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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Seoraksan in autumn – Seoul Hiking Group

I love Seoraksan National Park, I hate early mornings.  3 am.  “I can do this!” I thought to myself.

Nope.  I give up, you win this round nature.  I closed my eyes. 5 more minutes was all I needed.  Then I would be ready, after all Seoraksan is famous throughout South Korea for its fall foliage.

The bus slowed to a stop and idle movement turned into shambling zombies slowly rising and departing half asleep.  I willed myself to get up, eyes still closed I peeked with my left.  There was Warren.  No wait.  He was on the other bus.  Gotta channel my inner Warren and get people ready to go!

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Dragging myself off the seat I grabbed my bag and headed into the crisp autumn morning.  Wait, this isn’t morning.  We are here well before the asscrack of dawn.  With any luck we’ll see dawn’s beautiful spectacle from the top of Korea’s 3rd highest peak, Daechongbong.  We started off in the darkness only to find hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Koreans with the same idea.  Never have I ever seen such a traffic jam on a hiking trail!

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Slowly the crowd thinned out as some of us ducked, dived, dipped and dodged our way through the line sneaking ahead only to find the crowd grow dense yet again at the next staircase.  Climbing ever higher the wind began whipping through the leafless trees (at this altitude in mid-October the leaves have already fallen).  A purple-orange hue crept over the horizon threatening to emerge moments too soon.   Forgetting the soreness in my legs I pushed ever onward, stopping only for the occasional traffic jam from 3am all the way until up 1708 meters to the top of Daecheongbong by 6:45!

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Crowded sunrise at the top of Daecheongbong

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My German buddy Peter giving the sunrise a hug from 1708 meters

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What a view!  Last time I tried this hike I was too sore and all too slow.  Yeah this was my second time summiting Daecheongbong but there’s something magical about watching sun rise over the ocean from nearly 2 kilometers up.  Slowly more of our 90 person group wandered to the peak.  We had about a dozen of us up here snacking and snapping away; I knew Jungcheong shelter was just a few hundred meters below and decided to skip a big breakfast at the peak in lieu of warmer conditions.

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Descending is a downright pleasant experience after turning it up to full throttle on Daecheongbong’s steep trails.  We strolled among the branches and rocks and were inspired by Dinosaur Ridge to our right when I suddenly became unsure if my knees would hold out for that exhausting finish.

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Pausing for photo breaks, a few snacks and a regular breather we crossed a river and made it to Huiungak shelter by 9:15 (10am was the latest we could leave if we wanted to attempt Dinosaur Ridge).  Warren and a few dozen of our hiking buddies were waiting and snacking when suddenly Warren told everyone to head to the first peak of Dinosaur Ridge for a picnic.  Up there we’ll have a magnificent view and an abundance of sunshine; the only advantage to Huiungak shelter was a water supply and the ability to buy ramen or canned tuna.

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The steep climb to Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak combines 2 series of rope climbs as we scrambled up the rock face.  In between these treacherous paths lies a narrow, flat, stony walkway.  Here we began to catch some glimpses of fall colors before getting to the final set of ropes.  Pulling hand over hand we ascended to a precipice with a handful of (mostly Korean) tourists and a stunning view.

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Posing at the top of Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak

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Dino Peak Panorama 2

Click for an awesome panorama from Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak

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Geumsan, Namhae Morning Hike – Seoul Hiking Group

Namhae island sports a beautiful array of forested trails so of course Seoul Hiking Group picked the best one for our sunrise hike!  The bus left our sleeping counterparts at the pension at 6am and we arrived at the base of Geumsan shortly after.  The hike began fairly flat through the woods for the first 30 minutes and was a great way to detox from yesterday’s Namhae Oktoberfest and the Jinju Lantern festival two days prior.

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As we neared the mountain the trail grew steeper before we were surprised with a gorgeous cave! Turning around we were awestruck at sunrise peaking over the islands in the distance.  Beneath us sleepy fishing village slowly began waking up on this Sunday morning as we kept climbing.

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A few moments later we found ourselves at a traditional Buddhist temple where we gladly sipped the freshest mountain water I’ve ever had.  Upon refreshing ourselves some remained at this beautiful scene while another handful of our group continued to a few more minutes up to the peak.

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The views from Guesan reminded me of my first trip with Seoul Hiking Group on the island of Saryangdo.  Blue waters surrounding us with small seafaring communities littered the shoreline.  Fall colors enhanced this scene making it even more beautiful than the March island hike that Saryangdo sported.

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Hesitating a few moments more at the shrines of this gorgeous temple we had to turn back down the mountain to catch the bus or run out of time for sea kayaking!