Exploring Korea: Guide for visiting Sokcho, Seoraksan National Park

Photos by Kyle Haney
Photos by Kyle Haney

Exploring Korea: Guide for visiting Sokcho, Seoraksan National Park

by Kyle Haney
GLOBETROTTERKYLE.COM

So, you’ve finally made the best decision with your time in Korea and decided to visit Seoraksan National Park, or should I say: Middle Earth! Close to Sokcho, this National Park is home to endless trails, awe-inspiring views, cascading waterfalls, and views from Korea’s third-highest peak. Read on as I provide the ultimate itinerary to maximize your visit to Seoraksan National Park and Sokcho!

Where to Stay

If you’re making the trek all the way out to Seoraksan, look no further than Sokcho for lodging. From resorts to bed-and-breakfasts, Sokcho offers the best possible launch pad for your Seoraksan exploration.

For shopping, tourist attractions, and nightlife, stay near Cheongcho Lake

When I visited Seoraksan in August, I stayed at the Skysea Resort near the Sea Cruise Hotel. I booked this little gem through Airbnb for two nights, totaling $130 USD. The best part of the stay was the view, hands down. From my small aparthotel room, I was situated with a southern-facing room where was able to see the sunrise over the East Sea and the sunset over the Taebaek mountain range.

This spot was perfect for accessing the local nightlife, shopping, markets, public transportation, and tourist attractions. From this area, you’ll be within a few minutes’ drive to attractions like the Yonggeumjeong Sunrise Pavilion, Seolak Bridge, the Sokcho Tourist & Fishery Market, the Expo Tower, and of course, the Cheongcho Lake itself.

For a quiet, romantic, and closer stay to Seoraksan National Park, Casa Seorak Bed and Breakfast is a must

If I had the chance to go back to Sokcho again, each and every time I would choose to stay at Casa Seorak Bed and Breakfast. Why?

  • The owner is insanely nice and speaks fluent English
  • You get a western-style, made-from-scratch breakfast delivered straight to your room every morning
  • It’s got a unique lodge feel, not a hotel or apartment feel (way homier!)
  • It’s closer to the mountains (like 15 minutes and you’re at the trailhead)
  • It has a 5/5 on Trip Advisor from every single visitor to date
  • It’s very reasonably priced
  • It’s quiet
  • You’re at the base of the mountains
  • The walk-out patio was great for enjoying breakfast on in the mornings
  • The owner provides whole coffee beans and a hand-turn grinder in every room for visitors to make pour-overs every morning (hello happy inner coffee snob :D)
  • The bed is insanely comfortable (and I’m veeery picky about my mattresses lol)
  • It’s the most unique place I’ve ever stayed in Korea (besides the Four Seasons in Seoul), hands down!

Pictures just doesn’t do this place justice; you have to book a room and visit it for yourself!

Where to Eat

Disclaimer: I am a vegetarian, so the places I list here are geared towards vegheads. HOWEVER, some of the best-tasting food I’ve ever had in my life was in Sokcho, and it was entirely plant-based.

Matsu

Matsu is hands down the best Italian food in Sokcho! From the ambiance of the quiet neighborhood to the insanely delicious three-course meal for ~$18, I would eat here every day if I could!

Jeombongsan Sanchae

This is where I ate vegetables until I nearly threw up, no joke! The chef has been researching traditional Korean wild herbs for over 35 years, and it shows! The family-owned restaurant serves all different kinds of kimchi, pickled vegetables, and other small dishes with locally sourced ingredients. You HAVE to give this place a shot to experience just how delicious eating plants can be.

However, the dishes are all designed for a minimum of two people. Buuuut, I just told them I was starving, and they let me in 

The best way to find this gem is to first, download the Happy Cow app. From there, search for “Jeombongsan Sanchae”, grab the address, and navigate to it using whatever app you choose!

Where to drink

Sokcho has two main breweries that I thoroughly enjoyed after a long day’s hike. Each one had its own unique flare so really, between the two, you can’t go wrong choosing either one.

Montbeer

Located near the resorts on the northwestern side of Sokcho, Montbeer has impeccable views of Seoraksan National Park from their western-facing windows. Not only is the beer delicious and available to take home in bottles, but they also have food and free popcorn delivered to your table by a little robot. How cool is that?!

