Hallasan: South Korea’s Highest Peak

The crater at the summit of Hallasan

The island of Jeju, Korea’s southernmost territory,  is a pretty interesting place. It gained a great deal of publicity a few months back when  it became (provisionally) one of the  ‘New 7Wonders of Nature’ in November 2011. The second in a continuing series (the ‘Seven Man-made Wonders’ were confirmed in 2007, and we have the ‘New Seven Wonders Cities’ to look forward to later this year), the official website for this harmless bagatelle amusingly states that the voting process will take “democracy to a new, global level.”  I think the choice of Wonders in both categories so far selected tells us more about national pride (or lack of it) and the power of the telephone vote than anything else. There’s no doubt though that Jeju (or at least its amazing volcanic landforms) is an extraordinary place.

The impressive cone of Sanbangsan, in the southwest corner of the island, rises above fields of canola flowers

Jeju is just two hours away from Taiwan by plane, and with new budget air routes to Korea recently opening, together with some quite attractive package deals  available, it’s a very attractive proposition for a short break, and a great one for anyone with the slightest interest in either natural beauty or geology.

The basalt columns of Jisatgae, near Jungmun on the south coast

With Spring Break this week (and a major lack of students to teach) I took advantage of one of those cheap-ish package  deals to explore the island, staying (for, I think, the first time in my life) in a five-star hotel to boot! The trip hasn’t awoken me to the delights of luxury hotels – the Jeju’s Hyatt (at the Jungmen resort in the south of the island) looks marvellous and was quite nice but honestly the money would have been much better spent elsewhere, were the hotel room not included on a cheap deal.  Jeju however, despite suffering to a degree from the development scourge that’s destroying so many wonderful places I’ve been, was well worth it – it’s a rather magical place.

Inside Manjanggul, the world’s longest lava tube

It’s hard to put a finger on what’s so refreshing about Jeju. The outer rim of the island is heavily developed and much of it is hardly attractive these days, yet there’s a certain northern quality to the light, a freshness, that is highly appealing.

Beautiful Oedolgae (the ‘lonely rock’), near Seogwipo on the southern coast

Many of the island’s tourist attractions sit firmly in either the ‘family friendly’ or ‘kitsch’  categories, and include an extraordinary glut of museums showcasing everything from shells to sex, and from teddy bears to tea. There’s also lots of cultural interest as well, with a few preserved (or rebuilt) settlements of traditional stone-walled, thatched-roof houses, and a truly amazing tradition: diving grandmothers or haenyeo: ladies in their 60s or 70s, who daily struggle into full wetsuits, don masks and snorkels and wade into the frigid sea in places such as Seongsan to dive (up to twenty meters!) for seafood and other treasures of the deep. These amazingly hardy old women are surely the island’s true wonders, apparently being able to hold their breath for up to two minutes.

Basalt columns at the (dry) upper of the three Cheonjeyeon Falls; the water in the river runs underground in winter, and emerges in a cave at the foot of the upper falls, only plunging over them in the wet season (summer)

I got a welcome glimpse of a haenyeo one freezing cold morning of the trip, but during my short stay, my focus was on the island’s renowned volcanic wonders, such as mind-boggling Manjanggul Lava Tube, the longest known lava tube in the world at 7 kilometers, and the awesome Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), a beautifully preserved volcanic crater peak on the island’s eastern tip. There are hoards of tourists to jostle with on  the short (15 minute) trek to the top; if anything the Sunrise Peak is best seen from a distance, when its sheer-sided bulk, looming out of the ocean into the china-blue sky, is hard to forget. Better still, from an airplane. The circular crater jutting out of the blue ocean is a familiar tourist brochure image, and looks quite unreal.

Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) is pretty impressive from the trail to the top, although this sheer sided volcanic tuff cone (apparently considered one of the best examples of its type in the world) actually looks its best from the far distance, or -most startling of all – from the air

Towering over everything on the island, both literally and figuratively though, is Hallasan, the 1950 meter-high extinct volcano which rises out of the center of the island, and the highest mountain in South Korea. By regional standards the peak is not especially high, and it’s a much easier climb than the other famous treks in the Asia/Pacific region such as Yushan, Fuji, Rinjani and Kinabalu, but Hallasan is obviously a source of enormous  pride for the locals, and no wonder – it’s a wonderful place!

The Bear, one of the formations beside the trail to the summit of the tuff cone of Seongsan Sunrise Peak


Hallasan can be climbed in one day, and there are a choice of five routes on the mountain, although only two actually reach the rim of the crater at the summit. The trails (including the summit routes) are also open year-round now as well, although you’d need crampons and sticks in winter. For our climb, we combined these two summit trails, ascending by the popular Seongpanak Trail, and descending by the much quieter Gwaneumsa Trail.

Near the beginning of the Seongpanak Trail, the easier route to the summit of Hallasan

The trailhead of the 9.6 kilometer-long Seongpanak Trail, to the east of the mountain,  was swarming with Koreans when we arrived about 9:30 on a cold but cloudless Sunday morning. The weather this first day in April (as it was for most of our short stay in Jeju) was magnificent – full sun, blue, cloudless sky, and with a refreshing chill in the air (temperatures drop below freezing at night on the mountain. There’s a small visitor center at the start, which sells welcome hot  noodles and drinks, and a large car park, although we arrived by taxi – about 30,000 won (US$27) from Jungmun Resort.

