Friday, October 12, 2012

Seoraksan & Sokcho - Conquering the Peak

Celebrating Thanksgiving with friends & looking happy after completing 30km-worth of hikes in two days!
As many of you may know, the Korean Thanksgiving & Harvest Festival of Chuseok (추석) fell on the final weekend in September this year. As the date itself fell on a Sunday, we were given the Monday off. Even better, National Foundation Day (개천절 - Gaecheonjal), which celebrates the founding of the ancient Korean state (Gojoseon) in 2333 BC, fell on the following Wednesday. This meant that a number of us were also granted the intervening Tuesday off as a 'sandwich day' - Yipee! :D.

Hilary on the ascent to Ulsanbawi.

A couple of friends and I decided to take advantage of this (extremely) long weekend to head (once more, in my case) as far as we could diagonally across the peninsula up to the northwest corner. This time, however, the purpose of the journey was not to see the sites but, rather, to conquer them - or, more specifically, to conquer Seoraksan (설억선), one of Korea's most famous mountains/national parks.

Ocean views from the short(er) climb (Ulsanbawi)
Seoraksan is not a particularly high mountain (though it is the third highest in S.Korea). It's highest peak, Daechongbong (대청봉), has an elevation of only 1708m, but provides for some amazing hiking and absolutely stunning ocean views. Being generally adventurous, outdoorsy, active people (also people who were unwilling to carry too many supplies up with them ;) ), we decided that we would tackle the 21km (including the ascent, descent down the other side and business of trekking to the mountain from our minbak hostel) in only one day, rather than doing it in two and having to shelter on the mountain. Our route took us through the Cheonbuldeong Vally (천불동게국) over several of the subsidiary peaks (including Socheongbong at 1550m, 10.8km from the Seorakdong (East Seorak) park entrance were we started and Jungcheongbong at 1664m, shortly after that). I'm happy to say that we were successful, completing the entire hike in 10 hours (having left our hostel 3km outside of the eastern park enterance at 7:30am and arriving at the southern park entrance of Osaek (오색- five colours) at 5:30pm). For those of you  planning to do this route (or to explore Seoraksan in general) I highly recommend staying in the minbak hotels (korean style hostels in which you sleep on a mat on the floor) clustered around the Seorakdong  or Osaek park entrances. They`re cheap, plentiful and provide cooking facilities (no ovens). Info centres at both entrances offer trail maps, advice and weather conditions. Seorakdong is best for accessibility to Sokcho, the 'dinosaur ridge' of Ulsanbawi and the cable car, while Oseak provides great accessibility to the peak - though I have to say that that route is much more strenuous, rising the full height in only 5km rather than the 11-13km (route depending) it takes on the other side. The descent to Osaek was by far for us the most difficult part of the trip - both because we knew we were nearly there and because it's just that steep! The nearly 30km we'd hiked up to that point probably didn't help stabilize the legs much either - but I'm getting ahead of myself!
The so-called 'dinosaur ridge'.

Rather than taking the 6-7 hour direct bus up to Sokcho (속초), Korea's northeastern-most city and the one closest to Seoraksan, we decided to break up the journey and head directly north to Seoul first before crossing over eastwards. The reasons for this were manifold. Foremost among these was that this makes the trip strangely shorter (only 5h30 not counting transfer time, but with so many buses a day, that part can be nearly negligible) and, coming in a close second (for me at least!) was that this gave me the chance to attend 5 hours worth of advanced dance class *insert sillily happy grin here*. The other girls took advantage of the time to check out one of the larger climbing gyms Seoul has on offer. I imagine that both of these activities contributed somewhat to our instability on the final descent. None-the-less, for me it was totally worth it!

Looking back toward Sokcho from the Bridges crossing the bay.
Arriving in Sokcho late at night after our exertions on the Saturday, we opted to take a taxi to a local motel (minbak style) rather than walk it. Best decision ever. Our taxi driver was a nearly 90yr old man who had a ridiculously awesome zest for life and was super eager to chat with us once he realized we all (the other two more-so than I) spoke passable Korean. He was downright adorable!

