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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Hiking

You’ve seen them out there, kitted up in expensive“technical” clothing from hat to hiking boot, or visor-and-towel to hiking boot if they’re women. They carry walking sticks and backpacks full of soju. They are the Korean Hiker, and they are not to be trifled with. That tiny ajumma will beat you to the top of the mountain, drink several bottles of makkoli, and be back at the bottom while you’re still catching your breath.

Hiking has become a highly popular pastime in Korea in recent years. While the mountains here are hardly comparable to the Himalayas or the Rockies, there are some decent peaks to climb for the casual weekend warrior. Roughly 200 mountains across the country are over 1000 meters (3280 ft) high, and 15 have elevations over 1500 m (4921 ft).

It’s easy enough to get started. All you really need is a pair of sturdy shoes and a bottle of water, and you’re ready to hike most of the trails you’ll find around the city. The trails are usually well maintained and sign posted. In a country as densely populated as Korea, there are always other hikers out on the trails, and cell phone coverage everywhere, so getting lost isn’t as scary as it might be in the Canadian wilderness or the Australian outback.

There are more than 1700 hiking trails winding their way across the mountains of Korea, often passing cascading waterfalls, and beautiful vistas of misty rolling hills and rocky outcroppings. And the best thing is, you don’t have to go far to find one. Chances are there’s a forested hill in your neighbourhood covered with walking paths. If you live on the outskirts of the city, you’re probably no more than five minutes from a trail that could lead you miles away from civilization.

Hogye as seen from the KBS tower behind Hwabangdong.

The best part about hiking is getting out of the city. The air smells fresh and green, there are birds chirping in the trees, andwildlife is making a comeback. Black squirrels with funny tufty ears race through the branches; rabbits, pheasants, and even deer have been spotted in the woods around Mugeodong. Even if you don’t see anything other than an occasional ajeoshi, it’s a nice break from the hustle, bustle and noise of the city, where crap-whiff lurks around every corner.

A crane in the Munsu stadium lake

Keep in mind that autumn is the most popular season for hiking in Korea, partly because the weather is cool, clear and sunny, and partly because of the changing colours of the leaves. This means that the mountain trails can become more crowded than a western shopping mall on Christmas Eve. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, avoid the “famous” peaks, like Hallasan, Jirisan and Seoraksan (san means mountain) during the height of fall colours. And like everywhere else in the country, Sundays tend to be the busiest day of the week, as most people don’t have to work.

 

From Munsusan, looking towards Ulsan, and the coast.

Where to go:

As mentioned above, there are endless options for hiking in Korea. Here are a few highlights:

Mount Seorak (서락산). 1,708 meters (5,603 ft). Located in Gangwando, near the city of Sokcho, Seoraksan is the highest peak in the Taebaek mountain range. It’s about as far north as you can go without hitting the DMZ. There is a unique rock formation on Mount Seorak called Ulsanbawi (Ulsan rock), that, according to legend, is actually from Ulsan. From Wikipedia:

“According to the legend Ulsanbawi comes from the city of Ulsan in the south east of Korea. As Kumgangsan (a mountain in North Korea – ed) was built, Ulsanbawi walked to the north as the representative of the city. Unfortunately Ulsanbawi arrived too late and there was no more room. Ulsanbawi was ashamed and slowly trudged back to the south. One evening the rock went to sleep in the Seorak area. Ulsanbawi felt it was so beautiful around there that it decided to stay for good.”

There is also Heundeulbawi, which is a spherical rock that everyone tries to push off its balancing point.

Jiri Mountain (지리산). 1,915 meters (6,283 ft). Jirisan is the highest peak in mainland Korea. The national park was the first of it’s kind in the country, and falls across three provinces; Jeollanamdo, Jeollabukdo and Gyeongsangnamdo. Apparently the name means “the mountain of the odd and wise people”. Located between Daegu and Gwangju, Jiri Mountain is a very popular hike during the fall colours season. Camping sites are available, as are shelters, but these likely need to be reserved well in advance during summer and autumn.

Mount Halla 1,950 meters (6398 ft). Hallasan is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and one of the three parts of Jeju Island that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the other two parts being the lava tube cave system and Ilchulbong crater). It’s also the tallest mountain in Korea, and the inactive volcano largely responsible for the creation of Jeju. Botanists will find Mt. Halla interesting, as you pass from sub-tropical through “temperate, frigid and alpine zones” according to the Hallasan National Park website. There are trails ranging in length from just over 1km to almost 10km.

