This small country has made waves around the world for its bold cuisine, catchy pop music, and trends in beauty. Now, it's time to put South Korea on the map for its amazing trail scene!
Clouds part over Woraksan
If you've never been to South Korea before, you're in for a real treat. This is a truly captivating country with so much to see and do! Even for regular visitors or the long-term expat, there's always much more to discover.
It's the landscape of this country that makes it such an incredible destination for trail running. Over 70% of the country is mountainous terrain: the land is folded up into peaks, ridges and hills - with verdant valleys in between. The geography is an ancient, East Asian painting turned tangible.
A classic mountain scene unfolds on Cheongnyangsan
Then there are the seasons! South Korea has four distinct seasons, and each offers a unique trail experience. Catch waves of blooming wildflowers spreading across entire hillsides in spring, or come in summer when the entire country is lush, green and alive! Autumn offers some of the best hiking and running conditions, with clear skies, crisp weather and the colorful spectacle of changing fall foliage. Winter is cold, but not to be discounted: embrace solitude on the summits, and delight in a fresh snowfall or the growth of frost crystals.
Fall foliage decorates Seoraksan
There's a strong culture of mountain climbing in Korea. On the trails, you'll meet everyone from seasoned runners to playful children to enterprising mountaintop vendors. You'll encounter whole hiking crews decked out in colorful gear, making merry on the trails. My favorite folks are the strong senior citizens who hike uphill faster than I can run! You won't just see these people either: Koreans are social hikers. Some people might want to practice English with you, and others may teasingly test the limits of your spoken Korean! I can all but guarantee someone will offer you an orange or a cup of tea.
Hikers atop Chukryeongsan
Speaking of which, let's talk trail snacks! Yet another enticing aspect of trails in South Korea: if hiking is a national hobby, sharing snacks is national etiquette. Even if you're not prepared to share, your fellow hikers will be - and they genuinely want you to accept their offers. It pays to bring extra supplies if you want to make fast friends! Snacks like ramyeon (instant noodles), kimbap (rolls of rice and seaweed) and fresh fruit reign supreme on the summits, and in the valleys below, you will discover Korean mountain cuisine. In my humble opinion, this is the finest dining in the world! Sample freshly picked plants in traditional side dishes that have no English names, and refuel on delicious classic mains like bibimbap (rice mixed with veggies), ddeodeokgui (barbequed burdock root) and gamjajeon (potato pancake).
Korean mountain vegetable cuisine
So now that Korea is firmly on your list, let's discuss the trails themselves. No matter what kind of adventure you're looking for, Korea has you covered.
Short on time, but want the nightlife and culture of the big city and a mountain adventure? You do not have to compromise in Korea! Seoul and Busan are filled with adventures of all kinds, and that includes trail running, believe it or not!
Seoul sprawls from mountain to mountain, making the metropolis a trail runner's delight! In the capital, a great place to start is by running the Seoul Trail. This is a 157 kilometer long route that follows historic fortress walls, winds through captivating narrow alleyways, and rolls along some rugged mountain trails, too. Try a section or three, or take on the whole route! You can even collect stamps in a souvenir passport along the way. Another great option are the pedestrian paths that border the Han River to either side. Though paved, these are particularly popular with locals (especially at night when the city is all aglow!).
Gwanaksan and the metropolitan sprawl
For a more vertical challenge, head to Bukhansan - the national park at the northwestern edge of the city! Or enjoy other popular Seoul summits like Gwanaksan, Cheonggyesan and Suraksan. Spiritual Inwangsan is a pilgrimage for foreigners and locals alike, while Namsan boasts a network of trails and a famous tower up top. World Heritage Site Namhansanseong is set in a provincial park just south of Seoul and features dramatic gates set in an ancient stone wall. Nearly every neighborhood boasts at least a miniature mountain, so get out there!
Across the peninsula in Busan, more mountains await! Here, the action centers around Geumjeongsan - a sprawling massif that divides the city's northern suburbs in two. Dozens of routes connect picturesque temples to historical fortresses. If you were hoping to run seaside, Igidae Park is where you want to be.
