Taking on the nation’s toughest trek
Meandering through nature has become one of the most popular outdoor activities since the opening of the Olle Trail on Jeju Island and the Dulle Trail on Mount Jiri, southern Korea. But these trails barely have any steep ranges, meaning they never make you short of breath.
For those with a thirst for hiking, the Ultra Bau-gil is the ultimate travel destination. The trail goes through Gangwon, which is known for its mountain ranges such as Baekdudaegan.
Along with the more moderate Bau-gil, Gangwon’s Gangneung City wanted to create a more challenging trail for adventurous visitors. The Ultra Bau-gil, established in 2010, contains steeper slopes than any other trail in Korea.
The Ultra Bau-gil, which is 74.4 kilometers (46.2 miles) long, is divided into five sections, stretching from Gangneung to the sierras of Baekdudaegan. It attracts enthusiastic hikers looking for a dynamic experience.
“As there have been lots of trails made all across the country, I thought we needed to have a [more challenging] mountain trail as well,” said the managing director of Ultra Bau-gil, Lee Gi-ho. He explained that the name of the trail emphasizes the fact that it takes extra effort to complete it.
To make the experience as exciting as possible, the city checked out trekking courses in the Himalayas for research purposes.
The Ultra Bau-gil includes a walk up to Gorupogi Mountain, which has an elevation of 1,238 meters (4,061 feet) above sea level. Hikers need to invest at least five days to walk the entire track.
Although it isn’t an easy traipse, many people still visit the terrain to experience the surroundings. Some come on weekends to finish a section at a time, while some take on the full five-day experience. Some trekking fanatics come to train before they try out global, more well-known trails.
“I’m planning on walking the Santiago Trail in Spain this fall, so I came here to practice first,” said 47-year-old Heo Jun-heo, who we met while on Ultra Bau-gil.
“It was quite challenging, but I liked that I was able to feel some sort of accomplishment, which you can’t really feel from walking a flat path.”
Two reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, divided the trail into two and took three days to finish each section. It was more like a full-body challenge rather than just a workout for your legs.
The first section of Ultra Bau-gil starts from Anin Harbor in Gangneung. The highest peak (754 meters) of the first course may make walkers think the trip will be easier than expected. Also, as the beginning of the trail follows the East Sea’s coastline, visitors easily forget what they’re getting into while enjoying a view of downtown Gangneung and its surrounding beaches.
But when visitors are relaxed enough, they stumble across the historical and heartbreaking spot where armed North Korean agents exchanged gunfire with the South Korean military in 1996.
The agents fled through the mountain after their submarine crashed in the East Sea; on Security Hiking Course, visitors walk past an area where 25 North Korea agents, 11 Korean soldiers and four civilians were killed.
Then a more challenging Ultra Bau-gil awaits visitors. The second section is the most difficult, according to Lee. The elevation isn’t as bad, as the highest, Duri Peak, is at 1,033 meters, but the wild trees have formed a large forest, and traces of humans are rare in the area. We didn’t meet anyone while walking through the second section, and our cell phones were out of service most of the time.
But thanks to the trail’s tricky access, the forests have many untouched wildflowers. The mountain ranges are filled with oak trees, and relatively smaller plants grow as high as one’s waist. It felt like we were walking through a flower field, despite the perspiration induced by the rugged terrain.
After a struggle to the summit, the trail meets with Baekdudaegan, a popular trek for many mountaineers. After walking along narrow ridges, it felt like we had just gotten onto a well-paved highway. It took 11 hours to hit the end of the second section, including lunchtime and a couple of breaks.
The third section, after the rollercoaster-like second, felt like a piece of cake. Most of the trails include a simple amble across the mountain range.
The fourth and fifth sections generally cross Baekdudaegan as well. Because the slope is not too steep, the courses are also popular during the winter among hikers who want to enjoy a view of the mountain covered in snow.
The best panorama from the fourth section would probably be the 1.98-million-square-meter cabbage field, where residents in the area work. But the field is not yet covered with green vegetables. Lee Jeong-su, the head of the village, said August is the best season to catch a view of the farm, when the cabbages are fully grown.
Whether you witness the full vista of the Daegwanryeong ridge and even further to the East Sea during section five really depends on your luck. Due to the fickle weather, some trekkers only get to see murky clouds that block the view.
Even when you plan to walk during the summer season, it is better to wear long sleeves and pants in the forest. Considering that the weather is often unpredictable in the mountains, it is a smart idea to bring a thick jacket and some extra clothing. Your bag should also be heavy with food and water, which should be packed before departure.
Each section, on average, is 15 kilometers long, which requires about two liters of water, lunch and some snacks.
If you plan to finish the entire trail, there are some camping spots, but if sleeping in a tent is not to your taste, you can also find lodging in downtown Gangneung. A bus can take you from the mountain to a place to sleep and then back to where you were.
But some of the guesthouses close to the trail are already fully booked until after the summer season, so check for availability before you travel.
*For more information about the trail, go to baugil.org or cafe.daum.net/baugil, or call (033) 645-0990.
BY CHOI SEUNG-PYO AND BAEK JONG-HYUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]