My friend Cody and I arrived in Sokcho around 2 p.m. on Saturday. Both of us were tired from the long bus ride, but we set our fatigue aside to venture into the stunning Seoraksan National Park (설악산국립공원); Korea’s first national park. After dropping our bags off at our hostel, we caught a bus and set out.
As we grew closer, I saw familiar sights: a bridge crossing the river coming out of the park, the campground where my friends and I stayed two years ago, the craggy, granite peaks of Ulsanbawi (울산바위) rising into the mist. Had it really been almost 3 years since I first came to Korea?
It was already nearly 3 o’clock. Limited daylight being a factor, we knew we had to start the hike right away. I had several flashlights just in case, but hiking a steep trail at night wasn’t an option we were keen on. So, we paid the admission fee and headed straight for the Ulsanbawi trailhead.
The path meandered through the park entrance, past the cable car to Gwongeumseong Fortress, past the massive Buddha, and past Sinheungsa Temple. Finally, the trail began. It started easily enough. A well maintained, gentle incline followed a riverbed into the hills.
Soon, however, the climb began in earnest.
The climb to Ulsanbawi is notable for having over 800 steps, some of them on staircases bolted to the cliff face. Mid-way, hikers can visit a small hermitage built around a cave sanctuary. Outside, a massive rock balances precariously over the path. Many people have tried to topple it (presumably onto a friend they didn’t particularly like), but none have succeeded. Behind the hermitage, petroglyphs are etched into the rock face.
After a brief respite at the hermitage, we carried on. The stone steps wound through the forest, passing the occasional viewpoint. We were surprised at just how quickly we ascended. The first viewpoint afforded us stunning views of the valley and the peaks encircling it. Gusts of wind buffeted us so badly it was difficult to take a picture–even to stand. My glasses almost blew off my face once when I turned my back to the gale.
A little further on, I noticed something on the trail and stopped dead in my tracks. “Woah, woah, stop!”
Cody stopped and I pointed at the trail ahead.
Moving slowly across the path was a viper maybe two feet long, thick and powerful as it wound its sinuous way along. Its triangular-shaped head swayed back and forth as it went. My pulse was racing; my mind was going back to that day in Mongolia when I nearly stepped on a Halys Viper two days before going home. Poisonous snakes scare the daylights out of me.
Once the danger passed, we resumed climbing. The trail emerged from the tree cover and we staggered under the onslaught of the wind. As we climbed up metal steps and clutched the railing for support, the wind blasted against our backs and drove us relentlessly forward. After several more close calls with my glasses, I chose to take them off and rely on my crappy eyes to discern the path in front of me. I paused to slip them on occasionally, so I could fully appreciate the magnificent views unfolding around me.
At the summit, a small shack afforded a park employee some small measure of shelter from the howling wind. The gusts whipped over the peak with vicious strength, snapping the Korean flag anchored to the railing and causing the clouds to flee across the sky.
To our right, a green valley marred by the occasional resort stretched–a brilliant rainbow arcing over it.
In front of us, the impossibly stacked spires of Ulsanbawi stretched like the spine of a gargantuan dragon. Legend has it that Ulsanbawi is actually from the Ulsan area (hence the name). It journeyed north to welcome Geumgangsan, but arrived too late. Dejected, it headed back south, pausing to sleep in the Seorak area. So beautiful were its surroundings that it elected to stay; forever.
To our left, a narrow valley divided us from another ridge of peaks. Then, above…
Above us loomed clouds both brilliant and ominous, roiling and shifting as the mighty wind stirred the sky. A river of mist flowed through the air–racing down the opposing ridge and up the sides of Ulsanbawi, only to be hurled from the summit to crash into the valley below. It felt as if we were minnows in a river, struggling to look the leviathan in the mouth as the current nearly swept us away.
We stayed there for nearly an hour. Several times, the wind actually blew us from our feet and drove us to our knees (or butts). We took so many pictures, both of the breathtaking landscape and elements before us and of ourselves struggling under the fury of the wind.
We made excellent time. So excellent, in fact, that we were able to stop and explore the temple we’d blazed past on our way up.
Set against a glorious backdrop of rugged peaks, the temple grounds are picturesque and serene.
Our walk back to the bus stop was slow and reflective. We talked about many things, but conversation always drifted back to the epic hike we’d just finished. The view, the clouds, the rainbow, the winds… that freaking snake.
From Sokcho, take the 7 or the 7-1 bus south and east. The last stop is the park entrance, so it’s hard to miss. The bus fare is 1,100 won. The last bus heads back to the city around 9 p.m.
Want to check out Seoraksan for yourself? Check out this great Seoraksan and Nami Island Day Tour offered by Trazy for a stress-free, fun experience!