What: Sobaeksan National Park is one of the newest national parks, getting the official status in 1987. Despite being one of the new kids on the block, it’s the third largest national park in terms of area, behind only Jirisan and Seoraksan.
Elevation: The highest peak in Sobaeksan is called Birobong and it stands at 1439m, good enough to slide in as #25 on the list of highest peaks in South Korea. Noteworthy also is the rather large spine-like ridge that runs throughout Sobaeksan, with lesser peaks of 1421m, 1394m, etc. also available for hiking.
Sobaeksan National park is a bit in no-mans-land, slightly tucked away in the eastern side of South Korea. Most easily accessed from the toll road #55 running North/South, I think it’s possible to visit as a day-trip for those living in Seoul or even Daegu.
Hiking Highlights: Elicia and I made our way up north early Friday morning because we were granted a three-day weekend earlier in October, this time in remembrance of Hangeul Day. The overall plan was to visit Sobaeksan on Friday, camp out, and on Saturday travel just an hour further north to visit Chiaksan National Park, once again camping after a long hike, and then the long-haul of a return to our home in Yeosu on Sunday. Two national parks in three days… count me in!
Upon arriving in Sobaeksan at 10:30am on Friday, we could see it was going to be a good one! In the picture above you can see some mountains and valleys, with a nice apple orchard in the foreground. Yes, indeed, we were in apple country again, just like a recent weekend spent in Juwangsan National Park. Unfortunately the only camping we could find were auto-camping grounds. Even the one campground in the national park wanted a large sum of money and our name on their reservation list. It was a busy holiday weekend, we didn’t make a reservation ahead of time, and we didn’t want to pay close to $30 for a tent site (auto-camping sites tend to be over-priced here while regular camping is super-cheap, if not free). Therefore, we decided to forego setting up our tent anywhere. We simply wanted to get hiking, and we could worry about sleeping accommodations later! So we paid the car parking fee, threw snacks and drinks in our one 28L backpack, and began walking up the trail.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s the trail map of our visit to Sobaeksan (click to enlarge). As always, we positioned ourselves so we could get to the highest peak and hit as many highlights as possible, hopefully completing a loop of some sorts.
The beginning of the trail was ironically paved – all the way up to Birosa Temple. Just past that point, there’s a fork in the road and the pavement thankfully stops. We veered left, the quickest way up to Birobong Peak. Just to clarify, by “quickest way” I mean that it took about 2.5 hours of decent climbing to reach the peak!
Seeing as this park is fairly far north (relative to Yeosu) and we hiked up in elevation to above 1000m, we noticed the leaves were beginning to change! By no means was it the peak time here on October 9th to see the foliage, but the colors were starting to show themselves, and that simply made both of us delighted.
The trail itself wasn’t all too difficult. It wasn’t the steepest, nor was it the easiest. The parking lot is down around 400 and some meters, so to get to the 1439m peak, that’s about 1000m of vertical gain! Certainly no easy task, but it was spread out over 5.2km, making it moderate on the difficulty level. As we approached the 1439m Birobong Peak, the trees began to disappear, and the end was in sight!
After reaching the peak we quickly realized two very distinct things: First, it was really nippy with the cold wind howling and no trees to protect us any more. We bundled up with what little we had, but it proved to be ample. Second, what a view!! Oh wait, some clouds were blocking the view, but only slightly…
We hid behind a few rocks to protect ourselves from the wind. We opened up that backpack of ours and devoured our packed lunch we brought. It was cold, but so long as we stayed out of the wind, the warm sun kept us pretty toasty! We continued walking around the summit and enjoying the spectacular views from all around.
Despite the campsites being completely booked, there weren’t too many people up on the peak during prime-time (about 1pm). I’d guess there was between 20-30 of us on the peak, but the area was huge so it seemed even more spacious than your average Korean summit.
The wind continued to howl along, and sometimes we’d be misted by a passing cloud charging its way across the peak. Eventually, even in the short 10-15 minutes we spent at the peak, the clouds parted a bit and we could see the vast peaks and valleys in the distance:
Like the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. But in Sobaeksan’s case, the hike just got better as we went down the back-side of Birobong Peak, in pursuit of the ridge. The end of the good summit just provided a beginning of a spectacular ridge! The long, straight staircase going down along the ridge was fun – adrenaline was pumping as we jogged down the gentle path.
We eventually hung a right (heading east) so we could create the loop and wind up back at our car. Before turning right, however, I glanced back and caught some pictures of Birobong Peak… where we stood just a couple of minutes ago:
After that right-hand turn along the ridge, Birobong Peak remained behind us and to the right. As we walked along, we were spoiled with great weather, changing colors of the leaves, and wonderful views within the heart of Sobaeksan. This is why we seek out those ridges! Can you spot Elicia in the picture below?
Birobong Peak remained to our right as we walked along the ridge – a mix of bushes and trees kept us mostly hidden from the stiff and chilly autumn breeze.
From Birobong Peak, it’s about 2.7km along the ridge before you have to take another right, heading back down the mountain. This 2.7km trail along the ridge was quite sublime; honestly some of the nicest views Korea has to offer in my opinion (very weather-dependent, mind you). In total it took about one hour to trot across this trail.
We had successfully made it to our turn-off point. We needed to take a right to head down the mountain and figure out our sleeping accommodations. Frankly, we couldn’t extend our hike too much further in fear of the sun going down. We still had a long ways to go to complete the loop. And here’s one final picture from atop the ridge in Sobaeksan, just before we turned and headed down, down, down.
The way down a trail can sometimes be uneventful; it’s for sure always quicker than the way up. Thoughts of “what’s next” or “where we gonna sleep” filled my head, but I didn’t worry about that. The sight-seeing wasn’t over! This trail going down came to an interesting rock shaped like a pig. Apparently parents come here before their children take tests, all in the name of getting some good luck vibes! With a slight stretch of the imagination, perhaps you can depict a pig.
And last, but not least, the trail followed a nice stream as we made our way back towards Birosa Temple. We came across this nice little waterfall, deep in the woods. Now that daylight was dwindling, there were very few people left in the park.
Phew! It turned out to be a fairly long hike, but certainly do-able provided you start before, say, 11:00am (also depends on what time the sun sets). So, in review, we hiked 5.3km up to Birobong Peak, 2.7km along the ridge, 3.6km down, and another 2.7km back to Birosa Temple, and lastly a 2.3km walk from the temple back to the car-park. Grand total = 16.6km hiked in Sobaeksan! It turned out to be perfect timing, the sun was pretty well set as we came back to the clearing where the apple orchards and beautiful valleys were located (near our car).
After checking with the park rangers again about camping with our backpacking style, tiny 2-person tent, their arms promptly folded and formed a big “X” in front of them. “No camping” they said – clearly without a reservation, camping in and around Sobaeksan was a no-go for us this evening. Ok, plan B. I pulled open Naver Maps and we mutually decided it would be best to drive up towards Chiaksan National Park, since that was tomorrow’s destination and goal. So we hopped in the car, drove north a ways, and found a cheap motel about 20-30 minutes from Chiaksan’s entrance. I would have much preferred to have been camping under the stars sipping the craft beers we brought, but a nice restaurant meal of hot, meaty soup and a good night’s rest turned out to be a decent consolation.
For those playing along, Sobaeksan was the 14th mountainous national park we visited in South Korea. With 16 total, only two remain, and we were waking up within striking distance of #15, Chiaksan National Park! Stay tuned.