Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Baekdudaegan: Useful information

I have here tried to provide some useful information about the Baekdudaegan trail, if you are interested in travelling to South-Korea to walk the trail, either part of it or whole. I will also try to update this page if I should remember more useful tips that it is nice to know about. Otherwise, if there is anything else you are wondering about, use the comments field and I will try to answer as good as I can.

The ideal times to hike the Baekdudaegan is mainly governed by the weather gods. In South-Korea there is often a lot of rain in the middle of the summer season, and at its peak in July. This makes the periods before and after the summer the most suitable to walk in. We are here talking about from the middle of May and from the end of August. That being said, you should not be hindered from walking in the summer months, you only have to take in account that you will probably encounter more bad weather underway.

The torn rocky formations of Seoraksan National Park, which probably was my favorite of the national parks I walked through on my hike.

It is not advised to walk the trail in the winter, and probably not doable in its entirety either. Then it will be extremely difficult at times to find the path, combined with the fact that many sections will be very dangerous when they are covered in snow and ice. The trails through the large national parks will also be closed in the late winter to early spring, usually from the second week in February to the first week in May. Deviations from these dates may occur.

A reason to walk in the springtime is to experience the blossoming of the flowers, plants and trees in the mountains, it is said to be especially beautiful when the azaleas are blossoming. There are large festivals in the mountains when this occurs, with the mountains all colored in pink. Sobaeksan and Seoraksan are among the places to be located in then. A reason to walk in the autumn is to experience the autumnal colors, when the leaves changes colors to vermilion fires.

Bringing a tent is not a necessity, but on some stages you will then have to estimate more time in finding places to spend the night at. You will then often have to hike down from the ridge to find places to stay at. Carrying a tent gives you larger flexibility. However, be aware that it is not permitted to camp in the national parks. Inside the parks you have to sleep in the cabins run by the Korea National Park Service. The stay has to be booked in advance, and before 10 o'clock in the morning on the same day. A stay at a cabin will usually cost between 5000 and 11000 won. You pay for a small place in a dormitory and you have to bring with you all you need to sleep in and what you need to cook food with, and food. Though, blankets can be rented and there are usually a small kiosk at the cabins, but the assortment of food items on sale are not very big.

Outside the national parks you will have more alternatives to choose from. Where staying the night in a minbak (homestay) is the most common and available, these are simple rooms being rented out. Often attached to a restaurant. Some of these may also prepare dinner and breakfast upon request. If you want to experience some genuine and real Korean culture, a stay in a minbak is highly recommended on the way, it is an excellent way to encounter the Korean hospitability. Other accommodation options includes motels (yeogwan), sanjangs (mountain villas, a more comfortable style of minbak) and pensions; but these are there fewer of directly on the trail.

Accommodation. A jeongja, an ornamented pavilion that is is possible to stay the night in, if the jeongja is located inside a village it is customary to ask the village inhabitants for permission to sleep in it. The jeongja at the picture is found at the pass of Hwaryeongjae.

Of the more special accommodation options, the ornamented pavilions, a so-called jeongja, should be mentioned. It is allowed to stay the night in these, after the 'regular' guests has left them for the night or evening. For a jeongja that is located inside a village it is customary to ask permission to stay the night at (from the village inhabitants). To sleep in a pavilion could be a special experience. Baekdudaegan provides several opportunites to do so. Another special option is to sleep in one of the temples that dot the trail, namely a temple stay, but this must be booked in advance (though you could be lucky).

Even though a tent provides a better flexibility, you have to be prepared that there won't be water available everywhere.

Food and provisioning
About whichever way you plan your route, about three days will be the longest amount of days you need to carry food with you for. And even within these days it will always be possible to leave the ridge for a nearby village where you can resupply.

Food and provisioning. Inside Daetjae Hyugeso. A hyugeso is a usually a cafe or restaurant located near a road where you can order food, and also has a variety of food items for sale.

The water in the mountains of South-Korea are usually clean and unproblematic to drink. Water from sources that are closer to the civilization should be treated more carefully. The availability of water sources depends on what time of year you walk in, autumn is refered to as the dry season and the sources may often be dry or contain little water. Roger Shepherd's and Andrew Douch's guidebook (more about it later) contains gps coordinates for the water sources along the trail. The water sources are also marked on the maps you can get in South-Korea.

