Don and I are officially on the second half of our goal to visit all of Korea’s twenty-one national parks. We were lucky enough to share our latest hiking experience with some of our close friends at our twelfth park, Naejangsan National Park. Although its tallest peak measures at a relatively low 763 meters, don’t let that fool you into thinking this park is for the faint of heart.
Because of our afternoon schedules, we often decide which national parks to visit based on available trains or buses leaving Friday nights. Since the closest town to Naejangsan, Jeongeup, is on the way to Gwangju, we were able to find a train late enough for us to leave after work. After a comfortable 3 hour train ride, we arrived in what we thought was going to be the small town of Jeongeup. Much to our surprise, the skyline of Jeongeup was bright with motel signs. Our guess is that the town has been built up solely due to the parks immense popularity in the fall. Regardless, options are numerous and we quickly found a hotel and settled in for the night.
We headed out early the next morning, catching bus 171 to the small town adjacent to the park. After a thirty-minute bus ride, we got off at the last stop and headed towards the entrance of the park. To get to the entrance, we walked through the town and down the road for a few kilometers. The park has an entrance fee of 4,000 won. Once we entered, we walked for another 2 km or so until we reached the trailhead. Along the way, we passed a cable car that takes visitors up to an observation point high above Naejang Temple.
As we continued our walk and made it to the trailhead, the people seemed to disappear. We opted for the trail that went up to Sinseonbong, as that was the tallest peak in the park. It started off as a lovely path through the forest, running alongside a babbling brook. Unlike many of Korea’s national parks, Naejangsan is covered in maple trees and we could only imagine how beautiful the tree-covered paths would be in the fall, which is the park’s peak tourist season.
After a kilometer of a winding, gradually inclining path, we reached the fork in the trail that takes you to either Sinseonbong or Kkachibong. If I could describe the path from there in one word, it would be rocky. Very, very rocky. The course is labeled as “Advanced,” and the path wasn’t as built up as many of the other parks. Some of the rocks were loose, and others we reinforced with old rebar. With the unstable rocks and steep incline, the path could be quite slippery at times. Stephanie was the only one in our group without proper hiking shoes, but she was a champ and made it up the mountain with no problems.
Another unique thing about this mountain was the sheer lack of people. We encountered maybe 10 other people while on this trail, which is very strange as Korean mountains are usually crawling with fellow hikers. Along the trail, there were several resting places on huge boulders overlooking the valley. The day we hiked was cloudy and slightly rainy, so we couldn’t see as far as you might on a clear day. The views were, however, still quite beautiful from every vantage point.
When we reached the first peak, Sinseonbong, we decided to continue along the ridge to complete Don’s long sought-after loop. This is where the trail became quite slippery due to the combination of rocks and mud. Unfortunately for me, the overly cautious one in the group, the rest of the pack was stubborn and wanted to continue in spite of my protest. I am glad, however, that they pushed me, as the hike was extraordinary. We climbed along rocky ridges with sheer drops on either side, scaled boulders using a rope and whatever we could manage to hold, and struggled down rocky paths that seemed to go on forever. Like I said before, this hike was by no means easy. It ranks in my top 3 most difficult hikes of Korea, and we celebrated this amazing accomplishment with several bottles of makgeolli at the end of the hike.
We took our time wandering back to the train station, nourishing ourselves with some bibimbap and more makgeolli at one of the many restaurants in the small town near the bus stop. The hike took much longer than we expected (5-6 hours), so it was a good thing we didn’t purchase train tickets in advance. There is a train that passes through Jeongeup quite regularly and luckily there were plenty of options.
Overall, the hike was both challenging and fulfilling. We were all surprised by the lack of people, but it gave the feeling that the mountain and valley were all ours. While the park is more popular in the fall due to the magnitude of colors in the changing leaves, we enjoyed the calmness and lack of crowds. Just don’t let the relatively small mountains fool you into underestimating the beast that is Naejangsan National Park.
From Seoul or the surrounding area, trains to Jeongeup are plentiful. Slow trains will cost between 16,000 and 25,000 won while the KTX is a bit more expensive. Once at Jeongeup Station, exit and walk directly across the street. The bus stop to Naejangsan is just past the CU convenience store on the corner. Take bus 171 all the way to the last stop. Exit the bus and walk left through the town to the park entrance. There is also a regular shuttle bus from the park entrance to the cable cars that could save you some time and give your knees a breather. It begins running at 10:00 A.M. and costs 1000 won.