South Korea Sojourns III: Bukhansan National Park
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Author's Note: This is the third in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction, or event within the authorized travelling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture, and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service member, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity is required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.
Some of my favorite novelists, like Henry James, wrote extensively about traveling and its regenerative, liberating powers, while some of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth and Blake, wrote a lot about the beauty and allure of the natural world. Having been on call and working in last week's exercise, I had been on base or its immediate surrounding for nearly two weeks. At the end of last week's exercise, I was excited to get back to both traveling and nature, and set my plans for Bukhansan National Park in Seoul.
It's not often the natural ecology of a national park is so close to a large city, but such is the case with Bukhansan, located in the northern-most part of Seoul and easily accessible by metro and bus. This massive park, with free entry, spans nearly 80 kilometers and showcases multiple attractions, both natural and manmade, including Buddhist temples and the Bukhansanseong Fortress, a multi-mile ancient structure built to stave the threat of invading foreigners.
There are multiple ways to get to Bukhansan. I took the metro from Songtan Station to Gupabal in the northern most part of Seoul. The metro ticket was W2,000 and, even though I travelled nearly the farthest distance I could from South-Seoul to North-Seoul, it took just under two hours. From Gupabal, I took a quick bus ride, which cost W1,100 and got out right in front of the park. It's important to note that, when traveling on the bus, it's good to carry small change, otherwise you'll end up getting W3,900 in W100 coins like I did, which also elicited a few head shakes from the bus operator.
At the bus station I ran into a couple of American travelers. They were looking for Bugaksan Mountain, but since I'd never heard of it I was unable to help. I noticed that even though there were plenty of locals at the bus station the travelers didn't solicit advice from them. This reiterates my point from the last travel story, even with the most detailed plans, something can go wrong and it's absolutely essential to not only have the knowledge of a few host nation phrases, but the humility to ask for help in it.
Admission into Bukhansan is free, but there are parking fees for vehicles. Outside the park there are multiple restaurants, cafes and street vendors in addition to the vending machines all over the hiking trails, so packing food isn't essential, but a frugal option I like to take.
The park itself is beautiful and can provide hours of recreation. Massive trees surround great rocks and trickling waterways, and there are multiple hiking paths to take which lead to three different mountain peaks with scenic and panoramic views of the park and Seoul. Depending on which route a traveler takes, they may run into any number of Buddhist temples or cells, which have been built along the trails.
While the park is a huge attraction for lovers of nature, the real eye catcher is not natural -- the aforementioned Bukhansanseong Fortress, which ridges and spires its granite walls throughout the mountainous terrain. This wall is a prime attraction for tourists and locals alike, and travelers can get easy access to it, with a bus right outside the Gupabal metro going directly to the Fortresses' walls.
Some of the hiking trails are harder than others, but the difficulty of the trails are denoted on guideposts, which are Romanized and tourist friendly. The hardest route I'm told is the Baegundae, but with the proper equipment and preparation nothing on the mountain should be too difficult. If difficulty is a concern, there are easy paths to take as well.
There weren't a lot of hikers when I went to Bukhansan, but it was on a Sunday in winter, notably not the prime season for hiking. I'm told that in other seasons people flock to the park in mass; however, given how large it is overcrowding shouldn't be a problem.
While there is a degree of difficulty in hiking the trails, the sights are stunning for nature lovers, and offer a great chance for travelers to relax and admire the world around them. Wandering up and down some of the slopes I thought of something William Blake once wrote to a friend: "To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself."
A trip to the top and back of the mountains takes a couple of hours. Most of the hiking trails are between three and four kilometers. For the hungry, the restaurants outside of the park will be a welcome sight. I had dinner for W6,000 before taking the bus and metro back home.
Bukhansan National Park is a popular destination in Seoul, and it's easy to see why. For a modicum of money, travelers can access its endless outdoor wonders and view impressive historical Korean structures. One can, without noticing it, spend hours in its liberating and peaceful atmosphere.
Location: Bukhansan National Park
Directions: Songtan Station metro to Gupabal. Take bus outside Gupabal to park.
Total Cost: W12,100. Includes roundtrip travel and dinner.
Time: Sunrise to sunset, but set aside half a day at least to get an adequate experience. Night hiking is forbidden so plan to descale the mountain tops in a timely manner when the sun goes down, it's not only illegal to hike at night, but dangerous.
Documentation required: No ID required.
Who it's for: Outdoors lovers. If hiking, nature seeing and relaxing in the outdoors gets you excited, this park is your scene.
When it's open: Year round, but specific trails are closed on a rotational basis for ecological preservation.
Activity required: Moderate to difficult. Complete homebodies won't enjoy it. There were people of all ages hiking, so there are trails for everyone's ability.
What to travel with: If you plan to take on the hard trails, some additional hiking gear. A good pair of shoes and clothes you don't mind getting dirty is a must. Make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable, and make sure to notify your supervisor and chain of command where you intend to go. Carry enough cash to buy tickets and food from street vendors if desired, as an ATM will be hard to find, but you probably aren't going to the peak of a mountain to look for a cash machine anyway. Enjoy the climb.