The largest distance on the trail where there are not any water sources are between Wonbangjae (on the stage between Daetjae and Baekbokryeong) and just before Daegwanryeong, about 50km. That being said, it might be possible to acquire some water from the rustic restaurant at Baekbokryeong if it is open (otherwise there is about 2.5km down to Baekbokryeong Swimteo from the pass). And at Dangmokryeong it is possible to ask for water (mul) at the farms that is located near the pass.

It is also wise to pay attention when you are filling water from creeks in the mountains, there are potentially lethal snakes in South-Korea and they are often found nearby water. I saw several snakes when I filled water.

Water. Access to water is essential on a long distance trail. It could be problematic sometimes to find water, especially in the dry months in the autumn. Here from a water source nearby Daegwanryeong.

The mountains in South-Korea are not the tallest ones in the world, and you are already on the highest point on the mainland when you are at the beginning of the trail, Cheonwangbong at 1915m. What the mountains are however, are exceedingly steep at times. And the trail gives no quarter, it usually charges the peaks straight on. Only exceptionally does the path goes on somewhat level ground.

There are several sections on the trail that requires some scrambling, where there will be ropes (of unknown origin) on the most exposed parts. In addition, staircases are also found, making it easier for hikers to climb up and down the most steep and inaccessible paths, these staircases and boardwalks also functions as protection for the path against erosion, tear and wear.

Difficulty. The trail contains several sections where you have to pass obstacles either with the aid of ropes or scrambling / easy climbing. The picture is from a passage between Chagatjae and Beoljae in Woraksan National Park.

The most demanding sections on the Baekdudaegan are probably the descent from Daeyasan in Songnisan National Park, the passage through Gaegumeongbawi after Munjandae (also in Songnisan), the descent from Jeombongsan to Hangyeryeong (in Seoraksan) and the funky ridge over Mungyeong Saejae. Down from Daeyasan the trail goes very steep down one side of the peak with the aid of several ropes, concentration is required (if you choose to do the section, this part is in a closed section). Through Gaegumeongbawi (also in a closed section) the trail is offering both physical and navigational challenges, the same goes for the descent from Jeombongsan (also in a closed section). Over Mungyeong Saejae there are several parts where a fall could be fatal.

Maps and guidebooks
You can get maps of the whole trail in Seoul, I bought one set consisting of 24 maps. One of these maps does not weight a lot, but packed together they take up some space. The biggest problem with the maps are that all the names on the map are in Hangeul, the Korean written language. The trail is clear and evident on the maps, with arrows pointing where the direction is if you are going from south to north. In addition, it also contains time estimates between two points on the route. Water sources are marked on the map as blue circles with a star inside. The map also includes symbols for peaks, staircases, cliffs, helipads, altars, resting places (jeongjas, eateries), signposts, viewing points, tombs and more. Looking at all the height lines on the map, you get a good impression of how undulating Korea is.

Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch has written a very good guidebook for the trail, it can be bought from Hike Korea. The book contains a big section of practical information, together with a detailed description of the trail stage by stage. The descriptions of the stages contains height profiles for the stage, time estimates between milestones on the way (these match the times on the maps), information about accommodation, places to eat, water sources and available transport underways. All the names of the places, peaks, passes and so forth are given by both western and hangeul characters, this is useful since you can compare the names with those on maps and know where you are. The biggest problem with the guidebook is that it is a little bit heavy. This can be solved by reading thoroughly the practical information in advance, eventually take a picture of the pages, and then tear out the descriptions of the stages and only carry them with you (this could maybe feel a little bit like a sacrilege to do). Then you can also leave behind you the descriptions of the stage that you have completed.

Updates to the book and the trail are available at the following page: http://www.koreantrails.org/bddg-updates-changes. This page also contains an overview when the trails are being closed during winter.

