I was bored and stir-crazy, itching for something new. The cramped and hectic streets of Seoul were starting to get under my skin. I needed a break from South Korea’s booming capital of 10 million people. It was time for a nature fix.
A scenic hike up Seoul’s Dobongsan Mountain in Bukhansan National Park seemed a suitable escape route, so I grabbed my daypack and hit the path.
An expanse of 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) square miles lay ahead: a maze of dense forest, towering mountain peaks, and carefully maintained hiking trails. And Seoul itself was the trailhead.
My strenuous 6.3 kilometer (3.9 mile) round-trip hike to the top of Jaunbong Peak helped calm my nerves — spectacular vistas, serene Buddhist temples, cultural insights, food and drink discoveries, and one hell of a workout.
Relive the memorable journey with me. I’ll tell you everything you need to know to hike Dobongsan Mountain in Bukhansan National Park, and how to celebrate the smooth transition from manmade chaos to soothing nature in true Korean fashion.
Plan your hike of Dobongsan Mountain properly and it will be an easy and stress-free endeavor. Bukhansan’s hiking trails are extremely accessible from Seoul and well worth the effort.
Let’s cover the nitty-gritty info you’ll need to know before starting your own hike to the peak.
Jaunbong Peak – Dobongsan Mountain’s highest peak — is 740 meters (2428 feet) tall, and a 645 meter (2116 foot) climb in elevation from the trailhead. Signs in Bukhansan National Park rate it as an ‘advanced’ hike.
It’s also possible to hike Dobongsan Mountain’s other two tallest peaks – Manjangbong, and Seoninbong – during the same trip if you’re feeling up for a little extra challenge. Interactive trail maps are available on Maps.me, which I’ll explain further down.
Staring up at Dobongsan Mountain from the trailhead will tell you everything you need to know: this is a steep and strenuous hike, definitely not a casual walk in the park. I was huffing and puffing the entire way up. Prepare accordingly.
Bring plenty of snacks and a couple of liters of water. This hike is grueling and can take 2-5 hours round trip, so give your body the fuel it needs.
You can buy snacks and water at the local market by the park’s entrance, so don’t stress out about purchasing them beforehand.
Bukhansan National Park is accessible and hike-able year-round, so pay attention to the weather, bring the right gear, and you’ll be ready to hike when the mood strikes. Just keep in mind that hiking after dark is prohibited.
The summers in Seoul can be quite sunny, hot, and humid. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and extra water. Pay attention to the forecast, as July and August are by far the rainiest months.
Winter in Seoul can get downright cold. Layer up to stay warm and prepare for snow and slick conditions. Bring a down jacket, winter gloves, and a pair of lightweight crampons if there’s packed snow on the trail.
Seoul is a crowded city of 10 million and gets quite polluted at times. Check Seoul’s AQI (Air Quality Index) and try to avoid hiking when the air quality is unsafe to breathe (150+). Bring a filtered face mask if you want to hike when the AQI is poor.
Hiking, Korean Style
Koreans take their hiking very seriously and can become quite competitive on the trail. I’ve heard stories of determined hikers shoving forcefully past slower people who get in their way. Don’t take such behavior personally, however; it’s a cultural thing.
Visiting Bukhansan National Park is a chance for locals to show off their flashy, brightly colored hiking apparel and, wow, do they take full advantage of the opportunity. On the Jaunbong Peak trails, you’ll find yourself amidst the flow of a non-stop, high-end trail fashion expo.
Hiking is a hugely popular social activity in Seoul. On the trail, I saw many large groups of hikers listening to music, picnicking, and playing card games. Visitors swarm the park on weekends, making it especially crowded.
Tip: Avoid hiking in Bukhansan National Park on the weekends, unless you’re an extreme extrovert.
I recommend downloading the Bukhansan National Park offline maps before your hike, even though the trails are well-marked and easy to follow. I recommend using the free Maps.me app.
Maps.me provides extremely detailed maps of all the connecting trails, temples, and other points of interest within Bukhansan National Park. The trail system is extensive and well-maintained.
Use your maps to get a good feel for the range of hikes available in the park. Bukhansan National Park is much more than just Jaunbong Peak. Baegundae Peak is another popular hike in the park, as it reaches the highest elevation at 837 meters (2744 feet) tall. It’s a far more crowded hike than Jaunbong Peak.
Get off the Line 1 metro at Dobongsan Station to begin your adventure
Seoul’s super-efficient metro system will take you directly to the Dobongsan neighborhood, a lively ‘basecamp’ full of food, supplies, and backpacking gear. The entire area revolves around hiking.
