back. If you have two successive days, it might be better to change your hotel every day or try camping (in warmer climate) at designated campsites.
In the morning, the roads were clear and we reached the south in an hour. There were a few important turns to keep in mind and we used Naver Maps to help us with the directions. It’s hard to miss the outline of Sanbangsan Mountain and that’s when you know you’ve reached your destination.
Korea can get quite morbid and depressing when the weather is grey. But when the sun is out and the clouds dominate the sky — there’s nothing like it. That’s when you can truly appreciate Jeju’s surreal beauty.
The parking lot was filling up fast and we were lucky to get a spot. Most of the smaller cars get rented quickly and we were stuck with a sedan. Jeju’s village roads can be quite narrow and it’s always better to have a small car.
Songaksan is famous for its 99 bongs/peaks. We couldn’t really distinguish one peak from another. There’s not much information on this mountain — that was formed by volcanic activity. The crater, on the top, isn’t distinguishable and trees cover most of the demarcated area. The crater is cordoned off for preservation of the natural habitat until July 2020.
The water sparkled in the morning sun and the jagged cliffs reflected hues of green. I shouldn’t have stared directly at the sun and had to sit for a bit before walking along the trail. The weather can be iffy in October and it’s best to dress in layers, especially on a hike/walk, to optimise your energy.
Stairs connect the parking lot to the coast below. Some local tourists got in line to take the cruise around Sanbangsan. We decided to skip it and focus on the Songaksan.
Jeju Olle Trail (Route 10) passes through this mountain trail and we spotted Olle Trail ribbons along the way. There are two routes to get to the top. We walked up the paved road (closest to the coast) and followed the other tourists.
The second route has a steeper paved road and it’s possible to take cars right up to the entrance of the woods. This trail is flanked by green pastures and grazing horses. The blue sky and powder puff clouds made this setting look like a painting.
It was getting hotter and I wished I had dressed for Jeju and not Seoul. Fortunately, there were quite a few diversions that took my mind off the heat.
The views of Sanbangsan Mountain kept getting better as we climbed higher up the gentle slope. It was strange that we were on Songaksan, but were eyeing Sanbangsan (I know the two sound very similar) all along the way. It’s probably the only hike where we kept looking at the views behind us.
In November, eulalia grass pops out from every corner in Jeju. It’s quite stunning, especially when sunlight bounces off the delicate tips.
We passed by cave trenches that were built during Japanese occupation. Some may find dark tourism interesting, but it had been a difficult year, and I wanted to focus on the beauty around me and give history a miss.
There weren’t any signboards and we kept following the trail in front of us. There was a cafe at the top and multiple routes that branched out in different directions. We chose to keep walking.
We came across a flat grassland with grazing cattle and horses. One of the trails circled the outer perimeter of the cliff. We could choose to go back from here or explore what was ahead. There wasn’t any tree cover here and it was very hot.
Without boards, we couldn’t identify the small peaks that popped out of the flat ground. Some were rocky and some were covered with grass.
The long trail (Dullegil) that hugged the cliff was inviting and we kept walking. There was a part of me that thought: we should turn back because we had parked at the other entrance. There was no way of knowing where this trail stopped and if we’d have to walk back again. Or perhaps, we’d exit through another gate.
We were genuinely surprised by the beauty of the location. We’ve always found Jeju to be spectacular, but there’s so much to explore and discover.
Once again, it was Sanbangsan the captivated us. In April, we had climbed a part of it and also explored Yongmeori’s Geo Trail.
Most tourists returned back and the trail was practically empty from this point. The sea breeze was perfect to cool us down. I wished I hadn’t worn heat-tech pants. Basil was doing much better in sweatpants.
We also spotted the outlines of Hyeongjeseom Island (형제섬) in the sea. They resembled two rocks in the vast blue sea.
After a while, the cliffs cover the view of Sanbangsan and it’s just blue skies and sea. Jeju was created from intense volcanic activity and nearly every cliff has a story to tell.
This part of the trail has stairs at regular intervals. Groups of emos and ajusshis climbed up and greeted us. Some of them commented about the weather and how beautiful is was. I was melting, but I agreed with them. Seoul can be quite depressing when it rains and this trail was a dream come true.
We got to see the other side of the black beach and were captivated by the long coastline. This trail ends in a dense forest that is connected to the parking lot. It’s a circular trail of 2.8 Km and you will reach the point you started from. We were happy that we didn’t have to walk back and could reach our car from this exit.
Hyeongje Coastal Road
It was barely 11:00 a.m. and we had the rest of the day. We picked up sandwiches and water for the way. Andeok Valley is not very far from Songaksan and we decided to explore it. This time, we drove along the coastal road and I’m glad we took the longer route.
Hyeongje Coastal Road is one of the most scenic locations that we’ve visited in Jeju. Coastal roads can be quite narrow and have fewer cars — unless you’re approaching a popular beach. These roads have designated spots where you can park your car and take in the beauty around you. I knew Basil wanted to stop and get a better look at Sanbangsan.
This road took us back to the pension house and places that we’d visited in spring. Back then, we walked along these quaint roads, and fell in love with the canola fields near Sanbangsan. We also discovered the tuft ring of Yongmeori Coast, and in the evening, enjoyed a quiet sunset — with a view of Hyeongjeseom Island.
We passed by many familiar sights — Sanbanggulsa Temple (산방굴사) being one of them. Driving along the road that’s flanked by the beach and temple was one of the high points of this trip.
We didn’t take too long to reach Andeok Valley and the route was scenic. There’s a parking lot for cars and it was empty in the afternoon. The trail to the valley is hidden and we had to ask an attendant to guide us.
There are multiple trails and boards give a brief summary of each trail. Andeok Valley isn’t a very popular tourist spot and the silence was truly rewarding.
It doesn’t take very long to reach this scenic spot from the entrance. It was a nice place to enjoy a moment of quiet in the shade.
The wooden trail rises up and gives you a vantage view of the valley below.
We were surrounded by towering trees and leaves. The walkway took us deeper in to the forest and we were walking on elevated ground. I don’t remember being surrounded by branches on our earlier trails. Sometimes, we’d watch the river below — through gaps in the trees. The walkway lead to a village road, and that’s when we decided to turn back, and explore the coastal roads along the east coast of the island.