Korea’s holy trinity

Mt Hallasan
Photo: Korean Tourism Organization

Mountains are a fundamental part of both the physical landscape and the cultural fabric here, making hiking an ideal way to connect with the country and its people

Story by Michael Fraiman

Atop Mt Jirisan
Photo: Korean Tourism Organization

It’s a little-known fact that roughly 70% of South Korea is mountainous. Dotted with temples, they are the setting for ancient tales of mountain spirits, known as san shin (san is Korean for mountain), a critical component of Korean folklore, even today.

The result is a people whose very creation myth begins on a mountain, Baekdu, the Korean peninsula’s tallest at 2,750 metres, on the border between North Korea and China. An energy-giving life-force is said to flow from Baekdu down to South Korea’s ultimate peninsular peak, Jirisan, coursing through an uninterrupted series of ridges known as the Baekdudaegan mountain range: 735 kilometres of continuous slate and rock, the spine of the peninsula. This energy trickles over the ridges and spills into the valleys, down the waterfalls and into the streams that have created and sustained life ever since.

It is hard to exaggerate Baekdu’s importance to the Korean people. North Korean propaganda boasts that Kim Jong-il was born there in a shower of golden light. This is false: he was born in Soviet Russia, but don’t tell the North Koreans. Even south of the border, pictures of the mountain are a common sight, despite it lying hundreds of kilometres away in another country.

Layers of Hallasan
Photo: Douglas MacDonald

All this is to say that South Koreans care a lot about mountains, and today the vast majority of citizens are wealthy enough to be able to enjoy them by visiting the country’s 21 national parks in some form or other. In almost every South Korean closet hangs a breathable Gore-tex shirt of neon green or orange, a solid pair of hiking boots and at least one extendable walking stick. The country’s multi-billion-dollar hiking fashion industry is so absurdly profitable that TV celebrities and famed directors are ensnared in their ad campaigns. Forget taekwondo: hiking is the nation’s true national sport.

It helps that it is all so accessible. No peak in South Korea is higher than 2,000 metres, so none takes longer than a day to summit. Population density and moderate temperatures mean hiking is consistently accommodating and safe: some families climb together every weekend. You don’t need a guide as maps (and apps) are often available and, unless you venture off into uncharted wilderness, you’re unlikely to come across any dangerous wildlife. Trails are usually well-marked and every significant mountain has a few well-stocked shelters where you can sleep and buy food, water and even gear.

With all that in mind, you are ready to strike out and explore. But where to start? The country’s three holiest peaks are also its tallest – Jirisan, Hallasan and Seoraksan – each in a distinct region of the country, each accessible year-round, and each harbouring beautifully quirky legends that illuminate aspects of Korean culture.