With a long six day weekend ahead of us, Casey and I made plans to visit our three remaining marine national parks: Byeonsanbando, Dadohaehaesang, and Hallyeohaesan. Plans, of course, is a relative term, especially for us because we are not good at them. Generally this lack of strategy serves us fairly well, and this trip was no different until some hiccups on the backstretch. So on an early Thursday morning, armed with a tent, some sleeping bags, and what turned out to be way too many clothes, Casey and I, along with our friend Suzie, found ourselves on a bus to Buan, a sleepy town a little more than halfway down South Korea’s west coast.
Our first stop on the six-day journey was Byeonsanbando National Marine Park. As the only national park located on a peninsula, Byeonsanbando is a unique mixture of coasts and mountains. The coastal parts of the park, referred to as Oebyeonsan, are characterized by beautiful cliffs and beaches, while the mountains, or Naebyeonsan, are memorable more for their beauty and location than for their relatively low peaks. During our two days in Byeonsanbando, we made sure to experience both, heading first for Gyeokpo, a rocky but lovely beach along the East China Sea.
Gyeokpo was immediately surprising as it is unlike most other beach towns in Korea. Casey and I have been to several beaches on both the west and east coast of Korea, and invariably the towns are charmingly run down. Not so for Gyeokpo. I have no idea where the money came from, but someone clearly threw a lot of it at Gyeokpo in an effort to bring in those sweet, sweet tourist dollars. Don’t worry about supplies if you find yourself heading toward Gyeokpo. Restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores are virtually everywhere. Unlike other beach towns that have only one strip of stores and hotels lining the beach, Gyeokpo has a number of blocks, flanked by a few resorts to the north and south, filled with everything you could want
The beach itself is fairly small, but picturesque. On its southern end, tourists can venture out onto volcanic rock and stroll in the shadows of the Chaeseokgang Cliffs. The cliffs are genuinely beautiful and the odd volcanic formations could keep your eyes occupied for a long time. Just make sure you start at low tide because as everywhere on the west coast, the tides move in and out quickly throughout the day, making the cliffs essentially inaccessible from the beach at least twice a day.
Because we were planning for six days of travel, Casey and I opted to camp for a number of nights to cut down on costs. After consulting with a kind elderly woman running a local shop directly behind the beach, Casey and I, with some help from Suzie, set up our tent on the small strip of grass behind the boardwalk, only a stone’s throw from the water. Camping in Korea is amazing. As long as you don’t bother anyone, you can set up camp virtually anywhere for free. Even though our tent was basically parked between a convenience store and a busy restaurant, no one cared that we and a few other groups were sleeping in the middle of town. After we got everything set up, we took a stroll down the coast, checked out the cliffs, and played some cards on the boardwalk. The weather was beautiful, the beer was cold, and the hours flew by as we goofed around until the sunset stopped us in our tracks. Casey and I experienced some amazing sunsets in Honduras earlier this year, but this sunset was strangely mesmerizing. The sun took its sweet time disappearing behind the horizon, giving us an hour long show of colors and waves unlike any we’d seen before. It was, by far, the best sunset we’ve ever seen in Korea and reason enough for you to visit Gyeokpo.
In the evening, we checked out one of the many shellfish restaurants in Gyeokpo. I suspect that most of them are essentially the same, meaning that they’re all equally as delicious. Shellfish barbecue is probably my favorite part of going to the beach in Korea. I love everything about it: the taste, the sassy way the shellfish pop open to let me know they want to be in my stomach, and the sheer variety of things I can eat from the sea. I’d eat shellfish anywhere, but having waves breaking just below your table is icing on the cake.
After a decent night’s sleep on a hard ground in a cold tent, we headed back to the Gyeokpo Bus Terminal, which doubled as a well-used convenience store. We entrusted our bags to an old man in the shop and hopped on a bus inland to Naesosa, a temple nestled below the mountains of Byeonsanbando. Because of the scarcity of buses between the beach and temple, we didn’t actually get a chance to see Naesosa. I assume it was pretty, but because of our tight schedule, we headed right for the mountain trail that begins a few hundred meters in front of the entrance to the temple.
There are a lot of trails in Byeonsanbando and a number of peaks. We chose a trail that led up to Gwaneumbong (424m). The trail was well kept and got rockier the higher it got. Unlike most other national park trails, it was relatively quiet and we didn’t run into many hikers until we were headed down. We only had a few hours to make it to the top, and given the fact that it was a short hike, I thought we would have no problems getting to the peak and back. Walking at brisk pace, we only stopped to enjoy a few of the especially pretty vistas along the way. The sea in the distance paired with the nearly infinite shades of green on display in the mountains in late springtime made it an especially beautiful hike.
As we neared the top, we encountered a number of hairy stretches where we were forced to scramble along a craggy rock face with only a shaky wooden rail separating us from a sheer drop-off. Casey wanted to head back so we wouldn’t have to worry about missing the bus, but I begged her to continue since we were so close. They view from the top was gorgeous, but certainly no more gorgeous from some of the vistas below. While I’m glad we made it to the peak, I learned that day (for about the millionth time), that it’s probably just best to listen to your girlfriend when she says she wants to turn around.
After a quick break, the three of us raced down the mountain. We had about forty minutes to make it back to the bus before it left and we ended up making it with only minutes to spare. Before departing, though, we did pick up a bottle of the local makgeolli from the small village clustered around the park entrance. It came in a really interesting bottle but didn’t taste like much. I guess we just prefer a little flavor in our rice wine. After a quick ride back to Gyeokpo, we picked up our bags, got on yet another bus, and made our way to Mokpo and our next national park.
All things considered, Byeonsanbando was a special experience for us in our national park journey. It was only the second time we’d ever spent more than a day in a park and the first time we’d camped in Korea. With the coast and the mountains, I’m really glad we had the extra time. Usually we’re in and out of the mountainous parks, but it’s a nice feeling knowing you’ve checked one more park off the list while you’re playing on a beach. For whatever reason, the national marine parks of Korea seem to get overlooked and it’s unfortunate. Even if you get to the beach and begin to crave a good hike, the mountains are only a short bus ride away. In fact, visitors to Byeonsanbando would be doing themselves a disservice if they only visited one part of the park at the expense of the other.
The gateway city to Byeonsanbando from the Seoul area is Buan (or Jongeup from the south). You can reach Buan via regular buses from any decently sized bus terminal. From Seongnam, just south of Seoul, a bus to Buan cost 13,000 won and lasted around three hours. From the Buan Bus Terminal, buses to Gyeokpo Beach (the same bus stops at Byeonsan Beach) cost 3800 won. Gyeokpo has its own, highly confusing, bus terminal. Buses to Naesosa run from the Gyeokpo Bus Terminal regularly, as do buses to Buan, Jongeup, and elsewhere. Just don’t assume the time you see is the time a bus will leave. There are multiple companies running to and from the same destinations on different schedules posted on various walls throughout the tiny terminal. The pictures below will give you an idea of the times, but we still aren’t quite sure how in the hell we made it work.