THE BEST DAY HIKE IN KOREA
Standing at the edge of a jagged cliff, staring down a metal staircase that disappears into thin air, my stomach is in my mouth. Having been here twice before I know those stairs continue steeply down the cliff face, just out of sight, but I’m still bricking it. I love this hike, but I hate it too. Or maybe these moments of exhilarating terror and heightened adrenaline are the reason I love it. I grip the cold metal railing tightly with both hands and inch my way down the stairs, one step at a time, jaw clenched hard. It takes an age to get down. Stepping onto solid rock again, I exhale long and hard and the grin that’s barely left my face for the past five hours is back.
This incredible ridge hike is on Saryangdo, an island off the south coast of Korea in the Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park. Relatively unknown (in a country that has a serious obsession with hiking) this trail, and the island itself, is worth travelling for. In fact, we’d rate it the best day hike in Korea.
Who doesn’t love views like this?!
This is our absolute favourite Korean hike, so good we’ve returned to it three times. Saw-toothed peaks and kryptonite-esque rock formations make up large sections of the hike, rivalling the scenery of Korea’s most celebrated national park, Seoraksan. What gives Saryangdo the edge though is its spectacular island views. Clearing the trees on the initial ascent, the view over to Namhae, Samcheonpo and the surrounding islands is a stunning reward. By the time you’ve reached Jirisan, the first peak, the 360° vista is downright breathtaking and it just keeps getting better.
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This hike is not for the faint hearted though; expect a hefty dose of scrambling up/down/over rocks, narrow ‘trails’ with drops on both sides, suspension bridges joining craggy peaks, and ladder and rope descents that will have your heart pumping. The terrain is no joke, so step carefully and think twice before posing for that jumping shot – the mountain rescue helicopter flew over us on our last trip there, off to rescue someone who fell off the mountain while taking a selfie. According to the locals this is a fairly common occurrence.
Still smiling cause I’m yet to encounter the staircase of doom
Where to Start?
First, get yourself to the city of Tongyeong, then it’s a bus or taxi and a ferry ride away. The hike takes anywhere between 4 – 7 hours, depending on your fitness level and how often you stop to drink in the views. Our average is around 6 hours (we stop a lot for photos, etc.). So, you can plan to do it as a day trip from the mainland, or stay over and enjoy the island vibe a little longer (highly recommended!). We have full details on transport and accommodation options, plus hints and tips, further down in this post.
The ridge hike takes in 4 or 5 peaks (depending on how keen you are!) and it’s best to start the hike at the opposite end of the island to the ferry terminal and hike back. This way you save the most exciting bits for the end and get the best views while on the trail (looking towards the cool bridge that connects Saryangdo to neighbouring Hado). Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting transport back to the terminal/town.
Trail map in the village at the start
Saryangdo Ridge Hike
The initial ascent up to the ridge takes around 40 minutes, past farmland, impressive stone cairns and through a forest. Emerging from the trees, you’re faced with a rugged rocky climb upwards, and some amazing views. Pine trees sprout from the grey rock facade, colourful hiking flags strung up in clumps on their branches.
The ridge trail continues with ups, downs and small forest areas dotted amongst exposed rock sections. You’ll pass plenty of good looking rest stops, but hold out for Jirisan peak before you crack out your lunch. The views are spectacular and worth savouring over a sandwich and coffee. It takes around 1 ½ – 2 hours to reach this first peak.
Continuing on from Jirisan there’s a bit of a descent and in a forest clearing you’ll come across a shack selling beer (₩5,000 a can!), Makgeolli and ice cream. Sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s not. If you’ve taken the shortcut from the road, this is where you’ll emerge.
Next, it’s onto the first hair-raising section of the trail, the Moon Rock (달 바위), 1 – 1 ½ hours beyond Jirisan peak.
“Oh, this railing is new”
Standing in relative safety at the end of the wooden staircase, taking in the scene for the first time, our friend Jack exclaims, “Oh! They’ve put up a railing.” Eh, what the f**k?! I’m shitting it even with a railing. Glad I didn’t join him on his last jaunt to Saryangdo.
