Situated on the outskirts of Seoul, Bukhansan National Park is a local favourite and easily accessible by bus or metro. The most popular trail to the summit is the Bukhansanseong Course which takes around 4 hours to complete according to this Korean National Park website.
After going on a few hikes here in South Korea, I’ve noticed that Koreans are considerably fit. Grandmas were surpassing us… a lot of them too! I have since learned to ignore the specified hike time and to overestimate the amount of time needed to complete a trail.
Storytime – How we almost died twice
We woke up, grabbed some food at the convenience store, and made our way to the beginning of the trail by 8 am. We were going to take the most popular trail until one of us suggested another hike that was more scenic and took us to multiple peaks. We agreed to take this trail since it leads to Baegundae Peak, the highest point in Bukhansan. The path ended up taking us to temples, gates, the fortress wall, and four other peaks.
J: There’s a hike that’s more scenic, and it takes you to many peaks.
B: Sure, how long does it take?
J: 4 hours.
“4 hours,” he said…
It took us 7 hours to reach the last and most well-known peak and then another 2 hours to get back down. What was supposed to be a 4-hour hike turned out to be 9 hours on the mountain. Not sure if the quoted time was for expert hikers with no breaks in between or if we didn’t stick to the designated hiking route. With that being said…
LESSON 1: Familiarise yourself with the hiking route and download or bring a map with you.
We had maps on our phone, so we kind of knew where we were. Although, most of the time it just felt like we were hoping for the best and walked spontaneously in the direction of the intended landmarks.
We started from the Gugi ticket booth area and walked uphills tirelessly for a good hour or two until we reached Bibong Peak. Ascending to the peak was the hardest part of the entire hike. The slopes were as steep as it gets without needing to crawl up the mountain. Every time we turned a corner and thought there would be some flat ground, there were more slopes. When we finally reached some flat ground, we were again presented with more slopes. It was relatively flat once we reached the peak with a few sharp inclines here and there where you had to pull yourself up with a rope.
On the way to the second peak, one of us slipped and started sliding down the mountain for a good two seconds. Now I know that doesn’t sound long, but when you are at the summit of a national park with only amateur hiking experience and no clue what to do if your friend dies, that is two seconds too long. Time felt like it slowed down. The incident unfolded in front of me in slow motion. Loose rocks were rolling down with him as he was sliding. Interestingly, just moments earlier I saw a sign that read “beware of falling rocks”, so I knew to be cautious. I guess my friend didn’t get the memo. Luckily, he managed to stop sliding and got back on his feet.
LESSON 2: Wear proper hiking shoes.
We then ventured deeper into the national park and walked past a few more landmarks. Since we only planned for it to be a four-hour hike, we stupidly realised in the fourth hour that it was going to take a lot longer than previously anticipated, and that we didn’t bring enough water.
LESSON 3: Always bring a lot more water than you need.
We ran out of water on our way to the last peak. Luckily there was a medic located just before the incline to Baegundae Peak. We asked the medic for water. By this time we were getting desperate. We even considered to abandon the climb up to the last peak, and instead make our way off the mountain. They gave us a small cup to share between three since they only had limited supplies (we weren’t complaining, there was even ice!). Not wanting to miss out on the highest peak in the mountain, we started climbing up to the summit. The climb to the peak took us twenty-five minutes. On our way down, we walked past the medic again. I overheard the staff telling another hiker (who also ran out of water) that there was a convenience store five minutes walk down the trail. I excitedly told my friends the good news.
Nevertheless, don’t take any chances and bring more water than necessary. The climb back down wasn’t bad, but it still took longer than we expected. We started hiking at 8 am and got down at 5 pm. Looking back, if we didn’t find the medic or the convenience store, it would have been really unpleasant and possibly dangerous.
Two guys from my summer exchange program hiked it a few days later and also decided to do a spontaneous hike. They ended up getting lost in the national park with no water left and zero battery.
LESSON 4: Make sure your phone is charged and bring a battery pack if necessary.
The two thought it would be a good idea to watch the sunset on the highest peak in the mountain. They ended up trying to make their way down in the dark with just the torchlight on their phones. The two went down rocks that weren’t part of the trail and stayed on the mountain for 13 hours. They, like us, also did not bring enough water. Luckily they came across a local professional hiker who drove them back home.
LESSON 5: Stick to mountain rules. Hiking at night is prohibited. There is no hiking after dark or 2 hours before sunrise!
Overall, hiking Bukhansan has been one of the highlights of my Seoul trip thus far. It is suitable for beginners as long as you take some precautions.