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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Seoraksan: getting to Dinosaur Ridge

Dinosaur Ridge, the name alone tells me that Seoraksan’s main ridge will likely be my favorite hike in Korea.  After a 3 am start I found myself at the first of MANY peaks just before lunchtime and suddenly wasn’t so sure.  But there I go, getting ahead of myself again.

A few weeks ago I hopped another midnight bus with Seoul Hiking Group (Thanks Warren, Breanne, Tom, Ashley and the other helpers!).  A few short hours later we awoke at 2:30 in Seoraksan National Park; gates opened at 3:00am sharp so we got in the line with 100’s of Koreans.

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Yes, you read that right.  At 3am there were literally 100’s of Koreans lined up to hike this amazing trail.  The moon shone nearly full above and when the figurative bell tolled we “sprinted” up the steps.  Okay, so maybe 100’s of people clamoring along rocky steps with an absurd incline isn’t exactly sprinting.  It wasn’t too bad in the pitch black outside of the occasional ajusshi”forgetting” that their headlamp was on when they blinded you.

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3am start in Seoraksan

After a few hours of darkness we found ourselves on what we could only assume was the first ridge.  The view below eerily brought images of the River Styx with dark clouds floating through shadowy valleys to my mind.  Suddenly the moon came out from hiding behind the clouds.  A little illumination was all we needed to begin making out the stunning greenery below.  The muted colors pushed us onward promising a better view in the coming hours._DSC2949 _DSC2924

Stars and a magnificent moon provided enough light that we began switching off our headlamps.  Or was that the sun creeping over the ridge ahead?  Either way the scene kept growing around us as the climb settled down.   The first push upward was rough but along the ridgeline the elevation changes were minimal.

 

 

 

 

Reds, and oranges crept over the Eastern horizon mixing with the deep blue above Donghae (동해.)  The sun began illuminating what Koreans refer to it as Donghae (East Sea) while most maps label the beautiful body of water as the Sea of Japan.

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Dusk in Seoraksan

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1 ajusshi, 2 ajusshi, red ajusshi, blue ajusshi

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We continued our trek as that orange glow spread through the mountains and trees before us.  The trail shone wonderfully as a few small climbs created a small bottleneck.  We welcomed the respite happy for a water break and a moment to enjoy the growing scene beneath us.

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Sunrise in Seoraksan

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Dusk in Seoraksan

The sun now climbing above its first hand we soon found ourselves at the first rest stop.  This lodge lay just beneath Daecheongbong, the tallest peak in Seoraksan.  Gauging our time my group decided to save Daecheongbong for another day, we took a quick pit stop to refill our water before taking the fork back towards Dinosaur Ridge.

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Korean Sunrise over Donghae 동해, the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan) in Seoraksan National Park

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Hiking one of Seoraksan’s ridgelines

Back on the trail we caught our first glimpe of Dinosaur Ridge!  Well, we thought it must be Dinosaur Ridge anyway.  Now well into the morning hours the true beauty of Seoraksan presented itself for us to take in.  Breathtaking views were all around us with endless mountains to the west, spectacular ridges, the East Sea and Ulsanbawi in the distance!

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Our first glimpse at Dinosaur Ridge!

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Jirisan: the ascent – Seoul Hiking Group

Getting on a bus at 10:30pm to wake up at 3:00am for a hike might not be most people’s idea of a great weekend but with Jirisan on the mind it sounded great to me!  I met Warren, Breanne (shoutout to you and the rest of the helpers cause you rule!) and the rest of the day’s crew at the bus; promptly fell asleep and woke to find myself entering Jirisan National Park with Seoul Hiking Group. The climb began in pitch black with numerous head lamps and flashlights.  I lent my extra torch to a rookie hiker after strapping my own head lamp on.  Jirisan is South Korea’s highest mainland peak (bested only by Hallasan on Jeju Island).  With my first starry sky in all too long I could quickly tell the way crazy morning would be worth it._DSC2425 The steep hike brought us higher and higher and by our second water break the birds began to sing and the black night reced, turning into deep blue as dusk showed its head.  Misty hills now visible in the distance, we kept climbing. _DSC2451 _DSC2431 Another hour and the sun began to crest with an orange glow.  The beautiful valleys below finally illuminated for a picturesque landscape.  The sun also revealed our daunting goal, Cheonwangbong, Jirisan’s illustrious highest peak! _DSC2467 _DSC2483 Stowing our headlamps and my tripod the hike kept going.  Our climb grew even more difficult as the rocky steps gave way for staircases and the occasional pole/rope series to pull ourselves up. _DSC2486 _DSC2479 _DSC2503 _DSC2504 We took regular breaks for our legs and delicious mountain water gave everyone a chance to get to know our fellow hikers.  The shining sun and light hearted spirit that nature brings out made the strain of the climb dissipate as we shared our hiking snacks and pushed upward! _DSC2507

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