Forbidden valley soon open to publicSeoraksan National Park in Gangwon province is full of natural wonders. Heundle Bawi (Rocking Rock), spectacular views from the rugged ridgelines of Mount Seorak and the cold, clean water that runs through the deep valleys along the mountain range are among the attractions here.
The western part of the highest peak, Daecheong, which stands 1,708 meters above sea level, is called “inner Seorak;” the other side, closest to the ocean is called “outer Seorak.” For the first time in 20 years, hiking trails through the Heulim valley, which is hidden between the rocky walls of Mount Manmulsang (A Thousand Rock Shapes) and Chilhyeongje peak, will soon be open to the public after having been closed for conservation purposes. Lee Jong-seung, a 61-year-old hiker, guided our group of reporters to the as-yet-inaccessible valley.
Park officials expect the valley to be open to the public in time for the Chuseok holiday, which begins Sept. 27. Until then, any attempt to navigate the passage without an experienced guide would be difficult. In other words, don’t do what we did.
From a rest area in Hangye-ryeong, a two-kilometer (1.2 miles) drive toward Yangyang on Highway 44 leads our group to an abandoned parking lot. Two hundred meters from here is a sign that reads, “No longer used as climbing routes.” This is where Heulim valley begins.
The hiking trails are overgrown and hard to follow. Thick foilage and felled trees obstruct what’s left of the path. Yew trees, said to live thousands of years, are easily spotted. It’s also said that they remain standing for another 1,000 years after they die. This kind of primeval forest is not often seen by human eyes. Even the August sun doesn’t penetrate the valley’s deep shade, which makes for cool temperatures.
The guide, even with 60 years of experience on the mountain, loses his way from time to time and wanders to find the proper path. After some tramping around, the sound of rushing water brightens his eyes. Yeosim waterfall is around the corner.
In the 1970s, Heulim valley was a must-see for the honeymooners who swarmed to Mount Seorak. The main attraction? This 30-meter-high waterfall. “In the past, the newlyweds came in Korean traditional attire and drank the water together,” Mr. Lee says.
As we close in on the summit, the climb gets steeper. The trails up from Heulim valley lead to Deungseon waterfall. By the final stretch, our group is practically crawling up the rocks. But at the top, we are left breathless.
Revealed to us is a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. We are encircled by the famous peaks of Mount Seorak: Daecheong and Chilhyeongje, and Mount Jeombong, which is famous for its wildflowers. From this vantage point, we feel like kings of the world.
This is the highest point of Mount Manmulsang, at 1,004 meters. It was given the name because of its many different rock formations.
Steel-frame stairs are now being installed on the path down to Deungseon waterfall. The routes down to that waterfall from Heulim valley will also be open to the public. It will pass Deungseon waterfall and continue on to Jujeon and Sibi waterfalls. Jujeon valley, where the two waterfalls are located, is an easy trek for families. It is especially crowded in autumn, however, when crowds flock to the area to take in the blazing colors.
After Jujeon valley, a small path leads to Yongso waterfall, where the trail ends. In all, the hike took us three hours. We passed five waterfalls, and the sound of cascading water was always present.
Continuing down the valley leads us to the Osaek freshwater spring. The mineral water is known to be healthy, and the place is always crowded.
The Seoraksan National Park authorities have delayed the opening date for Heulim valley several times. The staircases are finished, but there is not enough parking space for large tour buses. The scheduled opening for Chuseok is when the leaves begin to turn red; it’s also peak tourist season at Mount Seorak.
Seorak can be reached from the east coast city of Sokcho, and the most easily accessible and popular walking path is the one that leads to Seorak-dong, Biseondae, Biryong waterfall and Heundle Bawi.
To reach the highest peak, Daechong-bong, hikers need the proper gear and must reserve in advance to use park facilities like sleeping cabins.
A cable car is available to take visitors to the relics of Gwongeum castle, which was built on the rocky mountain that rises 840 meters above sea level. It provides a spectacular view of the mountain and Sokcho.
The national park office can be reached at (033) 636-7200~3; for information about Mount Seorak, visit the Web site www.npa.or.kr/sorak/eng/npa/intro.htm. For weather information, visit www.gangwon.kma.go.kr or call 033-131.
by Son Min-ho, Limb Jae-un