One of the things that Jeju Island is famous for is its sub-tropical climate and the seas of wildflowers that cover the flanks of the mountains in springtime. We arrived on Jeju mid-March, our main goal being the ascent of South Korea’s highest mountain: Hallasan, whose peak touches the clouds at 1.950 meters. We were a few weeks too early to find flowers on our way to the top of this dormant volcano. Instead, we found snow. Lots of it!
While spring was blossoming on Jeju’s lower altitudes…
In this travel story I will describe our hike to the top of Hallasan to give those of you who want to attempt the same some insight into the experience and the practicalities. It is possible to complete the climb and descend within one day if you start early, but it takes a little bit of preparation and planning. Don’t underestimate the mountain! Most notably you must make sure to reach the various check points in time to be allowed to continue your way to the top – and if you are climbing in the colder season, be prepared for icy conditions!
First stage: to checkpoint one
We had planned to start our hike at 07:00 AM to allow ourselves sufficient time to arrive at the first checkpoint. Our party of four generously underestimated the time needed for our morning rituals and we didn’t arrive at the trailhead before 08:00. After parking the car and buying kimbap and crampons at the convenience store we entered the trail. There is no fee for climbing the mountain but there was a ranger at the beginning of the trail who checked if we had the necessary gear (notably the crampons) to be able to make it to the top.
We were followed closely by a fast-moving group of soldiers from the South Korean military who ascended the volcano as part of their physical exercise. We soon lost sight of them as we walked at a more leisurely pace, however still moving reasonably fast keeping the time limit for the midway checkpoint in mind. There were only few patches of snow in between the trees at this stage, and we walked through pretty green foliage, crossing mountain streams and following an easy-going and not so rocky trail. Moving on higher and looking back down we saw some of the beautiful views that the Gwaneumsa is known for: we were able to overlook the entire north side of the island and see the ocean in the distance. We were lucky with the weather, as it was sunny and the skies were clear.
At 08:45 the trail started to ascend more steeply and it became rockier. The first snowy parts came into view and soon we sat down to put our crampons on as the trail was now covered in snow and compressed ice. The icy conditions made it slippery, especially on the steep ascents. The crampons significantly eased our efforts as they helped to maintain good grip on the snow and ice. All of us were glad to have shelled out to buy them and agreed that we probably would not be able to make it to the summit in time (or at all!) without them.
It was not very busy on Gwaneumsa trail. From time to time we passed other people, but most of our hike was spent in solitude and in that special type of silence that you will find when thick blankets of snow isolate the earth. The world surrounding us was beautiful. The snow was more than a meter high and covered the ground and the trees. The warmth of the trees had melted a small circle of snow around the trunks, and by looking down into this narrow crack we could estimate how deep the layers of snow actually were. It was obvious that a lot of snow must have fallen over the past days and weeks, because parts of the Gwaneumsa trail are formed by wooden stairs to cover the steepest parts, and we could see the handrails of those stairs popping up just above the layer of snow, meaning that we were not really walking on those stairs, but some 1.5 meters above them!
Before starting the hike we were a bit weary of the snowy conditions. None of us had hiked in ice and snow before, and it seemed to us a tricky thing to do. But the crampons aided us a lot, and we actually agreed that it was much more pleasant to ascend steadily on a path of ice then to have to climb the countless stairs that cover much of the Gwaneumsa trail in summer.
We reached the checkpoint fairly early at 10:30 – 1.5 hours before the time limit. Feeling very optimistic about the remaining part of the ascent, we sat down to eat our kimbap and made use of the opportunity to visit the horrendous toilets. There are some outdoor benches at the shelter and an indoor area with few seats but no tables and no heating. It is all really bare and not a particularly inviting place for a picnic.
Second stage: to the summit
The trail continued and led us to a beautiful valley where the towering peaks of the volcano loomed over us, with the summit still seemingly very far away. The virgin fields of snow stretched over a vast distance. Clouds had begun to enter the scene, and the weather turned from bright and sunny to grey and windy. The parts of the trail that led us through forests were fine and I still was wearing only my wool shirt, but from time to time the trees made way for rocky fields and we were exposed to freezing winds.
After some time we reached a resting platform where we encountered the group of soldiers who were eagerly eating their meal of steaming hot instant noodles. We also set down for a while to rest our feet and legs, which at this point started to feel a little bit weary.
Then the final push for the summit, which never really seemed to come into view, making it difficult to estimate how much longer we would have to climb before we’d reach it. But finally it was there. We had reached the summit at 12:35, well before the 14:00h time limit for starting the descent back down.
