It surprises many to learn that South Korea has an astonishing 22 National Parks protecting diverse areas of the country’s landscape and wildlife. Three of the most well known are Bukhansan on Seoul’s borders, Seoraksan in the north east, and Songnisan in the central heartlands. ‘Songnisan’ roughly translates as ‘remote from the ordinary world’, and there is something otherworldly about its mountain-scapes and rolling slopes. Further north, Seoraksan evokes vivid images of snow-capped mountains and craggy peaks shrouded in ethereal mists, or hillsides awash in a sea of glorious red, yellow and orange leaves.
The remote mountains of Songnisan reach a climbable 1,000 metres high, with trails leading from its gingko-lined lower roads to its tree-covered summits, and views to inspire. Summer clouds catch in the valleys creating an atmospheric layered effect, the leafy pyrotechnics of autumn are akin to a natural firework display, and spring brings displays of beautiful, brilliantly-pink azaleas. Songnisan is all about the hiking - sometimes referred to as the Chungbuk Alps, the mountains here are not too taxing for those with fair levels of fitness. The summit of Munjangdae, for example, is a relaxed three hour hike from the Buddha at Beopjusa. After a Songnisan hike it’s customary to refuel on pajeon savoury pancakes washed down with makgeolli, a sweet, alcoholic tipple.
Sitting directly, and somewhat surprisingly, on Seoul's northern edges is one of the country’s most spectacular National Parks. Bukhansan’s rocky landscape is dominated by the distinctive silhouettes of Bukhansan Mountain in its south and Dobongsan Mountain in the north, both of which dwarf the many skyscrapers in the city below. Surrounded as it is by built-up areas and urban sprawl, Bukhansan National Park feels like an oasis, touching the city’s outskirts yet enclosing a completely different world. Its proximity to the capital makes it one of the most popular hiking destinations in the country, with countless trails weaving their way through the forested hillsides and to the summits of the magnificent peaks.
Seoraksan contains South Korea’s highest peaks and some of its most beautiful landscapes. Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Protection site, the park is home to abundant wildlife, rare plant life, dense forest and ancient Silla-era temples. Its rugged crags and oddly-shaped rock formations give the park a fairytale feel, offering a mix of gruelling hikes up mountains, short strolls to waterfalls, and pleasant walks to caves and temples. However, you don’t have to trudge the trails to enjoy the views: just beyond the Seorak Dong entrance to the park is a cable car that rises through the mists to the higher slopes. Although a little further off piste, Inner Seorak receives fewer visitors than the outer regions, and is worth the trek for uninterrupted tranquillity.