Jirisan Baraebong Royal Azalea Hike


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A couple weekends ago, I finally was able to go on the Baraebong Peak Royal Azalea hike in Jirisan National Park. I read about this hike last year, but wasn’t able to do the hike. Since this year is my last spring in Korea, I knew I really needed to do this, because the pictures I’ve seen of this hike are absolutely beautiful. Luckily for me, in my online searches about this hike, I discovered the Seoul Meetup group that was planning to do this hike, and I eagerly signed up.

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After signing up, I realized that the hike the meetup group does, is only a short version of the hike. The true hike is the Jeongnyeonchi Hill Baraebong Peak Course. It starts at the Jeongnyeonchi service area and ends at Undong village. That hike is about 12.6 kilometers, and most of it traverses a ridgeline and passes through numerous passes that are covered in colorful azaleas. Unlike most hikes I have done in Korea, that hike has very little in the way of steep inclines, and the one steep decline is at the end of the hike.

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The shorter hike we did started at Undong village and continued up the hill to Baraebong Peak with a diversion to Pallangchi Pass, with a return to Undong village. The hike we did was around 8 kilometers. This hike was also the steepest part of the whole hike. The hike starts at Undong village and ascends sharply to Baraebong Samgeori. The altitude gain on this hike was over 400 meters in a brief period of time.

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I was definitely feeling the hike in my legs. It was in the middle of the day, and the sun was bright and overhead. There was only minimal shade on this hike, but I took advantage of it whenever I could. Surprisingly, all of these spring hikes I’ve done this year have felt easier than the fall hikes I did. I’ve actually been passing Korean hikers on the paths. My knees certainly feel better. I would like to think that I am simply fitter now than I was in the fall. Or maybe I am just missing all the fitter Korean hikers. But the more likely answer is that I’ve been hiking on easier paths. Sure, the trails are steep, but the trails are wide and surprisingly well-benched. At times I even felt like I was hiking in New Zealand.

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This hike is very popular, particularly this time of the year. There were scores of tour buses at Undong village, and even more groups hiking in from Jeongnyeonchi pass. This popularity is probably why the trail is so well benched, but it also means it is VERY crowded.

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For most of the trail, that is not really that big of a deal, but parts of the trail around Pallangchi pass are rather narrow, so there were times a long line formed on the trail. Sure that make the walking slower, but this also allowed a greater opportunity to take in the beautiful azaleas.

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The azaleas at lower altitudes already passed their blooming season, but as I ascended in altitude, there were more and more azaleas on the path.

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Once I reached Baraebong Samegori, I ascended to the top of the peak. Most of the trail was relatively flat, but the last 250 meters before hitting the peak were so steep, but the view from the top was worth it. I could see all the surrounding mountains, and I could see further down the trail, where the patches of azaleas were abundant around Pallangchi pass. I had plenty of time before having to return to the bus, so it was a pretty easy walk out to the pass.

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Pallangchi pass was definitely worth the walk. All around the areas were thousands of bright purple azalea flowers. The hills were fields of pink, and I had never seen anything quite like it.

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Independent travel for this hike is not exceptionally easy or cheap, but it is doable. The quickest way is probably to take a train from Yongsan to Namwon station, and then a taxi to Jeongnyeonchi service area. At the end of the hike at Undong village, there were plenty of taxis waiting, to get a ride back to Namwon station. There really aren’t any buses in the area, so you really have to take a taxi or be part of a tour group.

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If you have the opportunity to do this hike, I highly recommend it. I have never run into the opportunity to do a hike that afforded an opportunity to see so many wild, colorful azaleas in one place. Parts of the hills were all pink, and even the parts that aren’t, offer up so many beautiful views of the surrounding Jirisan National Park.

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A couple of tips for this hike. If possible, I would highly recommend you start this hike early, particularly if you are doing the full 12.6 kilometers. This will hopefully allow you to get out in front of the bulk of the Koren hiking groups, though there will be the really dedicated hikers out there. Definitely take plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses, because the bulk of the hike is very much exposed, and the sun will beat down on your head during a sunny and bright day.


