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