Out and about in South Korea – Jeremy Lee

Posted by Ettienne Montzka-Caceres on

Recently I was given the opportunity to visit South Korea to present some of my research at an international conference, where scientists from around the world presented the latest studies on Antarctic earth sciences. While this conference was based in the bustling city of Incheon, I never miss a chance to get outdoors when I visit a new country, so I decided to spend a few days after the conference to explore some of South Korea’s natural wonders.

After doing some research, I quickly learned that South Korea was a fantastic place to go hiking. It is a popular activity with locals of all ages and you are sure to meet plenty of friendly smiles on the trails. With most of the country dotted in hills and mountains, as well as 21 national parks throughout, hikers are spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, I was visiting in the middle of summer which isn’t the best time to hike due to the high temperatures, heavy rainfall and muggy humidity. Eventually, I decided to visit Jeju Island, a small island off the southern coast which is also the site of the Fjällräven Classic in South Korea.

On the trail up towards the summit of Mt Hallasan 

Jeju Island, often described as the mini-Hawaii of Asia, formed from a period of volcanic activity starting about 2 million years ago where lava flows piled up on the ocean floor, eventually emerging above the ocean surface. The island is covered in the remnants of former volcanoes, including features such as volcanic craters, columnar basalt and lava tubes which help create a fun playground for any outdoors enthusiast. Of course, this was a natural paradise for a geologist to explore.

To start off my trip I went to the Manjanggul Lava Tube Cave. This cave formed where lava once flowed and then cooled on the outside to leave a hollow tube. It’s truly fascinating to walk along the cave floor where you can see the flow lines and patterns of the once molten lava beneath your very feet.

Inside Manjanggul cave you can walk along the remnants of a river of lava 

Further east from the caves lies Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak as the easternmost point on the island. It is a large bowl-shaped crater that towers out of the ocean, which formed from a volcano interacting with the seawater during its eruption about 5000 years ago. The walk to the top is not too long but shared with many visitors as it provides great views of the island on a clear day. Nevertheless there are some great volcanic layers to see and some impressive cliffs along the coast.

The steep cliffs of Seongsan Ilchulbong dropping into the ocean

On the south side of the island there are plenty of waterfalls to wander past. Consider walking along some (or all) of the Olle trails, a series of walks that take you around the southern coastline of Jeju Island. The segments I walked on were empty when I was there, so I found it a great way to get some peaceful quiet time in the forests. On the south coast one can also find Jusangjeolli Cliff and Jeongbang Falls. Both sights have foundations of columnar basalt, the hexagonal shaped volcanic formations that are found around the world. These funky shapes form as the lava cools and contracts, creating hexagonal fractures at the surface which propagate down through the rest of the lava flow.

Columnar basalt cliffs on the south side of Jeju Island 

The island is also home to Hallasan National Park, a forest covered area in the centre of the island that also contains South Korea’s highest point, Mt. Hallasan (1986m). This mountain is a shield volcano that can be seen from most parts of Jeju island. There are a few trails that take you through the national park, and I ended up hiking up to the summit along the Gwaneumsa Trail and down along the Seongpanak Trail, the latter of which is the easier walk and more popular route to the top. I would definitely recommend hiking up the Gwaneumsa Trail, it is a much steeper trail through the forest, which makes it more difficult, but this means that there are significantly fewer people on it and I was able to enjoy the tranquillity of the forest to myself. This can be done pretty comfortably in a day and hikers are rewarded with stunning views of the crater lake at the summit, called Baengnokdam. It gets quite windy at the top, so pack a jacket if you want to hang around for a good lunch break.

What to see and hear more from Jeremy? Follow his journey: @jkmlee

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