Jirisan National Park- Piagol Valley Autumn Hike

Piagol Valley colorful foliage river title picture

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).

Piagol Valley orange river reflection

Piagol Valley branches with red leaves

Piagol Valley bright red, orange and yellow leaves

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.

Piagol Valley shaded valley view

Piagol Valley river pool with red foliage

Piagol Valley river waterfall with red and yellow leaves

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.

Piagol Valley bridge with red and orange leaves

Piagol Valley orange and green trees

Piagol Valley red and green leaves

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.

Piagol Valley orange and yellow leaves river

Piagol Valley shelter

Piagol Valley colorful leaf trees and river

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.

Piagol Valley swing bridge with colorful leaves

Piagol Valley river pool and red leaves

Piagol Valley red and orange overhead foliage

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.

Piagol Valley colorful rocky river

Piagol Valley red, orange and green leaves

Piagol Valley orange and yellow overhead foliage

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.

Piagol Valley small waterfall and red leaves

Piagol Valley red orange leaves

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.

Seoraksan National Park- Sibiseonnyetang Hike (Valley of the 12 Angels’ Bath)

Sibiseonnyetang Boksungatang waterfall

A couple weekends ago, I trekked back to Seoraksan National Park for a third hike. I originally planned on doing this hike during my long weekend in Seoraksan National Park. However, after a couple somewhat strenuous hikes, my legs were just so tired. When I factored in that my third planned hike was the longest, and also supposed to be somewhat strenuous, I decided that it was probably best to just head home and then come back on another weekend.

Sibiseonnyetang shaded waterfall

So the next weekend, at 0630 in the morning, I was on a bus from Seoul out to Seoraksan National Park. This hike was in Inner Seorak, which is on western side of the park (unlike my previous weekend at Outer Seorak on the eastern side of the park). Inner Seorak is much more isolated than Outer Seorak and less developed. It’s also a bit harder to get to, but it’s not THAT difficult with a little bit of planning.

Sibiseonnyetang red tree pathway

Sibiseonnyetang autumn river pathway

Inner Seorak and this trailhead are most accessible by bus (assuming you take public transportation and don’t have your own car). Take a bus from Dong Seoul bus station (located at Ganbyeon subway station, line 2, exit 4) to Inje or Wonton-ri station. It’s about a two-two and a half hour trip. I kept reading that their were local buses to take you to the trailheads, and maybe there were. However, I didn’t have any bus numbers or the bus times. Since my hike was very long, and I was burning daylight, I took the easier, but more expensive route. I took a cab from and to the trailheads. The taxi fare was about 26,000 won each way (which ironically was twice the 13,000 won bus tickets to and from Seoul) for about a 15 minute ride.

Sibiseonnyetang rushing river orange tree

Sibiseonnyetang river

This particular hike was the Namkyo-ri course. The Korean National Parks website describes the course as “extending from Namgyo-ri through Sibi Seonnyeotang Basin to Daeseungnyeong Pass. It is recommended that you should take thorough precautions as the valley is long and dangerous. Seonnyeotang Basin has legend that fairies came down to take a bath. It is one of the most beautiful places in Seoraksan Mountain. Waterfalls form ponds (baths) on the rock. The name indicates 12 such places, but there are only eight ponds. The one on the highest spot named Boksungatang Basin is by far the best in the 84m-long valley.”

Sibiseonnyetang river red tree overshot

This hike was a bit different than other hikes I’ve done in Korea. First off, it was the longest hike I’ve done in Korea. The trail was over 11 kilometers long, which is actually not that long of a hike in terms of actual distance (only a little over seven miles), but it is reasonably long for a Korean day hike. The predicted time for this hike was six and a half hours, and that is actually the amount of time it took me to complete this hike. This hike also differed, because it was a one way trip. All of the other hikes I’ve done were either loop hikes or a there and back again with a turnaround point. Sure, you can do that with this hike, but it is also possible to hike from one major trailhead to the other. That makes it more visually interesting, because I didn’t see the same things.

Sibiseonnyetang waterfall with autumn trees

I started this hike pretty early at 0900, and there weren’t many people on the trail at the time. I started this trail at the Namkyo-ri Ranger Station and headed east. I got ahead of a hiking group and set out alone on the trail. The first few kilometers of this hike passed by pretty quickly, because the trail was fairly flat and even. I was even shocked that I was passing some people on the trail. Maybe I was just a bit fitter that day. Maybe the other hikers were just a bit slower, but I kept a pretty good pace, though of course I had to stop every so often to marvel at the spectacular autumn beauty around me. Peak autumn foliage for Seoraksan National Park was predicted to be 18 October, and I did this hike on 20 October. Having never seen what peak foliage looks like in Seoraksan National Park, I couldn’t say for sure that the park was actually at peak foliage. However, I saw plenty of colorful leaves all throughout the trail.

