It’s a well established fact that I love Seoraksan National Park. It’s also no surprise to see Dinosaur Ridge making another appearance. However, hiking in Korea in the fall is an experience that cannot be compared to any other and deserves to be chronicled.
Anytime you leave Seoul at 11pm to arrive at your hiking destination in the wee hours of the morning (circa 3am,) it’s a surreal experience. The intense, insane, out-of-this-world crowds that the fall brings in Korea, in the pitch-black of the night, make it a truly fantastic, unbelievable experience.
Picture this: it’s 11pm on a Friday night. Your friends are all getting ready for a night on the town, cracking open beers and you’re layering up your hiking gear: a headlamp, gloves, a jacket, water, food… the list goes on and on. You desperately try to find a balance between overpacking (you don’t want to seem like a prude) and bringing the bare essentials (do you really want to be wet and freezing for 16 hours?). As your housemates are just beginning to get their party faces on, you head out of your apartment and, of course, you can tell they think you’re insane. You hop on a bus, then a subway and travel across Seoul to reach your first destination: a meeting point to join others, somehow just as mental as you are, to venture across the country- in the middle of the night. Literally, the middle of the night. The excitement, the anticipation and the absolute fear of the adventures ahead, create this intense, buzzing energy amongst this group of people. Sometimes, you arrive at the meeting point and you know no one. Other times, you may have already shared crazy experiences with these fellow Seoul Hiking Group expats and you reminisce while waiting for the bus, hoping to distract yourself from thinking about what lies ahead.
Everyone piles into a bus (or two, or three) and we make a few quick stops to pick others up. You bundle yourself up, wrap your scarf around your face, kick off your boots and try to get a few short hours of sleep, but you know the anticipation of the day ahead will keep you awake. You fall in and out of sleep, having nightmares of falling off of the mountain, not being able to complete the trek or, worse, not even having the guts to start. Before you know it, the bus begins to drive slower, weaving around sharp, steep corners, the temperature drops dramatically and your watch nears 3am, the expected arrival time.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Warren, the fearless leader of Seoul Hiking Group, taps on his microphone and says, “Little babies, it’s time to wake up!” At first, he speaks gently and then with a serious sense of urgency. He proclaims that we have arrived at our destination and we have 30 seconds to jump off the bus. He warns us of the dangers of attempting the marathon, 16-hour hike. No one can reach you for rescue if you need help. If you don’t finish in time, the bus will leave without you. If you drink “the sneaky soju,” you will die. Half-asleep, furiously lacing up your shoelaces and finding your headlamp, you think to yourself, what in the world have I gotten myself into you? You look around, hoping to see others sharing your sense of panic. Everyone seems excited and ready to go, un-phased by the cautionary tales of The Warren.
You hop off of the bus and are immediately blasted with icy cold air. It shocks your lungs, your face and your muscles. You follow the crowds of people (yes, that’s right, crowds) to cross the street and the entrance to the park is finally visible. It’s unassuming, not like you expected. The entrance looks like it could be just any old park, filled with merry go rounds, screaming children and generic buckets o’fun. What you also didn’t expect were the hoards of people waiting to get into the park. Hundreds of people are hopping out of buses, stretching and hugging it out and amping themselves up. Who are all these crazies?
You try to stay near other Seoul Hiking Group-ers. Warren says to make sure that you stay with at least a group of 3 for the hike and FOLLOW THE MAP. You must hit blahblah shelter by this time, blahblah shelter by this time… DO NOT DO THE 16-HOUR HIKE IF YOU HIT BLAHBLAH SHELTER AT BLAH TIME. It’s all happening so fast, how can you possibly keep it all straight? Before you have time to even process if you know where you’re going (or to reconsider your decision to begin,) you casually cross through the entrance and the hike has begun.
This particular trip took place on THE most popular hiking weekend of the entire year in Korea. There are only 1 or 2 weekends where the leaves are the most colorful, the most dramatic, the most beautiful. During this time, I kid you not, the entire population of the ROK flocks to Seoraksan, the supposed best place to see the leaves changing colors in the fall. This was THE weekend.
Crowded does not even begin to accurately describe the amount of people heading up the mountain. Hiking is impossible; you crawl along at a painfully slow pace. In fact, it seems quite dangerous. Koreans, who have no qualms about shoving and pushing normally, are particularly inclined to throw you right off of the mountain in an attempt to “beat traffic.” It’s a literal human traffic jam. The major difference between what’s happening and a normal traffic jam is that you’re completely unprotected from the outside world (i.e., if you “crash,” you will go flying off the edge of the mountain, tumbling uncontrollably towards certain death.) It’s unsettling, to say the least. Your heart pounds as you nibble on food, again, attempting to distract yourself, as you wait for the queue to move, secretly counting your blessings that you’re not forced to climb this unforgiving mountain at a feverish pace.
