At 836m height Bukhansan may not sound like the most impressive mountain to hike however should you decide to venture up Seoul’s tallest peak you may find that this modest figure bears no correlation to the beauty and wonders that this mountain has on offer.
Bukhansan or Bukhan Mountain (“san” means mountain in Korean) is part of a natural area inside the perimeter of Seoul’s circular road. This natural wonder is known as Bukhansan National Park; one of Korea’s many designated national parks covering 79.92 sq. KM.
It is no wonder that it feels so special: this beautiful mountain, visible from many parts of Seoul, stands defiantly inside an ultra modern capital city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people.
Getting to the start of the trail is as easy as going anywhere in town: jump on the metro, ride a few stops, do a short ride on a local bus and within the length of an average commute for a city of this size you can unwind and let nature unfold around you forgetting that that this is just on your doorstep.
It doesn’t take long to start appreciating the beauty of this place: even a stroll around one short section of the main marked trails is enough to appreciate its uniqueness.
As for us we were on a specific mission.
We reached Baegundae peak on a late Sunday afternoon. The light from the lowering sun typical of this time of the year was already bending into long shapes around the mighty granite blocks.
The close-by rounded cone-shaped slightly lower peak visible towards the East from where we were standing was dotted with people in bright and colourful gear and hard hats; some standing at the top others hanging from ropes while making their way back down towards the tree canopies a few hundreds meter below.
Suddenly the hard-ish last hundred meters scramble we made to reach Baegundae peak, that last part of the trail marked for experts on a map, seemed so trivial compared to what those rock climbers were doing; despite the earlier sight of a rescue helicopter I secretly wished that I was too hanging from one of those ropes, it really looked fun to me; but as I looked quickly down again towards the way we came from I immediately felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
We had finally made it to the very top and it felt good.
I slowly looked all around me and below, taking the amazing 360 view in. I wanted to really stick it into my head. I knew that the photos would do this moment no justice.
While no city noises seemed to reach us, from the peak, now that we were clear of the trees and the beautiful autumn foliage, the city and modern civilisation that we left some 3 hours before was again visible in the distance at the foot of the mountain.
One of my worries prior to visiting Bukhansan on a Sunday in autumn was the likelihood of finding myself engulfed in a people jam. With an average of 5 million hikers per year and a record for being the national park attracting the world’s highest number of visitors per square foot we were not expecting to be on our own and indeed we did encounter a number of fellow hikers in their typically brightly coloured gear on the trails, yet this was nothing near the horrors that I had imagined or some of the images that I had previously seen online. I am not sure if we were lucky because of our timing.
Having reached Jeongneung Bukhansan NP visitor centre at the start of our chosen trail at 1pm we had all along been well behind our originally planned schedule. By the time we reached Baegundae peak it was already 4pm; we knew we did not have much time to spare on the mountain if we were to get out of the trails before darkness.
It was really hard to leave the magnificent view behind. Reluctantly we started our way down and decided to take a different path. Half way through, when the darkness was already starting to encroach we realised that we had unwittingly picked what is apparently marked as a hard course.
So it was, the way down from Baegundae to Bukhanseong Information Centre requires a continuous negotiating of irregular steps and rocks. This trail is a lot shorter than the trail we took on the way up but of course shorter means a straighter line to the bottom which when you are on a mountain only means a steep slog down.
While there was no scrambling, it was certainly hard on the knees however once again it was not short of beauty and when the still quietness of the deserted trail was suddenly interrupted by the rhythmic bells of the nearby temple I became hypnotised.
If it wasn’t for S.’s focus in making it down quickly before darkness I would have fallen for the call in the same way Ulisse would have done with the Sirens’ had he not been tied to the mast. Once again S. was being my mast, steering me back to the practical and objective where I am overpowered by the senses and the poetry of the moment.
I was grateful that by the time it was dark we had reached a paved mountain road, though we were not at the end yet.
It felt like an eternity, mostly because we had no idea where we were wondering to in the darkness, however eventually we reached Bukhaenseong Collective facilities area.
All the sudden it was as if we had landed into some alpine skiing village. The bright lights of the mountain gear shops were lighting the roads just in front, the car park was almost empty and a few people were sitting at the restaurant tables.
Within a moment the spell was broken and we were whizzed back into civilisation; that is the magic of Bukhansan.
Physically tired but totally recharged I reflected on this last experience. What a beautiful way to spend a Sunday in Seoul.
If you are looking for some practical information just scroll down below the photo gallery. More photos will be eventually posted on my Flickr Account.
Useful info about hiking Bukhansan:
Which trail: there are many trails with different levels of difficulty and lengths and many entrance points. See the Bukhansan National Park website for some of the options. I managed to get a nice map from the Bukhansan NP Visitor center at Jeongneung.
To get there: again there are many trails and many starting points. We started our trail from Jeongneung Information Center; to get there we went to Gireum Metro station (Subway line 4) and from exit 3 we caught a bus (Bus 110B or 143 to the last bus stop).
We finished our hike at Bukhansanseong Information Center. When we arrived it was evening so we did not visit the actual visitor centre but this looked like a main entry point into the park. Bigger than Jeongneung. To get there go to Gupabal Station (Subway Line 3), Exit 1 and take Bus 704.
The path form here up to Baegundae is shorter and steeper than the path from Jeongneung.
You need good hiking shoes with grip, especially for the last section up to the peak as this requires going up a flat granite rock (rails are available for support but some level of fitness is required).
If you do not want to hike to the summit of Bukhansan there are many paths and trails that go around it as well as up to other peaks. There is a passport scheme for the Dullegil trail (a circular trail around Bukhansan) which enables you to cover the trail over several hikes and get stamps for each of the completed trails (show photo taken at trail photo point as proof). We plan to do that at some point. You can get maps, hiking passport and completion stamps at the main Bukhansan NP Information Centers.
If you are interested in rock climbing I have seen online that Sanirang Alpine Networks offers some programs in English as well as Ice Climbing. I may try that at some point in the future.
Take: water, good shoes, some snacks, maybe a kimbap and don’t forget your camera.
Details of our hike
UP: Jeongneung Information Center > Daeseongmun Gate > Bogungmun Gate > Yongammun Gate > Winmun Gate > Baegundae Peak (3 hours with a short snack break and photo stops)
DOWN: Baegundae Peak > Winmun Gate > Gaeyeon Falls > (start of paved road) Muryangsa > Daeseomun Gate > Bukhanseong Collective Facilities Area (1.5 hour keeping a rather sustained pace).