Terrific trip to S. Korea's tiny Taebaek
High in the mountains of eastern Korea, a small town sits in the crook of a river. Shaped like a crescent, the town of Taebaek is a unique mountain paradise. It is part coal town, part ski town, and a relaxing place to get away. Pick up an English speaking tourist map at the Tourist Information Center near the train station to see all there is to do. The area has so much! From caves and hiking to museums and scenic drives; Taebaek is a wonderful place.
The well done Paleozoic Museum is a pleasant surprise on a cold or rainy day. It features the natural history of Korea; there are many fossils and displays that walk guests through Korea’s geology. There are dinosaurs, but the focus is the time period prior to such beasts. My children, aged 7 and 4 were enthralled with the dioramas and interactive exhibits. All displays are in English. Children are ₩1,000 and adults are ₩2,000.
The Coal Museum is another tourist attraction we found to be surprisingly enjoyable. It begins with numerous displays of minerals, before focusing on the origin of coal, and moving on to how coal is mined and used. While all displays were in Korean, we find the pictures to be enough for our family. The highlight, though, is taking a faux mine shaft elevator to the lower level where there is a recreated coal mine! It is fascintating to see all the different mining equipment that has been used through time. The museum is free with admission to Taebaeksan Provincial park (₩2,000 parking and ₩2,000 for adults); and sits just inside the entrance.
Getting outdoors is essential in Taebaek, and hiking Taebaeksan seems to be a Korean rite of passage. It is as popular in the winter as summer, and was considered one of the five sacred mountains during the Silla dynasty. There is an altar at the top and unique ancient Yew trees said to give the mountain its energy. The main entrance to Taebaeksan Provincial park lies south of Taebaek city along route 31.
Another wonderful hike a little farther from town is along the Dakpoong valley (덕풍계곡). During busy months you may need to park at the valley entrance where there is a camp ground, but during down times such as when we went in November, the gate was open and we could drive up the valley to the traditional mountain town of Punggok. This is where the hike begins. It is a beautiful trek through a steep canyon along a trail that is sometimes a metal walkway and at other times a test of balance along riverside rocks. Our family hiked a few miles up to the first of three waterfalls. It was in a dramatically steep canyon that required me to roll up my pants and walk (with a shouldered child) across the river and then shimmy along the bottom of the cliff holding a thick rope. In summer, the water would feel wonderful and the deep pool at the base of the falls may be good for a swim. In winter, however, it is freezing!
The drive from Dakpoong valley to Taebaek is worthwhile as its own attraction along a steep and windy scenic road. Our kids were so excited to see wild deer on this route! There are views of mountains, steep valleys, and the not-too-distant east coast. In fact, nearby Samcheok is another great place to stay if beach activities are more your style. Take route 35 south of Taebaek and eventually follow road 910 to Dakpoong valley.
For the geology buff, there are a few tourist caves in the Taebaek vicinity as well. The biggest is called Hwanseongul. It is north of Taebaek along route 38; halfway between Taebaek and the coastal town of Samcheok. There are actually two caves here, but Hwanseongul is larger and offers self-tours along a metal walkway. It is gigantic! Still a very active cave, there is a lot of water and even waterfalls inside. There are also such huge caverns that require suspension bridges. For an additional fee there is a monorail up the mountain to the entrance. If the day is nice, however, I recommend hiking one way; there are some amazing waterfalls along the route. Cave entrance is ₩4,000 for adults and ₩2,000 for kids. The monorail is another ₩4,000 one-way or ₩7,000 roundtrip for adults and ₩2,000 for kids.
Taebaek city itself is a cute place to base yourself for touring the area. Downtown has one main road (Hwangji-ro) of cute boutique stores and restaurants. There is also a small central park near the traditional market, but it is otherwise a small non-descript Korean town. It is nicely central to mountain town activities. O2 ski resort is just outside of town, while High resort is not far down the road.
How to get there
Taebaek is on the KoRail train line, but driving will allow you to more easily get around as most sites are a bit of a ways out of town.
From the Osan / Humphreys area you can follow route 38 all the way to Taebaek, or follow I-40 eastward before joining 38. From Seoul take I-50 to I-55 south and then follow route 38.