From Seoul, simply find your nearest metro station, go to a ticket vending kiosk, and buy a ticket to Dobongsan Station. Find the quickest route to connect with the Line 1 train headed towards Soyosan Station. This train will take you directly to Dobongsan.
After you exit Dobongsan Station, cross Dobong-ro street and follow the crowds and signs through the lively local market towards the entrance to Bukhansan National Park. You’ll soon be at the trailhead.
The Jaunbong Peak trailhead is directly within Bukhansan National Park, just past the local market and its copious outdoor gear stalls and restaurants. If you’re having trouble finding it, check your location on Maps.me or stop by the ranger station in the park.
The hike starts out innocently enough, with manageable inclines on a paved walkway, but don’t let the initial ease of the ascent fool you. The glute-busting inclines aren’t far away.
There are several beautiful Buddhist temples near the trailhead which are well worth a visit. The temple grounds are peaceful and relaxing, and the temples themselves are meticulously-constructed works of art.
South Korea has a heavy Buddhist influence, and the resulting spirituality reverberates in the calm mountain air and off the delicately painted temple walls.
I stopped at the Deogcheonsa Temple where I spent the better part of an hour absorbing the beauty of its hand-carved statues, inspired artwork, and the stunning vistas of Dobongsan Mountain that loom on the horizon.
Inside the quiet temple, incense smoke hangs in the air and large statues of the meditating Buddha sit calmly on display.
Remember: these are sacred grounds, so show respect by remaining silent, removing your shoes, and not taking any interior photos.
Climbing Through the Forest
Beyond the Deogcheonsa Temple, the hike towards Dobongsan starts its unrelenting ascent. You’ll climb many steep stairs that weave through thick, winding forests.
Take cues from the locals to stop and rest along the way. During my weekday afternoon hike, I saw countless groups of people hanging out trailside with elaborate spreads of food and booze while everyone smiled and inhaled the pristine spring afternoon air.
They seemed in no rush to reach the summit, and I can’t blame them.
Approaching Dobongsan Mountain, you’ll have several opportunities to study its impressive towering granite peaks. They’re impossible to miss and reveal the sheer magnitude of the ascent you’re about to start.
Yep, you’ll be hiking up there. All the way to the top. Get ready.
And if you find yourself worrying about your level of commitment, search for the determined rock climbers pulling their way up the sheer rock face in the distance. They’ve chosen the most direct route to the top. In comparison, your impending uphill battle shouldn’t seem so tough anymore.
The Grueling Ascent
After a steady dose of steep inclines, you’ll reach a series of wooden stairs that wind towards the top of the mountain. It’s at this point you’ll regain hope that you can complete the climb.
Beyond the stairs, you’ll find a sturdy network of handrails that snake all the way to the summit. Without these handrails, crossing the slippery slabs of granite would be a tricky technical feat. With the handrails, however, it’s merely grueling and awe-inspiring.
A lady hiking in front of me shrieked in fright every few minutes for the entire ascent. As scared as she was, she still couldn’t resist snapping dozens of anxiety-laced selfies along the way. It’s that kind of hike — scary, yet breathtakingly beautiful, all at the same time.
Reaching the summit of Jaunbong Peak makes all of the preceding calf-burning inclines worthwhile. At the top, you’re rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the forested slopes of Bukhansan National Park, with the hectic streets of Seoul sprawling beyond it.
Relief and bliss washed over me as I reached the top of Dobongsan Mountain’s most prominent peak. The uphill slog had kicked my ass every step of the way. I was whipped.
I caught my breath while soaking in the impressive 360-degree views of sprawling cityscapes and untamed wilderness. Whispers of clouds floated on the horizon as dozens of neon-clad hikers posed proudly for pictures all around me at trailside.
It’s hard to believe that a massive metropolis such as Seoul can rub shoulders with such amazing natural splendor. From my high perch, the rows upon rows of skyscrapers below me felt unreal, a fleeting and hazy urban memory.
The Steep Descent
As I cloud-gazed, my body recovered and I eventually admitted that I must head back down to the slightly unreal streets of Seoul. “What goes up must come down” and all that. Too bad.
The Jaunbong Peak experience is proof that the trip down can be trickier than the trip up. The initial descent is steep, so take your time. You’ll likely be fatigued, less alert, and more prone to injury. Slips and falls are far more likely to happen on the way down.
I sighed and pointed myself back down the trail, joining a long line of tired hikers gripping the handrails and grimacing as they inched their way back towards the trailhead below. Slow and steady.