After what seems like hours of climbing up, up, up, the path begins to roll: up, down, up, down. In the distance, you see hundreds of lanterns going up the mountain, like ghosts, or fireflies. This is the true magic of hiking Seoraksan in the crowds (I have vowed to give up hiking next fall to bring a tripod and attempt to document this phenomenon). As far as you can see, tiny lights dot the forest. The only downside to this magic is that you are painfully aware of how far you have left to travel.
The climb to Daechongbon, the highest peak at Seoraksan, is more or less straight up for several hours. It’s For a first-timer, this can be brutal. Be not discouraged! Not only is it well worth the sweat and tears, but it gets easier (and more enjoyable,) every single time.
Just when you think you can climb no more, when your legs and your lungs are screaming at you to STOP, the ascent begins to level out, the path widens and the sky begins to lighten. Could it be? Could you finally be nearing the peak?
You may be inclined to think this is something to be grateful for, however, Daechongbong is unforgiving. Brutal. Bleak at its best. The wind is always whipping violently, it’s always painfully freezing and you are never able to enjoy reaching the peak, a moment of true achievement you otherwise bask in. (Note: There was ONE magical weekend at Seoraksan, last May, where there was no wind and the sun was shining atop Daechongbong. However, I have been there many times since and not once has it been tolerable).
You scamper up the wet rocks to see what you’ve been working for, but the sun has not yet risen from its sleep. You sigh and pause only for a moment before trucking on, eager to find shelter from the harsh temperature and strong winds. You scurry down the rocky path to Jungcheong Shelter, excited to find solace from the harsh weather.
You were hoping for a warm, cozy place to rest your feet, refuel and somehow find the strength to carry on. Instead, upon entering Jungcheong Shelter, you are met with a cramped, jam-packed room with not even enough floor space to take off your backpack. Perhaps you could snag a hot coffee to warm up your fingertips. Out of hot coffee, you say? Begrudgingly, and still frozen to the core, you decide to brave the outside and continue your trek.
The hike from Jungcheong Shelter to Huiungak Shelter offers hands-down, the best views of the park. On a foggy day, and there are many at Seoraksan, the fog fills the park and severely limits visibility. If you’re lucky enough to hike on a rare, clear day, you will be blown away by the views on this leg of your journey. This segment is a fantastic departure from the initial ascent, leveling out after Jungcheong Shelter and then dipping down into the valley that houses Huiungak Shelter. During this part of the hike, you will be staring directly into the menacing face of Dinosaur Ridge.
As you descend into the valley, you’re forced to look Dinosaur Ridge right in the eyes. Those sharp, scraggly, ominous peaks in the distance? You will be tackling them today. How many are there? You can’t be sure. You can’t seem to make out a discernible path and you struggle to steady your heartbeat as the fear continues to mount. With no other option, you swallow the fear and push forward.
You reach Huiungak Shelter, which lies at the base of the dinos. A nice place to cook breakfast and take a breather before you continue on, Huiungak Shelter is much smaller than Jungcheong and offers up perhaps the worst bathrooms that Korean hiking has to offer. After a quick bite to eat, you muster up the gumption to put one foot in front of the other and persevere onwards.
Dinosaur Ridge is a series of peaks that lie in the internal crevices of the park. If you power through them, you could finish in less than 4 hours. If you enjoy the scenery, take a nap here and there and chow down on several meals, it may take up to 6 hours. Let me reiterate, it is not the distance that poses a challenge for this particular segment of the hike. The severity of each peak, coupled with extremely diverse terrain, make for a very interesting few hours.
The first peak terrifies you to the core. It is a steep ascent, complete with all kinds of ropes that absolutely are essential to making it to the top. However, the payoff is huge. Suddenly, you are facing the ridge head-on and all of the pain you put yourself through to reach this moment dissipates into the thin air. The views from the first peak are absolutely breathtaking.
From this point on, each peak seems greater than the last and it’s a simply awesome hike. The sun is shining, the sky is clear and you couldn’t be happier to be enjoying this experience. You’re equally as happy to complete the ridge and begin the descent down to Biseondae Shelter, exhausted from an epically long day of crossing the park. As you get nearer and nearer to the final shelter, which is still an hour away from the main entrance of the park, the sound of rushing water gets louder, small rocks transform themselves into large, white boulders and your craving for a beer is increasing exponentially with each step.
Reaching Biseondae Shelter is cause for celebration. This is it. You made it. YOU MADE IT! Beers are cracked, pajeon is shared and legs are, finally, relieved. You down a few cold ones while you wait for others to finish, eventually all heading to the main entrance of the park together. The road from Biseondae to Sinhuengsa, the temple at the entrance, is paved, flat and lined with excellent restrooms. It’s a wonderful final 2 kilometers.
Hiking Seoraksan is never without challenges, moments of defeat or physical pain, but it’s always stunning, never the same experience and the sense of accomplishment and wonder you feel at the end of your hike? Worth every single ounce of energy spent to get there.