As soon as I decided that I was going to take this trip, I knew that I would have to do some hiking. Seventy percent of South Korea’s landmass is mountainous, and the national parks are said to be amazing. At first, I thought I would take a train or bus further inland to hike in the higher ranges, but after spending two days in the city, I knew that the language barrier would make it quite difficult to take a trip like that alone. Instead, I decided to take city bus #704 about 20 kilometers outside of the city to Bukhansan National Park.
I intentionally made the trek on Friday because many Koreans are avid hikers, and on the weekends (Sunday in particular) the popular trails are swarmed to the point that hikers are climbing single file for several kilometers. Naively, I expected to be the only one on bus #704 heading to the mountains to spend a day in nature. By the time we reached the Bukhansan stop around 10:30am, there were ten middle aged men and women in full hiking gear that joined me as well as a few teenagers in shorts and tank tops.
To get to the National Park, you walk up an awkward area under construction and through a retail neighborhood filled with shops dedicated to hiking gear. It reminded me of the ski villages in Veil, Colorado, just not as cold. Food vendors also lined the streets selling ramen, fruit, Pacari Sweat (similar to Gatorade), frozen water bottles and energy bars. I stocked my bag with water and energy bars, but was worried that I didn’t have enough food. So I stopped and bought more energy bars and some peanuts.
At the entrance to the park, a ranger stopped most people as the walked through. I thought they were paying the entrance fee, but it turns out that there wasn’t one. As I walked through I asked for a map, and at first the ranger gave me a booklet about all of the National Parks because it was in English. I pushed for a map, even if it was in Korean, and was handed a small one showing the various hiking trails of the park. She pointed to the route to Baekundae Peak and said it should take two hours. I said thanks, and was on my way.
The first part of the trail was really confusing. It was a weird area filled with restaurants with outdoor tables and bamboo platforms by a creek, and occasionally there was a brown sign pointing to a hiking trail. It was unclear if you were supposed to walk through the dining area or stay on the road. Eventually I made it into the forest and onto a clearly marked hiking trail….only it wasn’t the one that I was supposed to be on. According to my map, I would be going the long way, but could still make it to the peak.
The rest of the hike was uneventful. Fellow hikers chatted with me in broken English, and I tried my best to pronounce “Anyong ha say yo” (Hello) correctly. A few ladies pointed to my tennis shoes, and said something in Korean. I assume they were asking why I didn’t have on hiking boots, but I kind of laughed, shrugged my shoulders and kept walking. The sky was overcast and I could hear thunder in the distance, but only felt a couple drops of rain.
The mountains here are mostly covered with dense forest except at the highest points. As you approach the peak, the forest breaks and enourmous rocks jut out providing stunning 360Ëš views. Cable rails have been installed to help hikers climb the steep and slippery rocks, and without them I certainly wouldn’t have made it to the top.
I lingered for about an hour at the peak soaking in the view wishing that the fog would go away. It refused to leave, so I began the final leg of my journey hiking down the way that I was supposed to hike up. Half way down I found a large rock overlooking a sweet little stream and decided to stop and rest for a little bit. Shortly after I stopped, an American father and son that I had seen at the top joined me and the three of us watched the sun break through the clouds, and slowly, all of the clouds completely disappeared. They sky was crystal blue and we knew the view from the top would be stunning. We all kept repeating how nice it would be to be at the top now, but it was getting late and we agreed that none of us were interested in hiking at night.
The father, son and I hiked the rest of the way down together chatting about baseball, Seoul, the Korean language, living in Asia and hiking. I enjoyed my day so much that I asked them to recommend another hike that I could do tomorrow. I wrote down their ideas, and when I got back to the hostel, I researched a little bit to see which one I wanted to do. Unfortunately, when I woke up on Saturday, my legs could barely move. I guess my muscles aren’t used to hiking up mountains for six hours a day!!!