Our day began like this: on one of the first buses from Aewol-eup to the Jeju City bus terminal. These weren’t the ‘city buses’ we were used to — they were older, had brightly colored curtains and seat covers and reminded me of buses I took a zillion years ago when I first traveled around SE Asia. The bus driver drove like a maniac and there weren’t any available seats. Sly and I stood in the back, swerving and stumbling back and forth as if on a crazy roller coaster. The bus driver narrowly missed hitting a guy as he stepped out onto the street, too preoccupied with his phone to notice a bus barreling by…
Eventually (thankfully) we found seats and about 40 minutes or so later our bus pulled into the Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal. If there was ever any doubt that we were in another country the bus terminal erased it. It’s not like bus terminals in the US are glorious — but this one, like the bus, looked trapped in time, Asia circa 1975 — and was so unlike all the super modern transportation hubs we had passed through in Korea. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Sly purchased two tickets for the bus to Hallasan National Park, another 45-50 minute bus ride away. I fell asleep during most of the ride and woke up to Sly tapping me on my shoulder to indicate we were a few stops away from our destination: Yeongsil Trail. As we approached our stop, Sly pushed the stop button and we got up to exit the bus. The bus driver informed us that if we wanted to hike the trail we actually needed to get off at the NEXT stop — Yeongsil ticket booth.
After being dropped off we consulted the trail map in the parking lot and looked around. There didn’t seem to be a lot of cars or people and we started thinking we were the most dedicated and awesome hikers on the planet. Look at us, we love nature so much we got up early to catch a bus to catch another bus so that two hours later we could hike a trail — all this and we STILL beat everyone to the trail head. HIGH FIVES.
We noticed a fellow bus rider disappear behind the parking lot gates and wondered where the heck she thought she was going. Was the trail that way? Up the paved road? We consulted the map again, our phones, and made a visual sweep of the area. There didn’t seem to be any other trail heads or signs for trail heads except for one that led to a temple. Was this road the trail? We weren’t sure but we started walking anyway.
We walked obliviously along the wooden sidewalk between the road and the forest, What I thought would be a flat, easy, trail, turned out to be rather hilly. And then I saw a marker on the trail — Yeongsil Trail – 2.5KM. 2.5KM? The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was walk 2.5 KM up a frickin’ hill BEFORE we even started the trail. I was pretty pissy the entire way .Skipping breakfast didn’t help.
Finally — signs of life. No wonder nobody was down in the lower parking lot! They had all parked in the lots by the trail entrance.
My pace picked up a little when I caught my first glimpse of the mountains. They were beautiful.
Sly bought a rice cake from a little restaurant/convenience/last-minute supply store in the parking lot and we hit the Yeongsil Trail. From the trail head it would be a 5.8KM one way hike until we reached our turnaround point at Nombyeok Junction. While we could no longer summit Mt Halla on this trail we would pass a collection of rocks known as the 500 Generals or Buddha’s 500 Disciples (depending on what myth you would like to believe) and cross Korea’s only Alpine plain.
The trail began easily enough. We saw people walking by in jeans and ballet flats (also notable: the girl wearing a peasant skirt and rope sandals) and figured this would be an easy hike. Five hours to complete? Please.
The trail climbed a gradual slope as we followed a stream that provided the island’s main water supply. A couple of roe deer jumped in the woods not too far from me and I marveled at how idyllic it all seemed.
And then came the stairs.
The first set of steps were carved out of rocks and were so steep that people would climb for a bit, then sit on the side to take a breather. We pressed on until we came to viewing platform where people were shouting and yelling “WHOO HOOO.” I interpreted those yelps of exaltation to mean we had reached the end of the trail. At the top of the ‘steps’ we turned around and let out a huge, “wow.”
Yeongsil Falls — not the right season for waterfalls
We were wrong about this being the end of the trail. From this vantage point we could see that we had only just begun. Even so we hiked from platform to platform thinking that any moment now we would hit the (flat) alpine field.
Instead we just kept climbing up the never ending staircase to the sky.
At least we had a good view.
And the azaleas were in bloom — at least at this elevation.
