Hiking is one most popular pastimes in Korea, not surprising considering that Korea is 70% mountainous. And that includes Seoul, home to South Korea's most popular National Park, Bukhansan. Every weekend, thousands of Koreans head for the hills, most folks kitted out in expensive designer hiking clothing and equipment. Not wanting to feel left out, we donned our REI hiking shoes and clothing before heading to Bukhansan on Day 3 of the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday.
Bukhansan is a HUGE park, with hundreds of miles of trails ranging from easy to crazy steep, criss-crossing the mountain peaks, streams, forests and Buddist temples. The day before the hike, we spent considerable time planning where to hike and how to get there. For foreigners, the main problem with hiking in Korea is the lack of English-language information. The Korean National Park Service (KNPS) English website is barebones. And information from English tour guides is scant; Lonely Planet Korea guide has only a small box of information about Bukhansan, and curiously there is no mention of Bukhansan in the Lonely Planet Seoul city guide. Most of the English information about hiking in Korea can be found in blogs, like this one.
But if you can read even a little Korean, your options increase 100x. The KNPS Korean website is fantastic. If you click on the Google Earth icon on the official Bukhansan Korean website, it will download an app that you can install on Google Earth, featuring 3D trail maps. The labeling is all in Korean but it's pretty self-explanatory.
Given that this was our first time hiking in Korea, and the fact that we haven't hiked since our last trip to Shenandoah National Park, we opted for a short hike on the periphery of Bukhansan. We decided to head to 족두리봉 / Jukduribong, with a peak of 370m (1,213 feet).
Here's the route we took, thanks to Bing Maps, which has some of the best street maps of Korea, including elevation contour lines. Green was uphill, red was downhill:
To get here, take the metro Line 6 to Dokbawi station. The trail head at the Boolgwang Ranger Station is about a 15 minute walk from Dokbawi. When you come out of Dokbawi metro station, turn left. Walk about 5 blocks and when you get to the main intersection at the traffic light, turn right. You'll pass a middle school. Veer left at the fork in the road, passing a few restaurants, hiking shops and a dirt parking lot until you read the Boolwang Ranger Station. Unfortunately, the station was unmanned on our visit. But fortunately, a nice gentleman gave us a copy of his pocket trail map.
The first major attraction you'll reach is this gorgeous Buddhist temple, 불광사 / Boolgwang-sa.
A few steps after passing the temple, you'll reach a 3-way intersection. Your choices are to go straight on the more level but longer trail, or take the shortcut up the steep set of stairs. We went up! Eventually the trail levels off a bit, but it's still a very steep climb. The climb to Jukduribong was a steady climb, but it was relatively easy. Much of the trail features rock or wooden steps, handrails, ropes or paving stones. This uphill trail is forested and shaded from the Indian Summer sun. Most intersections are marked by signs in Korean & English.
We started our hike about 9am and the trail was relatively empty. As we slowly pushed our creaky bodies uphill, the crowds picked up. Scores of well-trained hikers quickly passed us, including several ajumas (older women) and ajoshis (older men) well in their 60s or 70s!
By the time we reached the top, we just followed the sounds of people making their way to the peak. The trail opens up to flat granite area where many folks were having a picnic lunch. A side trail leads up to the peak, reachable only by scaling large boulders. In some sections, you need to use both arms and legs to pull yourself up to the top! The Jokduribong peak is a bald granite mountaintop with 360 degree views of Seoul and the northern reaches of Bukhansan.
Yes, that's a cellphone tower with branches. Which means 5 bars of perfect reception even in the woods for your smartphone GPS (download NAVER maps!).
After posing for obligatory Rocky-style photos at the top of the peak, it was time to make our descent. We headed back to the open area where folks were having their picnics. Scouting our map, we could see there was a more direct trail leading back down to Bulwang metro station. But unlike most trail intersections, there was no sign for this particular trail. We wandered around in circles for a bit and finally found the trail; If the Jukdoribong peak is to your back, walk just past the open area and the trail will be on your left.
Thank goodness we didn't walk UP this hill because it was WAY STEEP. Unlike the previous trail we took, this trail was open to the sun, and no stairs or handrails to help you down. There was a surprising number of folks climbing UP, but nowhere near as crowded as the easier uphill trail we took.
This scenic trail featured some amazing geographical features.
Eventually the trail levels off into the woods, past some more big boulders, finally emerging in a neighborhood of small apartment buildings.
When you reach the street level, turn right and follow the street until you get to the main road. Turn left and walk a few blocks until you get to Bulwang metro station. Before the metro, you'll pass a few shops and restaurants. After a long hike, it was time to celebrate our accomplishment!