Winter Hiking

Of the highest mountain ranges in Korea, not many allow for both novice and expert trekkers to experience the beauty of winter. Mount Deogyusan’s accessibility is its greatest appeal, and nature-lovers head to its peak in the heart of the year’s coldest months.

Hyangjeokbong peak sits at 1,614 m above sea level, but winter hikers can reach this scenic viewpoint from a gondola at Muju Deogyusan Resort. A 20-minute hike after the ride up will lead visitors to a snow-covered landscape. The dark blue of winter skies contrasts with the stretches of land below.

As I walk up the trail towards Hyangjeokbong, the summit of Mount Deogyusan, the surrounding roads, trees and rocks are covered in white. Last night’s snow has covered the mountain in a thick blanket and branches frozen with snow appear as natural sculptures.

Mt. Deogyusan, which stretches from Muju in Jeollabuk-do Province to Geochang in Gyeongsangnam-do Province, is Korea’s fourth highest mountain and one of the country’s national parks. Deogyusan means “gentle mountain with virtue”, which is epitomized in its accessible trails easy to climb even for children.

In contrast, Hallasan (1,950 m), Jirisan (1,915 m) and Seoraksan (1,708 m) mountains are only accessible to adults with climbing experience and appropriate climbing gear.

The gondola at Muju Deogyusan Resort is part of what makes the trip to the summit so stress-free. The 2,659 m-long cable car transports visitors from the ski resort at the entrance of Deogyusan to Seolcheonbong peak (1,520 m). From there, visitors can reach Hyangjeokbong after a mere 20 to 30 minutes of hiking.

Dogwoods, Korean firs and maples vie for one’s attention, but it is the Jumok (Japanese yew) trees that steal the show. Jumok trees, which are known for their longevity but are difficult to calculate in age, are known in Korea to “thrive 1,000 years alove and 1,000 years dead.” Beneath the white snow on Deogyusan, the trees boast geometric branches, red bark and sharp green leaves.

Kim Yu-jung has visited Deogyusan with her 7-year-old daughter Hye-min. “I’m glad I visited with my child. I was worried that this hike would be too difficult for her, but was I wrong.”

The scenery afforded at the peak can be described only by those who climb all the way to the top. At Hyangjeokbong, the numerous mountains and valleys spread out beneath your feet. The local saying “below no man and above 10,000 men” best explains this spot. Hikers can look out to the horizon and even see neighboring mountains, including Gayasan, Bigyesan, Jirisan, Daedunsan and Gyeryongsan.

When descending, stop by Deogyusan Ski Resort for a hands-on experience of the white snow. The resort is Korea’s southernmost skiing and snowboarding venue with an impressive total area of over 7sqkm. The Hotel Tirol, designed by famed European architect Karl Landauer, opened in 1997, augmenting the area’s natural beauty.

The areas of Muju, Jinan and Jangsu in Jeollabuk-do Province are often referred to as “Mujinjang”, using the first syllable of each county. The word, however, also means “no end” in Korean, and the people here are known for their “mujinjang” (endless) sincerity. Farmers in the area are also known to use only organic fertilizers, which has led to the counties being known as the “mecca of organic farming.”

Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, January 2012

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