Craft Root

Craft Root is an inconspicuous brewery just 5 minutes south of Montbeer. No joke, you are likely to drive right by it on your way to Montbeer if you aren’t paying attention!

Personally, I found the environment at Craft Root more relaxing because of it’s lesser-known location. More importantly though, I found the beers here to be superior to Montbeer. If you make you way to Craft Root, try the 9pm IPA, you won’t be disappointed!

Park Jiyoung’s Hand Drip Coffee

I am a coffee snob, and I’m proud of it. I know a good Ethiopian pour over when I have one and I can PROMISE you that Park Jiyoung’s coffee is the best in all of Sokcho, hands down!

Now, if you search this in Google, you’ll get zero returns so, here’s the address: 134, Jungang-ro, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-Do.

Basically, it’s at the very eastern end of the downtown main street near the tourist market just as the road bends and curves to the north. It’s right near the outdoor clothing store in that same location as well

Top 5 Attractions (what to see/what to do)

Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff! Sokcho has plenty to offer for anyone, especially if you’re visiting for a four-day weekend like I was.

  1. Towangseong Falls
  2. Ulsanbawi Rock
  3. Gyejoam Temple
  4. Daechongbong Peak
  5. Cheongcho Lake
  6. (BONUS) Yeonggeumjeong Pavilion

1. Towangseong Falls

A no-brainer of course; you have to visit the National Park if you’re in Sokcho! From relaxing or strenuous hikes to cascading waterfalls and mile-high scenery, Seoraksan National Park has it all.

When I visited Seoraksan in August, I wrote an in-depth review of my hike up Mt Seorak, Korea’s 4th-tallest mountain. For inspiration to climb this beast of a hike, click here and read what it was like standing a mile above sea level while being able to see the sea. One word: life-changing lol

This past March, I returned back to Seoraksan to hike a different portion of the land. this time, I wanted to check out the Towangseong Falls and the Ulsanbawi Rocks. Needless to say, neither view disappointed.

Towering 320 meters (150m in the upper, 80m in the middle, and 90m in the lower parts), Towangseong Falls is like something right out a scene from Lord of the Rings. I can just imagine an army of orcs on the other side of this mountainous gate, chomping at the bit to pour down the walls and tear through the valley.

This hike took about 3 hours round-trip with lots of stopping along the way for photos. Each and every turn offered something unique to point my camera at, starting with the peaceful walk along the river, all the way to the Towangseong Falls observation post.

While on your way, you’ll also hit Biryong Falls, an amazing spot to rest and gather yourself before you climb the 900+ stairs up to the Towangseong Falls. Yes, you read that right, it’s a lot of stairs lol but just look at that photo, isn’t that worth it?!

2. Ulsanbawi Rock

Hiking to Ulsanbawi Rock is one place you don’t want to miss when visiting Seoraksan National Park. In total, the hike takes about the same amount of time as the Towangseong Falls hike does (~3 hours round trip).

Not only is the view of the East Sea and Daechongbong Peak in the same frame breathtaking, but the journey here is also FULL of picturesque moments! For the majority of the hike, you follow along a peaceful river on a gravel path that’s suitable for any age.

At about the halfway point, the trail does get a bit more strenuous, but nothing I’d consider challenging, just tiring because, well, it’s hiking lol.

If you want to be like everyone else, hike this part of Seoraksan during the day. However, if you truly want a once-in-a-lifetime experience, hike to Ulsanbawi Rock at sunrise. Not kidding.

Quick story…

3:00am and off goes my alarm. “Holy crap I’m tired” I say to myself as I lay there with my eyes closed, weighing the pros and cons of hiking this early in the morning.

  • “What if the park isn’t even open? Am I just gonna sneak through the gate?”
  • “What if I just go over to the beach and catch a sunrise over the ocean again?”
  • “What if there’s a bear?”

lol that last one cracked me up.

As I talked myself back into this last-minute idea I had just come up with 6 hours prior while polishing off a beer at Craft Root, I got out of bed and got dressed. Thankfully, I had an extra instant oatmeal packet and an energy bar from the day prior. So, I heated up some water, made the oatmeal, walked out the door, realized I forgot said oatmeal on the counter, said “screw it”, and continued to the trailhead with just the energy bar lol.