Morning Calm Arboretum Spring Flower Festival 2014

Morning Calm Arboretum Spring 2014-4

The second half of my day trip to Nami Island was a visit to the  Morning Calm Arboretum. I had visited before a year ago for the winter Lighting Festival, but wanted to see it in the full light of the spring blooming season.

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It is actually reasonably easy to combine the two places into one day trip. They are linked by the Gapyeong Resort Shuttle Bus that runs from Gapyeong Station to Morning Calm Arboretum on an hourly basis, and it takes a little over an hour to get from Nami Island to Morning Calm Arboretum under normal traffic conditions.

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I was done with Nami Island by noon, so I figured I would hit the arboretum by 1330 and be on the train back to Seoul by 1700. Well…that was the intention anyway, but the reality was far different. The next shuttle bus was due at 1215, but over an hour and a half later, that bus still had not arrived. Finally a bus did arrive, and I got on it, but it only went as far as Petit France, which is a fake French theme park between Nami Island and Morning Calm Arboretum.

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Eventually a bus did arrive, and I figured I was home free to get to the arboretum and enjoy a couple hours of viewing before heading home. Again, that was the plan. However, this was a day when the bus ran into the absolutely horrific Korean traffic in places. Due to the VERY long line to get a parking space, it took the bus well over an hour to arrive at the arboretum. By this point, I had about an hour and a half to enjoy the flowers before having to catch a bus back.

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After all this waiting (which isn’t something I am particularly good at) in the hot sun, my mood was a bit surly, and wasn’t helped by the hordes of crowds at the garden. But once I was able to relax and take in all the colorful flowers, my blood pressure stopped dropping.

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The one upside to this extended delay is that I missed the harsh overhead sunlight in the middle of the day, and instead was treated to the softer, more attractive light from the setting sun. I still wish I had more time to enjoy the garden, because there were so many beautiful flowers. The azaleas were about at peak bloom. The multi-colored tulips were throughout the garden, and a wide variety of other wild flowers was interspersed throughout the gardens.

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The arboretum is a very beautiful place to visit, though you will definitely have to fight through the considerable crowds in the afternoon.If I had to go again, I would go in early morning right when it opens around 0830.  I’ve found that the best time to visit any popular place in Korea is in the morning, because crowds don’t tend to show up until late morning/early afternoon.

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Getting back to Seoul from Morning Calm Arboretum is pretty easy. There is a bus that leaves on the hour heading toward Cheongpygeong Station, which is a stop on the metro line and the ITX line back to Seoul. If you love beautiful flowers, this is definitely a great place to see them.

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Icheon Baeksa Sansuyu Festival

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Spring is my second favorite time of the year in Korea, after autumn. The wide variety of flowers are blooming all over the country in a wide variety of colors and shapes. Spring typically starts in April, but this year, spring started about three weeks early due to an unseasonably warm winter that lead to an unseasonably early and warm spring.

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Among the first flowers that tend to bloom are the cherry blossoms and the sansuyu flowers. So in that spirit, I headed down south to the city of Icheon (an approximately one hour bus ride south of Seoul) for the Baeksa Sansuyu Festival. This festival is one of the first of the spring season.

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But since spring flower festivals are entirely weather and flower dependent, there is a potential for disappointment. For me, the two biggest disappointments are rain and missing the blooming season. Both of those were present for this festival. The sky was gray and gloomy with increasing sprinkles of rain while I was at the festival. Having never seen sansuyu flowers before, I couldn’t know for sure, but it really seemed that the festival was a week early. Sure the yellow flowers were blooming, but I don’t think they had hit full bloom when I visited.

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There were also a few cherry trees at the festival site for a nice color contrast.

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The festival was the standard setup for a Korean festival. There were cultural performances, a wide variety of food vendors, and a wide variety of local crafts for sale.