Maps and guidebooks. A part of the map of Baekdudaegan. The trail is visible as a red line with white borders. The arrows displays the direction from south to north. The time estimates are between the green points. Do not become insulted of the symbols for temples, that symbol has another meaning in Korea (its original).

The Baekdudaegan trail is usually easy to follow, the trail will usually be located on the highest ridge you walk on and it will only rarely break off from the main ridge and cross to another ridge. Still be warned that it does so a couple of few places. The trail never crosses water, since you walk on what is essentially the watershed of Korea. If you come to a junction that is not marked in any away, Baekdudaegan will be the path that goes up to the highest hill nearby in the same direction you came down from. What is making it difficult is that the path often goes down among the trees and that you not always will be able to see the surrounding area.

The trail is not marked in the usual way, as you may be used to by official blazes or signs (like the red and white stripes of the GR trails). In the national parks there will be no markers / blazes on the trail, but there the path will usually be very clear and just as often surrounded by a fence, and signposts at each junction. There is very little chance of going in the wrong direction in the national parks.

Navigation. Hiking ribbons that are tied to trees and bushes are useful navigational aids along the trail. These are put there by hikers having walked there before you. From the summit of Hyeongjebong.

Outside the national parks you will also find several signposts, but not as often as inside them. What is however the greatest aid in navigation here, is the hiking ribbons that former hikers has left behind them. These marks the trails and are often adorned with personal messages and information in addition. It is important to learn how to separate between the different ribbons, since Baekdudaegan is not the only trail in the country. The easiest is to look for the hangeul characters for Baekdudaegan: 백두대간. A little word of warning though, do not follow the ribbons without paying attention the where you are and go. Some hikers may be too eager to hang up ribbons, and also hang up ribbons marked with Baekdudaegan on the sidetrails that leads up to the Baekdudaegan. If you are situated on the highest point and there is a path continuing further, and in the same place there are some ribbons leading down from the path, check your map and the description in the guidebook, also check if there are some ribbons marked with 백두대간 on the trail that follows the path further and not downwards.

It is not allowed to put up ribbons in the national parks, and henceforth there will be less ribbons there as well as in the closed sections.

Navigation. Information board and signpost at the summit of Geumdaebong, with hiking ribbons fluttering where the trail is continuing. The signposts are usually only in Korean (Hangeul), but in the national parks these are also in English.

How to get to the start of the trail (Cheonwangbong)
The guidebook contains several options (three) on how to get to the summit of Cheonwangbong and the beginning of the Baekdudaegan. I chose the one option that was said to be the most practical one, to go from Jungsanri. To get there I took a train from Seoul til Jinju and then a local bus to Jungsanri. The train station in Jinju is situated outside the town, there goes busses to the town, but I took a taxi. You have to buy a ticket before you enter the bus, which can be bought from stall number 4 at the bus station, it is also the same number as the bus. From Jinju there is about 1 hour and 10 minutes to Jungsanri. Jungsanri is located up into the mountains and is also the turning point of the bus, which will drive back to Jinju again from there. The bus station is a large open place. You will find several stores and accommodations in Jungsanri.

From the bus station in Jungsanri there is a little bit of a walk up along the road until you get to another restaurant and minbak, as well as the Jirisan Visitor Centre. You will find the trail leading up to Cheonwangbong after crossing a bridge on the road leading up from the Jirisan Visitor Centre.

Closed sections
One reason that many may not see the Baekdudaegan as a true longdistance-trail, is due to the fact that there are several sections of the trail that are closed. These are closed to preserve the environment, both nature and wildlife inside of the closed areas, and you will be charged a fine if caught walking in one of them. Several of these areas are surveiled by cameras, but there is an ongoing debate whether these are active or not. Ufortunately, some of the most spectacular parts of the Baekdudaegan are located in the closed sections.

Closed sections. Several sections of the Baekdudaegan are closed at the moment due to preservation. I will not directly encourage walking in these. Here from the closed section on the way up to Daeyasan.

The closed sections of the trail will usually be fenced off by varying degrees. Along the roads, these are often blocked by tall fences and cameras, but up in the mountains or in the woods there will be signposts and fences that warns you that the trail ahead is closed. Whether you want to go the closed trails or follow the rules and go around is all up to you, I will not tell you what to do or take any responsibility for what you choose to do. The closed sections are also not so good marked. Some of the barriers are also cumbersome obstacles to pass.

