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Overnight Hiking on Seoraksan: A Beginner’s Guide (+Trail Map)

Overnight Hiking on Seoraksan: A Beginner’s Guide (+Trail Map)

The constellations faded and I watched the sunlight seep through the morning mist, recoloring the valley in emerald and copper and gold. I was glad I persisted in coming here alone to Seoraksan (Mount Seorak), even though I know I wouldn’t complete my planned route; a sharp pain shot through my left hip with every step upward. Still, I’d decided to get to the next point in the trail before turning back, taking each break as an opportunity to appreciate the beauty that surrounded me.

I was in Seoul a little too early to witness the fall foliage, but the high altitude and slightly higher latitude means that Seoraksan, located in Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province), is usually the first place in South Korea to change color – so of course I had to take this chance. I also wanted to compare it with my experience on Kumgangsan, which was less visited and perhaps better preserved.

Making the trip from Seoul was easy, though planning it was quite the trial. Hopping off an intercity bus and onto a shuttle to Baekdamsa (Baekdam temple), I found myself unable to stop smiling: the trees and the streams were swapping hues, the air crisp and intoxicating. Soon I found myself meandering around the temple grounds, joined by a sizable-but-not-overwhelming number of local tourists.

When I finally reported to the Baekdam Visitor Center, however, I realized I was actually running late.

“Suryeomdong Shelter, closed at 4 o’ clock,” said the staff. “Jungcheong shelter, 3 o’ clock.” Shocked, I sputtered that the website had stated a closing time of 6pm in winter. Apparently the shelters close before dark – whatever time it gets dark. How was I going to make the 90-minute journey in time?

Sensing my despair, the ajeossi (“uncle”, for any middle-aged man)-in-charge smiled reassuringly and told me I could still check-in late, but I would have to hurry. “But just walk fast,” he instructed in Korean while acting out a quick march. “Don’t run! The ground is uneven!” Grabbing a map and thanking the staff profusely, I rushed off toward Suryeomdong shelter, my destination for the night.

Bridge in Baekdam Valley, Seoraksan

Trying to capture the valley’s fall foliage at golden hour while hurrying to reach the shelter before dark was not fun, and I tripped several times. Thankfully, the trickle of outgoing hikers I met were friendly and encouraging, often telling me that I had just a bit further to go. When I finally spotted the lights of Suryeomdong shelter, the mountain was being dyed indigo and a chill had set in.

After a quick dinner of bread with peanut butter, I turned in early before the lights-out time of 9pm; most other hikers were already resting or asleep. Unfortunately my initial relief and comfort in the shelter melted quickly. The heater was stifling hot. I was only in my base layers, but I was sticky and stinky and miserable. After hours of tossing and turning, I woke up at 4am, packed, and ate a leisurely breakfast of dried figs and more peanut butter sandwiches while sniffing the hot coffee that other hikers had brewed to curb my caffeine withdrawal. By 6am I was off.

I began to struggle before reaching my second stop at Oseam temple (read o-se-am) – a section of only “Intermediate” difficulty. It’s humiliating to admit, but I was far less fit than I’d assumed. My thighs and calves burned with each step upwards on the sandy, stone-riddled path, and each time I’d pass a crest in the trail only to find yet another narrow stretch, leading into thickets or past treacherous drops into the valley. It took me over 2 hours to complete a stretch that should’ve taken only an hour (my only consolation being that I did spend a chunk of time on photography).

If you’re wondering whether the view is worth it:

OSeAm Temple, Seoraksan (오세암)

I knew that with the pain and slowed pace brought on by my hip/leg imbalance, continuing on to the tougher stretches of Madeungryeong and Biseondae would be a huge risk. I reluctantly decided to play it safe and turn back. While going downhill was physically more relaxing, the literal undoing of my progress was mentally excruciating. Instead of discovering new sights and sounds, I was retracing my steps. Instead of being ahead of everyone else, I now had to weave past groups of ajummas who, in their determination to conquer the mountain, stabbed the ground mercilessly with their trekking poles and mocked me with each brusque “hello”.

Suryeomdong to OSeAm, Seoraksan

Such was my dejection that at one point, I simply sighed, stopped, and plopped down on the ground by a sign. Pulling out my bread, I finally stopped to enjoy a feeling so precious to writers: the feeling of utter solitude in the mountains. Sitting still among the trees I chewed more slowly than I’d ever chewed, it seemed, in my life; I watched the chipmunks scamper around instead of reflexively reaching for my camera and listened to the birds squabble in shrill, then wailing voices.

Eventually some men passed by. “Is it tasty?” One chuckled. It was always nice to be mistaken for a local. The bread was stale and squashed, the peanut butter a rancid goo. (There was only one brand of peanut butter available at the supermarket; apparently Koreans aren’t into the stuff.)

“Yes,” I smiled and replied in Korean. “Yummy.”

Step by painful step, I dragged myself back to Baekdamsa and onto the shuttle bus back downhill, touching the highway just in time to catch the bus back to Seoul 5 minutes later. By this point I was so exhausted and disappointed with myself I wanted to weep. So I closed my eyes. And slept.

