Quick guide to climbing and hiking South Korea
8 OUT OF 10 SOUTH KOREANS claim to be avid hikers. The government maintains the trails and facilities at most major trail heads and many peaks and popular multi-day treks have permanent shelters. The trails are accessible and used all year round, even in the snowy Korean winter. There is no excuse not to get on a mountain, and you will have plenty of good company.
Also known in Korea by another name, Mt. Yeongjusan, which means ‘mountain high enough to pull the galaxy‘, Mt. Hallasan is a 1950m extinct shield volcano.
There are five hikes (all day hikes) available on Mt. Hallasan. The shortest hike is 1.3 km (roughly 1 hour round-trip) and the longest hike is 9.6 km–roughly nine hours round trip. Those who commit to the full 9.6 km of the Gwaneumsa trail encounter cascading waterfalls, wide valleys, cavernous lava caves and the occasional Buddhist stupa.
Seoraksan National Park
The legendary Seoraksan peaks, also known as the Snowy Crag Mountains, seem otherworldly at first glance. Granite ribs, craggy peaks, ancient stone forts and Shilla-era Buddhist monasteries peak out from the scrim of early morning mist that envelope the Seorak range. Rolling forested hills accordion all the way to the horizon. Towering 300m waterfalls, snarled tiered trees, and Buddhist stupas of varying shape and size provide Seoraksan with character and atmosphere.
Seoraksan is a national park favorite among Koreans; the most-visited national park in the country, perhaps because most treks can be done in a single day. Hikes range from 4.3km round trip (round trip 2 hours) trekking to Ulsanbawi to 28km round trip (5-7 hours each way) trekking to Seoraksan’s tallest peak, Daecheongbong.
Juwangsan National Park
Juwangsan National Park is known for its dense forests, deep gorges, suspended walkways snaking through cracks in granite pillars. Juwangsan’s hikes range from a short hour long hikes to nearly 5 hours round trip. Jubong trail (4.5 hours round trip) is the most hiked trail in the national park.
The trail winds through forested gorges, passes by waterfalls, takes trekkers over the Kaldeung pass, swings by the top of Juwangsan Mountain and finishes at Daejeonsa Buddhist Temple.
Climbing is so well-respected in South Korea that, on occasion climbers, only need show their gear to enter the park for free. In the north Seoraksan’s granite ridges and faces are a playground of sport and trad routes for climbers. Ulsanbawi has about 20 routes of trad up to 5.11, sport up to 5.10 and aid climbing up to A2. On Ulsanbawi routes the climber will encounter a variety of features including slabs, chimneys, cracks, and overhangs.
Just forty minutes driving from Seoul, Insubong is a towering granite monolith, visible from Seoul. It is a favorite location for intermediate climbers to pro-athletes. Korean phenom rock climber Ja-In Kim, named after Insubong, calls this granite pinnacle one of her favorite locations in Korea to rock climb outdoors.
Crack- and face-climbing are also popular at Insubong due to the quality of the granite and the variety of route difficulty. Climbs range anywhere between one and eight pitches with grades from 5.7-5.12b.
Korea On The Rocks has the most extensive collection of English information on Korean rock routes and a heavily moderated forum to answer climber’s questions.
As the fall months fade to winter, South Korean climbers trade their slipper-like rock shoes for hulking alpine boots, crampons, and sharp ice tools. South Korean winter temperatures are consistently -15 degrees Celsius or lower, freezing waterfalls and forming thick pillars and walls of ice that make fine ice climbing routes.
Seoraksan National Park has the largest concentration of classic waterfall climbs in South Korea and the “big fish” of Seoraksan National Park is Towangsong.
Towangsong is 300m, 4 pitches, with two WI4+ grades (WI stands for Waterfall Ice), one grade of WI2+/3 and one long 100m pitch of WI5+/6. Towangsong should only be attempted by climbers who can lead at least WI5+.
To reach Towangsong, climbers first mus apply for a permit with the ranger station. The trail follows a frozen river through a rocky gorge to Towangsong and navigation can be tricky. The easiest and most direct route is to snap on crampons and follow the frozen river to the base of the climb. At the base of the climb the looming Towangsong rises high over Seoraksan National Park, all 300 meters of ice. It is the longest ice climb in South Korea.
The quality of the ice varies depending on the temperature and conditions that season, but the upper section is always the most difficult.
No matter the season, no matter your ability, every day is a good day to commune with nature, get a good work out and join South Korean’s in their favorite hobby.