In the northeast corner of South Korea lies Seoraksan National Park. One of the country’s most visited national parks, Seoraksan is known for pristine mountain views, crystal clear streams, and fall foliage worthy of countless Instagram photos. But while autumn may be the most overtly alluring time to visit, each season provides visitors with unique experiences and a bountiful beauty all its own.
History of Seoraksan National Park
Originally designated as a nature preserve in 1965, Seoraksan became South Korea’s fifth national park in 1970. A diverse collection of over 2,000 animal species (including the rare Korean musk deer and Korean goral) and 1,400 plant species call this national park home, leading UNESCO to designate the park a Biosphere Preservation District in 1982.
What to See and Do
As with national parks the world over, hiking and camping are the most popular activities at Seoraksan National Park. And while the park boasts excellent trails and climbing opportunities, you don’t have to be a hard-core outdoor enthusiast to enjoy the natural beauty of Seoraksan. The park also offers day hikes, easy walks, scenic drives, and picturesque temples.
- Daecheongbong Peak: The highest point on Seoraksan Mountain is Daecheongbong Peak, its craggy tip rising 5,604 feet above sea level. The third highest mountain in South Korea and a favorite of climbers, Daecheongbong Peak can be reached from the Osaek Ranger Station in four to five hours up steep inclines of rocks and stairs.
- Sinheungsa Temple: First built in the 7th century, Sinheungsa is thought to be the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in the world. It’s famed for a bronze, 48-foot tall statue of a seated Buddha, known as “Tongil Daebul” (Great Unification Buddha). It has become a representation of the future reunification between North and South Korea. The temple is also the head temple in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
- Geumganggul Cave: Hike 2,000 feet up Seoraksan Mountain from Sinheungsa Temple to reach the jagged Geumganggul Cave. The snug grotto was once used as a worship place and still contains Buddha statues and colorful prayer lanterns. It’s also an ideal place to make a pit stop, as it offers weary hikers a bench and stunning valley views.
- Seoraksan Cable Car: If huffing and puffing up a mountain aren’t for you, shell out $7.50 for the cable car up the side of Seoraksan Mountain. Take in the spectacular peaks (minus the side of sweat) and plunging valleys from the air-conditioned car, and explore the ruins of the 10th century Gwonggeumseong Fortress at the top.
- Biryong Falls: The largest waterfall in the national park is Biryong Falls, which plunges 53 feet into a translucent natural pool. “Biryong” means “flying dragon,” and the waterfall was named after a folk story. Legend has it that long ago, a dragon was sitting on the waterfall, causing the nearby village to suffer a drought. The villagers decided to sacrifice a young woman to the dragon, and the creature was so grateful that he flew up to the sky in thanks, thus unblocking the flow of water.
- Ulsanbawi Rock: One of the most popular sights in Seoraksan National Park is Ulsanbawi Rock. This striking rock formation is comprised of six granite peaks, each two and a half miles across. The hike to the Ulsanbawi peak takes roughly four hours.
Where to Stay
While some people choose to visit the national park on a day trip, the various valleys, streams, and peaks are worthy of longer stays. Plenty of hotels and restaurants are available inside the park's boundaries, allowing visitors to make the most of their time on the trails.
A few of the hiking trails have simple shelters for trekkers, which are basically cabins with bunk beds that provide basic overnight shelter. A bed in a shelter ranges from $4 to $10, and reservations can be made at the ranger stations or visitors’ center. A few campsites are available for an inexpensive (less than $10) and immersive nature experience. Electricity is charged separately, and bedding is available for an additional fee.
If camping isn’t for you, try a love motel. These quirky motels sprang up as a way for young couples to be together in a country with puritanical views on dating but have since become popular with tourists as a cheap (generally between $30 and $60) overnight option. There are also a few three- and four-star hotels around the park, most of which offer restaurants, bars, swimming pools, and other amenities.
Seoraksan National Park is approximately three hours’ drive from Seoul. But never fear if you don’t have a car. Public transportation in South Korea is a travelers’ dream, with myriad options easily accessible and signs often posted in English. To get to Seoraksan National park from Seoul, take a bus from Seoul Express Bus Terminal to Sokcho city, which takes approximately four hours. From Sokcho, local buses run to and from the main park entrance at 30-minute intervals.
Tips for Visiting
- The entrance fee to Seoraksan National Park is approximately $3 for adults. This includes a trail map, which is available in English.
- Korea is well known for its organized and well-maintained public spaces, and Seoraksan National Park is no exception. The park has numerous facilities, including ample parking, clean restrooms, benches, hiking shelters, picnic tables, rest areas, and miles of well-kept trails (many of which are set on wooden boardwalks).
- The main entrance to Seoraksan National Park is called Sogongwon Park, with many hiking trails leading out from there. Some of the most popular include the Biseondae Rock Course, an easy to moderate course that takes two to three hours and leads past Sinheungsa Temple; the Biryong Waterfall Course, a moderate three-hour scenic trail which leads to the storied waterfall; and the Ulsanbawi Rock Course, an advanced four-hour trail to the top of the famed rock formation.
- No matter how hot the temperature, it’s illegal to swim or play in the streams, waterfalls, and natural pools to protect the water quality and environment. It’s also not allowed to remove any natural objects, such as rocks, from the national park.