Sibiseonnyetang shaded pathway

Sibiseonnyetang bridge and colored trees

Most of the hiking groups I encountered at the first part of the trail seemed to be headed toward Boksungatang (the title picture on this post), which is a beautiful waterfall/rock formation. With the exception of the final 100 meters, which is pretty steep, and I needed to pull myself up the trail by the metal railing, the trail to Boksungatang is pretty easy. I knew this trail was rated as being difficult, and wondered what was considered strenuous (I would soon figure that out). Since this is the most scenic sight of this part of the trail, it was a popular turnaround point or lunch spot for hikers.

Sibiseonnyetang small waterfall

After taking in the view (along with the crowds which had gathered by this point), I pressed on and continued hiking. This is when you start seeing why the trail is rated as strenuous. The next couple kilometers weren’t TOO bad, because there were plenty of boardwalks and staircases and plenty of places along the river to have lunch.

Sibiseonnyetang falling rocks colorful trees

Sibiseonnyetang valley wideshot

The most strenuous part of this hike is the middle five and a half kilometers. About three and a half kilometers of this trail are what I would consider the least scenic part of this trail. At this point, you move away from the river and steadily up the mountain to the Daeseungnyeong Pass, until you can start moving down the mountain to Daesung Falls and the Jangsudae Ranger Station. This part of the hike was the most taxing on my knees and my thighs and I was silently cursing myself for forgetting my walking sticks. It didn’t get that much easier when I started heading down the mountain, because the trail was equally steep going down as it wqw be going up (it’s just a question which part of your leg will hurt for the ascent or descent).

Sibiseonnyetang overhead river shot

The final scenic viewpoints on this trail is the Daesung Falls and a panoramic view of the mountains and trees around you, which are .9 kilometers from the ending trailhead.

Sibiseonnyetang Daesung Falls

Sibiseonnyetang surrounding mountains

The waterfall is in the top three for the largest in Korea, and is about 89 meters tall. The trail at this point is almost entirely man-made staircases and boardwalks. By this point in my hike, my legs were tired, and I was glad I was descending rather than ascending, because the trail is pretty steep, even if the trail isn’t that long. I emerged at the Jangsudae Ranger Station and was very grateful to see a taxi ready to take me back to the Inje bus station for my trip home.

Sibiseonnyetang orange tree pathway

Another interesting thing about this hike is that, for at least parts of the hike, I found something I hadn’t found on the other Korean hikes I’ve done: peace, quiet and solitude. I was very surprised at first, and figured maybe it was just because it was a bit early in the morning, or maybe because it wasn’t a more popular hike in Seoraksan National Park. However, I did encounter plenty of hiking groups soon enough. For as near as I can tell, most of the Koreans I’ve encountered hike in large groups. You often see hordes of buses by the trailheads carrying dozens of groups each weekend. I saw some hiking groups up to Boksungatang, but then I didn’t see some for a while. And THEN, I kept running into group after group as they were heading in the opposite direction from me. Most of the groups I saw started at the Jangsudae trailhead and were heading west. The trail gets pretty narrow in parts, and I elected to stand aside to let the steady stream of people pass (my legs thanked me for the regular, enforced breaks). However, by the time I reached the Daeseungnyeong Pass and headed down the mountain, I was pretty much alone again. I can count on one hand how many people I saw between the pass and the Daesung Falls. It was so quiet, and that is just something I don’t frequently encounter in a country as heavily populated as Korea.

Sibiseonnyetang Eudam waterfall side view

It was also interesting to encounter the friendliness of many of the Korean people on this hike. I’ve seen it in the past, where strangers are often very friendly to me, because I am a Western woman traveling alone. It was particularly strong on this hike, as so many people were surprised (maybe a bit impressed) that I was hiking alone out in the middle of nowhere. Since Korea is a very safe country, I never worried about running into a maniacal serial killer, which is a thought that often crosses my mind when I hike alone in America.

Sibiseonnyetang bridge and orange tree

Sibiseonnyetang bright trees and waterfall

I highly recommend this hike, but definitely come prepared. If you have walking sticks, bring them and your thighs and knees will probably thank you. Definitely bring a lunch or snacks, because this full hike will take you at least six hours, depending on your walking speed. You can’t bring enough water. I only brought one 500ml bottle of water, when I should have brought two (I had to ration water halfway through the hike). There aren’t any safe water sources on the trail that I am aware of, or any food stands. It is a fairly isolated hike, but if you like peace and beautiful nature, you should like this hike.