Like most trails we have hiked in Korea, these went straight up the side of the mountain. Instead of switchbacks, Korean mountain trails seem to rely on stairs. which sounds like it should be easier. If that’s true, it certainly did not feel that way at any point on the upward portion of the trail.
At one point I looked up and noticed that the trail continued along the ridge of the mountain top where it finally appeared to flatten out. For some reason it didn’t occur to me until that moment that we were going to climb to the top of a mountain. Because we weren’t planning on summiting Mt. Halla and because we would be walking through a plain, I automatically assumed that the entire trail would be flat. Wrong as usual.
Just before we reached the ridge the clouds rolled in over the mountain. Everyone oohed and awed and busted out their cameras to capture the magical moment.
We finally made it to the ridge line, now shrouded in clouds. The trail flattened out and now that we were no longer huffing and puffing we were able to really enjoy the beautiful scenery around us.
As we walked around the corner we noticed a guy standing on the trail as if he had been waiting for us for some time. He asked if we wanted our photo taken. We figured, why not?
After he took our photo our new buddy asked us in English if we were English teachers. We said no. Sly continued talking to him as he likes to do while I sat back and took in the scenery. We kept losing our trail buddy and his friend and then meeting back up again. It seemed as if he wanted us to follow him or hike with him, which we initially found confusing. Being a naturally suspicious (and introverted) person, I didn’t understand what he wanted — why would he want to hike with us?
Turns out he was just a really nice, friendly person who wanted to show us everything about the mountain he clearly loved. We followed him through the plains, refilled our bottles with water from the stream, and together we reached our checkpoint – Wiseorum shelter — well before the cut-off time. (If you don’t reach the shelter by a certain time, you are not allowed to continue on the trail.).
Trail Buddy asked if we were hungry then rushed ahead of us in the ramen noodle line. Before we knew it, he had bought us all a round of ramen! We tried paying him for the ramen and tried purchasing something else to return his generosity but he refused all our offers.
Witseorum shelter consisted of a building that housed a small concession stand, bathrooms, and a large outside seating area built like a multilevel deck. We took our place on one of the steps, emptied our packs of all our snacks, and passed them around to one another to share. Trail Buddy offered me some onion flavored potato chips that were very addictive! After I reached in for my second helping (greedy American!) Trail Buddy said, “I see these chips suit you.” Oops.
It was all in good fun. We exchanged stories and became instant BFFs. Trail Buddy and his friend were so genuinely friendly and nice that I soon let my guard down. They offered to drive us to another mountain in Jeju City or at least drive us to the Jeju Bus Station so we didn’t have to sit for two hours on a bus. We didn’t want to burden them but they kept insisting until finally it was settled — they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
After lunch we continued on the less traveled trail behind the shelter toward Nambyeok Junction in search of wild azalea fields.
Mt Halla is Korea’s highest peak and was once an active volcano (hence how the island was created). At the top of Hallasan is a crater lake. The trail leading up to the summit from this side of the mountain was closed off — and had been closed off — for something like 15 years in order to protect the wild azalea habitat.
We hiked and hiked but never found the azaleas. The azaleas typically bloom for about five days in the late spring, and while they were blooming on the hills and cliffs as we came up the mountain, here, at a higher elevation, they were just starting to bud. Once again we just missed out on seeing the wild azaleas in full bloom.
On the other hand, the reason this, and many other trails that lead up to the summit, have cut off times at shelter check points is because usually the cloud cover is so thick that it makes hiking dangerous. Trail Buddy informed us that usually Mt. Halla was covered by clouds so that it’s impossible to see the top of the mountain. On that day the sun was shining and Hallasan was in full view. He said that the reason the azaleas weren’t blooming yet was because Mt. Halla wanted to show off for us, to tell us, “here I am, look at me.”. That it did.
The closer we got to the turnaround point the more we realized that we weren’t going to see any azaleas. We all agreed that since we weren’t planning on hiking any further or taking a different trail back down that we should turn around.
So we backtracked and headed down the mountain. This time with our newly-made friends.
