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.

Seoraksan National Park Day 1- Searching for Autumn Colors

Seoraksan day 1 beautiful view from Ulsan Bawi

Last weekend I kicked off my autumn hiking season with a long weekend at Seoraksan National Park. My favorite time of the year has arrived in Korea and I intended to enjoy the beautiful nature to the fullest. I have a whole season full of hiking planned at national parks throughout Korea. I have been to Seoraksan National Park the last time I lived in Korea, but that was actually only one day of hiking, so I wanted to enjoy it more and hike many different trails in the park.  Seoraksan National Park is one of the most popular national parks in Korea, for good reason. The hiking is amazing and the scenery is so beautiful. It’s nice any time of the year, but its true charm comes out when the fall colors ablaze everywhere. It’s also when the crowds come out, but that is just something you just deal with to enjoy yourself.

It’s very easy to reach Seoraksan National Park. The nearest large city is Sokcho and there are numerous busses departing from  the Dong Seoul bus station and Seoul Express Bus Terminal (about every 30 minutes during the day). The trip only takes about three hours, so I took an evening bus to Seoraksan Thursday night, so I could start hiking early Friday morning before the crowds hit. To make it easy for hiking, I chose to stay at a motel (The Seorak Morning Inn) in the village of Seorak-dong, which is about a 1.5 km easy, pleasant walk or short bus ride to the park entrance.

I picked Seoraksan as my first hiking weekend, both because I had a long weekend to do all the hikes I wanted in the time available, and it was also supposed to be the first national park to hit peak color for autumn foliage in the middle of October. I had visions of seeing the entire hills covered in red, orange and yellow. What I found was a bit different. Due to the warm weather this, the advent of fall seems to be delayed in Korea. It was the middle of October, and while there were leaves changing, it was not as much as I expected. But I valiantly set out in search of autumn colors.

My first day in the park was a Friday, so while there were people there, it certainly wasn’t as crowded as it is on weekends.  Of course it also helped that was I an early bird and arrived at the park shortly after it opened. The first thing I did when I got to the park (before the lines got too long) was take the cable car up to Gwongeumseong (Gwongeum Fortress) which is the ruin site of an old castle. The cable car ride is only about six minutes up, and it takes you to a hill with a beautiful view over the valley below and the mountains surrounding the hill.

Seoraksan day 1 cable car to Gwongeumseong

The weather was a bit hazy at first, since it was early morning. But I could see patches of orange and yellow among the abundance of green trees.

Seoraksan day 1 Gwongeumseong view

It was SUPER windy at the top of the hill. See the picture below for just a hint at how windy it was. At times the gusts were so strong, I felt like I was going to be blown off the mountain if I lost my footing.

Seoraksan day 1 super windy me on top of Gwongeumseong

My ultimate goal was the top of Gwongeumseong, which was marked by the Korean national flag blowing in the wind. Getting up was interesting, because the path was a bit narrow in parts, and I had to pull myself along with a rope during parts of the ascent. And it was even windier on top of the mountain.  Like always, I personally found it easier to ascend and climb up rather than descend and climb down. Coming off the mountain was an interesting journey. When you see nimble, able Korean hikers descending on their butt, you KNOW it is a bit treacherous for someone like me who is clumsy and decidedly not sure-footed. But I made it in one piece, ready for more hiking.

Seoraksan day 1 Gwongeumseong treacherous path

The second hike of the day was an easy hike to Biryong Falls. It was only 2.4 kilometers with no major uphills. Instead it was easy and pleasant to hike along the trail, enjoying the view around me. The hike starts a few hundred meters from the entrance to the cable car, and you can see the cable car ascend as you begin the hike.

Seoraksan day 1 cable view on trail to Biryong Falls

I was very charmed by the numerous, beautiful waterfalls and the colorful foliage during the course of the hike.

Seoraksan day 1 river view on Biryong Falls trail

I even saw more hints of autumn color on the trail. It was beginning to feel a lot more like autumn.

