South Korea is a country riddled with mountains – the culture, history and borders on the Korean peninsula are defined by them and South Korea’s capital is no exception.
Mountain views sew themselves into the city’s skyline and urban scenes are unavoidable on a typical days hiking in Seoul. The city is home to one of the few truly seamless unions between urban and natural environments. Here are some short notes I made on my personal experience hiking there:
ACCESSIBILITY AND FACILITIES
Walking out of the Seoul subway and on to the street in Bulgwang, you’ll notice that peppered amongst the typical Korean stores which define the Seoul’s streets – 7, Eleven, endless coffee shops and fast food chains – are countless hiking stores. In Bulgwang hikers are spoilt for choice when it comes to gear. South Korea has an astonishing number of home brands that I certainly have never come across and the streets outside Bulgwang Station are dotted with their storefronts. Kovea, Nepa, Campline and (a clear North Face rip off) The Red Face are just a handful of different hiking brands that you will find here.
Undoubtedly, some of these brands will be better and worse than others – I would personally steer clear of “The Red Face” for obvious reasons. Regardless, just out of the station, I picked up a handy bum bag from Nepa, bought some snacks from the 711 and found the trails within half an hour.
After hiking Bulgwang’s nearest peak, I decided to race back down the trail. This led to me slipping on one of the smooth sandstone sections and scratching my elbow up. Seoul’s trails are so well trodden that a lot of the paths have been worn down to sheer rock in places, which leads to an unforgiving decent. If you don’t want to experience the embarrassment of falling on your back in front of a group of suited up Korean hikers, look out for these rocky sections.
As for difficulty, many of the trailheads in Seoul have maps of the available routes. There you can judge how steep and how lengthy the individual trails available to you might be. In this, the cities trail infrastructure offers a perfect balance between ease of access for beginner hikers and diversity of trails for the more experienced hiker.
Further highlighting the trail infrastructure in Seoul, after leaving the trailhead at half a mile from the station exit, all along the trail I encountered signposts dotted along the way keeping me on track – this was needed at the beginning of the hike as the trails typically join and leave residential streets and lead onto crossroads where one can easily make a wrong turning.
The hiking culture in Seoul is highly varied. It is a scene of contrasts, with geared up hikers scaling the local mountain in groups and casual walkers strolling up the trail in their office wear. You’ll be passed by a power hiking squad of day hikers wearing colourful hiking trousers, jackets and bucket hats and further up the trail you might bump into a casually dressed lady stopping to retouch her makeup.
The contrast between urban and natural mountain views mirrors that of the style of hikers you see on Seoul trails. However, one thing that is consistent is the average age of hikers walking. Of course, all generations use the trail but there is a trend towards older Koreans being the main demographic crunching the miles.
It is the hardcore, pole carrying and bright green daypack wearing groups which the older hikers tend to be a part of too – and they seem to dominate the club scene (although I sadly didn’t stay in Seoul long enough to experience this). Groups gather at the trailheads where gazebos, water fountains, toilets and even shoe washing stations serve the hikers.
These facilities are always well used. Koreans like to relax together in parks and you’ll see hikers eating lunch after a morning hike or stretching and filling their water bottles in preparation for an evening of peak bagging.
That’s something that is immediately evident on Seoul’s trails – the community and the sheer numbers of people who hike the city’s trails. Hiking in Seoul, whether you bump into the casual walkers traversing their local hill or hiking groups, is always busy. The trail is not a retreat from the city but rather an extension of it and the hiking culture reflects that.
Ultimately, beyond worn rocky paths and some steep ascents, you are not going to be challenged on Seoul’s mountain trails. The city offers a network of well-marked, well maintained and well-trodden trails which offer no surprises in difficulty but endless options and beautiful mountain views.