Hiking in Sobaeksan National Park unexpectedly turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip to South Korea. While it’s the country’s third largest national park, it lies away from the main tourist trails making it trickier to get to. However that wasn’t going to stop me on my quest to conquer as many mountains as I possibly could during my trip. Here’s my guide to visiting Sobaeksan National Park and hiking to Birobong Peak – the park’s highest point.
I didn’t originally plan on visiting Sobaeksan National Park. After spending a few days exploring Seoul and the amazing Seoraksan National Park, I wanted to head south to Busan and then to Jeju Island. After a lot of thinking, I decided that I just didn’t have time to go to Jeju while also fitting in all the other things I wanted to do. So I decided to instead head to the central province of Chungcheongbuk-do – and specifically the town of Danyang – to break up my journey south. As someone who loves temples and shrines, I just couldn’t pass up a visit to the incredible Guinsa Temple! Luckily, as it turned out, the temple wasn’t the only highlight of this region!
Hiking in Sobaeksan National Park
Having arrived to Danyang the day before, I decided to get an early start for my hike to Birobong. Armed with snacks and plenty of water, I made my way to the bus station to catch the 6:30 am bus to Sobaeksan.
After a 10 minute wait, the bus turned up and I hopped on for the short journey to Darian, the gateway to Sobaeksan National Park. The road twisted and turned along a snaking river, past mountains, lush fields and limestone caves. The Darian Tourist Area, in the middle of a valley, is a popular summer getaway for Koreans and provides a good hub from which to explore with hotels, campsites and shops in abundance.
I headed through the still-asleep town and soon found myself at the entrance to the national park. I followed the path along a paved road for about a kilometre, taking a short detour to the three-tiered Darian Falls before crossing a suspension bridge over the waterfall.
Cheondong Trail to Birobong Peak
The path continued along a stream before culminating in a car park and an info centre for the national park. A big wooden gate marked the start of the Cheondong Trail to Birobong Peak, my destination this morning. As Korea’s 25th tallest peak, it was definitely one I wanted to conquer! As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, hiking is akin to a national sport in Korea (yes, along with Starcraft for any gamers out there!). Trails are clearly marked and well maintained, leaving visitors to focus on…well, hiking! The Cheondong Trail was no exception with maps and markers placed at regular intervals reassuring me that I was on the right path.
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The trail climbed gradually with the sun’s rays shining through the forest canopy. This portion of the trail had heavy-duty mats laid over the middle of the path, creating a sort of a carpet leading up the mountain. This was presumably to make it easier to walk over the rocky sections but also made the trail look like the Yellow Brick Road!
I passed small streams and huge boulders on the side of the path before arriving at a clearing with toilets and a picnic area. This marked roughly the halfway point of the hike and from here the going got a bit tougher! The terrain became more rocky and the path steeper, with the carpet disappearing all together. This actually made it easier (and more fun!) to climb the path as I picked my way between trees, over rocks and up makeshift log stairs.
Eventually the trees started to recede as the path climbed above the forest. The carpet made a brief comeback as I walked along a plateau before emerging at a lookout point. The stunning views of the mountains and the impossibly green valleys looked like something out of Hawaii. At least that’s what I imagine Hawaii to look like!
Along the ridge to Birobong Peak
The last 0.6 kilometre section to Birobong Peak follows the long ridgeline that runs through Sobaeksan. This part is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the entire park. A series of boardwalks snake their way across the ridge, the famous royal azaleas and wildflowers carpeting the slopes on either side. Luckily the flowers were in bloom, and I got to admire the views all the way to the top.
I reached Birobong Peak and formed an orderly queue with other hikers in taking obligatory selfies with the marker stone. That’s something I love about Korean mountains – the markers are almost like passport stamps! I enjoyed the 360 degree views from the top and snacked on my peanut butter and jam sandwiches (my favourite hiking food!). I started chatting with a group of Korean hikers who wanted to take photos with me and demonstrated the incredible Korean hospitality by sharing their kimbap!
Kimbap is a Korean staple – with cooked rice and various ingredients rolled in sheets of seaweed, it’s similar to sushi. It’s also a popular snack among hikers who always have a few rolls in their backpacks.
After enjoying my kimbap, I decided to explore the area a bit more. However, the sunny skies in the photos are a bit a deceiving. The peak and the boardwalks were exposed and I was shivering as the chilling wind penetrated my thin t-shirt making the warm temperatures at the start of the hike a distant memory. It was 7 degrees at the top but with wind chill factor it felt sub zero! I walked along the ridge and enjoyed more incredible views of Sobaeksan but it was getting too cold even for me. I backtracked to Birobong Peak and started making my way back down.
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There were a lot more people heading up by this time so I was glad I got up as early as I did! Soon, I was walking back out through the gate to park having notched yet another peak on my Korean mountain adventure. If you are after going a bit off the beaten track, hiking in Sobaeksan National Park is one of your best options!
Sobaeksan National Park – Hiking the Travel Lexx Way
There are numerous trails in Sobaeksan National Park. Birobong Peak (1439m) can be reached from the park entrance in Darian via the Cheondong Trail (7km, 2 hours one way). This is the easiest way to hike up if you don’t own a car. The route is very well signposted and I would consider it easy to moderate. You can extend your Sobaeksan hike by following one of numerous trails from Birobong Peak.
I completed the hike in just under 3 hrs 30 mins.
Top Tips for Hiking in Sobaeksan National Park
#1 Start early to avoid the crowds – hiking is extremely popular in Korea and there was a steady stream of people heading up by the time I was walking back down.
#2 Wrap up warm. It can get VERY cold at the top thanks to the strong winds.
#3 You can easily spend a day exploring the park’s trails. I recommend walking along the ridge at the top for fine views.
#4 Bring water and food – there are a couple of convenience stores opposite the bus station where you can grab snacks before boarding the bus.
#5 Ask the bus or taxi driver to drop you off at Gosu Caves on the way back. It’s a must-see and only a short walk back to Danyang town centre.
What: Sobaeksan National Park is one of the newest national parks in South Korea – it was only designated in 1987! The park boasts gorgeous views, wildflower-covered mountain slopes and one of the highest peaks in the country. The park’s main peak, Birobong (1439m) is Korea’s 25th tallest!
Where: Sobaeksan National Park lies in central South Korea. It spans a number of provinces. The best access point is the town of Danyang in Chungcheongbuk-do province.
Getting There: Danyang can be accessed from Seoul (2.5 hours) by buses from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon station, Line 2, Exit 4). There are no direct buses to/from Busan – you will need to change in Yeongju and buy a separate ticket. Buses to Sobaeksan National Park run from just outside Danyang Bus Terminal – the bus shelter is just above the coach bays. The first bus departs for Darian (gateway to Sobaeksan) around 6:30 am and runs hourly but make sure to grab the up-to-date timetable from the tourist information centre inside the building the day before.
Accommodation: I stayed at the amazing Us On Earth guesthouse. It occupies the top floor of a residential home and has its own entrance. The rooms are cosy with comfortable beds. There is a fully stocked kitchen with cereals, bread, spreads and tea and coffee freely available. There is a spacious living area, modern bathroom and a huge patio with stunning views of the town and the mountains. The place has incredibly high reviews and I can confirm they are all justified! The only slight downside is it’s about a 10-15 walk to the bus station so bear that in mind.