Korea is blessed with many magnificent national parks for such a small country. The sheer number of mountains and amount of coastline in South Korea, coupled with the large population necessitating the preservation of natural spaces, has amounted to 17 national parks. Each park is unique in its own way and we enjoy discovering each park’s special features whenever we get the chance. Some parks encompass hundreds of islands with astounding rock formations, while others cover massive mountain ranges. Although you’d expect the parks to become redundant or too similar to warrant a visit, you’d be wrong. We have not once visited Park A and thought “man, this one is a whole lot like Park B.” While we have hiked through and visited quite a few of these parks, one always beckoned to us with its dramatic mountain top and incredible beauty in the northern province of Gangwon-do: Seoraksan National Park.
Far away from any major city, Seoraksan sits in the northeastern-most province of South Korea. Covering almost 400 square kilometers, this parks contains some of the msot dramatic peaks in the Taebaek Mountain Range. We’ve long dreamed of this park and recently, on a roadtrip up the east coast, we finally found time to visit.
Arriving during the last few weeks of winter was a mistake. Upon seeing the incredible mountain peaks through the lightly falling snow, we knew that we’d need to make another trip. Not ten minutes after stepping foot inside the park’s gate we felt an energetic longing to come back at a different time. We were excited to finally be seeing this beautiful park, but it was clear that hiking to the top and being able to see all the way to North Korea was not going to be possible. Looking to make the best of our hindered (although still very excited) Seoraksan experience, we walked the grounds looking for winter activities.
One of our main experiences inside Seoraksan was the gondola (cable car, if you ask Stephanie) ride up one of the lesser peaks, Jipseonbong (Jipseon Peak). Last year, having not yet been to Seoraksan, we had been outraged by the prospect of building a gondola to haul lazy people up a beautiful mountain so that they could enjoy the spoils of hiking without the effort. With the pangs of preservation and conservation in our sides, we even signed a petition to block the construction, but- as with many things in Asia- when the money is already there, you’d better get out of the way. Great amounts of regret and feeling of hypocrisy washed over us as we slowly became more and more excited to be able to experience the mountains in a season that would have normally prevented us from getting off the main grounds. We (again, with tears flowing down our stupid blubbering faces and feeling peer pressured into doing so) paid, boarded, and rode the gondola we had once opposed up to Jipseon.
Time for excuses and optimism, so bear with us: The thing is already built. And while it is absolutely unnecessary and tragic for the view of that raw and beautiful mountain, the gondola will maintain Seoraksan National Park’s legitimacy as a destination during the winter months. With this extra year-round revenue, we can only hope that the park uses the fund from the gondola to maintain the size and natural beauty of the park for as long as it can. Unfortunately, money is pretty important and we are hopeful that riding the gondola not only feeds SNP’s financial stability well into the future, but also introduces more people to the amazing heights that can be experienced through natural exploration, hiking, and climbing. Since Jipseonbong is not one of the biggest, there are still more incredible sights that we haven’t seen, and probably many others haven’t. There is still the incentive to go forward; go higher. There is still more to see. The top was amazing, also, and offered spectacular views of the valley at the center of Seoraksan. You can see the temples, welcome building, and the far off (and much higher) peaks in the distance.
So, after exploiting nature by going on the gondola, we returned to earth and explored the rest of the main grounds accessible in winter without climbing gear. Even covered in snow, SNP has some amazing sights to behold at the most basic level. The valley contains temples, restored old villages, and some of the best coffee shops in Gangwondo. The Buddha statue that we had seen from Jipseonbong as a massive homage to Korean Buddhism was now much closer and much larger than before. Suddenly, this seated Buddha was massive and perfectly enshrined by masiffs on all sides. We said prayers of thanks and gazed for some time at the Seoraksan Buddha’s tranquil face. He looks upon the beauty of those mountains daily in way that we all should all approach our own surroundings.
We continued on and visited the small folk village beyond the temple before indulging in a fine drip coffee that was worth every thousands of pennies. It really was good, right at the bottom of the temple grounds, overlooking the stream.