Korea's winter wonderland
The last of the golden leaves has fallen, taking with them the fading hint of fall. But travelers and photographers should not despair. Groove Korea has found six lensmen who have braved the snow and sub-zero temperatures to share with you some of the best destinations around the Republic of Korea.
Our list includes everything from the top of Korea at Hallasan National Park to an ice fishing festival in Gangwon Province.
If it’s adventure you’re after, scale the pathway to Dinosaur Ridge in Seoraksan National Park. For Korea’s classic winter vista, take a short train ride to Gapyeong, Gangwon Province and a ferry to Nami Island.
For a day trip, there is plenty to choose from: Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Bukhansan National Park and Singheung-sa.
Hallasan National Park
Standing at the center of Jeju Island, Mt. Halla, at nearly 2,000 meters high, is the tallest mountain in Korea and Jeju’s crown jewel. While beautiful all year round, it looks spectacular in winter.
Simply admiring its snow-capped peak from afar and trekking to the top to photograph its natural wonders up close in a meter of snow are completely different things.
After the first snowfall of the season, I set out. But I was stopped near the top by a frightening storm after four hours of tough climbing through heavy snow. Not giving up, I made a second attempt the following weekend. This time, the weather was perfect: blue skies, fresh, unmarked snow and sparkling icicles hanging from every branch. I could hear the "oohs and ahhs" of other hikers behind me as I snapped away with my camera.
Take a hike: Gwaneumsa Trail (north) is the best route for views of Hallasan’s valleys. Seongpanak Trail (east) is the go-to trail for hiking novices. Eorimok Trail (northwest) is another trail that is easily navigable for beginners. Yeongsil Trail (southwest) is the shortest trail on Hallasan.
From Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal take No. 1100 to Eorimok Trail or Bus 5-16 to Seongpanak Trail.
By Romain Boulesteix
Dinosaur Ridge in Seoraksan National Park is a popular autumn destination. But the area’s true beauty comes out in the winter when it’s covered in a blanket of snow. Dinosaur Ridgeㅆis also a popular choice for adventurists and lovers of the great outdoors.
The trail is 19 kilometers in length and takes about 14 hours to complete. It’s not for beginners; so don’t make Dinosaur Ridge your first time on a Korean mountain.
The main route will take you from Sogongwon Park to Osaek. Along the way you will pass Geumganggul Cave, Madeungnyeong Ridge, Gongnyongneungseon (Dinosaur Ridge), Huiungak Pavilion and Daecheongbong Peak.
At 1,798 m, Daecheongbong Peak is the highest point of Seoraksan.
On the morning I climbed Seoraksan, it was a -35°C with the wind chill. The weather was very clear on this fresh morning and it was a magical view from the top of Dinosaur Ridge, the valley and Sokcho and the East Sea in the background.
From Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, take an express bus to Sokcho, which will take about 3.5 hours. From Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal/Express Bus Terminal take bus 7 or 7-1 to Seorak-dong, the last stop.
Taebaeksan Provincial Park
By Romain Boulesteix
Watch the sun rise out of the East Sea from the tip of Mt. Taebaek.
It’s an especially popular New Year’s destination, when hundreds of people gather here to catch a glimpse of the first sunrise of the year. The mountain itself is well known for being sacred; Koreans hold rites at the top on the first day of each year.
The Munsubong Peak hiking trail is 7 kilometers in length and takes an able-bodied person three hours and 30 minutes, round trip. From Danggol Plaza, you will pass Jedanggol before getting to Munsubong Peak and then Cheonjedan. You’ll see some stupas along the way, too.
Don’t let the 7 kilometers intimidate you, the hike is rather easy.
Temples in Taebaeksan Provincial Park include Uilsa-sa, Baekdansa-sa, Manggyeong-sa, Baekdan-sa, Yuil -saand Cheongwon-sa.
The park is a famous place in winter for its frozen, bare trees covered in snow, which Koreans call “snow flowers.”
From the East Seoul Terminal, take a bus to Taebaek. The bus operates every 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. It takes a little under 4 hours. Once in Taebaek you have two options to get to Taebaeksan Provincial Park: 1) Take a bus headed for Danggol and get off at Parking Lot No. 1 of the provincial park (27 buses a day, 25 minutes); and 2) Take a bus bound for Yeopyeong/Sangdong and get off at Baekdan/Yuil Temple (five times a day).
By Emre Kanik
Hwaseong Fortress was originally constructed from 1794 to 1796 by the king to honor his father. Now it is a popular tourist destination and was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.
Most of the fortress’ 6 kilometers of walls were destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953), but 5.5 kilometers were restored from 1975 to 1979.
The fortress is Historical Monument No. 3.