The guidebook by Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch contains descriptions of where the trail is closed and alternative routes and ways to continue your hike.

Other useful things
Communication will probably be the biggest obstacle for many, but know that the Koreans are extremely friendly and hospitable. They will always try to help you in a way and seems to have an understanding that their language is difficult for people from the west. Be nice, glad and grateful and you will get a lot of smiles in return. Remember that kam-sha-ham-nida is the Korean word for thanks and cho-song-ham-nida is sorry. To greet a person you say annyong hoseyo.

Korean hospitability. At the summit of Samdobong, I encountered this very nice group. They offered me food and drinks and made the ending of a very hard (but nice) day almost perfect. The Koreans are very curious, hospitable and generous.

If you plan to hitchhike in Korea, a good advice is to make a bow when you do it.

And as a final little thing to remember, there are potentially lethal snakes in Korea, so be cautious where you put your feet and hands when you walk and climbs.

Blogs and links about Baekdudaegan
There is not very many blogs and information in English about Baekdudaegan, I have here collected a couple of links til blogs and pages about the spiritual backbone of Korea:

About Baekdudaegan:
Hike Korea
One Korea Photography
Korea's Baekdudaegan
David Mason's San-shin Website
Korean Trails: Baekdudaegan
Article in The Guardian
Article in The New York Times
Article in Seoul Tribune

Blogs or pictures by people that have hiked the whole or parts of the trail:
Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch blog from their expedition
Baekdudaegan 2015 (Marilyne and Brandon)
Breathing the Daegan
Chriz and Liz hiking the Baekdudaegan
Change of plans: Greg Meredith and Rebecca Walker
Jiri Nehyba Hiking Baekdudaegan 1 (pictures)
Jiri Nehyba Hiking Baekdudaegan 2 (pictures)
Jiri Nehyba Hiking Baekdudaegan 3 (pictures)

A Facebook-group for Baekdudaegan:


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome, only happy if my information are useful. Have a great hike on that wonderful trail.

  2. Hi there, we are considering walking this trail in 2021 if the situation allows. What is your summary of the trail? Would you recommend it and what did you like and what didn't you like? How does it compare to other trails you have done? Many thanks, Caro

    1. Hi Caro!

      I have no trouble recommending this trail, to me it was a fantastic experience. Being in South-Korea it was an exciting country to do a long distance trail in, as it is so exotic to my own country of Norway.

      I found the trail to be quite hard, due to its undulating and steep elevation profile, almost never a flat section (there is, of course, but never felt like it). And given the language and writing system being difficult too. On the other hand, one of my best experiences on the trail was the meeting with the Koreans, as I found them very friendly and hospitable, and always trying to help.

      As, due to the environment, very much of the Korean mountains are clad in trees and vegetation, I often found myself walking through woods (pleasant though). But that is also one of the things I enjoyed the most about the trail, walking through (most steep up and down) the woods and then suddenly finding myself at the top of a cliff or outcrop looking out over the torn Korean landscape. There was always excitement in what awaited me around the next corner. And the walk through Seoraksan national park was just amazing.

      The thing I didn't like about the trail was the closed sections, which felt like there was something being held back from you. Likewise, despite that the walk through the most popular national parks was wonderful, they are also a little bit restricted as to where you are allowed to go. This doesn't matter much in terms of hiking the original route, but sometimes when I saw places that I would like to go to, it was not possible to do so (I have an understanding of why they do it, but to a Norwegian it is different in terms of what we are used to of free walking in the mountains back home).

      I find it hard to compare this to other trails, but then again, I find it hard to compare trails to each others, as many of them are different in many ways.

      Hope this is helpful to you. As I said, I would recommend doing it. And sorry for a little late answer, I've been busy.

      Best regards,

  3. Excellent write up and congrats on the adventure! Do you know the total elevation gain/loss for the South Korean portion of the trail?

    1. Thanks. I believe it to be an elevation gain of around 44 000m.


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