The lucky few who are at Hallasan’s summit on one of those rare days when there are no clouds at the top will see a beautiful crater lake and will enjoy spectacular 360-degree views over Jeju Island. We were not among those lucky people, and we saw a big load of nothing. Misty clouds limited any views extending beyond a few meters. An icy wind raged along the craggy peaks and caused my eyes to tear up like crazy. My fingers froze while trying to capture our achievement on camera. We quickly decided that the point of climbing Hallasan is not to see the views, but the sense of accomplishment that comes with conquering the summit. We felt tired, but satisfied. Up until this point we had been fairly quick and very optimistic, but now that we were here, after 4.5 hours of steep, snowy and sometimes tricky climbing, we realized that we were only halfway our adventure, and that a steep, snowy and tricky descend still lay ahead of us.
Third stage: to the last checkpoint
General laws of physics prescribe that what goes up, must come down. And usually, the force of gravity makes going down easier than going up. The laws of mountaineering tell us that when mountain climbing the contrary is true. Ascending a steep trail is typically easier than climbing down, more so when the steep trail is slippery with compressed snow and ice. Our love for our crampons grew with each slippery step and at an inversely proportional rate to the wellbeing of our kneecaps. Seongpanak trail may be more gradual than Gwaneumsa, but when you have to walk it for some 5 hours you will certainly not rate it as gentle. At some sections there were ropes to grab and hold on to, but most of the way down was simply a slippery slope, and as some people had literally been sliding down there were parts of the trail that were so smooth that it was hard to keep my balance on my way down. With the euphoria of reaching the summit well behind us, we started to resent the remainder of our hike more and more. Our knees hurt and we started to feel tired. The way down seemed to last forever. At the checkpoint we rested for a bit and gagged at the disgusting smell in the toilets. Our pace had slowed down enough to be summoned by a park ranger to continue to move on, as the time limit for reaching this check point had now passed.
Fourth stage: to Seongpanak car park
There is not much I can write about this last part of our hike. I was nearing that delirious state that you reach after hours and hours of walking, and was simply putting one foot in front of the other just to keep moving, without enjoying or even trying to take into account the surroundings. Just before we reached the shelter the snow had melted enough to allow us to take our crampons off. It was a strange sensation to be walking without them again, like wearing a new pair of shoes. We noticed a railway that carried a small cart that is used by the park authorities to evacuate injured climbers. We watched how a family with a small child and an old grandpa arranged with the rangers to be taken down on the cart, and a tinge of jealousy struck at our tired hearts (and knees). We were neither infants nor old, so we had to rely on our own legs to continue to carry us down. And on our sense of pride of course, because we had made it to the summit so surely we would make it back down again, too!
Ten hours after starting our hike, we finally arrived at Seongpanak car park. We dragged ourselves along for the final couple of meters. The car park was nearly deserted and twilight had started to set in. There was a lone taxi sitting in the middle of the tarmac – a stroke of luck to end our exhausting but extremely satisfying day.
Choosing a trail: Gwaneumsa or Seongpanak?
There are six trails on the mountain, but only two of them lead to the top: Gwaneumsa (8.7 km – 5 hrs one way) and Seongpanak (9.6 km – 4 hrs 30 min one way). We decided to take one trail up and the other one back down to avoid backtracking. We had done some research and learned that the Gwaneumsa trail has better views. This is important to know because in the early morning it is possible to have great views from the mountain overlooking the island, but with the arrival of the afternoon clouds typically roll in and will obstruct your views. So we decided to go for the Gwaneumsa trail in the morning, while we could still enjoy the panorama. Gwaneumsa is shorter but steeper than Seongpanak, and we figured Seongpanak’s gentler slope would be preferable on the way down. Seongpanak is the longer trail of the two, but also considered the easiest so if you are not very confident about your hiking skills it will be your safest bet. This also means that it is the busier trail of the two. Another difference is that Gwaneumsa has a lot of stairs while Seongpanak is more of a natural trail.
How to arrive at Hallasan
We had a rental car which is by far the easiest and most flexible way to arrive at the trail’s starting point. There are large car parks and the trail begins immediately from where you leave your car. Expect to pay a 1.800 won parking fee for the day.
Alternatively, you can arrive at the trails by public transportation (bus 740 departs hourly from Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal to Seongpanak trail and takes about 45 minutes) or taxi.
What to wear on your Hallasan hike – clothes and gear
As with any mountain, conditions can be treacherous and can change any minute. Don’t be fooled by beautiful weather at the car park at the foot of the trails, because conditions at the top can be completely different.