Above JIndallaebet Shelter, the trail climbing towards the summit cone is under snow well into April

Heading for the summit….

The trail is gentle almost all the way up the mountain, and the ascent time of 4-5 hours usually given for the trail is very conservative. We did it in just under four hours, moving at a pretty leisurely pace with several breaks. A quick walker could easily climb to the summit from this direction in three. The trail is very lovely though, much of it through dense deciduous forest with low-growing, variegated bamboo carpeting the ground below. Signs in English at irregular intervals mark the distance travelled, and stones give the altitude at certain points on the route. Starting at around 800 meters above sea level, there’s a vertical ascent of 1,100 meters to climb, yet it’s a gradual ascent, and an amazingly painless one (by Taiwan standards, at least!).   After crossing a  little stream  around the five kilometer point, the path starts climbing a little more stiffly, and the first patches of snow made the going more slippery on the steeper bits.

The last few hundred meters to the summit are up the loose rock of the cone itself

A trail on the left (apparently 40 minutes there-and-back) leads to a viewpoint above an Oreum (parasitic volcano) on the side of Hallasan, one of over 360 secondary cones that pepper the island, giving it a distinctive appearance. We continued straight on, however, as we had a time issue. It’s important to note that there’s a time restriction for those climbing to the summit. To be allowed to complete the climb to the crater, hikers have to reach Jindallaebat Shelter, the second (and last) shelter on the trail, by 12:30 pm (a little earlier in winter, a little later in summer – times are posted at the trailhead in English). It takes 2 hours or so (less if you’re quick) to get to this point from the trailhead, so a 9:30 start should allow plenty of time.

On the Gwaneumsa Trail, just below the summit

The start of the long descent on the Gwaneumsa Trail

Jindallaebat is an important rest stop before the final, slightly steeper ascent to the cone, and sells hot noodles (at least on weekends; you have to bring the used paper bowl and chopsticks down with you afterwards, though) and drinks. More important, if hiking in spring, they sell simple crampons for 5,000 won (about US$5). Snow lies on the upper part of the trail probably until late April, and investing in crampons here (if you didn’t bring any with you) is probably the best money you’ll spend on the mountain, especially if planning on descending by the steeper Gwaneumsa Trail. By the way none of the shelters on Hallasan are designed for overnighting, which isn’t allowed. They’re simply intended as a temporary rest stop in harsh weather.

View near the summit, on the descent

Looking back to the summit, from the Gwaneumsa Trail

It’s a steady ascent now towards the cone, which is rather an anti-climactic sight from this side (Hallasan doesn’t show its best face from here), and a wooden boardwalk changing to a wide stairway of wooden sleepers climbs up the cinder slope, to reach the edge of the huge, shallow crater. The highest point of the mountain is actually atop the inaccessible cliffs opposite – but there’s little difference in height around the crater rim, and standing at the viewpoint on the rim certainly feels like standing on the roof of Korea!

In early April, the snow on the trail was still several feet deep in places!

Heading down

Walk round the crater edge to the right and the Gwaneumsa Trail soon drops off the peak, through an enchanting forest of stunted Korean fir trees. Just a few minutes from the summit, the crowds of the Seongpanak Trail have dwindled to a steady trickle, yet the scenery immediately becomes far more interesting. As the trail descends (mostly on a raised wooden boardwalk, covered in thick, drifts of compacted snow as we pass – our crampons were absolutely essential here), the cliffs of the true peak of the mountain soon rear above as the volcano shows its much more impressive northern face.

Beside the Tamna Stream, looking back towards the summit

Suspension bridge across the Tamna stream, on the Gwaneumsa Trail

It’s a fairly steep and rather icy descent through the forest of stunted conifers and dead, sun-bleached tree trunks to a large flat area (probably a helicopter landing pad) and a marvellous view back up through the broken wall of the crater to the peak above.

Near Samgakbong Shelter

The boardwalk continues descending into a deep valley below, crosses a picturesque suspension bridge and makes the first of several disconcerting uphill stretches, climbing high onto the opposite side of the valley, with great views, to reach the Samgakbong Shelter, which has a final wonderful view past a shapely,  pointed little peak to the summit, now high above.

The view from Samgakbong Shelter

This descent to Samgakbong has taken nearly two hours, yet we’ve covered barely two kilometers. After the hut, the trail dives into woodland, and  it’s a long slog down to the Tamna Valley Shelter;  the going is easier (the snow eventually ceases around the 1,000 meter mark), but it’s a fairly monotonous woodland walk. Immediately after the Tamna Valley Shelter, the trail dives into the picturesque wooded Tamna Valley itself, then climbs stiffly up the far side before meandering on through the woods, crossing several other small streams, each of which have carved small but impressive chasms through the volcanic rock. One of the streams disappears underground for 400 meters at a place called Guringul Cave, the last major landmark on the hike. Less than half an hour later, the trail emerges into the large car park beside another visitor center, at the northern foot of the volcano, where waiting taxis vied to give us a lift (15,000 won) into the island’s capital, Jeju city.

