Trekking Jirisan in Korea — Trek Report

Trekking Jirisan took a fair bit of planning, but since we would be staying in mountain shelters where we could rent blankets, there was no need to pack a tent or sleeping bag. I brought minimal clothing but still weighed in at 35 pounds, food taking up the bulk of the weight.

But I didn’t want to undertake a trek by myself in a foreign country, so first I had to find a partner, which I did via CouchSurfing.

And I had to figure out the trail plan via translated websites or sites sadly lacking in information. Plus, I wasn’t able to book the trek online “because I’m not Korean,” explained a Korean friend who was able to navigate the system for me.

So trekking Jirisan wasn’t the easiest hike I’ve planned. But it was definitely a fun one once I finally got there!

Trekking Jirisan, Day 1: May 3rd (morning)

“The mountain won’t let us pass! We have to turn around!”

“No! The other option is unthinkable!”

“We have to get off this mountain! It will get us!”

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Drums.

We are defeated.

I feel defeated. The cold, the wind, the rain (now drumming on the window) — they are not pleasant. Who wants to hike in that weather? Moreover, my clothes didn’t quite dry overnight. My boots are still soaked (a curse on vegan footwear!).

The rest of the hikers who are trekking Jirisan are taking off soon, most gone already, but my partner is still sleeping. That’s ok, I don’t mind hanging around another few hours to give my clothes the chance to fully dry (my boots stand no chance).

The day started beautifully yesterday. As I got off the bus at Hwa-eomsa, the sun was shining.

A few minutes after I got off the bus, I emitted a hearty “mother-fucker!” as I realized I’d forgotten one of my water bottles in the pocket in front of my seat. I was surprised when Korean a man sitting on a bench not far away burst into laughter.

I looked up, grinned.

“Oh, you understood that, did you?” I said to a man chuckling nearby.

A nod, more laughter.

While trekking Jirisan, we were lucky enough to see Hwa-eom Temple decorated for Buddha's birthday.
Hwa-eomsa decorated for Buddha’s birthday

Having now met up with John, my CouchSurfing trekking partner who had arrived from Seoul, we walked about 20 minutes to Hwa-eomsa, a beautiful temple, where celebrations were under way for Buddha’s birthday. Lanterns strung up everywhere and kiosks set up in a few places, we wandered around at first, fascinated.

A young woman from Seoul stepped shyly up to us and pointed out two booths where we could get free green tea and fresh, glutinous rice cakes. After helping ourselves, we heard a resounding boom.

“Don’t tell me they’re banging the big drum!” I exclaimed.

Sure enough, a monk was performing the traditional ceremony. This is fairly unusual as many of the drums are ancient relics; it is therefore prohibited to use them in order to preserve them. When the drums can be used, visitors are rarely allowed to perform that office.

We watched the monk repeat his ceremonial manoeuvres for several minutes, but when he showed no sign of relenting, we set off on our hike. An hour later, arriving at a hermitage called Yeongi-am, we could still hear the booming instrument clearly.

We sat on a small boulder to have a snack, but a monk approached us and told us to go eat in the hermitage’s dining room, explaining that the meal was free. I’d been wanting to eat at a temple since I came to Korea, knowing that monks are vegetarians.

I asked to be sure there wasn’t any jeotgal (fish sauce) in the kimchi or meat in the soup broth and was emphatically reassured. I devoured my bibimbap, ate the beans from the soup but left the broth, which was far too spicy, skipped over the bibimbap entirely and instead made for the plate of fresh fruit. Oh, wow, what a meal!

To read more about this temple lunch, check out Memories of a Carnivore (Affiliate Disclosure).

It rained a little bit while we were having our meal, but it had stopped by the time we were ready to leave. Perfect timing to resume trekking Jirisan.

We hiked another two hours, reaching the road to Nogodan Shelter only minutes before a huge downpour erupted over our heads. I decided to forget about my raincoat since Nogodan was only five or ten minutes away. This was a mistake. In the end, I had to succumb.

Scenery outside Nogodan Shelter while trekking Jirisan National Park.
View from Nogodan Shelter

Soaked through and through, we took shelter at Nogodan and negotiated to sleep on the lobby floor if we couldn’t get beds, unwilling in our current condition to continue on to our planned destination, Piagol Shelter four kilometres away.

So, this morning I am defeated. We know we’ll have to beg yet another floor tonight as there is no way we’ll make it to Chibanmok Shelter, 29 kilometres away. Not only is it already later than we’d planned on leaving, but the rain isn’t showing any signs of letting up.

Trekking Jirisan, Day 2: May 3rd (evening)

21 kilometres in 9 hours, about 2 of which were spent on breaks. That was today.

At about 8 a.m., the rain relented to a drizzle and visibility improved to about 100 feet, so we jumped on the opportunity and left 30 minutes later.

An amazing view through the fog while trekking Jirisan

Our goal was to reach Jangteomok Shelter, 24 kilometres away. We hustled all day, passing everyone on the trail, even people we knew had left Nogodan hours before us while it was still raining.