One of said bridges.
While we were all eager to make it on to the mountain, I was insistent that we first explore the town (on foot of course) in order to seek out the location of the fabled 'winch ferry' - not that any of us had any idea what a winch ferry was. I'd seen reference to it in a guide book and it just sounded too cute to pass up. Turns out that winch ferries are rather like rafts which move with the aid of gentlemen enlisted to pull their way along ropes. It's awesome! It also costs only about 18cents (200won) per ride. We (well, some of us) wanted to go again but, alas, the call of the mountains was stronger and we decided to forge ahead.

Winching across the straight. You can see the ropes which extend from one side to the other, one for each ferry.
I had previously seen Sokcho itself described as a small unattractive fishing town - we found it nothing of the sort. True, tourism dollars have gone up in recent years, but it really just is a charming laid back town with a wonderful spirit, great colours and awesome scenery. It also lays claim to, not only a harbour, but an inlet, a (rather brackish)  lake, and a fantastically pristine and gorgeous beach  - but more on that later! It's also only 70km south of the North Korean Border.

One of the winch operators. He took his job seriously but broke a smile when I tried to give it a go.
As we were so eager to get on the mountain and didn't really want to leave any part unexplored, we decided to spend the afternoon on a 7.6km roundtrip 'warm-up hike' past the famed Gyejom Temple with it's rock-able Heundeul rock (흔들바위) and onward to the top of Ulsanbawi  (울산바위) to see this dinosaur ridge (pictured above) for ourselves and check out the views from there.

A view from partway up the second half of the climb. I believe that's Hwachaebong Peak. 

The climb up once on top. some of those stairs got steep! This portion took longer that the hike.

More stairs!

Nearly there!

Looking off the edge.

The view into the valley

Lounging on the backside.

The return trip. I just love this tree. I think I have about 20 pictures of it alone!

Sinheungsa Temple located at the Seorakdong entrance.
All in all, the whole route took us about 3h30, and after a delicious meal at one of the local restaurants, it was time to rest in preparation for the morrow.

A great stone seated Buddha, also located at the Seorakdong entrance.

Hiking the Cheonbuldong Valley. Lots of stairs were involved.

This portion of the route followed a river (stream?) with a pleasing number of small waterfalls and rapids.

Heading up! 

One of the lovely views.

I loved the play of light on this fallen tree.

And just the fall colours in general. We really couldn't have asked for better weather.

Crags! That's the East Sea (Sea of Japan) over there in the background.

The view from atop a crag (this is what happens when you hike with rock climbers).


Looking down into the valleys.

And over toward the mountainous north. I'd say that the furthest mountains are likely to be (at the very least)  in the DMZ.

At the 9.8km point.

Fall colours.
To say it got a bit foggy is probably and understatement.

The view from the top.

Descending into Osaek.
Since none of us were quite ready to return to Gwangju just yet, we decided to catch a later bus back the following day and spend the morning and early afternoon enjoying the city and the beach.

Sunning on the rocks by Yeongnangho lake. That's Ulsanbawi you can see in the right-hand portion of the background and Daecheongbong to the left.

The lovely (and somewhat chilly at this time of year) Sokcho beach.

A final view.


Unknown said...

This blog was really informative because we just moved to Korea and are hoping to hike in Suraksan this weekend. Do you still remember the hostel you stayed at or the website you got your route information on? The last hike we went on we ended up on a completely different path then the one we intended on going on. Thanks a lot!

Ally S said...

Glad it's been useful. I sadly don't remember where we stayed at the park, we just turned up and went looking for a Minbak (local hotel) and negotiated a price. If you want to sleep at one of the shelters on the mountain to break it up a bit, you need to reserve on the National Parks website ( Route info should also be on the Park Website, but you can also grab a free map at the park entrance and the mountain is super well signed. Have a blast! Seoraksan is stunning :).

Tre said...

Hey Ally,

Nice post you have here. I would like to ask where did you stay at the foot of the mountain and how much was it per night?

Thank you. Cheers!

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