The fortress has four gates: Janganmun (north), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east) and Hwaseomun (west).
The pathways along the walls are good for long walks. The contrast with modern Suwon provides historical perspective and is ideal for contrast photography.
The fortress is built on a few hills, so in some places you have an excellent view of the city.
In winter, the pond freezes, making it a good spot to take photos. There are a few pavilions with beautiful ornaments as well.
On the Seoul subway, take Line 1 to Suwon. From there, take buses No. 2 or 7 and get off at Jongno sa(4)-geori. It is a 5-minute walk to the fortress.
By Paul Youn
Thanks to the Korean drama “Winter Sonata,” photos taken on Nami Island are some of the some of the most sought after scenes for fans of the show. Though the popularity of the show has subsided, the island still attracts tourists from across Asia. Even if you’re not a fan — or you’ve never even heard of “Winter Sonata” — this place can be spectacular after a light snowfall. Its tree-lined pathways make for a perfect wintery walk.
Another benefit to visiting in the winter is you’ll avoid the throngs of people that crowd the island in the autumn (when lineups for the ferry can literally stretch for kilometers).
There are also a lot of animals — ostriches, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, ducks and peacocks — that inhabit the island.
The commercialization of the island slightly reduces its appeal, however. The island is now home to about a dozen restaurants, a museum and even “pensions,” or Korean cot- tages.
If you can swing it, the best time to go is mid-week when tourists are sparse.
From Seoul, take a train to Gapyeong Station. The new station is only a 15-minute walk from the ferry wharf for the island.
By Shah Altaf
Enter Singheung-sa, Seoraksan National Park, and step back in time. When I was there, it was serene and empty; perfect for exploring. What struck me were the vibrant colors of the doors and wooden artwork.
Sinheung-sa temple is the best-known temple in the area.
Explore: The Gwongeumseong Fortress–Sinheung-sa Hiking Course is relatively easy, and even has a cable car that will take you most of the way. After the 5-minute trip on the cable car, there is a 30-minute hike to Gwongeumseong Fortress, where you can see the ruins of Toto Castle (altitude 1,200m).
The Biseondae Cliff — Sinheung-sa hiking course is more invigorating, but still isn’t challenging. It’s about a 40-minute hike from Biseondae cliff to Geumganggul cave.
From Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, take an express bus to Sokcho (4 hours). From Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal/Express Bus Terminal take bus 7 or 7-1 to Seorak-dong, the last stop. To get to the cable car from Sokcho, take city bus 7 (30 minutes). Get off at Seoraksan Sogongwon.
Pyeongchang Ice Fishing Festival
By Wesley Chang
The Pyeongchang Ice Fishing Festival runs from the end of December till the beginning of February.
This is a classic Korean winter festival. Join in the ice fishing yourself, or take photos of everyone else doing it. This is a great option for families, or people looking to try their hand at ice fishing for the first time. You can even cook what you catch.
There are also plenty of ice sculptures to amused me.
Go tobogganing on one of the designated courses here (but be careful: these kids fly down the hill at supersonic speeds).
Pyeongchang is the host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics, so you might want to wander around and take in the town’s wintery charm before it’s overcome with construction and millions of tourists.
From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, take an intercity bus bound for Pyeongchang via Jinbu. Get off at Jinbu Terminal. The festival is located within a 7-minute walk from the terminal. The festival runs between December and February every year.
Bukhansan National Park
By Romain Boulesteix
Bukhansan, meaning “mountain north of the Han River,” sits in northern Seoul. Its accessibility makes it a top destination year-round for tourists and locals.
There’s a lot to see and do in Bukhansan National Park, but don’t leave without seeing Bukhansanseong Fortress, which is designated Historic Site No. 162. It was originally built in the year 132 and was a strategic military stronghold during the period of the Three Kingdoms (57-668 AD). Later, it functioned as a primary line of defense against invading Mongolian troops in 1232. In 1711, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), it was upgraded to a stone fortress. Currently it is 7 m high and 8 kilometers long.
Try the Bukhansanseong Fortress hiking course. It’s 3.4 kilometers in length and takes most people just under three hours to complete. It’s not difficult. From the Bukhansanseong Hiking Support Center, you’ll pass Daeseomun and Deungungak before reaching Baegundae.
Most visitors to Bukhansan are there for the purpose of going straight to the top — a point known as Baegunbong. The fastest way there is the Baegundae hiking course. At 1.9 kilometers long, it takes most people about an hour and 30 minutes. Start at Baegundae Hiking Support Center and pass Harujae and Baegun Shelter before reaching Baegundae.
On the Seoul subway, take Line 4 to Gireum Station, Exit 3. From there take buses 110B or 143 and get off at the last stop.