Your knees may creak and strain on the intense declines, so use trekking poles if you brought them. They’ll lighten the load on your knees and stabilize your hike back.
Keep heading downhill and you’re sure to end up back at the entrance of Bukhansan National Park. Your hike may be finished, but now it’s time to get back to Seoul and celebrate your survival.
Back on level ground, I discovered my hiking experience was far from finished. On my way to Dobongsan Station, I was immediately swept up into the Korean tradition of social celebrations.
The locals certainly know how to cap off a successful hike of Dobongsan Mountain — with delicious food and refreshing booze. Right up my alley.
I was famished, so my simple plan was to immediately find a good restaurant in the busy local market just outside the gates of Bukhansan National Park, and stuff my face.
At a promising restaurant, I squinted up at the food photos displayed on the wall. I was hot, sweaty, and indecisive, so I pointed at the picture of a giant Korean pancake and smiled at the chef. My choice may not have been adventurous, but it turned out to be delicious nonetheless.
There’s tasty food available everywhere outside of Bukhansan National Park, and it’s far cheaper than in Seoul. Grilled fish, spicy Korean noodles, honey-filled buns, pungent kimchee, fried chicken, you name it – it’s all waiting for you.
A New Friend
Revived and full, I took a seat at a nearby picnic table to ponder my next move. It didn’t take long for a jovial 70-something Seoul native to come over and greet me. His name was Mr. Lee and he wanted to make sure I was having a good time in South Korea.
I was indeed having a good time, but Mr. Lee was clearly determined that I have a great time in his city.
Over the course of the afternoon, we hung out, exchanging stories and laughs, all while enjoying the beautiful May sunshine. His English was impeccable.
I learned that Mr. Lee had fought alongside U.S. troops in South Korea’s DMZ dispute with North Korea back in the 60s. He’d since traveled all over the world and had sons and daughters doing the same. He went hiking in Bukhansan National Park every weekend and loved eating Korea’s famous fried chicken afterward.
We quickly discovered that we had a lot in common, including the joys of international exploration, hiking, food, and drink (of course).
Mr. Lee didn’t hesitate to introduce me to makgeolli, his favorite Korean alcoholic beverage. My post-hike experience was shaping up quite nicely.
Makgeolli (pronounced mahk-oh-lee) is a milky, sparkling rice wine that is sold and consumed everywhere in Bukhansan National Park. Mr. Lee’s favorite brand came in a green 750 ml plastic bottle, had a 6% alcohol content, and cost a mere 1,300 Korean Wan ($1.10 US). It was delicious.
Mr. Lee said that if I wanted to do as the locals do, I should drink generous portions of makgeolli during my time in Bukhansan National Park. I was quick to oblige and, I must admit, it felt great not to break any Korean cultural norms.
One more bottle, please.
After a couple of hours and more than a couple of bottles of makgeolli, Mr. Lee and I said our goodbyes. We laughed like newfound old friends, shook hands, and wished each other the very best on our life journeys.
I’ll be giving Mr. Lee a call the next time I visit Seoul. Maybe we’ll go hiking, eat some fried chicken, and throw back a few more bottles of makgeolli. It’s good to dream big.
My exhausting hike of Dobongsan Mountain and ensuing dive into Korean culture sent me into a state of sleepy bliss on my metro ride back into Seoul. I groggily watched the forest and mountains fade away out the train window as Seoul’s skyscrapers and dense crowds of people slowly took over my vision once again.
If Seoul’s madness gives you itchy feet, escape its confines as I did and explore deep into the network of lush mountain trails within Bukhansan National Park. Refresh your spirits in tranquil temples. Bust your ass up to the top of Jaunbong Peak. Soak in the panoramic views of rich wilderness giving way to an unstoppable cement jungle. Eat fresh-cooked market food. Drink makgeolli. Make new friends.
It’s all just a metro ride away.
What you’ll find is a unique opportunity to toe the line between mankind’s excess of spoils and the raw beauty of Mother Earth. Traveling often offers a singular option — city or nature — but in Seoul, you can have both.
So, when the moment strikes, escape. Climb that towering peak on Seoul’s not-so-distant horizon. Observe the silent chaos of a wild and sprawling metropolis that suddenly seems a world away.
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Have you ever spent time hiking in Bukhansan National Park? Have you ever tried makgeolli? Do you know of any other great hikes within close vicinity to large cities? Let me know by leaving some feedback in the comments below!
Last Updated on June 22, 2023