Have you ever gone for a walk inside a cloud? And I’m not talking about that time you and your college buddies went to Amsterdam and things got…hazy. I’m talking about the real thing: a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating high above the ground. Don and I were lucky enough to experience this bizarre phenomenon during our visit to Deogyusan National Park. While the cloud coverage at the peak of the mountain didn’t give us the breathtaking views we are accustomed to, it did result in a once in a lifetime experience.
We spent the week watching the weekend forecast with fretful anticipation. We had resolved to hike at Deogysan regardless of the weather, but the idea of climbing a mountain through a thunderstorm was a gloomy prospect. Fortunately, the rain gods saw fit to unleash their fury in the days before, leaving the trails wet, but Don and I dry for the most part. We arrived in Gucheondong (구천동), a village near the Muju Ski Resort, after a 3-hour journey from Nambu Bus Terminal in Seoul. The town was like the Disneyland of national park towns. There was a live band playing to a crowd of families and adjummas (who were awkwardly clapping off-beat as per usual), people setting up camp by the mountain stream, and children and college students engaging in water warfare from a various array of inner tubes. The town seemed to be teeming with activity, which is a rare sight in comparison to some of the other sleepy parks we have visited.
One thing you might not know about Don is that he loves loops. Like really loves loops. Every park we go to, he tries to convince me that the best course of action involves some kind of looping trail. Deogyusan was no different, and I, being the great girlfriend that I am, indulged in his loop obsession. The course we chose would take us to three peaks: Chilbong (1,307m), Seolchunbong (1,520 m), and Hyangjeokbong (1,614 m).
The hike started fairly easy as we walked along a service road beside the river. After about 1.5 km, we came to our turn off point towards Chilbong. The two trails were like night and day. The “path,” if you can call it that, weaved through a forest teeming with life. The lush, green trees made for beautiful scenery, but often covered the trail, meaning we had to pay close attention that we were, in fact, still going the right direction. Though most other parks have clearly marked trails and signage, this particular trail was nothing more than a barely-discernable series of rocks and boulders we were forced to scramble up. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty hardcore, and it really made me come face-to-face with my fear of spiders. It was, however, one of our favorite trails thus far. Sometime, the trails tend to blur together, but this one was definitely unique and will not be easily forgotten.
Upon reaching Chilbong, we discovered that it was little more than a popular hangout for the myriad of insect-life on the mountain. After a short break, we left the dragonflies behind and continued on our way. The next portion of the trail was equally unique. We trekked along the ridge on an overgrown trail. At times, the undergrowth was so thick we could not see our feet as the leaves slashed at our legs, leaving us with a few scrapes to take home with us. It felt like we were in a completely different country, and it reminded us of a time when tigers still roamed the vast landscape.
After about a kilometer, the path ended at one of the many ski slopes lining the mountain. This is where the hike got peculiar. We began the slog up the ski slope, which was not particularly steep, but just enough to really tire out our legs. Soon, the clouds rolled in. It took about 10 minutes for the mountain to become completely enveloped in a grey fog, often reducing our visibility to about 10 feet. There was a strange silence all around us as we continued up the abandoned slope. Occasionally, as the fog would shift, we would catch glimpses of unused ski lifts with their seats eerily shifting in the breezes.
When we neared the top, we could hear faint sounds of old music and voices. Remember that scene in The Shining when Jack imagines a party in the ballroom? Walking up to Seolchunbong was similar to that feeling. Suddenly, figures started to immerge from the fog. While we had only seen 4 people up to this point, people suddenly surrounded us. It was here that we remembered that there was a cable car that conveniently brought people up to the top, allowing them to make a short 600 meter hike to the highest peak. So there we were, muddy and scraped and tired, surrounded by energetic children, women in bejeweled sandals, and old men talking on their cell phones. Oh, and all of this is in a cloud of fog. It was a bizarre experience to say the least.
The rest of the journey to the highest peak, Hyangjeokbong, was on a well-maintained path, suitable for people wearing high heels (I saw a few). At the top, you could really distinguish between those who were tourists and those who had made the climb, mostly by the amount of mud on their body. At the top of the mountain, we got our picture taken and settled down for some snacks and makkeoli. We could see nothing, as we were literally inside a cloud, but we enjoyed our makkeoli and rested our legs. No matter what the circumstances, view or no view, reaching the highest point on a mountain is a cathartic experience. Whatever troubles plague you, for a moment, they are forgotten, and you can just relish in the huge feat you’ve just accomplished. Deogyusan was no different.
The hike down was much easier than the hike up. The trail we chose was apparently more commonly used than the one we took up the mountain, complete with functional stairs and clear signage. It was refreshing after all the oddities we encountered on the way up. The trail spit us out at Beangnyeon Temple, a quiet little complex tucked onto the mountainside. There we met a few Korean men who were slowly making their way up to one of the shelters at the top. They insisted on taking pictures with us and sharing some Pocari Sweat, and unfortunately named but pretty delicious sports drink.
From the temple we still had an additional five plus kilometers to walk back to the park entrance. The walk was mostly along a paved road that ran parallel to a beautiful mountain stream. In a lot of ways, this was the hardest part of the hike. You’d like to think that once you’ve climbed up and down the entire mountain you’d be done, and usually that’s exactly what your brain does. We got to the bottom, threw in the towel, and then still had to walk for another forty-five minutes. But we made it. We always do.
Upon making it back to Gucheondong, seeing the manliest Korean dude ever, and high fiving our newest accomplishment, we found a nice mountain restaurant that served samgyeopsal (thickly-cut Korean bacon) and a local variety of makkeoli called cheon-seol-ju. The meat was exactly what we needed after our long day, that and some soju. After dinner we wandered around until an old lady totally strong-armed us into renting a room in her hotel. It wasn’t the nicest place we’ve ever stayed, but we had to admire her hustle.
Deogyusan wasn’t the most beautiful park we’ve been to, but in many ways it was the most memorable. The village was busier than any we’d ever seen; the trails made us feel like we were actors in a Vietnam war movie more than day-hikers enjoying a stroll; and the cloud at the peak made sharing our celebratory drinks an experience that Don and I will cherish for a long time to come. In every way possible, Deogyusan reminded us why we’re doing what we’re doing. It just makes us feel good.
From Seoul, you’ll need to take an intercity bus from Nambu Terminal, located just off the orange, number three subway line, to Muju. Buses leave five times a day (07:40, 09:20, 10:40, 13:40, 14:35), cost 13,400 won, and take about two and a half hours. Tickets can be reserved from busterminal.or.kr (no English service). From Muju Terminal, take a bus to Gucheondong. They leave regularly. Alternatively, if you’re an early riser, grab the 7:40 bus from Nambu Terminal and take it directly to Gucheondong for 17,600 won. Buses leave from the bus stop in Gucheondong regularly to several destinations including Seoul (1:40) and Daejeon (seven times daily).