A small country of just over 62,000 square kilometers, South Korea is geographically and historically overshadowed by its larger neighbors, China and Japan. In recent decades, it’s become famous in its own right thanks to its cutting-edge technology (think Samsung and Hyundai) and pop culture phenomenon. As impressive as these exports are, the greatest treasure South Korea has to offer is its spectacular natural scenery. It’s easy to get off the beaten path in South Korea and discover a world of stunning nature that seems untouched by the modern world.
Seoul is almost inevitably the starting point for any international tourist. If the capital city is all you have time for, no worries – there are still gorgeous natural destinations to be found, even amongst urban life. Hiking is a national pastime and you won’t be the only person donning hiking gear on the subway as you get from point A to point B. Bukhansan (“han” means “mountain” in Korean) is probably the most famous mountain in Seoul. With over 13 entry gates there is a lot to explore, from granite peaks, gorges and valleys to Buddhist temples. The further up the trail you go the more rewarding the view: in the summer, rolling hills and peaks topped with emerald green, and in autumn, brilliant red and orange foliage.
If you prefer less strenuous activity, there are many spots in the city to view the local flora. Yeoido is one of the most famous cherry blossom-viewing locations (cherry blossom season is late March) located on a man-made island near the heart of the capital.
If you are able to venture further from Seoul, head east to Gangwon province – possibly the most ruggedly beautiful of all South Korea’s provinces. Close to the seaside town of Sokcho is the famed Seoraksan, one of the most popular and arguably most breathtaking of all South Korea’s mountains. The road to the summit takes about two days, but there are many shorter trails. Along the way you will be rewarded with a variety of scenery that includes waterfalls, Buddhist cairns (rock piles), streams and perfect vantage points for having a picnic.
A more remote but equally rewarding destination in Gangwon province is Ulleung-do, a tiny island about 120 kilometers off the coast. The center of Ulleungdo is a volcanic peak, Seonginbong, and lush vegetation abounds. A rewarding hike takes you up the mountainside to Seonginbong peak and down the other side. In the summertime and early fall the surrounding primeval forest at the highest elevation is misty with precipitation, lending an almost otherworldly feeling. Down at the water’s edge the ocean is clear and pristine, warm enough to swim in during the summer.
Back on the mainland, head further south to discover the rest of the best that the country has to offer. Jirisan National Park is the oldest in the nation, and besides being the home to one of the country’s most beloved mountains, it’s also home to Asiatic black bears and multiple temples including Hwaeomsa Temple where you can experience the life of a Buddhist monk by lodging overnight as part of their “temple stay” program. Further west and south, Boseong boasts photo op-worthy rolling green fields surrounded by hills and forests. A green tea festival is held here every May, should you want to immerse yourself even deeper.
Gyeongju is an ancient city in the southeast province of north Gyeongsang Province that’s formerly the capital of the Silla Dynasty. One of the most unique and surreal sights here are the burial mounds of the former emperors and empresses, mysterious dome-like formations that dot the landscape. Gyeongju is also home to Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site dating back to the 8th century and housing treasures that include ancient Buddhist texts and two bronze-gilt Buddhist statues.
No comprehensive trip to South Korea is complete without a visit to Jeju-do, the “Hawaii” of South Korea. While its moniker is not entirely accurate, Jeju does enjoy a balmier climate than the mainland and consequently a plethora of unique scenery and culture. In summer, fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed flowers dot the land and tourists flock to beaches, such as Hyeopjae Beach, to soak up the sun. Jeju is famous for waterfalls: Cheonjiyeon Falls flows into a beautiful pond and is surrounded by walking trails while Jungbang Falls is the only waterfall in Asia to flow directly into the sea. Jusangjeolli Cliff is a remarkable landmark in that it’s a formation of volcanic rock that has formed into cylindrical blocks similar to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
A great option if you have more than a day or two in Jeju is to walk one of the many Olle Trails found all around the island. These trails get you into the heart of Jeju nature and oftentimes right up against the sea – much closer than traveling by car or even by bike. South Korea is a nation filled to the brim with noteworthy mountains, and Jeju as a location within South Korea is no exception. Hallasan is the largest mountain within all of South Korea, including the mainland, and offers an intrepid climb featuring craggy, misty cliffs and crater lakes.
This article is by no means an exhaustive list of the natural (and cultural) wonders of South Korea. Rather, it’s the tip of the iceberg that reveals this tiny nation is packed with hidden gems waiting to be discovered. If you go now, you will be surrounded by local at many (if not most) of these incredible places. As a destination that offers the comforts of a developed nation but also gorgeous natural landscape, South Korea is truly the best of both worlds.
– By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Brenna Saunders
Photo by Marcella Astrid from Wikimedia