Hiking in Seoul: overview
Despite being one of the world’s biggest cities and home to half the population of South Korea, Seoul is a hiker’s dream; with its northern, eastern, and southern limits defined by sizeable summits and ridges, and a number of smaller mountains standing within the city itself, there’s a wide range of hikes you can do from a quick stomp up to see the view from Namsan to more involved half-day jobs up the bigger ones like Bukhansan and Gwanaksan.
They can all be accessed easily by public transport (in many cases directly from the Metro but sometimes also involving a bus), meaning you can eat lunch in town, hike up a mountain, and be home in time for tea.
As well as the outstanding city views and pleasant mountain scenery, Seoul’s mountains also offer plenty of historical and cultural interest including Buddhist temples & shamanic sites, medieval city walls & ancient mountain forts, modern military installations, and even the site of a battle with North Korean would-be assassins; and of course, in the case of Namsan, a massive sightseeing tower and heaps of restaurants & cafes.
Listed here are eight of Seoul’s most famous mountains:
Seoul’s highest point, on clear days Bukhansan offers epic views of the entire city. If you don’t fancy slogging all the way up, you can cheat by starting from Doseonsa Temple halfway up the mountain’s eastern flank and accessible by road.
The highest mountain on Seoul’s southern boundary, the summit of Gwanaksan is home to a large Buddhist hermitage including the photogenic cliff-top Yeonjudae temple (as well as various telecoms installations, giving it its distinctive masts), and has several equally convenient but quite different routes to choose from making it very popular with Seoulites.
Bang in the middle of the city and topped off with N Seoul Tower (as high again as the mountain itself), Namsan is Seoul’s most prominent landmark and symbol. It’s a small mountain and can easily be climbed from popular spots like Myeongdong and Seoul Station, and it’s really more of a sightseeing activity than a serious hike; the views are still great though, and it’s also a popular cherry blossom spot in spring.
The name Achasan refers to the entire ridge (as well as one of the constituent peaks) between eastern Seoul and neighbouring Guri city; it isn’t all that high, but the views of Seoul are absolutely awesome and you can do a quick walk up & down to the above viewpoint, a full traverse of the ridge, or aim for the highest point (Yongmasan, a detour from the main trail). Achasan’s also dotted with Goguryeo Era (37BC – 668AD) forts, adding a touch of archeological interest.
The small neighbouring mountains of Inwangsan & Bugaksan stand immediately north of central Seoul, with good views of Namsan and Gyeongbokgung Palace and a whole host of points of interest. Independence Park and Seodaemun Prison Museum are located near Inwangsan, and the mountain has religious significance being home to a famous temple, a holy rock, and a famous shamanic shrine; Bugaksan was off-limits for decades after the 1968 battle following an assassination attempt on the South Korean president by North Korean commandos, and Inwangsan & Bugaksan remain highly sensitive areas with a large military presence (you even need your passport to step foot on Bugaksan)
Located all the way up on Seoul’s northern edge, Dobongsan’s the most ‘away from it all’ you can get without actually leaving the city (don’t be expecting complete solitude though); it’s probably the wildest of Seoul’s mountains, and although the city views are a bit more distant than those from the others it has the most dramatic mountain scenery. It’s also home to some famous temples on its lower slopes.
Although it’s the third biggest of Seoul’s mountains, Suraksan’s location means it gets fewer visitors than the others on this list. This makes it a good choice if you want to get high above the city but don’t like crowded trails (will still be pretty crowded on a sunny weekend though!)
General Information for Hiking in Seoul
Crowds: hiking is super popular in Korea, Seoul’s a massive city, and these mountains have really convenient access, so you have to expect serious crowds on weekends and holidays when the weather’s good; try to hike on weekdays instead.
Season: spring and autumn are by far the nicest times to hike Seoul’s mountains, but they’re all climbable year-round. It gets really cold in winter though, and you may have to deal with snow and ice – the granite domes which form the summits of Bukhansan and Dobongsan are a particularly sketchy prospect in winter and while they do have fixed chains in place, you really also want proper footwear and some clip-on ice spikes (you can pick these up from the outdoors shops and vendors at the bottom of both mountains). Gwanaksan’s fine in winter as long as you stick to the trails from SNU or Gwacheon (and not the Sadang route), and the smaller hills should also be fine (especially Namsan, which gets hordes of visitors for New Year). In summer, prepare to sweat! Bring heaps more water than you think you’ll need.
Pollution: Seoul’s air ranges from crystal clear to decidedly dodgy, and if you climb on a smoggy day you won’t get the views. I always check the PM2.5 levels here before hiking; below 50 (green on the chart) means awesome views, 50 – 100 (yellow) means decent views but hazy in the distance i.e. probably still worth going, but over 100 (orange) means I wouldn’t usually bother (and if it’s hitting 150+ (red) it’s best to stay indoors for health reasons anyway). Here’s the view from Bukhansan on a clear day:
…and this is it with the PM2.5 at around 80:
Mountain locations in Seoul
1.Gwanaksan 2.Namsan 3.Achasan 4.Inwangsan 5.Bugaksan 6.Bukhansan 7.Dobongsan 8.Suraksan
Any questions about hiking in Seoul? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Useful Links for Hiking in Seoul
Map apps: be aware that Google Maps doesn’t work as well in Korea as in most places. You should download either or both of the Korean map apps, Naver Map & KakaoMap. They’re great for live transportation updates, were both updated with English versions prior to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, and they also have the main hiking trails marked (my personal preference is for KakaoMap, but I use both)
Accommodation: search & book rooms in Seoul
Also make sure you have a good insurance policy… World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand.
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