Chuseok Roadtrip Around Korea's National Parks
What is Chuseok?
Chuseok (추석), one of Korea’s biggest holidays is very similar to our Thanksgiving because it is celebrated with family and eating lots of food. Literally, “chuseok” means “autumn eve” but to explain more thoroughly, Chuseok celebrates the good harvesting at the beginning of autumn. It is celebrated on the 15th of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. It is also celebrated for three days. Last year, it just so happened that we got an entire week off of work with the government giving some extra days off. This year we had a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off so we took advantage of a long weekend.
Although we would have loved to go visit another country, plane tickets at this time are always expensive no matter where you go. So instead of paying a lot of money for less than a week in another country, we rented a car and road tripped around Korea, taking full advantage of the perfect weather!
Our Chuseok Route:
Start: Incheon (Home)
1. Seoraksan National Park (Sokcho)
2. Odaesan National Park
3. Woraksan National Park
Stop #1 - Sokcho
From our home in Incheon, we rented a car at the airport and were on the road at about 10 AM. With a GPS in Korean and not having driven in the country before, we knew this was the day we would likely have problems. Fortunately, I was able to switch the GPS to English rather quickly. I also loaded up the route on my phone as a back up. We soon discovered that more than one GPS is too many! Our next encounter was getting gas for the car. We pulled up in an extremely packed gas station where of course there was no English. I remembered how to say “help, please” and practically shouted it at the nearest man and waved him over with a pathetic, confused look on my face. The kind man showed us what to do and helped us get our first bit of gas. About 3.5 hours later, we arrived at Sokcho Beach, located just East of Seoraksan National Park. We got there a bit later than expected so we decided to postpone our hike until the following day. After all, we had a car and the freedom to leave whenever we wanted! Such a great feeling!
Instead of hiking, we walked to the nearby Abai Village (아바이 마을), which was established by North Korean refugees who escaped during the Korean War. The village was a neat area to see for a couple hours, but really the best part was the view from the bridge. We walked around the town people watching, checking out some cool murals, and sat on the beach for a bit watching families and couples pose for pictures while we ate our much needed ice cream. Later on, we meandered over to a fish market where we watched the sunset!
That night, we had some convenience store instant noodles and camped on the beach in hopes of seeing a beautiful East Coast sunrise in the morning. Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy that morning and although it was pretty cool for a minute or two, it wasn’t enough to make me stay out of bed in the cold. Once we woke back up, we packed up our tent, grabbed some convenience store food - hard boiled eggs, “peel sausages”, a packaged sweet roll, and a protein shake. Not the ideal breakfast, but plenty good when you’re camping and on the road with little money.
After breakfast on Sunday, we headed to Seoraksan National Park to hike the tallest peak - Daecheongbong Peak. We arrived at the entrance at about 12:15 and discovered we weren’t allowed to pass through. They stop letting people begin the hike at noon so we had just missed our chance. We were so bummed! Fortunately, there was a couple there that was able to translate for us and recommend a different hike nearby - Yongso Falls (용소폭포-연하계곡). Since we were already there we felt we had to do at least something so we took them up on their advice. It was a pretty easy hike and a great start to the hiking season. There were waterfalls and streams all along the course, and with the mountains and greenery in addition, it was a beautiful scenic route. It was more of a walk, but after we reached the Yongso Falls viewpoint, we continued in a loop which gave us more of a workout. We made it to an observation area called Mangyeongdae which wasn’t quite a peak, but beautiful enough to make us feel like we completed something. After Luke wowed the people next to us with his mad drone skills and I snapped a few pics, we headed back to the start of the trail and then to the car. From the falls to the observation point and back down is a brand new trail so we’re not exactly sure how far we hiked but it was somewhere around 5 kilometers that day.
That night, we drove a bit to a motel to get some good rest mid-trip, but more importantly so Luke could have wifi to stream the Colts game in the morning…
Stop #2 - Odaesan National Park
Once we got checked in, we headed out to investigate the small town on Jeongdongjin Beach. There were numerous restaurants to choose from right next to an adorable little beach. For dinner, we ate a big bowl of kalguksu (칼국수) and washed it down with a beer. Afterwards, we walked over to the beach and watched people shoot off fireworks (a common night activity on beaches here) and families attempt to send out paper lanterns. It was quite entertaining to be honest. Here’s a pretty low-quality but humorous blip of one.
In the morning, Luke woke up early and took a solo trip back out to the beach and got some amazing pictures of the sunrise! There was a cool hotel nearby that looked like an actual ship, and he managed to get some really amazing shots. Again, I was very okay missing the sunrise in order to get some more Z’s but glad he was able to capture the beauty. Once he came back, he watched his Colts - and very loudly might I add - before we packed up and headed to the park.
