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.
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 (“o-say-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).
Well, the view was worth it:
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”.
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.
I’d set out on this overnight solo hiking trip with 3 goals:
Complete the trail
Photograph the autumn scenery
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.
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:
Use a Gmail/Outlook/Yahoo addressto create your account. I initially tried using my @roamscapes.com email, but couldn’t receive the signup confirmation email.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.