What: Odaesan National Park (오대산)
Where: This temple-rich and somewhat secluded national park is in the northeastern province of Gangwondo. From our apartment down in Yeosu, it’s likely a 5-6 hour drive while from Seoul it’s about 2-3 hours. In our quest to visit all 16 national parks in South Korea, we took advantage of a recent five-day weekend in early June to take the slow and scenic drive along the east coast, something that’s also been on our Korean bucket list. Highway 7 runs along the east coast which is sprinkled with nice sandy beaches between interesting little coastal towns.
First, we made a pit-stop in Ulsan to visit our friend Lisa (also from Wisconsin) before continuing north up the coast. With four days of our long weekend remaining, we didn’t have any concrete plans other than to get some hiking and camping in. After cruising the coast with the windows down (unless it was sprinkling, which it did frequently) we landed at Odaesan National Park in the dark at about 8:00pm. The forecast for the next two days called for rain, rain and more rain, so we were excited to get camp set up in the park’s campground, hopefully under a shelter or trees. But there was only one problem…. the ranger wouldn’t let us enter the park. I think it closes at 7:00pm and despite my desperate attempt to allow us to camp, his arms in the shape of a big “X” and saying “NO” made it pretty clear we weren’t going to be able to pitch a tent. Clearly we arrived too late to begin camping in Odaesan.
So I began thinking of Plan B. With the help of Naver Maps I was able to search for “camping” (캠핑) and found a potential place just down the road. Upon driving into this mystery place, it didn’t look like a proper campground, but more like a kids’ camp and activity park for school groups. We saw two or three other tents, but otherwise it was really quiet, so we crept up in our car with the lights off to prevent making a scene, found a little shelter, pitched the tent, and scurried into our tent as the rain began to spit from the sky. Perfect timing! We kept our eyes and ears ready for someone to come and say we couldn’t camp there, but we were ready to pull the ‘foreigner-card’. I figured it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
In the morning, we’d find out there was a zip line, soccer fields, rock climbing, etc. There wasn’t anybody around to “check-in” or pay, so we simply packed up our stuff and drove back up the road to the Odaesan entrance. My goal for this trip was to avoid motels/hotels and instead spend every night in the tent in the mountains or on the beach. So far, so good.
It rained during the night, but in the morning it was just overcast. No rain (yet). The same ranger was at the entrance, and we each had big smiles on our faces when we saw each other again. We were up early – it was only 6:15am when we entered Odaesan National Park. Little did he know we just camped 2km down the road. Plan B was some make-shift camping, but it was a success.
Elevation: The highest peak in Odaesan National Park is called Birobong (비로봉) and it reaches 1563m at the summit, making it the 16th highest peak in South Korea. For the complete list you can check this out.
Hiking Highlights: After entering the park, it’s another 30 minute drive on a pot-hole infested dirt road. It began sprinkling, so it was a messy drive. Our car, Sylvia, did great getting us to the trail-head at Sangwonsa Temple (상원사), possibly the ‘main’ attraction to Odaesan apart from the hiking trails. Since it was before 7:00am there were probably only 3-4 other cars in the parking lot, and no tour buses! I think the lack of people was a combination of the early time and dark and rainy skies. BUT, we were on a mission, and we were going to hike rain or shine.
The plan of attack, as it often is for us, is to head to the highest peak the park has to offer. The trail from the parking lot to Birobong Peak is 3.3km, but first you get to check out three temples: Sangwonsa (상원사), Sajaam (사자암) and Jeokmyeolbogung (적멸보궁).
These three temples are along a well-groomed path of steps and lots of cut stones, making it possible for people of all ages to see these three temples within an hour or so. Therefore the first 1.5km has three temples and much of the trail looks like this:
Here’s a trail map with our course in green:
Right near the parking lot was Sangwonsa Temple, so we poked around the grounds for awhile.
Sangwonsa Temple itself was pretty neat. There were several buildings and monks doing some morning chores. Besides that, it seemed like we were the only ones who showed up for hiking this rainy day.
