Mountains, Fireworks, & Beaches for Buddha’s Birthday – Seoraksan National Park with Seoul Hiking Group – A sneak peek

Thank you Buddha for being awesome, oh and happy birthday! This weekend I jumped on another night bus with Seoul Hiking Group and took a 15 hour, 25km trek into the mountains before some R&R on the beach. It was another incredible adventure watching the sun rise & fall over the ocean, a Korean mountain rescue, spotting a rattle snake, stunning views and an all around great time. Enjoy this sneak peek, more photos & a video coming “soon.”

Sunrise over the East Sea enroute to Seoraksan's toughest trail - Dinosaur Ridge.

Sunrise over the East Sea enroute to Seoraksan’s toughest trail – Dinosaur Ridge.

A new hiking buddy, Eric, enjoying the stunning views along Dinosaur Ridge, Seoraksan National Park

A new hiking buddy, Erik, enjoying the stunning views along Dinosaur Ridge, Seoraksan National Park

Mountain Rangers descend from a helicopter to help an old Korean man succumbed to heat exhaustion & dehydration along Dinosaur Ridge, the toughest trail in Seoraksan and possibly all of South Korea.

Mountain Rangers descend from a helicopter to help an old Korean man succumbed to heat exhaustion & dehydration along Dinosaur Ridge, the toughest trail in Seoraksan and possibly all of South Korea.

Hapojae Beach in Yangyang, South Korea.  Famous for the "finest sand" in all of Korea

Hajodae Beach in Yangyang, South Korea. Famous for the “finest sand” in all of Korea

Playing with long exposures & fireworks at hajodae beach, Yangyang South Korea

Playing with long exposures & fireworks at Hajodae beach, Yangyang South Korea

Sunrise hike to Hwangmaesan’s Royal Azalea Festival – Seoul Hiking Group

Waking up at 4am is never easy, even when the bed calling your name is Seoul Hiking Group’s big purple bus.  We arrived at Hwangmaesan in the middle of the night as half the group snored away.  Most of us decided to let the cool mountain air wake us up and strolled through the undergrowth.  The sun began peaking out from behind the nearby mountains as our trail took us upward.

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Halfway up the mountain we got our first glimpse of azaleas.  Hwangmaesan was famous for them and a “pink mountain” was advertised but we were wary since azaleas back in Seoul were already starting to fade.  We held out hope but I didn’t think it would be as glamorous as Goeje Island’s pink mountain.

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Lucky for us it was stunningly beautiful!  The mountain was indeed covered with azaleas, unfortunately many of the pink flowes had already fallen from their bushes.  We still enjoyed a stroll among the flowers and a welcome change from the typical hungover mornings that Seoul hands you on a normal weekend.

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Taebaeksan’s Winter Wonderland – Seoul Hiking Group

Taebaeksan National Park boasts a startling 1567m of vertical making it among the highest mountains in South Korea and crowning Taebaeksan as the 5th highest national park.  More importantly its known for being full of snow-capped splendor, a key reason we were happy they got fresh snow the night before!  Seoul Hiking Group set out for another sunrise hike and we were immediately rewarded with the best night sky I’ve seen in Korea.

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Taebaeksan is remote.  Like really remote.  So frigging remote that our bus driver only took 2 hours to get to the region and was rewarded with another hour and a half of weaving through mountain roads.  Luckily that meant a few hundred meters of elevation that we didn’t have to climb oh yeah and we were hundreds of kilometers away from the city lights.  The starlight reflected beautifully off of our snow carpeted path as each branch was illuminated by its snowy coat.

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Donning crampons almost immediately we began the steep climb.  Each step brought out a warm sweat in spite of the frigid temperatures.  The first 2 kilometers were well sheltered; I found myself unzipping my jacket and alternately removing & replacing my hat in a futile attempt to keep from sweating.  Winter hiking can be stunning but if your clothes soak through things can take a sudden turn for the worse.  Hypothermia & frostbite are no joke and you shouldn’t mess around so be prepared with layers.  To keep my temperature down I took off 2 of my 4 layers before reaching the top of the main staircase.

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Our trail looked more like a ski slope than a path and for better or worse the temperature dropped the higher we got.  It meant I didn’t have to worry so much about sweating and kept the layers but my toes and fingers were less ecstatic.  Another kilometer later we caught our first glimpse of the red sun beyond the valley creeping over the mountains in the distance.

It was 6:30 AM, we had another 700 meters of trail along with a decent climb ahead as the clouds rolled in bringing more snow and minimal visibility.  Knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise until nearly 7:30 we were happy to slow our pace and give our legs a rest.

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Frozen brush at the top

Frozen brush at the top

Moments later we reached Janggunbong, the summit most famous for Cheonjedan, the “altar of heavenly fires.”   A handful of Koreans had beat us there and were set up with tripods and doing their best to stay warm with a chilling wind whipping around us from all directions.

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As more of our group reached the summit the clouds persisted at the peak and prevented the stunning views we were promised.  I was debating between heading down for a lower potentially cloudless view when an faint orange glow appeared amid “ooo’s” and “aaaah’s” mixed in with my “holy shit!”  Over the next 30 minutes we would witness a handful of cloud partings.  Just enough for me to capture a short video and snap a few photos.

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top.  What a lifesaver!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top. What a lifesaver!

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Taebaeksan Panorama

Panorama (clicky!)

 

Realizing that I already wanted to come back to this park I decided to head back down to warm up at the temple with some ramen.  Over the next few hours we trekked down the slopes slipping and sliding with childish enjoyment when we noticed a handful of Koreans using massive rice bags as a sled.  I giggled and stole a quick video before the ajjushi came over and handed me his bag!

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I jumped on at the next clear path and started what was by far one of the best experiences I’ve on a mountain.  Sledding down the trail I couldn’t have been happier!  We took turns on a few different trails breaking the language barrier and becoming instant friends!

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Just before our dreaded staircase descent we found them sledding again and were offered a second bag.  Us foreigners promptly joined kids & grandparents for this youthful adventure!   Truth be told this was one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable times I’ve ever been frozen solid and I can’t wait to come back!

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Continuing down the trail we were in awe at the natural beauty of Taebaeksan.  It was hard to believe how we’d missed this on the way up but then again the midnight stars stole our attention and only give off so much light.

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We ended the day eating some traditional Korean food, hanging out at the sauna (jimjilbang) and with a few hours in Taebaesan’s winter festival!  I can’t wait to head back to Taebaek, hopefuly the clouds will behave next time.

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Nothing like a delicious kimchi jiggae to warm you up!

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This is my new favorite winter hike, what’s yours?

Taebaeksan’s winter sunrise – Sneak Peek

After an amazing weekend I was hoping to get all the photos & narrative up but alas its 1:11AM and I need to go to sleep so enjoy this sneak peek from sunrise in Taebaeksan’s Winter Wonderland!

Taebaeksan Summit

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