3:30am and there I was, parking my car in almost the exact same place I had parked it two days prior when I made this exact same hike in the daytime like every other sane person. This time though, I was surrounded by nothing but pitch-black emptiness.

I was aaaaallll alone.

No more crowds of people to dodge around, no more laughs of children running from their parents. Hell, had I heard any laughter that early in the morning, I would have promptly shit right in my drawers and ran or drove off.

I digress…

4:45 and I’m about 3/4 the way done with the hike. Sunlight had finally begun piercing the darkness above me, but my immediate surroundings still remain cloaked in the most beautiful shade of midnight blue. I think it was at this point I figured, “well, if someone out here was going to kill me, they would’ve done it by now” lol.

I do another quick check of my phone to double check what time the sun will rise and to see if I’m going to make the summit in time. At my pace, it looked like I was going to make it to the top about 10 minutes early.

Perfect.

As I climbed up the final few stairs to the summit of the Ulsanbawi Trial, the beauty I was rewarded with in that moment was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Well, almost unlike anything I’d ever seen.

The first time I caught a sunrise from the top of a mountain, I was extremely fortunate to be just over 14,000ft above sea level in Colorado on Mt Evans. The photo I took that morning is one that I’m still extremely proud of. I stood atop a 14k-foot mountain and watched a hundred-mile-long shadow stretch across the Rocky Mountains as if I was standing on top of center of the entire solar system.

This journey (that I was just contemplating three hours earlier) transported me back in time to that exact moment. I watched the sun cast its warm rays of light onto the jagged peaks of the Taebaek mountains and relived one of my favorite moments in Colorado. All alone, shivering on the side of a desolate mountain in South Korea, I found a joy that few will ever find, all because I choose to get up early, and get moving.

Story of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Long story short: get up early and catch a sunrise at least once in your life. And if you choose to do it at Ulsanbawi Rock, I promise you that when the sun rises over the East Sea and fills the valleys of the Taebaek mountains with one of the most magical collisions of light and darkness, you’ll be thankful you made the journey.

2.1. Gyejoam Temple

About 30 minutes before you reach the end of the Ulsanbawi Hike, you reach the Gyejoam Temple. Gyejoam translates to “inheriting the progenitor’s grotto”, which if you remember from your pointless art history class, a grotto was a cave. This temple got its name because when the Buddhist masters inherited this place, the hermitage was a round grotto (i.e., cave) established under the rock. How cool, right?!

The serenity this place affords you can’t be put into words, honestly. From the Chinese characters carved into the stone to the spring water at the entrance of the hermitage (that yes, you can drink from), Gyejoam Temple is one place that needs to be on your list of places to visit while in Seoraksan!

3. Daechongbong Peak

This wouldn’t be an ultimate guide if I didn’t mention the highest peak in Seoraksan National Park: Daechongbong Peak. Standing over a mile high (5,603 feet to be exact), this is the only place in the park where you can physically see the sea that you’re a mile above. How cool, right!?

Like I’ve mentioned before, I wrote extensively about my trip to Seoraksan back in August so, I won’t belabor that story again. To summarize though, here’s a short snip from that article to help amp you up to take on this 10+ kilometer trek:


My friend wasn’t lying: this place felt like I was standing at the edge of middle earth! The tall, jagged peaks to the north stretched upwards to the sky as they formed a valley that felt as though hell itself was just below me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the rocks were actually the spine of some unearthly creature, desperately clawing his way through the earth to get to me. To the south, I could see mountain top after mountain top of the Taebaek mountains as they orchestrated a uniformed retreat from the sea. The mist gathered at the base of every mountain which gave rise to a series of ranges, cascading in fashion as each one grew in size until it became the defining line of the horizon. And lastly, I could see all the way down to Sokcho, the little town I was staying in, juxtaposed to the mighty East Sea that I was now standing one mile above.

4. Cheongcho Lake

As I mentioned earlier in the article, staying near Cheongcho Lake is perfect for you if you’re looking to explore the nightlife and touristy attractions of Sokcho.