Igidae - where Busan meets the sea
Do a race in this place!
The trail racing scene in Korea has exploded in the past five years, from one sanctioned event to a dozen. Set your sights on one of these awesome events to meet new friends and challenge yourself on this country's rugged terrain!
Korea50k - This is the classic big race in South Korea. There's shorter and longer distances, but the (invariably longer than 50k) 50k is a beast with 3000+ meters of rugged, undulating elevation gain. Taking place just north of Seoul, it's convenient for locals and travelers alike - making it one of the biggest Korean trail running events of the year. It typically takes place in April - just in time for cherry blossoms along the route!
Running the Korea 50k race north of Seoul
Trans Jeju - Another great, classic race - this one on 'the Hawaii of South Korea'! The 100k route has runners climb Hallasan, South Korea's highest mountain, twice! Do a pedestrian tour of this vacation island in gorgeous fall weather - this is usually an October race.
Reach great heights on Hallasan - the highest peak in Korea
Seoul100k - A newcomer to the Korean trail scene, the first edition of this race was held just last year. But this is the race many in the local trail running community had been waiting for: a challenge featuring all of Seoul's best sights! This is a great way for travelers to experience the diversity of trails in Seoul, and a wonderful way for locals to rediscover the city.
See the lights of Seoul at night on the Seoul100k race course
Other awesome international calibre races include the fun and friendly High1 Sky Marathon, the toughest race in the country at Geoje Jimaek, coastal adventures on The North Face Korea 50/100k, and a stage race through the DMZ (demilitarized zone) that separates the two Koreas. But don't discount the numerous other trail and ultra races marketed mainly to locals - the best of these include the Jogno Traverse Jirisan Ultra, Jungle Trail (formerly Wild Trail Inje) and Korea Alps High Trail. Ask a local friend or your running club for help joining and go have a blast! Speaking of running clubs, Seoul Flyers is a top-notch group of friendly folk who organize their own events as well as trips to races around the country - I highly recommend looking them up!
Climb Every Mountain
Are you crazy for mountain climbing? A major fan of summit sunrises? Thanks to its small land mass and multitude of mountains, South Korea is the perfect place to go peak bagging! There are 22 national parks for you to explore on foot, featuring some of the highest peaks in the country. For locals and long-term visitors, I highly recommend exploring the provincial parks in your area too - where you can find equally scenic summits, and sometimes have them all to yourself!
Cross the cloud bridge in Wolchulsan National Park
But perhaps the best challenge is climbing Korea's 100 famous summits. There are actually two of these summit lists - one created by the Korea Forest Service and one created by Korean outdoor gear company Black Yak. There are few English resources out there for this challenge - which is why I recently created one on my blog! In my (admittedly biased) opinion, this is one of the coolest things you can do in South Korea. Individually, each mountain is a great way to spend a day. Together, these mountains form a mosaic that represents the excitement, beauty and diversity of Korea's geography!
Kick things off with the eight exciting peaks of Palbongsan
If you're seeking a truly ultimate trail challenge, consider Korea's very own long-distance trail: the Baekdudaegan. Never heard of it? That's part of the appeal. This 735 kilometer trail follows a line of towering peaks from Jirisan in southern South Korea to Baekdusan on the China-North Korea border. The Baekdudaegan mountain range divides the watersheds of South Korea and is an important part of national identity. Most thru-hikers are experienced locals, but the trail is starting to gain an international following. Note that this is not an official trail, so the trails are infrequently maintained and some sections are closed indefinitely. But if you're up for a massive challenge, this is it!
The rugged spine of South Korea on Joryeongsan
And that's hardly where it ends. If you want to go long, but not quite 735 kilometers long, follow @Korea_FKT on Instagram to learn about other long routes and chase down the fastest known times in the land! For ultra athletes who don't mind pounding the pavement, check out the Korea Ultra Marathon Federation website for local events. One highlight: this group organizes the Trans-Korea race: a distance of 308 kilometers in East-West years and 622 kilometers in North-South years.
Whatever trails you choose to tread in South Korea, I know you'll have a blast. May all your adventures in the ROK be merry!
Summer is swell on Hongdo