Hiking the Highest Peak in Seoul at Bukhansan National Park

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops—
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
layered pinnacles aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
– Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains”

I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a national park that was so close. It still took about an hour to get to Bukhansan National Park from my apartment — the park is on the outskirts of the city and requires taking a 20-minute bus ride from the metro station. Nonetheless, I was determined to get to the park and hike, even if I did wake up a bit later than I should have. It was a good excuse to test out my new hiking shoes — my Columbia shoes were wearing thin and not capable of the occasionally slick rocky trails.

First view of Bukhansan National Park

Getting to Bukhansan National Park wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be. There was a tourist information booth just outside the station, and they gave me a list of buses I could take and told me where to get off. It helped that the bus announcements were also in English.bukhansan stream

I wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped that the trail signs in the park would be better than the ones at Yongmasan and Achasan. Fortunately, the signs were much better, though without a trail map it was a little more difficult deciding with trail to take. I was, again, lucky — I chose the trail that I wanted without actually knowing that it was the one (sometimes it pays to follow the crowd).Bukhansan

I figured it wouldn’t take long to follow the trail that claimed to be only 4.5 km (I’m not sure how they measure distance around here, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t take over two and a half hours to hike that far). It took a strenuous two and a half hours to hike up Baekundae, which at 2,744 ft is the highest peak in Seoul.

View from atop Baekundae

The more than 30 sq. mi. that encompasses Bukhansan was established as a national park in 1983. Its history dates back almost 2,000 years when the first fortress was built in the mountains. A nearly 6-mile defensive wall was constructed in the mountains, but was partly destroyed during the Korean War. According to some of the historic information posted along the trail, the region was used to discreetly move weaponry through the country — I can only imagine the difficulty of lugging all that equipment up the mountainside.

Bukhansan wall
One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

The mountains in Bukhansan National Park are beautiful. Rocky cliffs greet hikers as they wind their way up. On other peaks, I watched more adventurous visitors scale the rocky mountainsides — park rangers ensured that all rock climbers were fully prepared prior to attempting the climbs. I enjoy hiking, but I’m not up for rock climbing.

Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

The main trails are well maintained — I doubt there’s a specific trail for those brave enough to scale the cliffs — and there are even stairs in some places (more worn and natural stairs are in other areas, but they can be a bit slippery).

Baekundae Trail
It’s not THAT steep

The trail leading to Baekundae started out fairly easy for the first hour, but gradually increased in difficulty. Toward the peak, it was a scramble up a near 70-degree slope. The way down is much more difficult, but there are ropes and cables that are firmly implanted in the rock to ensure that hikers don’t fall all the way down the mountainside.

Just roll me down the mountain instead

The peak was crowded. Most hikers stopped there for a long rest and a picnic. I love that the Korean concept of appropriate hiking provisions includes bottles of soju, beer, and makgeolli. I enjoyed a beer from a convenience store when I returned to the town on my way back to the bus.

Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

The only downside to the hike was the weather — the haze obscured the views that are still spectacular on such days. If I move back to Korea, I’ll have to take the hike again on a clear day. The air cleared up a bit as I reached the summit, so it turned out alright for the day.bukhansan

My new hiking shoes held up quite well in Bukhansan — the lack of tread on my old pair would have probably meant my demise, or at least a broken bone or two. Had I arrived earlier in the day, I would’ve tacked on a few other short trails, but I was tired and hungry (the humidity didn’t help much). Despite only hiking for about five hours, my legs were quite sore the next day. Even after sitting down on the subway, it was rather difficult to stand up again (I also fell asleep on the train for a bit).

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