Not only is Cheongcho Lake in the center of the town, but it’s also a gorgeous spot to stroll along and watch fishermen cast their lines, watch boats cruise in and out towards the East Sea, or simply take in the grand Taebaek mountain range off in the distance!

5. Yeonggeumjeong Pavilion

What’s Yeonggeumjeong you ask? It’s where you want to be for a sunrise, that’s what it is. It’s tranquility, it’s peace, it’s quiet, and it’s awe-inspiring.

If it’s a translation you’re looking for, look no further: The word Yeonggeumjeong translates to the melody of a geomungo and a pavilion. A geomungo is a stringed instrument, and it’s said the waves hitting the rocks here is comparable to the melody made when a geomungo is played. Additionally, jeong translates to a traditional pavilion.

What about Yangyang?

Ah yes, if someone references Sokcho, they’re likely to also reference Yangyang, the surf capitol of Korea.

From my experience, there are only a handful of things to do in Yangyang. So, if you’re going to visit, make Yangyang a daytrip, not a weekend-long trip (unless you’re really into surfing).

Launch to Yangyang from Sokcho, not the other way around. Here’s a great itinerary for you if you decide to make the trek down to Yangyang for a day:

Stop 1: Surfyy Beach

With Yangyang being the surfing capitol of Korea, you might as well take a lesson during your time there! There are dozens of surf shops lining the short near Surfyy Beach that offer lessons, most of which are in English and Hangul!

If you’re not up for surfing, then you can still start the day here with a relaxing walk along Surfyy Beach as you watch all the newbies learn how to ride the waves.

Stop 2: Jugdojeong Pavilion

If surfing’s not your thing, fear not! You can still have a great day trip here if you’re up for hiking and/or wandering around a fun beach-bum kind of town!

Clearly, I’m a fan of visiting pavilions in Sokcho and Yangyang lol. There’s just something so incredible that these little resting locations can offer to the weary traveler.

Perhaps it’s the application of “borrowed scenery” (a Chinese planning technique) or the contrasting architecture juxtaposed the East Sea as numerous pines tower overhead. Whatever the attraction, I can’t seem to get enough.

Hiking to this pavilion is rather straight forward and easily done in a pair of toms lol I know from experience now.

The best part of this short, ~20-minute hike/walk was resting on the park bench overlooking the ocean. As a Colorado boy, appreciating the ocean is something I’ve found extreme joy in since being stationed in Korea. Give it a shot while you’re here and tell me you don’t feel at peace!

Stop 3: Flowbeach Cafe

Want to enjoy a ginger latte from a rooftop patio overlooking the ocean? Then look no further than Flowbeach Cafe.

Located on the 4th floor of the building, this awesome little coffee shop has both indoor and outdoor seating. The large, bay-like doors open up and let the breeze roll right off the ocean and into the cafe.

Quite honestly, with all the cafes around Korea, it’s hard to narrow down which one is “best”. But, if I had to choose, this one surely earns that title in Yangyang, hands down!

Stop 4: Hajodae Beach

Just off the beaten path, the Hajodae Beach area is one of the most striking landscapes I’ve found in all of Korea.

Perched on top of a sea cliff near the beach sits Hajodae Lighthouse, an unmanned solace surrounded by oddly shaped and jagged rocks. The amazing viewpoint from where this lighthouse sits is comprised of a handful of rocky islets (or small islands) and of course, the mighty East Sea.

Furthermore, a dense, lush pine forest crawls all the way out from the Taebaek mountain range to where the ocean means the land. The beauty of these trees’ ability to find every crack in the rock to put down roots is something you have to see in person to truly appreciate.

In summary

In my entire year here in Korea, Sokcho was my favorite destination. Too many people say “one of my favorites” when talking about places like this and I think it’s because too many people are afraid of commitment lol. I’ll say it again, proudly: Sokcho is my favorite place in all of South Korea.

From the towering Taebaek mountains to the tranquility of the East Sea, this one little town had everything I needed to feel like I was both at home and on vacation at the same time. Both times I had the pleasure of visiting, I thoroughly enjoyed second I spent exploring in (and around) this town.

So, if the 4-day weekend comes, or a break in your schedule allows, visit Sokcho. I promise you won’t be disappointed no matter who you are or what you’re into!

 

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