Next, we were off to Sajaam Temple (사자암), which was actually a personal favorite of mine. Why? Here’s some pictures:
Sajaam Temple was tucked in a valley, deep in the woods. The buildings were built in such a way to create a tier-like structure. It seemed like the buildings were in harmony with the landscape, whereas other temples often just level out the land, throw a bunch of concrete slabs down, and build on top of that. Here, it all seemed really natural, and very beautiful. After we had a conversation with the monks and a woman-worker (all of whom appeared to think we were crazy for hiking in the rain), they gave us a bunch of bananas, hot coffee, songpyeong (traditional Korean snack) and some apple candies. It was a really nice gesture but I’m not sure if they were feeling sorry for us? They were comfortable and warm next to a fire inside a beautiful temple, while we were outside, a bit chilly, soaked, and about to embark upon a 10km+ hike. Nevertheless, the coffee hit the spot and we’d snack on the bananas in preparation for the remaining 2.0km up to Birobong Peak (1563m). Here’s a shot of Sajaam Temple while looking back:
We then proceeded to the third temple, Jeokmyeolbogung (적멸보궁) (yes, it’s a mouthful I know).
Jeokmyeolbogung Temple was quite small in comparison to the first two. There was just one little building. At this point we were half way up to Birobong Peak:
We carried on. Sometimes the trail had steps that we could easily see:
While other times the green plants made the stairs a little hidden:
Three things were constant: the low-lying clouds (fog?), rain, and wind. We were completely soaked, but we were keeping warm and maintained good spirits.
We hadn’t seen another person since the last temple, so the trail was quiet.. we had it to ourselves.
Except for guys like this:
The Summit: The 3.3km up to Birobong Peak wasn’t too shabby. It was wet, but not dangerous. It was peaceful and quiet except for the wind and constant drizzle hitting the trees. The trail was sometimes dark and eerie from the fog and dark clouds. The first 1.5km was pretty easy, the remainder was pretty steep. Alas, we made it to the top of Birobong Peak in Odaesan National Park. And WOW were the views amazing!!
Just kidding!! We actually couldn’t see squat. Way too many clouds, way too foggy. It was really cold and really windy. And still raining pretty hard! It felt great to make it to the top, so we had to have a summit selfie.
Normally there’s a nice-sized crowd atop the mountains. Today? Not a soul. It was literally just us. We stayed on the summit for approximately 1.5 minutes. I envisioned beautiful mountain scenery hiding behind the fog… perhaps some day we will have to come back on a clear day so we can see the nearby peaks in Gangwondo Province.
More Hiking Highlights: We hung a right and made our way towards Sangwangbong Peak (1491m). This 2.3km segment was relatively flat and along a ridge. On a clear day I’d bet you’d be able to see through the trees to see some incredible valleys… but today we weren’t so lucky. What we lacked in views, we more than made up in privacy. We STILL hadn’t seen a single person after leaving the three temples. That’s a fair trade-off in my book!
The trail was becoming like a slip-and-slide. We made it to Sangwangbong Peak (1491m) and both decided to cut this hike a littler shorter than originally planned. I wanted to continue on and make our way all the way (heading east) to Durobong Peak, but being soaked from head to toe for 4-5 hours made both of us really want some dry clothes and a warm car! We instead made another right, heading down the trail back to Sangwonsa Temple and our car.
It turned out to be a relatively uneventful trek back to our car. We saw another frog, got rained on more… oh, and I fell (and then slid) very theatrically one time. In total, we hiked 12.2km. It did not rain on our parade!
Overall: I like Odaesan for the three temples near the bottom (especially Sajaam Temple) and the relatively easy hiking trails. I think Odaesan is a little off the beaten path, especially because a lot of people gravitate towards the very popular and nearby Seoraksan National Park. Odaesan does have lots of beauty though. On a clear day, I can imagine it’s stunning atop Birobong Peak. I guess Elicia and I will have to make a return trip to check it out if time allows. Maybe the best part of Odaesan National Park was that we didn’t see a single person while hiking! That was the first time ever happening to us, so it was pretty cool, especially since we were at a national park (they draw larger crowds).
Odaesan was the 10th national park of 16 we visited in South Korea. Only six to go! After hiking Odaesan, we would make our way to Seoraksan National Park for 2 days of camping and hiking… (stay tuned).