“Just a half kilometer to go!”
That was Bob, a Korean I had met only an hour before while collapsed and out of breath about halfway up Yeong-bong. His name really wasn’t Bob, but he told me I would never remember his Korean name, and, as it turned out, he was right. Bob had become my own personal cheerleader, bounding up the mountain and shouting down words of encouragement, egging me ever closer to the summit, although, at times, I wished he would just shut up and let me lie down in the dry leaves for a nap. But Bob wouldn’t have that; he was quite adamant that I reach the top.
What Bob had left out was that this last half a click was nearly vertical, an endless string of staircases protruding from the rocky cliff face at angles so steep it was easier to pull yourself up the next step with your hands. To make matters worse, no matter how much I sucked it up, I couldn’t stop from being passed, time after time, by little old Korean women armed with visors and hiking polls, scampering up the staircase like it was nothing more than a subway escalator.
If the Korean conflict is America’s forgotten war, than Woraksan National Park is Korea’s forgotten park. Sandwiched between the more popular Songnisan and Sobaeksan National Parks and lacking the captivating beauty that has turned Seoraksan into Korea’s hiking mecca, Woraksan has passed largely under the radar even though it’s only a three-hour bus ride from Seoul.
My day had started in the village of Songgye-ri, which provides easy access to Yeong-bong. The climb began effortlessly enough, a gentle incline following a picturesque creek, only to escalate into a full-scale assault on my thighs. Within an hour, I was exhausted, sprawled out on the trail floor and seriously considering turning back. It was in this state that Bob and his friends from Seoul found me.
“You’re almost there. Just a few more steps.”
I looked up to see Bob standing on a boulder. “The top?” I asked between strained breaths.
“Yes, it’s the top.”
As I reached the last step, I unstrapped my backpack and collapsed against a semi-flat rock.
“Here you go,” said Bob, handing me a candy bar.
“That’s it? That’s my reward for making it up this mountain?”
“You also earned the right to drink soju tonight.”
Soju is Korea’s national beverage, similar to sake but less refined. It’s cheap, strong, and guaranteed to give you a killer hangover. “I didn’t need to climb this mountain to drink soju,” I replied, slightly irritated.
“But it wouldn’t be as satisfying, trust me.” Bob offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet. “The view is also pretty good from here.”
He wasn’t kidding. From atop Yeong-bong, the province of North Chungcheong extended to the horizon crisscrossed by deep gorges and jagged peaks. It was so unlike the Korea that I had come to know: the Korea of crowded cities, urban sprawl, and rice paddies.
After taking in the view and snapping a few pictures, Bob and I took an alternative route down the mountain passing a Buddhist temple and other relics of the past, eventually, arriving at the town of Deokju at the foot of Yeong-bong. We quickly settled into a traditional Korean restaurant, seated on the floor in a large hall with other weary travels. The soju began to flow, and the conversation was lively, but I didn’t stay too long. Having survived Yeong-bong, I felt confident and wanted to get another hike in before heading back to Seoul the next day.
Woraksan National Park is full of trails, and while most visitors head for Yeong-bong, there are dozens of other options. This makes Woraksan one of the few places in South Korea where one can actually “get off the beaten path” without leaving the trial. It also makes viewing wildlife a real possibility. Woraksan is home to numerous species of birds, deer, and the goral, an antelope-like goat that is endangered in Korea.
The next day I decided to tackle a less challenging mountain, Bukbawisan. As dawn broke over the Sobaek range, I made my way to the trailhead. It was another steep climb but nowhere near as growling as the previous day. Walking through the forest listing to the rapid tapping of a woodpecker and the sound of leaves rustling in the light breeze, I realized that I was finally alone.
After I reached the crest, I sat down on a rock and took in the view. It was mostly the same as the day before, but something was different. I was no longer part of a sea of humanity that seemed to break itself against the mountains of Korea in its excitement to reach the top. I was just a single drop of water, the only drop of water, humbly suspended above the peaks, a spectator to the beauty and power of nature.
In a country where just a few square meters of privacy is at a premium, to have several kilometers to oneself is truly a luxury. Woraksan may not be the most spectacular national park, but it affords visitors a chance to have their own little piece of Korea and, perhaps, see the country as it once was.
If You Go
Woraksan National Park can be easily accessed by taking a bus from Seoul’s Cheongnyangni Station to Danyang. Buses are frequent and pass through both Deokju and Songgye-ri. You may want to inform the bus driver of your destination to avoid missing the stop. There is a park ranger post in Deokju and an information center at Songgye-ri where visitors can pick up trail maps. Trails in the park are well marked. Yeong-bong (1097m) takes about three to four hours to climb if one is in reasonable health. Remember to allow another two hours to descend the mountain. The trail from Songgye-ri is significantly steeper in places than from Deokju. As an alternative, Bukbawisan (722m) can be summitted in less than two hours from Deokju. There are a sizeable number of restaurants and accommodations at Songgye-ri and Deokju with a private room in a hotel costing around $30 to $40 a night. A cheaper option is to stay at a campsite (about $2 a night).