My Korean friends tell me there is an expression, or perhaps it is a single word, in Korean that means “Fall colors” or “going hiking to enjoy the Fall colors.” It sounds like ka-ul or something like that; they tried to teach me but I am a failure. At any rate, just trust me that there is a tradition in Korea of getting outdoors and up close to all the autumn beauty. It is a thing there, a pretty fun thing.
Our family decided to get in on it. A quick flight on our favorite Korean budget airline* would whisk us out of the tropics and into some crisp air and colorful scenery.
Away we go!
From Seoul we took an inter-city bus to Songnisan National Park and for any serious hiker, here is what comes next: if you are going do this hiking thing Korea-style, you simply, absolutely, must stock up on your supply of makkoli before hitting any trails. This is a non-negotiable. Makkoli is a fizzy rice wine drink and since the primary goal of hiking in Korea seems to be to have a lovely and delicious picnic at the summit, it is inconceivable to start out without this particular beverage.
It is also customary to be fully outfitted in multi-colored tech gear and sturdy boots,** but we were feeling pretty darn pleased that the jeans and sneakers we had in storage for several months still more or less fit (though I suspect we did not do much to improve the reputation of American travelers as somewhat careless dressers. Jeans? For hiking! Horrors. Oh well.)
And we’re off!
This is not our first hiking experience in Korea; we visited about a year and a half ago during the springtime cherry blossom season and that’s when we learned that hiking in Korea is not for the faint of heart… or knees. The slopes are steep, and long.
Behold the slopes of Seorokhsan National Park, which we visited way back in 2015:
Very steep, and very long.
Just when you think there cannot possibly be more to climb, there is another staircase, made of absurdly tall rock steps, for an extra challenge:
On an engineering level, it is certainly impressive.
Apparently if you translate the Korean word for “hike,” it translates to “Switchbacks are for wimps, yo.”
This particular hike took us eight hours. Eight. That was a first for our family, and the kids were rockstars, as usual.
The elation of reaching the top is worth it, though.
(Hey, psst, kids…Try to look elated.)
See that peak way off there in the distance? We started on this bridge and went there and back. Yup, earned that makkoli.
This part of the countryside is known for its varieties of mushrooms, apparently, and a kind of jujube fruit that fellow hikers were eager to share with us. We had thought about purchasing a bag for ourselves before we started out, but the kids were flooded with generous donations of these fruits throughout the hike that by the end I was glad we hadn’t brought along any of our own.
You better believe they load up the local dishes with those guys. Yum.
On day 2 at Songnisan Park, we were pretty sore so we decided not to walk quite as far. The kids just wanted to play in the creek anyway and build pebble dams, and we just wanted to read our books and stroll. Drank plenty more makkoli, though. I mean, there’s no strict rule about having to summit, it’s just required that you drink while out enjoying the ka-ul. Who are we to break with Korean tradition, right…?
In summary: Songnisan gets a thumbs up rating from these travelers and we lift our makkoli glasses to you.
Cheers, Korean hiking trails! It is always a pleasure.
(*About this budget airline: I can’t speak for their other routes, but on this one they take cheapskate to a whole new level. Oh, what was that you said? I’m sorry, did you expect coffee, or tea? …juice? No, silly: your complimentary drink is water. In a little paper cup, not even a full bottle. And just be grateful that we even gave you that…
** There are compressed air hoses at the trail ends so that you can thoroughly clean off your hiking boots. Because God forbid your shoes look as if you have just been out hiking…or something?