The majestic figure of Hallasan Mountain, with its peak often covered with clouds, shapes a distinctive profile against the sky. This massive natural monument is the highest mountain in South Korea (tops out at 1950 m) forming the bulk of its largest island Jeju. As a volcano it’s, classified as an active one, but since it has not erupted for more than 5,000 years, its status is argued by scientists to be ‘dormant’. There is a national park surrounding the summit, and the area is deemed a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. No matter where you go on the island, you will see the magnificent crater painting the horizon with its scenic nature, and it will entice you to explore its wonders.
There are several footpaths around the Hallasan, two of which will lead you to its summit: the Gwaneumsa (8.7km one-way) -and the Seongpanak (9.6km one-way) trails. After some online research we decided to combine those two routes to experience more diverse path. Some web pages claimed that the hike is very challenging, but in our opinion (though we’re not professional hikers) the whole hiking itinerary was so perfectly made, mixed with a rope-material carpet, wooden stairs and natural rocks, that it felt easy. The hardest part was just the gradual, continuous ascend but to manage with it you just need average level of stamina.
It was late November and as the daylight hours were shorter, we wanted to start the hike at sunrise. To get early enough to the starting point of Seongpanak trail, instead of hitchhiking, we decided to take a bus. Our couchsurfing sleeping place was in the capital Jeju city, from where it was easy – and quick – to get to the trail head. When we got off the bus morning twilight welcomed us with its refreshing cool air, and to let the eyes rest in a darkness we didn’t turn on the headlamps. For us it was a perfect way to start the day – and the trail – to see the first rays of sunlight slowly forming shadows to the leaf path – as if we had awakened to a new day together with nature.
Being the most popular route, at first we were moving between groups. Their rhythms made us to walk faster, and after passing a great amount of people and group of young military boys, we could enjoy a long time in a quieter environment. It gave us peace to look and admire the unique surroundings around us. The green coloured leaf of Sasa palmata – plant covered the ground like a large carpet and galleries of the deciduous trees and tall straight pines stood together like a strong wall. A long-stemmed lianas were twirling around their trunks from the earth to the top of the trees occupying everything they could get. The longer we walked, the stronger the sunlight grew breaking the light through the dense trees showing the best of the Hallasan pristine forest.
On the way up we passed the Jindallaebat shelter, which is a resting place and also it is an entrance to the trail that will lead you to the top. The park authority has set strict (and pretty questionable) cutoff times in order to make sure people get up and down safely before dark. These hours are changing depending on the season and because we hiked in the winter season, the last time to pass the shelter was at 12:00 and at 13.30 when you go down. After Jindallaebat resting area the atmosphere changed from dense forest to the grassy ground with volcanic rocks and stunning views of the mountain. The closer the summit came we could see the astonish cloudy perspective of Jeju island and once we reached the top, the clouds moved over exposing the clear blue sky. Down on the horizon somewhere far the sea was sparkling in the sunlight and we could see lots of fields, poly tunnels and volcanic cones, Oreums, rising from the ground. These small defunct volcanoes are distributed throughout Jeju Island and with its unique flora they’re like delights for visitors who likes to spend their time in nature.
On the summit we had first its large decking area almost only for us. It was still early morning which gave us a chance to take a longer break and just enjoy our time after intensive climb. Near the rocky slope dropped steeply down, turning into a thick moss, and at the bottom a small crater lake called Baengnokdam (“white deer lake”) provided water to crows that surrounded us. As always, we wanted to explore a bit more and jumped over the fence to take a look at the stones that formed various formations around the crater. Once we sat down and took out snacks, crows surrounded us creating a lot of noise – maybe they quarreled who’ll get food first… Indeed, they were used to people, slinking as closest as they had the courage – almost touching us with their beaks. After noticing that more visitors were arriving, we decided to go back to the decking area not to cause any confusion (as we were in ‘off-limits’ area). Quickly the patio was filled with good-humoured various groups of hikers, mostly who we saw earlier on our way up. Lots of pictures were taken, smiles exchanged and the young men from the military service chatted on the phone showing the views through the video. The crows, now moved around the people, enjoying full attention and their patient to wait was rewarded with some snacks.
After gaining some energy for the descent we continued via Gwaneumsa trail, where first our eyes could enjoy the views of the astonish steep valleys covered with snow. Large lava rocks created steps in the path which later on changed to the route through the magnificent pink – purple – dark green coloured forest. Often times we stopped to fill our lungs with fresh air and take a look at the beautiful flora. Once, instead of wild boars (there are warning signs everywhere, though internet says they’re extinct here) a little deer stood close to us in a thicket. It didn’t seem to mind our company and we had time to watch it precisely before it jumped away. The hum of the wind and our breaths created deep like meditative sounds around us giving a good rhythm to the rest of the hike. It was interrupted only when some hikers listened to music (mostly local K-pop) from their phones…and some of them passed us an opposite direction. As there were strict turnaround times we were sure they could not reach the designated shelter before a certain time. Therefore, it’s really good to start the trek early in the morning!
The whole walk took around 5,5 hours and like we mentioned earlier, it felt easy to walk. The route is throughout well marked, you cannot get lost – theoretically it’s illegal to do so as it’s just forbidden to leave the marked bath. To get back to Jeju city we decided to hitchhike, and after standing only for a short moment next to the road, an older gentleman stopped and offered us a ride. Weary from the long walk, but full of happiness, we sat in the car and in our minds all the beautiful wonders of nature, that only moments ago surrounded us, followed us for a long time.