I did a lot of reading to plan my autumn hiking season in Korea, and one of the places I kept coming across was the Piagol Valley in Jirisan National Park. This quote was frequently sited on articles about this valley, “People who have not seen the red-tinted leaves in Piagol dare not say they know red-tinted leaves.”- Jo Shik, a Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty. A popular autumn leaves festival is held in the Piagol Valley around peak foliage time (supposedly 24 October 2013).
So as you can imagine, I had grand visions of awe inspiring beauty for this hike. I imagined the entire trail tinted red, and looking through my pictures, I am reminded how beautiful this hike can be, and how many shades of red and orange percolate through the valley and glow in the bright sunlight. However, I also look back on this hike as exemplifying two other concepts: the gap between expectation and reality, and knowing your own limits.
Last Sunday when I hiked this, the day dawned very early for me, since my train left from Yongsan Station at 0520. It was a three hour train ride to Gurye-gu Station. I could have taken a bus from Seoul to Gurye, but aside from my preference for trains, I was actually able to start hiking sooner than if I had taken a bus. I knew there were local buses that went from Gurye to the Piagol Valley trailhead, but none of them originated from the train station to my knowledge. So to save time, I elected to take a taxi from the train station to the trailhead, which only cost me 30,000 won (negotiated fare, not meter fare), and it was a roughly 30-40 minute ride. It was still pretty early in the morning when I started hiking, so there weren’t TOO many hiking groups out on the trail.
I had planned in advance to only hike to the Piagol Shelter and back, and not push all the way up to the Piagol Samgeori (forked road). While it was only two kilometers from the shelter to the pass (1.2 miles), I could tell from online maps it was pretty steep, as the estimated travel time was two hours one way. This was confirmed for me when I looked at the map at the trailhead, and it had that portion of the trail at a 32% gradient. I remembered, and my legs remembered, the Ulsan Bawi hike which had nearly the same level of steepness, how long it took me, and how much my body ached afterward. Combine that with the distance being twice the distance of Ulsan Bawi, and it reinforced my desire to just to go the Piagol Shelter. I knew my limits of my body, the limits of my hiking speed, and the limits of the return trip to Seoul (since I already had a train ticket booked), and elected to only do the eight kilometer round trip hike to the shelter and back. That hike was only projected to take four hours round trip and the gradient was described as only 6% by the map, so I thought it would be a pleasant and easy hike. However, in my opinion, that map spoke lies. Maybe the AVERAGE gradient of that hike was only 6%, but there were plenty of times throughout that hike that it was much, much steeper.
Parts of this trail were very well-maintained that reminded me of American hiking trails. Other parts of this trail were supremely uneven with big rocks substituting for an actual path. If I didn’t actually know what some Korean hiking trails looked like, I might think I was lost in the middle of the woods. But I would never get actually lost, because I was never actually alone out there. This hiking trail is very popular, and I saw dozens of hiking groups. In fact most of them skillfully and quickly passed me as I trudged along the trail, carefully picking my way from one uneven rock to another to avoid falling or spraining my ankles. I forgot to bring my walking sticks (AGAIN!) and my body (particularly my thighs and my knees) definitely felt it by the end.
This brings up the gap between my expectation of this hike and the reality of this hike. I thought this hike would be easier than it was, and I admit to feeling a bit dispirited by the end, and supremely grateful when I completed the hike. I kept thinking that what do Koreans have against even, well-maintained trails. Maybe it’s part of the fun to not only enjoy a colorful view, but also to lightly hop from one rock to another.
In any case, while I don’t regret going on this hike, if I had known all of this in advance, I might not have done the hike. There are very beautiful views on this hike, but I didn’t see anything so unique that I haven’t seen on other Korean hiking trails. Though looking back at all these pictures, I do marvel at the colorful beauty I saw. So honestly, if I was more fleet of foot and didn’t stumble on uneven trails, I probably would have enjoyed it more. My opinion of this hike is colored by the fact that I can be a graceless klutz at times.
Getting to and from Gurye is pretty easy. Like I said before, you can take a train or a bus. Both of them travel from Seoul to Gurye on a regular basis. If you take a bus to Gurye, you can easily transfer to a local bus to Piagol (approximately one per hour) directly from the bus station. Or you can easily take a taxi to the trailhead. Getting back from Gurye was a bit more painful, because all the direct trains were full and I ended up having to make some transfers, and what is a three hour direct KTX train between the two cities, became a six hour journey over slower trains. So if you take the train back, make sure you book your train ticket well in advance, particularly on popular weekends, like the height of autumn and spring.