By the time we made it back down the mountain it was nearly 4pm. We had been awake and on the move ever since 6 in the morning and we were tired. According to Sly’s hiking app, we had hiked nearly 12 miles and burned something like 1200 calories.
Perhaps sensing our fatigue our trail buddies offered to drive us all the way back to our hotel. There was a bit of polite back and forth of us refusing the offer and them assuring us it was no trouble, but honestly we didn’t need much convincing. Taking the bus back to the station would have been 50 minutes and then we would have had to transfer to a different city bus to take us another 35-45 minutes back to our hotel. We were SO thankful for the ride and so humbled to have met such nice, giving people on the trail.
Our trail buddies turned out to be trail angels. They guided us, fed us, and then took us home and wanted nothing (despite numerous offers) in return. Once back at our hotel room Sly said, “I wonder if we’ll be like that one day — meeting people on the trail and offering them whatever they need.” I suppose I never really thought about it before then, but it sounded like a great idea. It was the best way we could think of to repay our Trail Buddy’s kindness.
DETAILS | YEONGSIL HIKING TRAIL //
YEONGSIL HIKING TRAIL | DIFFICULTY: Moderately difficult. Approximately half of the hike consists of steps leading straight up the side of the mountain then levels out once you reach the ridge. It’s not a very technical hike, just steep. DISTANCE: 5.8KM from parking to the Nambyeok Junction (and another 5.8 back down). Once you reach Witseorum Shelter, you can continue down either the Donneko or Eorimok Trails. The trail to the summit has been closed off to protect the natural habitats. Please do not attempt to summit. TRAIL DESCRIPTION: Trails are very well groomed — most of the trail you will be hiking on wooden boards or climbing up wooden steps. Terrain changes from pine forest to lush sub-tropical greenery, waterfalls (when in season), then rocky cliffs until you reach the plains which are flat and punctuated by mountains and volcanic rocks that were spewed when the volcano erupted. DIRECTIONS: We took the bus to Yeongsil Ticket booth as follows: Jeju Inter-City Bus Terminal > #740 Bus 1100 Hwy > Yeongsil TICKET office > Hike approx 2.5 KM to the 3rd parking area as shown above in the map. It took about 50 minutes from the bus station to the Yeongsil Ticket Booth drop off. Note that the Yeongsil Entrance stop and the Yeongsil ticket booth stop are different. Do not get off at the Yeongsil Entrance if you plan on hiking the Yeongsil Trail unless you feel like adding a couple more KM to your hike. The bus will pick up at the ticket booth stop and runs approx every 30 minutes. The bus driver takes cash — exact change not needed/change provided — or you can purchase the tickets at one of the bus stations. NOTES: If you plan on arriving early there is a possibility that the gate at the ticket booth area will be closed, meaning you will have to hike the 2.5KM to the entrance. Also expect to hike to the entrance during busy times — azalea season/fall when traffic is at a standstill. / Bathrooms available at the parking sites and at Witseorum shelter / You can find refreshing spring water once you reach the plains, and right before the shelter. It’s obvious. // Food is available at parking lot/trail entrance and at the shelter. Food at the shelter is limited to ramen and things like chocolate bars. There is plenty of outdoor seating as well as indoor seating on platforms when the weather is colder. / You have to reach the shelter by a certain cut off time due to the potentially dangerous cloud cover. In our case, this cut off time was 2pm. This is clearly posted at the beginning of the trail. VERDICT: Highly Recommended for all ages — even kids (we saw many very young children!) can complete this trail. While it’s steep, the stairs are wide — if you take your time and stop to enjoy the view every now and then it’s not so difficult at all. Please note this is a very popular and sometimes crowded trail. When we initially planned on hiking in Mt. Halla we wanted to hike to the summit, but after talking to several locals they recommended this trail. Without their recommendation (and because we had done very little research on anything) I doubt I would have picked this trail over one of the trails to the summit. What I loved about this trail was that it was always interesting — the terrain changed at least four times and the views from the mountain ridge were stunning. Once you hike past the shelter you can get an incredible view of Mt.Halla — something that you most likely would miss when hiking other summit trails.