Everything you think you know about South Korea is wrong – it’s actually amazing for the great outdoors
South Korea may be known for its modern metropolises, but it might surprise you to know that it’s also seventh heaven for hikers, mountaineers, campers (and glampers), scuba divers, and beach bums. Many locals are avid weekend explorers. In the winter, people make a beeline for the nearest resort, some of which are world-class facilities from hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics. Many of South Korea’s stunning natural features are important cultural and geographical sites that have earned UNESCO’s stamp of approval, especially on Jeju Island.
While hiking is certainly one of the most popular and easily accessible outdoor activities, there are lots to do for adrenaline junkies, too. Try the 940 m-long Nami Skyline ZipWire Ziprider, a thrilling zipline that connects Nami Island to the mainland; many South Koreans flock here thanks to the island’s cameo on the popular soap opera, Winter Sonata. Paragliding at Yangpyeong allows some truly singular views of Korea’s mountain ranges.
Let it snow
Skiing and snowboarding in South Korea is a very special experience if you’re accustomed to western resorts – chairlift attendants here are unbelievably friendly, welcoming each chairload of visitors with a respectful annyeong haseyo (hello). Another noticeable difference is that sponsorships and advertising is plastered absolutely everywhere, and off-piste skiing isn’t as common.
Many diehard skiers and snowboarders flock to Yongpyong, South Korea’s biggest resort with slopes across three mountains. However, Yongpyong’s popularity may also stem from its extensive range of apres-ski activities, as well as the fact that it was the first proper ski resort in the country. The accommodations here range from traditional ondol-style rooms (sleeping on a heated floor) to conventional western hotels or lodges. The resort is packed with low-key fun activities (think pool, arcades, and karaoke), plenty of boozing, and plenty of food. In the summer, Yongpyong also has golf and a water park.
There’s also the newer High1 Resort, a little farther away from the city than Yongpyong, but with incredible light, clean snow. Beginners should try Phoenix Park, which caters to newer skiers and big travel groups, or Alpensia, which was used as a location during the Winter Olympics. Phoenix Park is also a little more popular among snowboarders because of its professionally designed Extreme Park; Welli Hilli Park Ski Resort has a great halfpipe and good freestyle facilities for those looking to perfect a few tricks.
Hiking in South Korea can range from chill afternoon jaunts to full-blown mountain hikes against dramatic scenery. Jeju Island is, by far, one of the most stunning hiking destinations, thanks to its unique volcanic oreum (cones) and beautiful views from sacred Hallasan Mountain, which is South Korea’s tallest peak. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, and with good planning, Hallasan can be conquered in a very full, but challenging day, as hikers must check in at the Jindallaebat rest stop by 12:30 pm before being allowed to continue onward. Jeju Olle-gil (with olle being the dialect word for a small path) is a network of well-maintained trails all over the island, marked with signs. The UNESCO World Heritage oreum trails – namely around Geomun oreum – are, by far, some of the most jaw-dropping in the country, and only permit a certain number of visitors per day.
Another popular destination (and one that’s much easier to get to than Jeju) is Jirisan mountain, the second-tallest peak in the country, with a variety of trails suited to different levels of hiking and mountaineering. Camping and glamping are popular pastimes, with one top destination being the Seoraksan National Park. The park has its fair share of eateries, so you don’t necessarily have to bring your own food depending on how much you want to rough it.
If you’re looking to pop out of Seoul, Bukhansan (affectionally called 'the lungs of Seoul') is a reasonable drive away from the city – this very hikeable mountain is housed within Bukhasan National Park, peppered with unique stone formations set against idyllic blue skies. But if you’re looking for a truly unreal experience far from civilisation, Songnisan is a must-visit mountain with remarkable rock cliffs, especially during autumn when the foliage changes from green to brilliant reds and oranges.
If mountains aren’t your thing, Busan offers more leisurely coastal hikes that won’t take a massive toll on your calves. Oryukdo Skywalk, a distinctive glass bridge, is an especially pretty feature on the breezy Igidae coastal walk.
If you’re an experienced hiker, we recommend bringing your own gear (like Nordic walking poles, specialised clothes, and equipment) wherever possible, because hiking gear in Korea – although widely available – can get pretty pricey. Many popular hiking spots have gear shops at the base of the mountain. A rather common sight on Korean trails are well-dressed, power-walking seniors, some of whom perfectly capable of overtaking you. Another popular sight is locals lunching on thoughtfully prepared, multi-course meals, which make regular trail snacks pale in comparison. Don’t be shy – many are willing to share their food and mugs of rice wine. Most South Koreans dress to the nines in professional hiking wear when they set out for a summer weekend adventure.
Unsurprisingly, Korea has a ton of water sports, including windsurfing, kitesurfing, and regular surfing. There are also all sorts of kayaking and boating, depending on how fast you want to go – there’s everything from brisk rapids to goofing around on a banana boat. Don’t forget waterskiing, jet-skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and wakeboarding.
Jeju is, by far, the ultimate destination for scuba divers and snorkellers, because of its unique volcanic habitat, tiny uninhabited mini-islands, and incredible coral reefs. Diving also changes with the seasons, so a diving trip in the winter will yield a vastly different experience than a trip in summer: visibility and current strength are just a couple of factors.
Heads up: the waters around Korea are much colder than expected, despite Jeju’s subtropical terrain. Diving in Jeju is a time-honoured tradition amongst women, as local women divers are historically known as haenyeo, which roughly translates to 'sea mermaid.' Gapyeong is a great place to head for the summer, namely because of its refreshing water parks. Busan’s Songjeong beach is a great place to check out the local surf – experienced surfers should expect gentler waves here – and a family-friendly campsite.