Hiking Seongsan Ilchulbong (Seongsan Sunrise Peak) to see the sun come up over the ocean is one of Jeju’s must-do’s and is a virtual rite of passage for Koreans. This past weekend, a group of friends and I decided to make a weekend out of our visit as a combined birthday and 4th of July (American Independence Day) celebration.
Though there are a myriad of accommodations surrounding the attraction, we had decided to camp. Number one because it is free. And number two because in order to see the sunrise we would already be waking up much earlier than we would ever want to.
The bus ride to Seongsan Ilchulbong is long, and after almost two hours, we finally arrived. There had been a slight miscommunication about who had the 411 on camping spots, and it turned out that nobody had a clue. We decided to just venture down the beach and see what we found.
One of my favorite things about Korea is its lenient camping laws. Unlike in much of the West, camping on Korean beaches is allowed unless signs specifically prohibit it. Bonfires are also fine as long as they do not get out of hand. Best of all, it is free ― of charge and of old couples from Florida telling you about their RV adventures.
Seongsan Ilchulbong ― a massive, circular hulk of volcanic rock, cloaked in green foliage and shooting straight out of the ocean ― is breathtaking. Unlike in many of the tourism photos, it was shrouded in fog the entire time we were there. Though the weather did add to the monolith’s mystique, I would love to see it on a clear day.
As for camping, any place along the black sand beach would have worked. The only difficulty was finding a place clear of trash. Amid an amazing number of perfect seashells was also a lot of litter, with a peculiar abundance of light bulbs. (One highlight: we did find a letter in a bottle, though it was written entirely in Korean.) We also had to be wary of the tide, which can change quite significantly on Jeju.
▲ Photos by Susan Shain
We eventually found a spot on the beach that was light bulb-free and set back from the water. Best of all, it had a stunning view of the peak. We set up camp and then waded into the water for an evening dip. Despite the disturbing items that had washed up on the beach, the water was clean and shallow.
Swimming in the brisk ocean in the shadow of the prodigious peak was one of the highlights of our trip. There are few times that I have swam with something so beautiful looming over me. And the mist lent a further romance to the evening that would not have been present on a clear day.
As we lacked cooking supplies, we headed into town for dinner. Due to its heavy influx of tourists, the town of Seongsan has quite a few amenities for being so small. In addition to the many minbaks and pensions, there are restaurants at every turn. We found a grocery store and restaurant (even one to please our vegan!) within 10 minutes walking distance of our tents.
After returning to a chilly campsite, we welcomed a warm fire, which, despite initial skepticism and extremely soggy wood, a few former boy scouts managed to ignite. The rest of the evening was filled with one of my favorite parts of camping ― campfire chatter.
To end our evening, in a classy celebration of the 4th of July, we lit some roman candles. We also may have engaged in a makgeolli-fueled rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, but who’s keeping track? Despite the lack of hot dogs and S’mores, it was a classic (at least for us Americans) camping affair.
In a not-so-brilliant, nor classic, turn of events, I had neglected to bring blankets or a sleeping bag. I hadn’t wanted to carry them on the bus, and figured that if my stifling apartment was any indicator, I wouldn’t need them.
Wrong. It was really windy on the coast, and my blanket-less existence led to an entirely sleepless night, with the one advantage being that I was already awake for my 4:30 a.m. alarm. I pounded six fake Oreo cookies (also not a recommended idea), and we headed off to see the sun rise. The walk was about 15 minutes from our campsite to the start of the trail. The sky was already a gorgeous purple, and anticipation soon overtook exhaustion.
Seongsan means “castle hill” in Korean, and Ilchulbong means “sunrise.” The castle reference is from the rock’s sloping shape, and the sunrise is from the fact that it’s an incredible spot to watch the sun’s morning ritual. Sources vary, but the structure is the result of a submarine volcanic eruption either 50,000 or 100,000 years ago. Standing at 182 meters (597 feet) above sea level, it is impressive to behold and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. It is most recognizable from aerial photos that reveal the massive crater it houses, which measures 377,872 square meters (1,239,737 square feet).
It was a 5:15 a.m. sunrise, so we blitzed up the steep, stepped trail. It took us 15 minutes to get to the top, but it probably would take around 20 to 25 minutes at a slower pace. Alas, our sweat was for nothing. We arrived at the top a few minutes ahead of schedule and took our seats on the observation deck among a few sleepy Koreans. The fog was so dense that we could barely see the crater, let alone the ocean below. How were we going to see the sun rise? As we waited, more breathless people arrived.
We waited. We mused about how cool it would be to throw a gigantic New Year’s Eve party in the crater. Then, we remembered we were in Jeju, not Ibiza. We waited. We shot off some more roman candles, but the sparks were lost in the white fog. Then, somebody said that the sunrise wasn’t supposed to happen until 5:28 a.m. That ticked by. We waited. Maybe the sun had forgotten to rise?
Around 6 a.m., we called it. A bust. Oh well, the camping had been fun, the swimming phenomenal, and we would definitely give it another try before leaving Jeju. I have heard of other people having the same experience at “Sunrise Peak,” though, so I would double-check the weather forecast before planning any type of life-affirming journey. For us, it was just another day in Jeju. We headed back to our campsite, boarded a bus home, and thanked our lucky stars to be living in such a beautiful place.
From the Jeju City bus terminal, take the Dongilju bus that leaves from Lane 4. The journey will take about two hours. Hours: winter, one hour before sunrise to 8 p.m.; summer, one hour before sunrise to 9 p.m. Admission: Adults - 2,000 won, Children - 1,000 won, Residents (and Jeju Alien Registration Card holders) - free
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