In conclusion…

I’d set out on this overnight solo hiking trip with 3 goals:

  1. Complete the trail
  2. Photograph the autumn scenery
  3. Gather information to share with other solo hikers

Since I was able to partly complete these while improving my fitness and endurance, I’ll give myself a B+ score 😛

How does Mount Seorak compare to the equally beloved Mount Kumgang? Since they’re practically next to each other on the same mountain range, the topography is similar. But while Kumgang is pristine, the trail was heavily manicured compared to Seorak when I’d expected it to be the other way around.

Would I attempt hiking Seoraksan again? Hell yes. I might get a buddy next time to motivate me, and the park has such a varied landscape that it definitely won’t be boring. Even if you’re not particularly fit, do try an overnight hike on this beautiful mountain – it’s a lot more fun than a day trip.

 

Guide: Plan Your Overnight Hike on Seoraksan

Seoraksan Hiking Trails

For a national park enjoyed by locals and tourists alike, the trail maps I found online from KTO, the Korea National Park Service, hiking blogs etc. gave rather vague and inconsistent information.

I’d downloaded a few onto my phone for reference but the most comprehensive and useful map was an actual paper map from the Visitor Center that, strangely, can’t be found anywhere on the KNPS website. It clearly indicates the difficulty, distance, and estimated times for each section, so you can easily customize your trail.

Thus, I’ve scanned it into PDF that you can download! Seoraksan hiking trail map

Seoraksan Hiking Trails - The path I hiked is circled in pink.

Booking Shelters Online

Shelters and campsites for Seoraksan and most other mountains can be booked online, even by foreigners, via the “Reservation Totally Service” 😛 Here are my tips for booking the shelters:

Seoraksan Shelter Ticket
My sleeping slot for Suryeomdong shelter
  1. Use a Gmail/Outlook/Yahoo address to create your account. I initially tried using my @roamscapes.com email, but couldn’t receive the signup confirmation email.
  2. Reservations open 1st of each month for bookings 15th-30th, and 15th for reservations 1st-15th of the next month. Spots fill up fast, especially in peak season and on weekends, but last-minute cancellations are frequent. I joined the waitlist for Suryeomdong shelter 6 days before my hike (weekday) and got a spot the same night.
  3. If you’re on the waitlist, be prepared to sit at your computer and hit F5 on the reservations page. That’s because no email notification is sent when a spot frees up (though they supposedly send one), nor is there an email confirmation after you click “Book” to confirm your spot.
  4. You’re done! Simply report at the information center at your trailhead when you arrive for your hike, then pay at the shelter. While closing times are listed as 6pm, the shelters close much earlier in autumn – at the time of sundown based on the time of year and the shelter’s altitude.

The shelters are stocked with bottled water, instant/canned food, and blankets for rent. Most overnight hikers here pack light and simply get what they need from the shelter even though prices are pretty much daylight robbery (a 2-liter bottled water costs 3000won).

I’m not sure about other shelters, but Suryeomdong shelter has a tap for non-potable water that you can boil or filter.

Getting to Seoraksan

KTO‘s directions will take you to Sokcho city and Seorakdong, the “main entrance” of Seoraksan National Park. I’d already been there and wanted to avoid the tourists, so I started from Baekdamsa instead.

An intercity bus goes to Baekdamsa from Dong Seoul terminal and you can use the Txbus website to check intercity bus schedules – now available in English!

That said, the buses run regularly each day with plenty of seats (unless it’s a weekend/public holiday) and you can buy tickets for the next bus on the spot. But bring cash – the automated ticket machines which accept credit cards are only in Korean, while the ticket counters only accept cash.

Hiking Seoraksan: my bus Ticket to Baekdamsa

How to get to Baekdamsa Visitor Center/trailhead after alighting

KTO’s directions aren’t very specific and I got confused when making my way there, so here are my tips:

    1. The intercity bus stops along the highway, just before an intersection turning right to Baekdamsa. This is where the “bus terminal” – actually a grocery store – is located.
    2. Follow the road from the intersection, walking for around 15 minutes past guesthouses and restaurants, until you find a huge parking lot on your right for all the tour buses and cars. Here, a shuttle bus will let you “cheat” and ride up to Baekdamsa. The ticket costs 2300won.
  1. If you’re leaving from Baekdamsa, turn left when the road joins the highway. Buy your tickets to Seoul from the “terminal” and wait for the bus at the bus stop across the road.

Would you try Seoraksan’s less conventional hiking trails? What else would you like to know?

30 Comments

  1. 2 months ago

    Looks like a beautiful hike. I giggled at your part about chewing slowly – I tend to do that when I’m hiking alone and am free in the wilderness. I’ll have to add this my bucket list.