The trail was good, strenuous at times, easy sometimes, moderate the rest of the time. Still, there are no memorable obstacles to note. Trekking Jirisan was basically the same as all the other trails in Korea. Lots of ups and downs, even more rocks to contend with, some slippery spots. But the views, when we could catch them through the fog, were killer.

We arrived at Seseok Shelter at 5:30. We could have continued on to Jangteomok with an estimated arrival time of 7:30, after sunset but still relatively light out. Our pace had slowed drastically in the last half hour or so, otherwise we could have made it in an hour and a half. But our legs and feet were tired, so we decided to rest.

That means we have to forego seeing the sunrise from Cheonwanbong, the highest peak in Jirisan National Park. Instead, we’ll see it from another peak. We’re both bummed about that, since the “thing to do” when trekking Jirisan is seeing the sunrise from Cheonwanbong. But sunrise from any peak is enough for me! (winky face).

During the last hour or two of our hike today, we were closely followed by two kids who struck up some chatter with us on occasion. They’re staying at Seseok Shelter, too, and other kids gathered around us as we arrived. They even got our autographs!

Trekking Jirisan, Day 3: May 5th

We left Seseok shelter at 5:30 yesterday morning and caught the sunrise from the nearest peak. It was beautiful indeed.

John had twisted his ankle the night before, at Seseok, but he still zoomed by me on the trail. My knees started to bother me very soon after our departure, most of this day trekking Jirisan being spent going downhill. I think I’m going to have to get hiking poles if I want to avoid knee surgery…

Catching sunrise from a peak while trekking Jirisan is an essential part of the experience.
Before sunrise

We finally got to Cheonwanbong, the park’s highest peak and Korea’s second highest at 1,915 metres. We took a breather to take pictures, eat a snack, and enjoy the views.

On the way down the mountain, I felt myself lose my balance on a slippery rock. I tried to jump to a safer spot but slipped and fell sideways off the mountainside and into the brush, rolling about 10 feet down. With nothing worse than a few scratches, I managed to scramble out of the brush with John’s help.

It seemed like it took forever, but we finally got to the last shelter, Chibanmok, without further incidents. Exhausted, I insisted on a long rest, even taking my boots off to ease my aching feet from trekking Jirisan.

View from a mountain peak at sunrise, light mist hovering above the mountains, the sun piercing the cool blue morning sky in the distance.
Sunrise

Looking for mugs and hot water to make tea and coffee, we struck up a conversation with members of a hiking club called Korean Mountain Peoples. They left before us so we said goodbye, confidant we’d see them again on the trail.

The rest of the way was pretty much straight down over a rocky path, torture on my knees. The inevitable eventually happened and I rolled my ankle (ironically, it’s the opposite one that’s been bothering me all week). After that, I had to take more frequent breaks.

We kept crisscrossing a solo Korean woman as we took breaks at different times and places. John was really impressed that she was trekking Jirisan on her own, but I just felt a kind of kinship with her from hiking the La Cloche Silhouette Trail by myself (winky face).

At the end of the trail, we met the Mountain Peoples club again, washing up in a stream. We’d just reached a road that would lead us to the bus stop after a 40-minute walk. The club members invited us for lunch and drinks near the bus stop, then hopped into taxis to reach it. We opted to save some cash and hitchhike (easy as pie). Thus ended our hiking for the day, after 16 kilometres and 9 hours (3 spent on breaks).

Our trekking Jirisan grand finale took place at an outdoor restaurant at one of the park access points.
Celebrating success in trekking Jirisan with the Korea Mountain Peoples

When we reached the restaurant, the club was already dipping into makkeolli (a type of rice alcohol), sitting at a patio table outside. We joined them and they started mixing beer and soju, then ordered mok appetizers and vegetarian bibimbap for everyone. A fitting end to our trekking Jirisan expedition, that it should end as it started!

By the time the club members left, the woman we’d seen so often on the trail had done trekking Jirisan. We bought her a beer minutes before our bus pulled up. A “good” thing about Korea is that you’re allowed to bring your alcohol anywhere with you. So the three of us boarded the bus with our cans of beer in our hands. We took our seats and just as we took out our wallets, the girl payed our rides to Jinju. What, ’cause we bought you a beer? Are you kidding me? Hey, thanks!!!

I’d have to say that trekking Jirisan was the toughest overnight hiking I’ve done so far because of the pace we did it at. Had we gone further the first day, the third day would have been more enjoyable. 21 kilometres in one day was ridiculous. About twelve to fifteen per day is perfect.

In terms of the quality of the trail, La Cloche Silhouette definitely rocks it. For beauty, they’re all tops in my book! The Inca Trail brought the biggest sense of accomplishment, though, possibly because it was my first, or maybe because it was the highest, I can’t say. Trekking Jirisan, while not overly challenging if well-planned (lol), is definitely a fun hike.

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