Ilchulbong Crater, Jeju Island

Mount Gaji 1,240 meters (4068 ft). Gajisan is one of Ulsan’s 12 scenic sights, and is located between Eonyang (where the KTX station is) and Miryang. There are some beautiful temples nestled into Gajisan’s valleys; Daebisa, Unmunsa, Seokgolsa and Seoknamsa  runentirely by nuns), which function as the park and hiking trail entrances. Seoknamsa is the closest to Ulsan. To get there, take bus # 807 or 1713. Seoknamsa is the final stop on the route before it heads back into Eonyang and Ulsan.

Unmun Temple, on Gajisan

 

Sinbul Mountain 1,209 meters (3,966 ft). Sinbulsan is home to other scenic sights of Ulsan. The silvery reed plains of pampas grass make the list, as does the Pareso waterfall. Danjobong peak is the head of a stream that cascades down the mountain side in a series of waterfalls. It also shelters Tongdo Temple and Tongdo Fantasia, the amusement park. The trails of Sinbulsan (sounds like Shinboolsan) also interconnect with Ganwolsan (1083m/3,553ft) and Yeongchwisan (510m/1,673ft). To hike Sinbulsan, take bus #323 from Eonyang Terminal and get off at the Ganwol Enterance.

To get to Pareso waterfall (pictured below), from Eonyang Terminal take a bus heading towards Baenaegol. For the upper section, get off at Icheon 1(il) gyo, and follow a steep path for 2.5km. For the lower section, get off at the last stop, and walk 2 km. The bus schedule can be found here, along with other park information:

Munsu Mountain 1,205 meters (3,956 ft). Munsusan cradles the neighbourhoods of Mugeodong and Cheonsang, and is by far the most accessible mountain (that’s over 1km high) for Ulsanites to hike. There are multiple trailheads to be found in the areas behind Ulsan University, Cheonsang’s apartment complexes, or up the small roads that lead off Highway 14 (heading towards Napodong in Busan). Munsusan is also home to Munsu Temple, where you can eat a free, vegetarian lunch with the monks if youarrive at noon on the weekend. There’s also a very friendly, though non-English speaking, Buddhist hermit who lives in a series of huts and tents over by the rock climbing crags. Oh,and there’s someexcellent rock climbing to be had, if that’s your thing. Three different faces, with routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.14, though most aren’t very tall. For more info, check out our rock climbing article.

What you need:

Although most trails are well maintained, there are rocky bits, and roots all over, so it’s best to wear sensible, sturdy footwear. Sneakers will be good enough for most trails, though hiking shoes or boots are best. And while you may pass women wearing high heels, I don’t recommend them. The good news is that because Koreans love hiking so much, you can find footwear everywhere (as long as your feet aren’t bigger than most Korean men’s).

Bring water. People always underestimate how much water they’ll need on a hike. Most of the hiking tips websites recommend about two litres per person per day, (or about half a gallon for the metrically impaired). Don’t count on there being places to refill or buy water, either. While you may come across a pop machine or shop in the middle of the woods (I’m not kidding, it’s possible) it’s not likely.

Bring some food, too. Again, people tend to underestimate how long they’ll be gone, and how much energy it takes. Pack a few Dr. You bars, sandwiches, or kimbap. It’s better to come back with it in your pack than to start feeling hungry and run-down miles from nowhere.

In the age of smart phones and GPS, it’s far less likely that you’ll get lost, but having a map of your route is always a good idea. And remember to charge your phone before you go, so if anything does go wrong, you can call for help. Korea’s cell phone coverage is pretty amazing, so even in the most remote areas, you should have reception.

It’s a good idea to pack a jacket or sweater even if you’re hiking in the summer. Weather can change unpredictably in the mountains, and even if it’s sunny and hot down below, it can suddenly get cold, windy or rainy on the mountain-top. By fall, it’s possible, if unlikely, to get snow even as far south as on Gajisan. It’s better to be prepared for the worst.

Bring a camera – the views can be incredible.

Bring money – just in case.

And don’t forget the sunscreen and bug repellant.

Over 70% of the Korean peninsula is mountainous, so go take a hike and explore the natural beauty the country has to offer.

Seoknamsa on Gajisan

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