  2. 2 months ago

    Wow, this looks beautiful, you’ve really inspired me to go to South Korea. I’d never considered it for hiking before! Lovely writing, so different from most travel blogs 🙂

  3. 2 months ago

    Beautiful photos and what a gorgeous area to go hiking! I’m definitely adding it to my list. I especially love the photo of the bridge and autumn colors, absolutely stunning!

  4. 9 months ago

    What an absolutely beautiful trek! And those little Squirrels… eeek, so cute.

    You’ve made us want to add this to our list 🙂

  5. 9 months ago

    The feeling of solitude that writers rarely get and often long for… That is so so true. I love your photographs they are gorgeous. I hope that some day I will be able to do the hike too.

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Thank you. There are so many beautiful places to hike. I was supposed to go to Ladakh once but fell sick. It’s still on my list!

  6. 9 months ago

    Wow those pictures are beautiful I love the bridge across the river. What an eventful trip, I admire your intrepid spirit in the face of adversity -you rock!

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Thank you 🙂

  7. Okay I’m adding this to my wish list. I got a little obsessed with autumn colours in Japan last year and the ones in your images are gorgeous! I’ve never been to South Korea but it’s so great knowing that places like this exist.

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      I’m the other way round, haven’t been to Japan yet! Cheers to more travels for us.

  8. 1 year ago

    I’ve got no immediate plans to visit South Korea but I’m a huge fan of Asian culture, food, architecture, and landscapes so I hope to add it to my visited countries list at some point in the future. And I love hiking, photography and off-the-beaten path adventures like this, so it will definitely be added to the itinerary when I do finally make it to the country 🙂

  9. I scrolled through this post a few times without reading because I was so enchanted by your photos…then when I realized I hadn’t really read anything, I was greeted with your beautiful writing! I love your story-telling style. Looks like an amazing place to be!

  10. 1 year ago

    Aah next time we are in South-Korea we definitely need to go there. Looks so beautiful and we love to hike.

  11. 1 year ago

    Certainly the views made your painful trip really worth it! I’ll have to give S.Korea a second chance after your post; honestly I couldn’t appreciate my S.Korea trip at all. Well done on conquering this overnight hiking activity! You deserve more than an A for effort, photos, relating your experience so well + even scanning the map!

    • Brooke
      1 year ago

      Thank you *blushes* maybe we could be each other’s tour guide for Japan/Korea 😀

  12. 1 year ago

    Hiking in Korea, that’s cool! This is absolutely my thing. Even though it was so nerve recking at the beginning, your photos prove it was definitely worth it 🙂 But yeah I guess doing and planning with someone together will make both mistakes less likely, and coping in such situations easier. Maybe that’s again an introvert thing, and we need this time to breathe and be by ourselves, but luckily there’s like-minded souls with the same needs out there too… Happy travels to you Brooke!

  13. 1 year ago

    Thank you for sharing this experience and being totally honest about it! Sorry you didn’t achieve your goal but you’ve provided great info here for others.

  14. Thanks! Very helpful tips and I enjoyed the sensory detail in your blog. Still hoping to do this hike before I leave South Korea. Fingers crossed!

  15. 2 years ago

    I too, would not mind this hike. Very very scenic. Sad that you could not start it on time but whatever you managed looks amazing. The autumn scenery was amazing.

  16. 2 years ago

    Wow, so beautiful! We visited Japan during the fall colours and it was amazing, I never knew South Korea will get them too. I really hope I get to visit South Korea in next couple of years.

  17. 2 years ago

    This place is absolutely stunning! Your pictures are amazing!

  18. Sudipto
    2 years ago

    I really love the way you have researched for this post of yours. The photographs are so lovely and I truly appreciate the pain it would have taken for you to give up. How do you enter the buttons in between?

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      Thanks 🙂 I use Visual Composer for my blog so it has column layouts.

  19. Sandy N Vyjay
    2 years ago

    It is beautiful and specially hiking is something where someone can challenge their physical self. The rewards are really awesome. Seoraksan looks enchanting. I had not heard of this place before and hence I am really thrilled to read this post and look at the beautiful pictures.

  20. 2 years ago

    I had a similar situation trying to get to our refuge in Peru when trekking the Salkantay Trail. It was pretty scary once it got dark and I had read somewhere that there are pumas in the Andes haha! Anyway, the pictures of your hike are very pretty and you are a great writer!

    • Brooke
      2 years ago

      Thank you 🙂

  21. 2 years ago

    Beautiful landscapes! So surreal and so colorful! Glad that he allowed to you to check in late! Thanks for the tips!

  22. 2 years ago

    I have never went for a Solo Hike but that is something I would love to do.. This place is pure bliss. Loved your pics.

  23. Seoraksan is gorgeous. It’s great that you were able to see the autumn there even though your visit was too early to see it in other areas. This is a great tip for timing a visit too. Thanks. We know that we have some flexibility when scheduling a visit to SK and want to see its famous autumn.

  24. Joaquim Miro
    2 years ago

    Looks like one hell of an adventure! Thank you for the detailed explanation of how to make this trip happen 🙂 I plan on going to South Korea soon so it will be on my itinerary.

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