South Korea - Getting to know Seoraksan National Park
Picture snow-capped mountains whose craggy peaks are awash in a sea of glorious red, yellow and orange leaves; now shroud the scene in an ethereal mist that the sun strikes through and you will have conjured up an image of Seoraksan National Park. The northernmost National Park in the country, Seoraksan contains its highest peaks and is widely regarded as holding its most beautiful landscapes.
Designated by Unesco as a Biosphere Protection site, Seoraksan loosely translates as ‘snow-cragged mountains’, and those crags give the park a fairytale feel. Besides oddly shaped rock formations the park is home to abundant wildlife, rare plantlife, dense forest and ancient Shilla-era temples.
Depending on your fitness levels, there are gruelling hikes up mountains; short strolls to waterfalls and pleasant walks to caves and temples. Wherever you walk you will be rewarded with commanding and inspiring viewpoints. Don’t miss out on the views just because walking is not your thing. Just beyond the Seorakdong entrance to the park is a cable car that can whisk you up through the mists to the craggy peaks.
Getting off the trail in Seoraksan National Park
- Most visitors to Seoraksan explore the Outer Seorak region of the park where Ulsanbwai rules the roost. To really appreciate the splendour of the scenic surrounds and soak up the tranquility, travel to Inner Seorak, a section of the park that is accessible from Sokcho but receives far fewer visitors.
- Blessed with captivating views of the mountains beyond, Osaek is a small village that is famed for its hot mineral springs that allegedly hold medicinal and beautifying properties. An estimated 1,500 litres of iron-rich water springs out from the rocks on a daily basis and can be bathed in or drunk, although the taste is not the most pleasant - similar to a metallic, flat tonic water.
- On the edge of the park, South Korea’s northernmost city Sokcho spreads out from Cheongcho Lake with the mountainous peaks of the park visible to its west. Aside from a stroll along the harbourfront there is little here in the way of tourist highlights. However, the tiny landmass of Abai Island is worthy of a visit: for a start you haul yourself over on the ‘ferry service’ - little more than a platform connected to steel cables - before exploring the maze of tight lanes in search of sundae, a local speciality that is a world away from the decorated ice cream desserts you may associate with the term. We’ll keep the exact ingredients a surprise but it involves sausage and clear noodles, and is an acquired taste!
Myths and legends
Seoraksan National Park is immersed in many mythic stories. One legend tells that the mountain of Ulsanbawi was once alive and living in South Korea. Having heard that the most beautiful mountain range was being created in Geumgang, in what is today North Korea, it rushed to be a part of it. Alas, it arrived too late and, on its mournful journey back home, it fell asleep where it lies now. It still hasn’t reawoken.
The Biryong Falls were so named because the loud falling water looks like flying dragons (Biryong means flying dragons)
What to do in Seoraksan National Park
- The Heundeulbawi Trail is the park’s most popular (read ‘easiest’). The path will take you past a 7th century Buddhist temple, home to a large bronze Buddha, and a cave hermitage that’s a popular spot for meditation. Continue on until you reach Heundeulbwai, meaning ‘rocking rock’ - a 16-ton boulder perched precariously on the mountain edge. If you have the stamina, tackle the 800 steps and thrilling bridge passes to reach the magnificent craggy summit of Ulsanbwai, a beautiful spine of jagged rock steeped in myth.
- The more adventurous hiker may wish to tackle the park’s highest peak and the third-highest mountain in the country: the Daechongbong Peak of Mt. Seoraksan. Sitting at a height of 1,708 metres this mighty mountain offers surreal rock landscapes and is home to over 50 rare mountain plants and a variety of wild birds. It requires an overnight camp out but there are rewarding views over the park in every direction from the summit.
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