Like a giant grey chunk of Toblerone, the trail has suddenly become no more than a narrow spine over which we have to cross, thankfully with the aid of a cold metal railing to cling onto these days. Waiting for hikers to cross in the opposite direction my angst is building, rising further and further up my throat. Nimble mountain goats skip over the pass, not even bothering with the railing. A fearful ajjuma sits paralysed, one foot on the rock, the other dangling over the crevice below, looking for somewhere to step, all the while gripping the metal for dear life and shouting ‘어떻게! 어떻게!’ (How! How!).
This isn’t helping my overwhelming fear.
The queue behind us is building. Del, one of said mountain goats, strides confidently across the trail of doom, while I gingerly inch my way along. Reaching the chasm (OK, OK, so it’s like half a meter), I’m starting to sympathise with 어떻게 woman. There’s no turning back though, and after some words of encouragement from my fellow hikers I’m on the home straight. Soon we’re standing on the second peak of the day, Wolambong (월암봉).
The incredible view over Daehang beach (our home for the night), the ridge and the newly constructed bridge is enough to distract me. Until, that is, it’s time to keep going and I’m wondering where exactly the trail is. Turns out it’s just straight down the chunks of rock. Engaging arms, legs and bum, I scramble and wedge myself between rock faces, easing my way down to the bottom.
You’ve got all this to go…
If you’re ever in doubt as to whether you’re on the right path or not, just feel the trees. Years of hikers’ tight grips have turned the trunks and branches as smooth as polished wood. A couple of times I turned back, choosing a different route after encountering some rough bark.
Looking back up towards the Moon Rock, it’s hard to reconcile quite how one got from there to the current spot on the trail. Ahead lies more fun and games. After a short boardwalk section and steep staircase – part manmade, part natural – it’s time to descend the aforementioned stairway from hell.
Next, there’s a bit of up and it’s not long until another big WOW moment; a duo of suspension bridges. The setting is fantastic and bouncing your way between the jagged peaks is good fun, or terrifying, depending on your head for heights.
After easing your way down a rock slope and some casual rope-assisted descents the end is nearly in sight. You’ll reach a junction in the forest where you can continue onto the ferry terminal (사량면 사무소), or turn left towards Daehang Beach (대항) if you’re staying the night, or if you’re up for the 5th peak.
On the ferry terminal trail, turn left when you reach the road and you’ll soon be back at the start.
On the Daehang path, once you reach the road, walk left for a few minutes, then right down the path through the bushes to reach the village. You’ll come out at the back of Dandihae Pension (단디해 펜션).
For the fifth peak, turn right at the road, walk up for a bit and you’ll see a path heading up a hill on the left. Follow this to the peak and around and down to the ferry terminal.
Looking back up at the suspension bridges from Daehang Beach
Now that your epic hike is over, DON’T FORGET TO STRETCH! The pain will last a few days, but believe me it’s worth every damn inch of muscle ache.
Yep, you’re gonna be hiking all of that
Tips For The Trail
Good To Know
There’s a new CU convenience store and two small supermarkets at the ferry terminal where you can pick up snacks, drinks, food and cooking supplies etc, plus a few coffee shops and local restaurants.
At the village where you start the trail there’s one or two local restaurants but it’s best to stock up in the main town if you need anything.
There are public toilets at the ferry terminal and at the village where the trail starts, but none on the actual hike.
Tongyeong, just west of Geoje on the south coast , is the closest city. You can take a direct bus (no train) from Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and numerous other cities and towns.
If you’re planning to arrive in Tongyeong the night before your ferry, there are plenty of motels near the bus terminal. There aren’t any hotels or hostels in this part of town. For food and supplies there’s an eMart across the road from the bus terminal and loads of restaurants, bakeries and convenience stores around.
You can take local bus 670 to Gaochi (가오치) ferry terminal. Go to the bus stop across the road from the bus terminal to get on the 670. There are just 6 buses a day, but they arrive in time to catch each ferry. Be at the bus stop around 1 hour prior to your chosen ferry departure time (first bus is approx 6:10am). It takes around 30-40 minutes.
There’s a taxi rank outside the bus terminal. This is quicker at around 20 minutes drive and will cost approx ₩15,000.