South Korea: Bukhansan National Park and Baegundae Peak

South Korea: Bukhansan National Park and Baegundae Peak

Bukhansan from Baegundae Peak

Who would have thought that one of South Korea’s most pristine natural areas was only 30 minutes from the center of metropolitan Seoul?

People who haven’t been there yet, mostly. You can see mountainsides studded with granite domes and blocks from almost anywhere in the city. Seoul’s most prominent sightseeing destinations privilege views of the mountains, which is part of the reason they’re so popular.

Baegundae from Seoul Tower

The principle summit overlooking Seoul pokes out from Bukhansan National Park. It’s the coolest thing I did in South Korea and excluding it from your itinerary is akin to skipping the Eiffel Tower while in Paris (though I wouldn’t blame you for this latter transgression).

Why You Must Hike Bukhansan National Park

Bukhansan Park from the trailhead

It’s hard to wrap your head around a metropolitan area comprising over 20 million people. Hell, it’s hard for me to conceptualize what I had for breakfast most days.

It becomes much easier to understand in terms of elevation – that is, the wider a vista’s berth the easier it’ll be to understand all that’s below.

People on the summit of Baegundae

So, the best way to reckon Seoul for what it is would be to get to the highest point in Bukhansan National Park,

Baegundae Peak – Vantage of a Lifetime

Though Bukhansan’s loftiest set of boulders, the hike to Baegunae is not incredibly strenuous. The whole outing, for my friend and I anyways, was rather casual. We’d purchased a bus ticket to Jirisan for that night and we didn’t exactly get an alpine start. Even scrounging for time, however, we managed to summit Baegundae Peak, the park’s highest point at 2700 feet.

With this I may mislead a tad – my buddy Phil and I were in decent hiking shape from years of expedition-ing and trudging up mountains together. We thought the hike was relaxed but my other friend – decidedly less of an alpinist – struggled near the top. Sadly, we had to leave him behind (and what I mean by that is we wanted to, because he was slow).

The park is almost totally alien from the throbbing sprawl of Seoul. The juxtaposition of urban and natural could not have been more pronounced – hills meander into the distance in every direction from the trailhead. Markers warn of wild boars and even bears.

They’re not friendly. Do not approach.

Our sojourn happened to be in the middle of winter. This didn’t stop anybody, it seemed – the trail was mobbed with hikers, especially near the summit. The forest managed to retain its fall colors even into late January.

There are numerous trails in Bukhansan National Park and they’re all well-marked. Don’t feel the pressure if you don’t want to get up so high and endure the high class-3 scramble near the summit – there is enough going on in the park to satiate both the adventurous and casual hiker.

Seoul’s Highest Point

When gaining the ridge that separates greater Seoul from Bukhansan, hikers encounter a Korean-style fortification gate. The real scramble begins from here. Stairs give way to rocks with fat coils of wire for upper-body support. I’m from Colorado and didn’t mind the climb a bit, but it was clear that some people on the trail were uncomfortable with exposure.

Another interesting facet of the climb? Garden-variety housepets. Dogs and cats roam free here, whether lazing about in tree branches or stalking the summit platform.

The summit was clear of hikers and Phil and I had numerous opportunities to snap some Tinder-worthy photos.

We were soon flanked by a series of other hikers. One was an old man who asked if we’d done the mountain before. After we replied in the negative, he showed us his stats on a hiking app, which attested to the fact that he’d done the mountain fifty times in the past year.

He must have been at least 75.

This was one of the cooler things we discovered about Korea. The elderly population absolutely crushes the hiking scene. In Jirisan, to be discussed later, we got passed up by a group of them decked out in gear that made us look like a couple of lepers. Inter-generational cool is a thing.

The view from the Baegundae’s summit is, as far as I can tell, unique in the world. There’s not another place that offers such a majestic 360-degree panorama of a megacity (if you know of one please tell me in the comments – I want to go). The contrast is stark, but anyone can see how hygienic and well-planned both the city and its adjacent wilderness areas are.

Our buddy finally made it after we’d been on the summit for a while, but he was a little gassed. Alas, we had to make the hard decision to leave him behind again as we rocketed down the mountain as not to miss the bus to Jirisan.

By the time he made it down, he’d decided against another hiking trip and reported that he’d be visiting Busan instead.

I couldn’t quite agree. South Korean hiking had won my heart.

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