Over the past 20 years, I have become aware that there is a fine line between solitude and loneliness. I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins as they often bleed into each other. So often when being in the outdoors, we seek the solitude necessary to truly become in tune with our natural environment. And then, if you find yourself immersed in too much isolation, seclusion settles in and we ultimately feel more empty than fulfilled. During those times, self-reflection can be at its peak, taking us in an array of different directions in our minds, and embarking on an internal journey to the unknown. Over Spring Break, Ashlee needed to fly back to Texas for a family emergency and I was left with the dilemma of traveling down that lonesome road or staying in the comfort of a familiar place. Ever since Ashlee and I met, we have made the most of every opportunity to engage in travel and adventure. So, in her absence I was motivated to honor ‘us’ by launching into a week trip in the Jeollabuk province. Through my healthy obsession with maps, I had located 4 National Parks that would make for a fantastic loop.
Although I had an idea of my general route, I did not start planning until the Saturday after we were let out of school for Spring Break. There was heavy rain across the peninsula and I figured that would make for a good day to solidify my route. With maps and books spread across the table, groceries covering the kitchen counter, and camping gear cluttering the floor, I identified hikes as well as reserved campgrounds and rooms that would take me on a week-long tour through Jellobuk-do. I left early the next morning in order to get ahead of the weekend traffic and with the hopes that the rain would subside in time for my hike. I arrived to the township of Muju and was thrilled to encounter an empty parking lot (Naver Map). Muju, located in the Northeast corner of Jeollabuk province, is a ski area in the wintertime and boasts the most natural snow in Korea due to its relatively high elevation. In the summer, the spring melt fills the Gucheong River and warm weather creates a water themed atmosphere. To say that this was the ‘the shoulder season’ in Muju would not truly capture the vacancy that existed in the town during my stay. I had no complaints as my hike to Deogyusan Mountain was incredibly peaceful. Note: When hiking in Korea, I typically use ALL Trails and have provided links through that app for my routes.
The trail tightly followed the Gucheong which was gushing through the canyon walls, sliding over the granite riverbed, and tumbling off drops before plunging into cavernous pools. I had not been around a waterway like this since arriving in Korea and realized how thirsty I was for a pristine mountain stream. Although the rain had ceased earlier that morning, the budding vegetation was still sweating with the dew and when I reached Baengnyeonsa Temple, I found it eerily shrouded in in a cloudy mist. The trail went from being a gradual incline to a straight shot to and climbed 2200 feet over the final 1.5 miles. Fortunately, there was an older couple that I was playing a game of leapfrog with on the final stretch that reminded me the importance of doing what you love with the one with you love. Although I could not understand what they were saying, I knew they were filled with joy as they chatted and giggled as they walked in the woods together. The peak of Deogyusan (also Hyanjeokbong) was surprisingly cold as the clear weather at the bottom of the valley was a tease compared to the stormy summit. Like with anywhere, people from all walks of life ramble along in the hills, but, I was especially taken back by one family. They were clothed entirely in cotton, denim, wore converse sneakers and were without any bags, food, or even water. I was dumfounded that what took me several hours to climb seemed to be a complete breeze for a family of four. I shrugged it off that maybe they were born in the mountains and 30 min after I started my descent, the sun broke through and cleared the skies. The light was at the perfect angle as it gashed through the trees and sliced across the water. As I neared the end of my walk down, I crossed paths again with that family of four. I had not seen them on the trail down and I could not figure out how this happened. Until, that is, the host at my completely unoccupied pension explained there is a chairlift on the side opposite the trail that goes to the top.
After a day of rest in Muju, specifically planned to watch the Ducks in the Sweet 16, I headed down to Jirisan National Park. The stretch from Muju to Jirisan was the longest stretch of country road that I had been on in Korea. My mind was twisting and turning with the paved path winding down from the mountains and into the valleys of blooming fruit trees. Jirisan is in the Southeast corner of the region, sits on the throne to the largest mountains in Korea, and there is a hut system which dots the ridges, allowing people to hike on multi-day trips. Since the huts were closed due to COVID, I had my sites set on Cheonwangbong. There are multiple access points to some of the higher points in the range and this trail was on the same side of the park that I was going to camp.
My walk started off in a grove of Cherry trees and quickly climbed through rock gardens and bamboo forests that bordered a rippling creek. I encountered only a half dozen people before reaching the station below Beopgye Temple. As I approached, a park ranger came flying out from his cabin and said something to me in Korean, which after being met by my puzzled look was followed by, ‘Are you a foreigner?’ He went on to tell me that they prevented people from accessing the summit if they are not at this point at 2:00pm. It was 2:30pm. The ranger than explained that on April 1st, that time changes to 3:00pm. It was March 30th. A true dilemma for him and not one I saw myself advancing. As minor as these discrepancies may appear, I was resolved that I would be turning around. Just for shits and giggles, I threw in, ‘I promise I will hike really fast.’ He looked me up and down as if I were at a stockyard and said, ‘ok, please hurry.’ My mindset for that section of the hike was similar to that of when encountering a bear: ‘You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the slowest person in your group.’ I figured that if I could pass one person in that final stretch, I would make good on my word to the ranger. The trail ascended 1800 ft in the final mile and the peak produced gaping views of massive mountains piled on top of each other. Although there was not a significant amount of room on the top, there was a huddled mass of hikers taking the obligatory selfie.
After passing back by the temple and purchasing some water from the ranger station, I decided to take a longer and more forgiving route down. As I was meandering through the woods in silence, two older men were gaining on me at a fairly quick pace and when they came out on a dirt road they broke into a light jog. The thought of the Asiatic Black Bear that has been reintroduced to Jirisan National Park did flash in my mind, but then one of the men began shouting ‘bus, bus.’ Despite our best efforts, we arrived at the bus stop one minute after the scheduled pick up and there is no such thing as a late bus in Korea. When I started to walk down the road, they started shouting towards me and motioned to me to sit with them. The 4 men in their mid 60’s broke out a bottle of Makgeolli (a Korean Rice Wine that is synonymous with the Jeollabuk region), little paper cups, and anju (snacks traditionally must be served with alcohol) in the form of sardines. The men then insisted on giving me Gimbap (Seaweed rolls stuffed with rice, meat, and veggies) along with bottles of water for the walk down. Even though we were only about 3 miles from the parking lot, I believe they were concerned about me being alone and wanted to make sure that I had enough food and water to make it through the night. After they escorted me down to my car and made sure I pulled out of the parking lot safely, I was on my way to Naewonsa Temple Campsite.
I rolled in just after dark and there were only two other tents set up in the entire area. This would become a theme for my trip as I was traveling in the middle of the week and Korean schools were not on a break. The campground was well lit and I had no problem setting up my tent on the wooden platform. I had inhaled a Gimbap roll on my drive and so I was satisfied with ramen soup as a quick snack. As I was cooking, everything started glowing and I realized the moon was climbing over a nearby ridge and exposing its extensiveness in the valley. The bloated vessel of space dust was illuminated from a distant sun as an unscathed disc and reflected dancing light on the creek splashing below. I could not imagine a more tranquil scene and slept hard through the night. The next morning, I took my time laying around, drinking coffee, and playing the guitar. The weather was perfect and I easily could have stayed there all day soaking in the sun, but alas, adventure is a great motivator! I took a short walk up to Naewonsa Temple before packing up camp and heading West to Naejangsan National Park.