The Tamna Valley, towards the end of the Gwaneumsa Trail

Although slightly shorter (8.7 kilomneters) Gwaneumsa Trail is steeper, involving an extra 300 meters of vertical climb, and is a lot more demanding than Seongpanek Trail, so it’s no surprise that it’s much less popular. On the other hand, it’s far more scenic, and would be a much more rewarding route to climb Hallasan, ascending the much more rugged northern face of the volcano, which is certainly the more impressive approach to the peak. Heading down took us over four tiring hours (with only very short rests), but that was mainly because even with crampons the going was a bit dicey in many places on the upper part of the descent.  I suppose it would take  about five to climb the volcano from this side in better conditions. I’d certainly recommend it over the more popular but scenically much less impressive route from the east along the Seongpanak Trail.

At the start of the Seongpanak Trail


Trail ribbons marking the route of a Jeju Olle trail

Jeju island has a well-developed network of about 300 kilometers of trails called Olle (‘narrow paths’), mostly along the coastline, which makes for some lovely, undemanding walking. The stretches we followed are all very easy and quite developed (wide trails, often wooden boardwalks). Look out for trail marking ribbons much like those used in Taiwan.  Tourist offices around the island have free maps with Olle routes marked on them, and there’s at least one website devoted to the network.

Olle trail at Jungmun

14 thoughts on “Hallasan: South Korea’s Highest Peak

  1. I am doing a 3 week study abroad in Taiwan (near Taipei) this July, with a 7 days extension for free travel. I stumbled across this site while searching for oudoors/hiking to do outside of the city. I would love to get some insight on more of these places you have visited and get a good plan laid out to see as much as I can. Would you consider email communication? The more I read about the Taiwan, the more I want to live there. Are most of these trails easily accesible by trains and taxi? Or do you recommend joining a tour group?

    Some students are planning to fly to Bangkok for the extended time, but I feel there is a lot to explore in Taiwan that 3 weekends during school just can’t handle.

    Hope you have some time to communicate. Thank you.


    • Hi Curtis,
      Please feel free to contact me by email for more info on any of the places – I’ll try to steer you in the right direction!

      Richard (Richard0428@yahoo.com)

  2. Hi, May I know when did you hike Hallasan? Is it end of March? I will be going to Jeju this March too. Still wondering how is the condition of Hallasan. Hope you could reply me. Thanks.

    • Hi, and thanks for writing. We were there in early April, and there was snow from about 2/3 of the way up to the summit. Try to bring crampons with you – it makes the last part of the climb a lot safer. If you don’t get them before though you can buy 6-point crampons at the little shop on the main route (at the point where they’ll not let you continue to the summit if you arrive too late). Enjoy the climb – it’s a wonderful walk!

      • Hi, Thanks for your reply. Is it possible to rent the crampons in Hallasan? May I know how’s the weather in early April? Is it still very cold as in winter? Sorry for being so long winded. As I’ve never experience 4 seasons before. So it’s a bit hard for me to predict the cold weather. Anyway, I will appreciate a lot if you could help me on this. Thanks.

  3. You’ll probably have to buy the crampons, but they’re not expensive. It will be be pretty cold up the top (maybe below freezing if you’re unlucky), so dress up well with plenty of layers that you can add or take off, and a good raincoat to keep the wind off you.

  4. Hi Richard, hope you are reading this. Am leaving for Hallasan this Sunday 19 April and will be hiking to the peak. My girlfriends said we should bring thick winter clothings as it will be below zero. I am unable to view any weather forecast in the web. I am not too sure. Kindly advise. I do not want to overpack. Am from Malaysia.
    Thanks and hopefully to receive your reply soon.

    • Hi Lisa, Your friends are absolutely right! Please do pack plenty of warm clothes – it’ll almost certainly be thick snow on the top part of the ascent (you’ll probably need to buy crampons at the last hut on the way for safety – they’re not expensive) and VERY cold on the way up, especially when you stop walking. Have a great trip!

  5. Richard,

    My son (20) and I will be visiting Jeju in mid May and I have been looking into hiking, possibly hallasan. Are most of the trails made of steps? We are from Montana and have been hiking here as well as Oregon, Utah, Washington and Idaho but the trails are usually dirt or rock. What is the best place on jeju hike to see scenery?

    • Hi! The trails on Hallasan are mostly rough dirt, and a few steep sections have ropes (mainly to help when the surface gets wet and slippery). There are some wooden steps on the volcanic ash just below the summit and elsewhere on the lower slopes to prevent erosion, but mostly it’s a rough, natural trail. Only two of the trails reach the summit – for the best scenery the Gwaneumsa Trail is undoubtedly the finest of the two trails we hiked (there’s a third ascent, but that doesn’t reach the true summit of the volcano). It can, however, be combined with the more popular, easier Seongpanak Trail into a day hike (which is what we did). The two trails are quite different, and both are worth walking. Hope you have a great trip – Jeju is fascinating!

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