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After the festival, I walked around Icheon for a bit, and enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the park before heading home to Seoul.

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Hwagae Cherry Blossoms and Buril Falls

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My favorite part of Korean spring is the blooming of the cherry blossoms. I adore the gorgeous pink and white blooms that fill the cities and countryside for such a brief time. While the cherry blossoms are a delicate beauty, they are also a very ephemeral beauty.  Cherry blossom season only lasts about seven to ten days, so it’s nearly impossible to see all the places where cherry blossoms bloom in one spring season.

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Last year, I confined most of my cherry blossom hunting to around Seoul, but this year I pushed farther afield.  I decided to make a trek down to Hwagae. I went the week after their official cherry blossom festival, hoping to avoid the hordes of crowds I read about. Of course the danger of going the week after the festival, is that I missed peak blossoms, but there were still enough to enjoy plenty of color. I also took the advantage to combine a few sightseeing places into one trip. I was able to see the Hwagae cherry blossoms, the Ssanggyesa Temple and Buril Falls in Jirisan National Park in one long day trip.

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Hwagae is fairly easy to reach by bus from the Seoul Nambu Bus Terminal. There are numerous buses per day, and it takes about three and a half hours (traffic depending) to reach Hwagae.  I wished I had taken the first bus out of Seoul, which would have given me an extra hour and a half in Hwagae, but I was able to see everything I wanted to see (albeit not at the most relaxed pace).

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Hwagae is a tremendous opportunity to see a bulk of the cherry blossoms. There is an approximately four kilometer stretch of road from the town of Hwagae to Ssanggyesa Temple, and most of the road is lined with gorgeous cherry blossom trees on both sides. It is a very easy walk on flat road by a river (just pay attention to the traffic, though it was often so backed up that I was moving faster than some of the cars), and it is a great opportunity to get your cherry blossom fix. The opportunity for beautiful nature viewing and nature photography are abundant.

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The end of this road is Ssanggyesa Temple (follow the signs), which is a small Buddhist temple complex originating in the year 723, but was rebuilt in 1632. I didn’t spend an extraordinary time at the temple, because I was pressed for time, but it was pretty nonetheless.

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The last sightseeing part of my day was Buril Falls, which is on the edge of Jirisan National Park. The hike from Ssanggyesa Temple to Buril Falls is only about 2.4 kilometers. The hike is considered an “easy” hike, and I suppose it is by Korean standards. Most of the hike to the falls is uphill, sometimes over the uneven terrain I am so used to, but the most strenuous part of the journey is the first 500  meters from Ssanggyesa Temple and the 100 meters up very steep stairs on the return trip from Buril Falls (your knees will probably feel both the uphill and the downhill of that climb). Then the uphill levels out a bit and becomes easier and it took an hour and twenty minutes to reach the falls, and an hour to return, less if you are a faster walker. The trail ends at Buril Falls, which is considered one of the 10 scenic beauties of Jirisan National Park.

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Retracing my steps was fairly quick, and soon enough, I was back to the temple and cherry blossom road to hike back to Hwagae. It was only a one hour walk back to town, and the sun was approaching sunset, giving the cherry blossom trees a beautiful, soft, pink glow.

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I was hoping to take the direct bus back to Seoul, but that wasn’t happening. There were large groups of people waiting at the bus stop and all the buses back to Seoul were sold out for the night. But all was not lost. I caught a local bus to the town of Gurye (about 20 kilometers away) and then took a taxi to the Gurye-gu KTX station to catch a train back to Seoul. Of course all seats on the train were sold out, as it often happens on the Sunday evening trains back to Seoul. Thankfully for me, you don’t need a reserved seat to ride the train. You just need to be willing to stand for the few hours to get back into Seoul.

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I highly recommend Hwagae as a lovely day trip from Seoul. Even though the crowds will be thick that time of year, it is definitely worth your while to go during cherry blossom season. There are few places you can see so many cherry blossoms in one area, and there are so many other sites to visit at the same time.