Did you know that mountains encompass more than half of South-Korea’s surface? If you are a hiking or nature enthusiast, you will surely fall in love with the Korean countryside at first sight. Furthermore, autumn is undoubtedly the best time of year to hike in Korea and the rainbow of warm colours is simply stunning. Did you know that hiking is one of Korea’s national sports? Therefore, you can easily meet other hikers along your trail and make wonderful memories.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know for your first hike in Korea, as well as some of my own personal tips to ensure an enjoyable experience.
Where to Go Hiking in Korea
Remember when I said over half of Korea is made up of mountains? You can find hiking spots practically anyway. In fact, in Seoul alone there are more than 30 peaks willing you to climb up and look over the city. Moreover, I have hiked many of these mountains myself and every peak offers a whole new outlook.
Across the country as a whole, there are 22 national parks. Some of the most well-known include Bukhansan (Seoul), Jirisan (largest national park; South Gyeongsang), Hallasan (highest peak; Jeju Island) and Seoraksan (Gangwon.) Each national park features incredible natural scenery and hiking routes of varying length and difficulty.
- General information and updates about the Korean mainland national parks can be found on their official website >> here <<
- For info regarding the Hallasan national park, see Jeju Island’s official website >> here <<
I highly recommend checking the aforementioned links before setting out to visit these national parks as there can be limited access and/or closure at short notice due to weather conditions etc.
When to Go Hiking in Korea
In my experience, hiking is incredible all-year round in Korea! In winter you can enjoy snow-covered peaks and crisp air, come Spring the parks become a floral wonderland of cherry blossom, forsythias etc. and in the high altitudes and shade of the green forests you can keep cool in summer.
However, it is no secret that autumn is the best time to hike. It is certainly my favourite, simply because the mountains are enchanted with the red, orange and golden colours of autumn foliage.
Hiking Courses and Trails
The easiest way to find a hiking trail is via the national park official websites or navigation apps like Naver or Kakao Map. Both apps feature a trail layer toggle that you can use to see possible hiking courses. What’s more, the maps will show the distance, height and estimated hiking time. To that end, its very important to keep your phone alive for the duration, so best to pack a portable charger.
For more specific information, I recommend the national park sites as they can help you select an appropriate course for your ability, as well as the time you wish to spend there. Therefore, whether you’re looking for a leisurely stroll or a day-long hike, you’ll be able to find the route that suits you!
You may have heard that public transportation in Korea is incredibly fast and convenient. And it’s true, not only of the big cities but in rural areas and national parks as well. There are many trains and buses that will take you straight to the trail entrance. Alternatively, if you’re travelling in a group, driving or taking taxi may save time.
I always take the subway and bus when I go hiking in Seoul, Busan or to Seoraksan. However, during a trip to Jirisan with friends, we took KTX from Seoul to the closest station, then shared the cost of a taxi to the trail entrance. Additionally, when I visited Yangyang on the east coast of Gangwon, I would drive up to Seoraksan myself.
I recommend to use Naver or Kakao Map apps to navigate and find the best way to get to the starting point of the hike. Estimated duration and travel costs are also given in these apps, base on which you select the most suitable transportation for your trip.
What to Expect
In my experience, hiking courses in Korea are clean, safe and (almost) perfectly organized. Along each trail, you’ll find information boards every 500-700m, including info on what to do during an emergency. Moreover, each board includes the exact geographic coordinates of the location and so if you get into any difficulties, you can call the emergency number 119 and tell them the coordinates.
However, toilet facilities are typically only available at trail entrances and shelters. Additionally, once you’ve set off on your hike, you’ll only be able to buy food and water at shelters and so it is vital you bring enough water and food about your person.
The difficulty of each trail varies with each mountain profile. Sometimes, you may have to traverse large rocks, like in Gwanaksan, Seoul or steep flights of stairs like in Hallasan, Jeju. Therefore, hiking shoes are essential, not only for their protection but for their grip… On the way back down the mountain you can easily slip on wet stones!
You’ll know you’ve reached the summit when you see a giant rock engraved with hangul and ancient hanja. The higher the peak, the more beautiful the view, in my view anyway!
If you’re a newbie in Korea, you might be worrying about getting lost whilst hiking. Well, like any other hiking hotspot, you’re safe as long as you follow the trail. Moreover, don’t be afraid to ask other hikers if you can join them. In my experience, fellow hikers are always friendly and hiking with multiple people is always a safer bet.
Unlike other countries, some national parks in Korea set a time limit for hiking trails. This is to ensure that hikers reach and return from their destination before night. However, this does not apply to those staying at accommodations within the park.
In such a large mountain area as Jirisan or Seoraksan, you can go for a multiple-day hike. Not only is it a really fascinating experience, but you can see sights that day-hikers don’t. However, there are a few things you need to know first…
First of all, you will need a place to stay overnight within the mountain area. Depending on the time of year, you might choose a shelter or a designated campsite*. Once you’ve planned a hiking route, take a look at the available places to stay along the way and reserve asap — during peak seasons, the shelters fill up fast!
** Note: open-air camping is strictly prohibited in all national parks.
You can easily find shelters and campsites on the Korean National Park site. What’s more, you can make reservations through the stie as well. Simply sign up with your email address and select the date and number of spaces you require; you pay on arrival at the shelter or camp site. However, if you end up changing your trip or not needing the space, please cancel so that other hikers can book.
Shelters: What to Expect
During my 3-day-2-night trip to Jirisan national park, I stayed at 2 different shelters, while stopping in 3 others for short rest and snacks. All shelters were well-equipped with fresh water, toilets, dorms and a kitchen. Additionally, some had tables and benches for sitting outside.
Dormitories are gender separated and have traditional Korean ‘ondol’ heated floors, ideal in hte cold weather. Typically, you will sleep on the floor in these cases and blankets and mats are available for rent. However, some dormitories are built as bunk rooms instead. Don’t expect to be surrounded by your creature comforts, it is the wilderness after all! But rest assured you’ll have somewhere warm and safe to sleep. One dorm I went to had free-wifi and power sockets, but that is definitely a rare finding.
The shelter kitchens sold instant rice, snacks and beverages but nothing more. However, a lot of hikers, myself included, cooked our meals outside by the benches, using our camping stoves. Don’t forget to bring your own cooking equipment and plenty of food , tea or coffee. As for bathroom facilities, they vary widely. While some shelters have a modern restroom with sleek basins and showers, some have a few stinky outhouses. Don’t forget to bring toilet paper!
What to Pack
Here’s what you’ll need to prepare for hiking:
Sturdy walking/hiking boots
LOTS of layers i.e. thermal base, fleece, jacket, waterproof coat — the higher you climb, the colder it gets…
Drinking bottle/water baloon — you can refill at the stops and shelters
Sun protection — UV rays can be a lot stronger up in the mountains
Headlamp, toilet paper, first aid kit, electrolyte drink
Camera (or use phone) and power bank/portable charger
Trash bag — Don’t litter, leave nature as you found it!
Additionally for multiple-day hikes:
- Toiletries, sundries
- More snacks/food — shelters may sell instant rice, noodles etc. but best to bring enough food for yourself just in case
- Camping stove, pots, cooking utensils, cutlery, cleaning materials
- Sleeping bag
Thank you for reading my article. I hope you have an incredible experience hiking across Korea!