Arriving at Odaesan National Park on Monday was breathtaking. The scenery resembled what I’m used to seeing at Red River Gorge in Louisville in autumn. The leaves had just started changing colors and I could actually smell the crisp air. There was a stream that followed us along our ride to the trail head as well that had a few cute and unique little bridges that jumped over it. I was so excited and I think I actually told Luke how much I wanted to “just hug this place right now”. So yeah, it was nice. Did I mention how much I love fall? 😊🍂
After sitting in some traffic and finding the trail head, we started our journey up to Birobong Peak (비로봉). After an easy hike the day before, we were anxious to reach an actual peak. We used the helpful blog of Klimbing Korean Mountains to give us an idea of what we wanted to do. Fortunately, we have a similar attitude when it comes to hiking and always aim for the highest peak. This course had three temples along the way which made for some nice pit stops and a variety of things to do and look at.
After 5.2 kilometers and 2.5 hours, we made it to Birobong peak which sat at 1,563 meters high. There, we cracked open a bottle of makgeolli as most Korean hikers do. We ate some of our “peel sausages” and chocolate peanut bars from the convenience store to go with it while enjoying the views. There were a couple other hikers up there with us as well that began making small talk. “Where are you from?” came from one of them which is how most of our conversations with natives start. After a bit of small talk, one of the men informed us that although they had no problem with it and most Korean hikers do it too, we technically weren’t allowed to drink the makgeolli up there. There was a sign in Korean right in front of us that said no alcohol was permitted. Woops! Apparently some of the mountains have restrictions against it and others do not. We drank the rest inconspicuously on the other end of the peak and finished taking our pictures before heading back down.
At the end of the hike, we made it back just in time before the souvenir shop closed. We purchased a few small memorabilia and the lady working ran after us to give us a small bell as a free gift!
After the hike, our initial plan was to get to the next destination and camp so we could wake up the next morning and get an early start. However, it was already getting dark and we had about a two hour trip ahead of us. Since camping in Korea is different everywhere, we didn’t want to risk not being able to get a spot, or getting there too late and running into issues. We decided to snatch up another cheap room for the night. Thank goodness for smartphones!
We walked around the town we stayed in, Chungju, in order to find dinner and ended up with Lotteria - which is basically the Korean version of McDonald’s. And man, was it good!
Stop #3 - Woraksan National Park
Tuesday morning we were feeling a tiny bit sore from our first two hikes but that didn’t stop us from doing our biggest excursion of the trip - Yeongbong Peak (영봉)! After we packed up, we grabbed a convenience store breakfast and some more snacks for throughout our hike. We started the hike around 11:45 AM which started out as Intermediate level with a pretty easy walkway and quite a few stairs. It eventually turned into Advanced level with many more stairs, and much steeper! Fortunately we made it to the “fake peak” which was a great stopping point for an apple. This apple, was easily the best apple I’ve ever eaten. And it was purchased in a convenience store and packaged in a plastic bag. That oughtta tell you something about how tired we were, haha! The last .8 kilometers of the hike was actually considered Expert level and the staircases were quite scary - but beautiful - as we could see just how freaking high up we were! In about 3 hours, we made it the entire 4.9 kilometers to the peak at 1,097 meters high! I know, I’m in the metric system now - forgive me. It’s basically a million feet up in the air. Even though it was technically a bit shorter than the second hike, there was much more straight up and straight down type of walking so it made it much more difficult. We made it to the peak right about 3:00! Intending to only stay for 30 minutes, we ate our snacks, rested, took pictures and then took more pictures.
We headed back down at about 4:15 and finished just as the sun had finished setting. We were exhausted and ready to feast. We found a place right away that served us dotorijeon and bibimbap, a ton of banchans and a spicy soup. We of course celebrated the end of the hike with some beer and soju. That meal was just what we needed after our long day! We passed the heck out once we got back to our tent.
Wednesday morning, we decided to adventure but in a much more relaxed manner. We were both very sore and still pretty tired. We grabbed coffee from a real cafe that gave us a great view of the nearby lake, and a free pastry - score! Then hopped over to the restaurant next door for some rice cake and dumpling soup which was perfect and filling. We drove around the lake for a bit as it is Korea’s largest and set between tons of mountains. The lake itself is what made that hike stand out from so many others! After driving around it and seeing it’s large dam, we headed to Chungju Light World to see what that was all about. It was still early afternoon so the lights weren’t on, but it was a gorgeous park and we could tell how cool it would be once all lit up in the evening. Unfortunately, we were too exhausted to wait around for a few more hours and wanted to return the car that night so we headed back home.
We had such a great time over Chuseok and I think I speak for Luke as well when I say we are really glad we stayed in the country to explore new areas and national parks. We saw gorgeous scenic mountain views, the weather was perfect, and it was a new new for us which is always exciting! In total, we hiked just over 25 kilometers (or ~15.5 miles) of mountains in three days. For our first hikes of the season, I would say we did pretty damn well! 😄