A Trek Up Bukhansan: Crossing the Tallest Mountain in Seoul

Being as active as we are, we’ve already traveled all over Seoul, searching for things to do. This weekend was amazing as we had quite a bit of fun hanging out with some of our orientation friends. What better way to bond than to partake in the ultimate Korean pastime? Together, we tackled Bukhansan National Park on the northern edge of Seoul. The opportunity was too much to pass up.

Last summer I took a trip to see friends in Colorado and climbed a few mountains while there. Climbing a mountain is exhilarating because it allows you to see the entire horizon. You realize how small you are in comparison to the world. Moreover, the majesty of a mountain is unrivaled. Yes, coming to Korea turned out to be a great idea!

Mountains, Mountains Everywhere: Koreans Love to Hike

I mentioned that hiking is Korea’s national pastime, but I don’t think you understand. In Korea, work-life balance doesn’t exist. Just like all of their rice dishes, Koreans are slowly steamed in the awful pressure-cooker of life until the weekend releases them from its grips. City life in this metropolis of 26 million is so busy and hectic, so a jaunt to a mountainous landscape is a welcome release for many. Moreover, mountains have always been venerated in Korean culture, so now, when they have time, it makes sense that this is where they run.

And they mean business. Koreans don’t take hiking lightly. They buy expensive outfits from hiking outfitters: gloves, headlamps, hiking sticks, and expensive breathable garb. Every student I have talked to hikes at least once a year (even if they hate it). In fact, reports say that 1 in 3 Koreans hike at least twice every single month. Their game is on fire!

As it is my goal to become as Korean as possible this year, I thought a healthy dose of exercise at Bukhansan National Park would do just the trick. Bukhansan National Park is one of the only national parks in the world situated within the confines of a metropolitan area. This park, by square-feet, also receives the most visitors per capita of any in the entire world. In fact, it is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, you know, if that means anything to you.

Getting to Bukhansan

But don’t let me get too much ahead of myself. Danny and I arrived at Gupabal Station to wait for our friends and the bus that would take us to the park. There were vendors around the bus stop selling various foods and hiking conveniences for any who may have forgotten to come fully prepared.

Herds of people arrived, loading onto the bus to go to Bukhansan. We realized just how serious these Koreans were about hiking. Danny and I were in shorts and a t-shirt with a small draw-string bag to carry a few food items and water. Christina and Jady had less. But as previously mentioned, all these Koreans was decked out in hiking gear. We marveled at the ajummas getting ready for their own expeditions. See for yourself.

We boarded the cramped bus and finally arrived. But figuring out which trail to use was slightly confusing for these poor foreigners. Each map we saw had a different orientation. What were we supposed to do? We accidentally ended up on an Expert trail and were wondering why so so few people were on it with us.

Finally, we asked someone to verify where we were, and we were basically told to turn back and let more experienced people do that trail. Oh, silly Americans. We turned around to walk back in shame. Surprisingly, however, as we were coming close to the trail we needed, a group of Koreans stopped us in our tracks.

Strangers with Alcohol?

“How did you know about this trail? It is not traveled by many foreigners! Who is your spokesperson?”

At this point, my traitorous friends all turn to me. Apparently, I was the spokesperson. Of course! Either way, we told them that we had accidentally ventured that way. He proceeded to give us makgeolli (막걸리 or rice wine), saying, “This is for good health and long life! Drink!” So we drank the stranger’s wine. (At this point I’d like to give a shout out to all those adults who told me never to take things from strangers. It worked out great. What do ya’ll know?)

Makgeolli itself, we learned, is the national drink of Korea, and many people like to drink it after climbing to the summit of a mountain. (Is that safe?) So hey, we got the experience a little early. A kind woman in the group continued to give us other food like sliced apples and tomatoes. After grabbing a photo, we continued on our way to climb the actual trail. I’m pretty sure they thought we had climbed that trail and were impressed. Maybe I can get a second job as a trail guide? Opportunities are just opening before me, here.

Climbing Seoul’s Tallest Mountain, Bukhansan

The road was good for a while, but then the actual hike began. A 4.2-kilometer trail up to the peak, Baegundae is the highest peak of this park at 836 meters. The trek was at points easy, at points treacherous and, especially when it began to rain, quite slippery.  A fortress from the Joseon Dynasty sits atop the mountain range with some 16 gates and a fortress wall. I decided after the hike that anyone who tried attacking this place was a nut job.

Bukhansan in Photos: Atop the Northern Mountain of Korea

We got to the top after about 2.5 hours. It was rough. We decided Bukhansan was likelier harder than the mountains in Colorado we hiked at Boulder. It was pretty steep for large sections of the hike, so we were just happy to finally reach the top and stare off into the distance to see Seoul before us. It was a beautiful sight, but I wish the pollution hadn’t been as bad as it was that day. Other days the view is much nicer, I hear.

Koreans were stationed all over the summit with blankets out, their backpacks unpacking a visual smorgasbord of food. Apparently, bringing a full-on meal is traditional too! We were jealous, but we had a Snickers bar to make us feel better.

The trek down was about an hour and we celebrated the end of our day with rice wine, as the tradition goes. My goal is to hike Jirisan, Seoraksan, and Hallasan before we leave. Gotta collect ’em all, right? Gwanaksan lies to the south in my district, so hopefully we’ll do that before the weather turns. Here are those promised photos below.

A view of the different peaks of Bukhansan Range
A view of the different peaks of Bukhansan Range. The mist makes it look mysterious.
Photo of Baegundae, the tallest peak
We were heading to Baegundae, the tallest peak.
View of the trail up to the peak.
Our hike at this point was pretty difficult and required being cautious.
A hazy photo of Seoul from the summit of Bukhansan
Seoul before us. Sadly, it was hazy that day. Hopefully we can do it again on a clearer occasion.
Photo of us at the summit of Bukhansan underneath the Korean flag.
Here we are at the top underneath the Korean flag. What a view! We were happy to have conquered Seoul’s tallest mountain on our first hike.
A photo of me with the landscape view behind at Bukhansan
At least no one pushed me off. That would have been one way to get back down.

What About You?

Do you enjoy Korea’s pastime as well? Moreover, what hike do you think was your favorite? Do you have any advice for the other mountains? I’d love to hear back from you guys. Please comment your experiences below and follow me for more!

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