Seoraksan day 1 Biryong Falls autumn view

Seoraksan day 1 trail view on way to Biryong Falls

Even though the final destination was a waterfall, that doesn’t mean there was a shortage of waterfalls along the way, such as Youkdam Falls pictured below.

Seoraksan day 1 double falls view on way to Biryong Falls

Seoraksan day 1 overhead view of river

The sun kept peeking in and out from behind clouds and the trees during the walk. That highlighted the leaf colors, but it also produced interesting and beautiful effects on the rippling water.

Seoraksan day 1 shimmering waterfall pool of light

At the end of the hike is the 40m high Biryong Falls, which means “Flying Dragon”, because of the shape the water evokes. It’s a very pleasant place to sit by the water and silently take in the water and scenery or enjoy a picnic lunch with a group of other hikers, or at least partake in some of the food the very nice older women offered me.

Seoraksan day 1 Biryong Falls

But as beautiful and peaceful Biryong Falls is, I didn’t relax, because I had one more hike planned for the day. And this hike is considered one of the most difficult hikes in Seoraksan National Park. It is also one of the popular ones, because of the beautiful, panoramic view from the top of the 876m high Ulsan Bawi. Because the first two hikes were pretty easy, I wasn’t really tired, which is good, because the Ulsan Bawi is an ass smoker, or more specifically, a thigh smoker. It starts out easy enough with beautiful scenery.

Seoraksan day 1 trail to Ulsan Bawi

But soon enough the hike reveals its true difficulty. The hike gets steeper as it proceeds to the midway point of Gyeojo Hermitage. It’s a nice place to rest, enjoy the scenery and gather your strength for the final ascent to Ulsan Bawi. From the hermitage to the top, it is only 1 kilometer, but it took me about an hour to ascend because of the difficulty and the steepness of the trail. I didn’t realize this until later when I saw a map of the trail, but the final 1 km of the trail is a 30.8% gradient, so at times it felt you needed to climb it and not just hike it. I’m in reasonably good shape, but I had to take numerous short breaks to catch my breath and allow my poor thighs to rest. But even though I was focused on getting to the top, I still was able to enjoy the colorful foliage. The higher I went, the more red leaves I could see.

Seoraksan day 1 autumn colors on Ulsan Bawi trail

I did this hike during my last visit to Seoraksan, and it was interesting to contrast the hikes. Both times the hikes were strenuous, but the trail was much more uneven several years ago. I had to spend a good chunk of my hike with my eyes glued to the ground so I didn’t trip and fall. But in the intervening years, the trail has been improved so it’s not QUITE so uneven. Wooden blocks have been placed among the stones, so it is easier to find steps.  The crowds were also much less this time around. During my last visit, it was on a Saturday afternoon, and there was literally a line waiting to reach the summit, since the summit is not that big and only so many people can fit up top. This time, there was no line, no wait. Maybe it was because it was Friday. Maybe it was because the leaves hadn’t fully changed colors. But either way, it made for a more pleasant journey. Plus a good chunk of the trail was steps, so it a BIT easier. However, when you are faced with a very long stairway UP, you just hope that your legs hold out.

Seoraksan day 1 steep trail to Ulsan Bawi

But then, I hit the top. I got to the summit of Ulsan Bawi. I could see for miles around, all the way to the town of Sokcho and the East Sea. Sure it is windy as all get out, but it’s worth it, because I MADE IT. No, it’s not like summiting Everest or anything difficult like that. But my thighs were certainly shaking enough on the way down.

Seoraksan day 1 Ulsan Bawi view summit

All told, I probably hiked over 10 km my first day at Seoraksan National Park. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it’s really not since it’s only a little over six miles. But Korean hiking is no joke for the most part, particularly for someone short and clumsy like me. By the time I walked back to my hotel, I was ready for a hot bath and long snooze to get ready for day two of my Seoraksan hiking journey.