Fall Foliage at Seoraksan National Park
Being a New England girl, I love fall and autumn leaves. Alex and I were told that the best place to enjoy Korea’s fall foliage is Seoraksan National Park, on the east coast of Korea. We checked the fall foliage forecast (yes, that’s a thing) and decided to make a weekend trip one week after “peak.” Every time we told any Korean person of our plans, we were given a grimace and look of horror. Traffic into and out of Seoul would be terrible (but honestly, when is it not?). The traffic into and out of the National Park would be miles long. 230 + kilometers (around 140 miles) was too far to drive in a weekend. Well, we were determined to go (it’s been on our bucket list), so we made sure to be on the road by 6 AM on Saturday.
[It’s kind of funny. More than two years ago, Alex and I took a bus to Sokcho (the city at the base of Seoraksan National Park) from Seoul. We were really into hiking back then (we hiked a bunch of mountains around Seoul). But since there was so much traffic (a Saturday on a summer holiday weekend) getting into Sokcho (and then even more traffic getting into the national park), we were only left with a couple hours before having to take the last bus back to Seoul. So, we did a really easy hike and spent an hour at the beach (nothing to write home about, in my opinion) before eating dinner and heading back to Seoul. This time, we had ample time for a good hike, but couldn’t because of Baby M.]
There were traffic cops stopping every car (and sometimes turning cars away) on the road leading up to the national park. Our hotel, the Kensington Stars Hotel, is located right next to the Sogongwon Park entrance (about a five minute walk), so we were able to park at the hotel and walk over. When we arrived at Seoraksan National Park, it was already noon and the big tour groups were everywhere. We ate lunch (vegetarian bibimbap, not bad), saw a few temples, and let Baby M walk around a little. Since it was a cloudy day (and so cold!), we decided to do the cable car ride the next day. (The forecast for Sunday was sunny and warmer.) We checked into our room (a traditional Korean room — heated floor and mats for sleeping), and all took a much needed nap, before walking back to the park.
By late afternoon, the park was pretty empty — probably because it was getting dark, and most day-trippers were catching the last bus back to Seoul. Luckily, we were able to eat dinner at a restaurant inside the park (by 6:30 PM, we were the last patrons at the restaurant, and the surrounding shops/cafes were already closed). We forgot to pack extra food for Baby M’s dinner, so we ordered a seafood pancake (haemul pajeon). It seemed like a mistake because 1). it wasn’t that good (surprising because they usually are good!), 2). at 18,000 KRW, it doubled the price of our meal, 3). we only managed to eat half of it (and regretted it immediately). But, we ate the leftovers on our hike on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we walked back to the park (and purchased new entrance tickets). By 9 AM, the earliest available cable car tickets were for noon! We purchased tickets for 3:30 PM, to allow enough time to do an easy hike. We chose to do a 3.0 km (one way) hike to Biseondae 비선대, because we were told half of it was stroller-friendly and therefore easy. We ended up leaving the stroller in the car (and I’m glad we did). The beginning of the trail was easy (flat, but the trail was dirt/gravel — not exactly stroller friendly), but as we followed the stream further up, the path became rocky, with lots of steps. When we finally made it to Biseondae (huge slabs of rock engraved with famous lines of poetry), the view of the valley below was amazing! We glanced up and noticed climbers scaling the peaks high above us! (“Um… no thanks,” Alex said.) We ate our picnic lunch (the leftover pancake, oranges, and homemade banana-oat energy bars) before heading back down. I wore Baby M in the Ergo on my front on the way up, and on my back on the way down. I definitely got my exercise in, carrying an extra 25 lb weight! It took us about an hour to hike up and only 30 minutes to get back (and Baby M was able to take a nap!).
We started queuing for the cable car about 10 minutes prior to our boarding time (it runs every five minutes), so that we could get a good spot for viewing. Even though we were at Seoraksan a week after “peak” foliage, most of the trees were still green. Alex thinks it’s because there are a lot of evergreen trees, because some of the other trees had already shed their leaves.
The cable car stops at Gwongeumseong Platform, which affords a great view of Sokcho city, the ocean, and the surrounding mountains. After buying a latte at the cafe (it was cold in the shade!), we walked up more steps to the “peak” of Gwongeumseong. The view from here was amazing! (And, luckily it was quite warm because of the bright sun!) We were very lucky to be up there on such a sunny (and calm) day. Sitting on a rock, basking in the afternoon sun, we felt so small compared to the vastness of these mountains! (Side note: there were no rails to prevent people from climbing everywhere — or from falling. This would never happen in the U.S.!)
We were very happy to have had the chance to go back to Seoraksan National Park and see the autumn leaves. All in all, the traffic wasn’t terrible (we did hit traffic around 9 PM on our way back to Seoul) and the crowds were… ok (haha! I guess we expected it to be terrible, so we weren’t surprised. Seoraksan is the place to go for fall foliage). If you have a chance to go to Seoraksan (especially during the fall), do it! You won’t regret it. It is, in our opinion, the most beautiful place in South Korea!!
Seoraksan National Park entrance tickets: Adults 3,500 KRW each **CASH only** The ticket has a time-stamp on it, but is good for the entire day (you can re-enter the park).
Official website outlining park fees (but somehow doesn’t list the entrance fee…): http://english.knps.or.kr/Knp/Seoraksan/Fee/Default.aspx?MenuNum=1&Submenu=Npp&Third=Fee&Fourth=Introduction
Cable car: Adults 10,000 KRW for roundtrip ticket (single way tickets not sold). Children under 36 months free. Youth tickets are 6,000 KRW (through middle school). No strollers allowed (but apparently there is free storage). You can only buy tickets in person, and only for the day of. You have to select a time and you can’t use it for a different time slot. While we were there, tickets were usually sold out until three hours later (for example, at 9 AM, the next available ticket is for noon). At Gwongeumseong Platform, there’s a bathroom as well as two cafes (serving drinks and snacks).
The cable cars stop running during bad weather and strong winds (as is the case today, 11/4/16… I just checked!).
My post from our last trip (in 2014!) to Seoraksan is here: Seoraksan & Sokcho
My review of the Kensington Stars Seorak Hotel:
We chose this hotel because our friend Tricia spent a night there during a conference and recommended it. The proximity to the national park is priceless! We didn’t have to deal with the line of cars/taxis/buses going into (and out of) the park (and we got to park our car for free at the hotel).
It’s a British theme hotel (yeah… we don’t understand it either) — meaning there was a double decker bus parked out front, a bunch of British themed memorabilia, etc. Two-thirds of the rooms are Western style and the rest traditional Korean (ondol heated floor with mats only, no beds). Since I booked last minute, there was only one room left, and it was a Korean room.
Breakfast was fine — nothing special, but there was plenty of Korean food and some Western fare.
My two complaints: 1). The room was TOO hot. We couldn’t sleep. When we inquired at the front desk, they told us it was central heating, so we couldn’t turn down the heat in our room. I literally slept on top of the mat and comforter, and was sweating through my tank top and shorts. (Only later did we figure out how to open the windows…) 2). The front desk receptionist told us check-in was at 3 PM (we arrived around 11 AM). She didn’t even bother to check to see if a room was available or offer to do a slightly earlier check-in. When we checked in at 2:55 PM, Alex joked that they would turn us away! (They didn’t.)