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Stairway to Hallasan – Climbing South Korea’s Highest Mountain

Arriving in Jeju Island, which is called the “Hawaii of South Korea” by Koreans – which is probably the biggest exaggeration that we heard in South Korea as literally no one was even swimming at the rocky beaches and the landscapes were nothing close to being tropical ** ok, getting off my Hawaiian soapbox now** – we were excited to drive our tiny Hyundai compact around the island to explore the natural attractions that the island has to offer. Jeju is a top honeymoon destination for mainland Koreans, where you can easily go from driving along the coastline to seeing waterfalls and an enormous lava tube to hiking up to various viewing points in a day as well as tour many of the weird theme parks that are sprinkled all across the huge island – just look up LoveLand!

While there are many things to keep you busy in Jeju, the main star of the show is climbing South Korea’s highest peak, Mount Halla or Hallasan as the locals say, at 6,398 feet above sea level. Hallasan is a shield volcano that grew the island of Jeju and while is still technically classified as an “active” volcano, it is for all purposes dormant so not to worry about stepping into any hot water (#dadjoke!). There are five hiking trails in and around Mount Hallasan but not all of them allow you to reach the summit. The Seongpanak and Gwaneumsa Hiking Trails are the only ones trails that climb all the way to the summit, where the Seongpanak is a more gentle climb over a slightly longer distance while Gwaneumsa is steeper but about a mile shorter and apparently has better views depending on the weather. Apparently, when the weather is good, you can see Hallasan from all over the island – however, as all travelers seem to find out at some point, the weather hardly cooperates with your schedule as we actually had to do our hike the day before a predicted thunderstorm, which of course never happened!

I am sure you’re thinking, wait a minute this couple just posted how horrible climbing Mt. Fuji was, which is also a volcano hike, so why haven’t these people learned that maybe they’re just not into volcanic hikes, especially in August… and while you have sound logic, the long and the short of it is that we are always up for a challenge and love that sense of accomplishment/bragging rights when we’re done! Also, how can we pass along all the helpful tidbits to our followers if we don’t go the extra mile??

As a couple, we have done over 50 hikes together, but never have we encountered a hike that has an enforced time limit on it, which adds to the intimidating persona of this hike. Researching the internet, there isn’t a ton of information on this hike in English but the few pages we found said that the hike takes 8-10 hours to complete, with only one account saying it took them 2:50 hours to get to the top. Mentally preparing for a potentially 10 hour hike and then adding that you have to make it to the last rest stop about a 1.5 mile from the summit by 1:30 p.m. piled on an extra layer of intrigue and nerves. I mean how terrible would it be if you had already been hiking for 5 hours and you didn’t make it in time?! Seriously my worst hiking nightmare of all that walking to only end up not reaching the summit due to a time restriction. The night before we went to the local night market and picked up some steamed buns for lunch and planned to hit the hay early to ensure that we got up bright and early to drive to the trail head, which is almost an hour drive from Seogwipo, and give ourselves plenty of time to hit the summit before the 1:30 p.m. cutoff. Ironically, once in bed our hotel’s fire alarm went off where the whole building had to evacuate and it really seemed like a real fire was taking place! After about 30 minutes of confusion and panic, we were all allowed back into our rooms but obviously the adrenaline rush delayed our hopes of getting to bed early.

Waking up bright and early with the hopes of grabbing a coffee and breakfast downstairs from the 7/11 in our hotel, we were again thrown off course when the store wasn’t open at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, which seemed strange since it had been open late the night before. Luckily for us, we found a coffee place along the route up the mountain and found that the store at the trail heads sells a variety of snacks, including rolls of gimbap cut into perfect bite sized pieces making it the ideal hiking food. With gimbap in hand and our mental clocks set to pace ourselves to hit the time restriction with plenty of extra time, we started off on our ascent to the top around 8:10 a.m.

The beginning of the hike include some nice natural carpet-like matting on the trail, which made traversing the rocks quite easy – hopefully the whole hike would be like this! However, as you work your way up it continually changes between the carpet to rock stairs and sections to wooded bridges and stairs, which does help to keep your mind guessing at what’s coming next. The ascent up wasn’t that tough with some sections of steeper inclines and longer staircases but nothing too challenging. We passed the first rest stop, about 2.5 miles up, in a little under an hour and then hit the second rest stop, about 4.4 miles up, just under the two hour mark. To be fair to the 8-10 hour time suggested for this hike, we are both tall, especially when compared to Koreans, and we didn’t take any breaks other than a few minutes here and there to drink some water.

The last 1.5 miles up to the summit are the hardest of the whole hike as you have to climb staircase after staircase after staircase up to the summit – but keep pushing through as the view from at the top of the crater and the lake is spectacular!

Since we had our own rental car, we decided that we’d go up the easier route using the Seongpanak trail and if the weather allowed for good views at the top, we’d go down the Gwaneumsa trail, which is very popular option of mixing the two trails together, and take a taxi back to our car. As fate would have it that day, the weather allowed for some nice views but not enough to warrant us spending roughly $20 to taxi back to our car so we decided to also go down the Seongpanak trail. While it took us roughly 3 hours to go up and we hung out at the top for about 30 minutes, it took us about 3 hours to go down since Marlie is literally a grandma going downhill, especially on the steep rocky bits (the Koreans were flying past us at this point, which is ironic since we passed most of them going up LOL). Round-trip on the Seongpanak Trail was 12.2 miles, which was the perfect amount as by the time you arrived back at the trail head you were ready to strip your shoes off and be back in the car.

Compared to Mt. Fuji, hiking Hallasan was a way more enjoyable experience as the scenery was really beautiful and changed substantially as you ascend/descended, the changes in the trail (carpet, rocks, and wooded stairs/platforms) kept your mind busy, and the trail itself wasn’t grueling but challenging enough that you felt like you’d earned a beer or two from Jeju Beer Company or a black pork burger from 88 Burger!

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