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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Hwanseongul – Korea’s Largest Limestone Cave

By Deirdre Madden

I’ve been to several caves in Korea now, including the lava tubes on Jeju Island. I’ve also spelunked (or potholed if you prefer) in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, as well as back home in Canada. Nothing serious, just touristy tours of interesting and impressive cave formations. But nothing I’ve yet seen has compared to the vastness of the Hwanseongul (환선굴) in Gangwondo.

The hike up to the cave entrance - this stream flows out of the cave.

The hike up to the cave entrance – this stream flows out of the cave.

Located near the town of Samcheok (삼척시), the Hwanseon Cave has been designated as Natural Monument 178, and measures 6.2km in length, though the part open to the public is only 1.6km long. Don’t feel too disappointed by this – it still takes at least an hour to walk around, longer if you stop to admire the amazing rock formations and waterfalls along the way.

The Fairy Falls, on the hike up

The Fairy Falls, on the hike up

Unlike several of the other caves I’ve been to in Korea, this one has very little in the way of added decorations, such as colourful lights, and relies upon its natural beauty and majesty to impress the visitors. Carefully positioned spotlights highlight the colour variation of the limestone walls, or strange patterns created by the ever-dripping stalactites.

The cave entrance and ticket-checking

The cave entrance and ticket-checking (we went on a holiday)

Getting up to the cave takes a fair bit of work, as it’s a steep 30-45 minute climb. There is also a monorail that does most of the hard work for you, if you prefer. Tickets for this cost 3,000 won (2,000 for kids) one way, or 5,000 (3,000) round trip. The trip takes about 6-10 mins. Keep in mind, though, the hike around the cave isn’t wheel-chair or stroller accessible, nor are there places to sit down and rest, so it’s not really a good spot to visit if anyone in your party is mobility-challenged.

Looking back from the entrance.

Looking back from the entrance.

When we were there, it was a busy holiday weekend, so at first it felt as though we were almost on a conveyor belt being pushed along past the various formations. However, after a few minutes of walking there are a few off-shoots of the trail, and the crowds begin to disperse a little.

The photos don't do justice to the vast scope of the caves

The photos don’t do justice to the vast scope of the caves

The cave is filled with rushing streams that converge to form the stream that flows from the entrance, over the Fairy Falls, and into the valley below.

One of the many waterfalls and lakes dotted throughout the caverns

One of the many waterfalls and lakes dotted throughout the caverns

I should mention that there are signs at the entrance saying that photography is not allowed, but as per usual here, everyone ignored the rules and was snapping away – so I did, too. However, I left off my flash, and put on my low-light setting (I am no photography expert and rely on my camera’s presets to help me out), and I noticed that no one was using tripods, which is probably the main reason for the signs – to help with the traffic flow on the narrow walkways.

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You think this is the end – that you’ll climb up and look back at where you came from – but then you see, this is only the beginning!

There are an endless number of fascinating rock formation, from interesting patterns formed by dripping stalactites, to the wavy walls and melted-wax look of the floors.

The "Virgin Mary" formation

The “Virgin Mary” formation

Lights and signs help to highlight the most interesting features, such as a melty, mini stalactite that resembles a statue of the Virgin Mary (above), or a hole in a rock that is shaped like a heart.

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One of the few bits with tacky lighting, highlighting formations that look a lot like terraced rice fields

The temperature in the cave ranges from a low of 8*C in winter to a high of 24*C in summer. When we were there, it was probably about 12*C despite the 20*C weather outside, so I was glad to have brought a sweater with me. I was also glad to have a water bottle with us, as it is a long walk with little chance to rest your legs.

The view back down the valley

The view back down the valley

From March – October, it’s open from 08:00-17:00, and Nov-Feb from 08:00-16:00. Tickets are 4,000won for Adults, 2,800 for Youth and 2,000 for Children. Group discounts apply if there are more than 30 people. Parking is 1,000 won for regular sized cars, 500 won for compacts and 2,000 for a bus. The Korean Tourist webpage has full details of rates.

The Samcheok area has a number of other touristy things available to do as well, including a second, smaller cave and ocean rail bikes. The coastal area is gorgeous, and the drive along the winding roads over looking the East Sea is incredibly picturesque.

Sadly, this is a bit of a trek from Ulsan, (at least 5 hours drive) so you probably want your own (or a shared) vehicle to do the trip, and either a long weekend, or a super-early-Saturday departure to properly enjoy your time. We went over a rare long-weekend, and stayed in the beach town of Wolpo, just north of Pohang, the first night, and in Gangneung (home of a blossoming coffee culture) the second, before making the long drive back home.

There is an Intercity bus station in Samcheok, but I’m not sure if the Donghae/Gangneung bus stops there (the times and prices listed on UlsanOnline are subject to change – check with the Intercity Bus Terminal for up-to-date information). The bus trip is approximately 7hrs.

If you have a car, you can take highway 7 north all the way up, or 14, 31, or the Express Highway to Pohang, then 7 north.

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