As for clothing and gear, I suggest:
- Worn-in hiking shoes (boots in winter to prevent snow from entering)
- In case of snow: crampons! Hallasan is covered in snow for much of the winter and well into spring. As I mentioned, we hiked the volcano in mid-March and we encountered loads of snow. There are signs at the car park warning you for snowy conditions further up the mountain, and be sure not to ignore them. You really don’t want to go up the mountains without crampons that allow you to navigate the slopes that are covered in snow and ice. Without these, you’ll be doing more sliding backwards than hiking upwards. These are not a luxury, but a must-have.
- Lots of layers – make sure to bring at least one fleece vest in summer and something warmer in winter, like a down jacket and a wind breaker. I wore trekking pants and my favourite merino wool hiking shirt, paired with a fleece vest. Most of our way up I did not wear the fleece because the ascent had me sweating, but at the top there was a freezing wind and I was glad to put my fleece and shell on. In case of snow, you may also want to wear gaiters or waterproof pants.
- Gloves – best to bring a waterproof pair if you are hiking in the snowy season.
- Trekking poles were very useful for gauging the depth of the snow and to understand where beneath the snow the trail ends.
What to eat on your Hallasan hike
Be sure to bring food and water with you, because there is nowhere on the mountain where you can purchase anything to eat. I recommend high-energy snacks and plenty of water (minimum 2 L), and kimbap for lunch. It is filling and easy to carry. There are also no trash cans anywhere on the mountain, so bring a small bag that you can use to carry all your waste back with you.
Facilities at Gwaneumsa and Seongpanak car park
There are clean public restroom facilities at the Gwaneumsa car park as well as a small convenience store which you will find at the opposite side of the main road. In the convenience store you can buy snacks and drinks as well as freshly made kimbap that you can take away to have lunch on Hallasan. Be aware that the kimbap is not vegetarian, so if you are a veggie you should bring your lunch from somewhere else. The store also sells some hiking gear including crampons, which we purchased there for around € 25 per pair.
If you start from Seongpanak car park, you will find a few shops selling snacks and drinks and some hiking supplies.
Note that on the mountain itself the only facilities you will find are at the checkpoints (shelters) – some have a platform where you can sit and rest, some have limited seating. The toilet facilities are extremely basic (portable squat-style toilets, bring your own paper and don’t look down onto the pile of shit just below you). If you like your hygiene you might want to bring some antibacterial gel because there is no running water at the toilets.
Mind the checkpoints and their deadlines
As I mentioned, it is possible to complete your hike to the top and back in one day, but you have to start early to be able to make it back before sundown (it is not allowed to stay on the volcano overnight and descents after dark are deemed too perilous). There are several checkpoints on your way up that you need to reach before a certain hour to be allowed to continue. If you fail to reach the checkpoint in time, you will meet a ranger who will prevent you from ascending further and you will be summoned to turn around and walk back.
Along the trail you will find signs advising you of the deadline of each checkpoint and the approximate time it will take you to hike there. The times may differ between the summer and winter seasons, but when we were there the deadline to reach the first checkpoint was set at noon. If we’d arrive any time later than that we would not be permitted to continue our hike to the summit.
Ending your Hallasan hike
If you are taking a different trail down than on the way up like we did, you will need to use a taxi to get back to your original trailhead if that is where you have parked your car. There is no public transportation between Seongpanak and Gwaneumsa. We were lucky to find a taxi waiting there, but you should bring some phone numbers of taxi services with you so you can call one if necessary. Alternatively you can take a bus back to Jeju City from Seongpanak.
Expect your muscles and knees to be sore in the days after your hike; we had some difficulties getting up and down the stairs the next days! It was delightful to spend these days relaxing at a beautiful cottage at Yangtte Farm, a lovely family-owned accommodation with plenty of nature and animals that helped us wind down and recover.
Hiking Halasan was an amazing experience. Climbing a mountain that is covered in snow is magical, and it was much less hard than I expected because of the great functionality of the crampons and hiking poles. It was tiring because of the length of the trail, and it was not rewarding in terms of views from the top, but to have summited Korea’s highest peak in such fairy tale conditions was entirely worth the sore knees.
Are you a hiking fan just like us? You might like to read some of our other travel stories about epic hikes we’ve completed:
Ciudad Perdida in Colombia
Lalibela’s mountains in Ethiopia
The Fisherman’s Trail in Portugal
The Grand Canyon in the United States of America
Walking safari in Uganda
Poon Hill trek in Nepal
Hiking in Monument Valley, USA
West Highland Way in Scotland
Durmitor National Park in Montenegro
Hiking a volcano in Chile