This weekend Jared and I ventured into Bukhansan National Park to stretch our legs and soak in some nature. The park consists of three mountain peaks within just 30 square miles of protected land. Designated as a park in 1983, Bukhansan is very unique because it is in northern Seoul, a city of 10 million people. Since it is part of the city, we did something I have never experienced before: we took the subway to reach a national park!
As the park is so close to the city, it can become very crowded, especially on weekends. Bukhansan (which means mountains north of the Han River) holds the Guinness World Record for “Most Visited National Park per Unit Area.” It is such a popular park that the park service rotates which trails are open so that the environment can regenerate. I don’t know if it is just because this park is in the city, or if all Korean national parks are like this, but the road leading to the park was packed with outdoor recreation shops and stalls. I’ve mentioned before that Koreans like to wear hiking gear; now I know where they buy all of it! Vendors along the street were selling shirts, wool socks, trekking poles, repelling gear, and more. Stores represented big name brands- Mountain Hardware, Gregory, North Face; although, I don’t know if those were actually authorized dealers selling items true to that brand. Probably not. We have noticed that it is mostly the older generations who enjoy hiking and all the accessories that come with it. Though there were a few young couples on the trail, it was mostly people who looked to be in their 50s or older who were out hiking.
Jared chose our hike before we left. A mere two miles, we scoffed. Just a walk in the woods. No, it was a killer two miles. We were hiking to the top of a mountain, which we have done several times before. However, all the mountain trails in the US parks have used switchbacks to get to the top. So, they might be steep at times, but by cutting back and forth, you lessen the incline. Not so with this trail; instead, there were stairs. Man made stairs, stairs carved into the stone, rocks that created stairs, but only stairs. Two miles of stairs! It was an unexpected workout.
I had a moment of glory when we reached a fork in the trail. There was a sign written in Hangul (Korean) and arrows pointing each way. I have been taking a class to learn Hangul and can very slowly sound out words; I used my new linguistic skills to read the signs and point us in the right direction! I was so proud of myself that I happily bounced up the next few sections of steps. Near the end of the hike was a rock outcropping that provided an overlook. At that viewpoint, we realized that because of the pollution, the visibility was too poor to really appreciate the scenery. The hazy view and the thunder rumbling in the distance were enough for us to decide not to continue up to the peak. Our hike down the stairs was considerably faster and easier.
Jared and I have traveled to 9 US national parks together, but The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will always be closest to our hearts. When I think of a national park, I picture the Smoky Mountains. Therefore, as we explored Bukhansan, I couldn’t help but to compare the two places. One fabulous similarity? They are both free! Here is my list of things you might find in Bukhansan that you would very unlikely see in the Smokies.
Bukhansan was just another example of how our expectations of normal are so completely different from Korea’s normal. I really didn’t think that a national park could be so different. I had certain ideas of what a park consists of, and I think having those prior expectations make it harder to accept the cultural differences. On our next visit to Bukhansan (we will absolutely return), we will have a better idea of what to expect and will likely be happier with the experience. Perhaps other national parks in Korea, ones not located next to a huge city, might better fit our ideas. As Bukhansan is in Seoul and is so popular, it will never be able to provide the solitude in nature that we seek in national parks. This just means we have more to explore!