Two days was too long to wait. So on my third day on Jeju, back in November 2010, I took the 5.16 bus to the Seongpanak Rest Area to begin climbing Mt. Halla. This hike was the first of many; one for each season.
The Seongpanak Trail is a 9.6 kilometer (6 mile) course that rises 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) from 750 meters above sea level at the visitor center to 1,950 meters above sea level at the summit. Up and down that’s a 12-mile hike with 1.5 miles of vertical travel. There are strictly enforced cutoff times for summiting so it is best to get an early start.
The Seongpanak Trail first opened in 1974 and out of Mt. Halla’s five courses it is one of the most popular. Last year, out of the 1,089,383 visitors to Mt. Halla, the Seongpanak course received 36 percent of all traffic for a total of 393,800 visitors. According to the manager of the Seongpanak Visitor Center, Seo Seung-wan, an increase of hikers coming to see the autumn leaves and the presence of students on field trips from the mainland means that fall is the trails busiest season.
“I go hiking at Halla most often in the Fall. Usually the leaves are beautiful at the end of October,” said hiker Erin Pettinger.
Even though the initial hike in late fall 2010 took place just after the peak period for autumn color, it was still a rewarding experience. The weather was cool, dry, and the trail was devoid of the snow that the ensuing winter would bring in record amounts. During the 45 minutes spent at the summit a front of clouds rolled by skirting the peak creating a dramatic display.
Jan. 22, 2011, was an exceptional day for hiking. A thick layer of snow blanketed the trail and the evergreen trees sheltering Seongpanak. The sky was impossibly blue.
Winter is a great time to hike Seongpanak. The rocky sections which require balance and concen-tration become smoothed over with a foot or more of snow. It was easy going. A word of warning: due to high foot traffic the snow on the trail becomes dense and thoroughly compacted, however, deviate from the trail and you’re likely to plunge deep into the less-trodden snow flanking the path. Use caution when passing other hikers.
The azaleas bring many hikers to the slopes of Mt. Halla in the spring. The brilliant colors of the mountain during this time provide a nice contrast to winter’s pristine white landscape. Along with the budding flowers a brand new Visitor Information Center is opening this spring. Speaking through a translator, Seo had this to say about the new building: “At a cost of 3.495 billion won and under construction for two years, the Visitor Information Center was completed in February and will begin operations in March or April.” He also explained that the first floor of the contemporary building will provide videos and photos of Mt. Halla from each season, information and guidelines for visitors, and a student learning center; the second floor houses the Seongpanak management department. Yet another great reason to hit the trails.
Three out of four isn’t bad. The summer excursion was a damp affair on a slippery trail damaged by the recent typhoon. The hike was conducted in a dense mist that often condensed into periods of drizzle and rain. However, while trying to get warm at the summit my attention was focused by the collective gasp of the other hikers. For five minutes the sky opened up just over the summit to reveal the crater lake, a view that was unquestionably worth the slog.
Although each season presents the trail in a unique way, there is a distinct thread that ties together each experience, irrespective of the most recent equinox or solstice: other hikers. An increase in elevation and physical excursion seems to positively correlate to the level of camaraderie experienced on the Seongpanak Trail. Expect to meet an endless procession of greetings and “fightings” as you near the Baeknokdam summit lake.
Jeju people say, 예측 할 수 없는 (yecheukhar su eoptneun), which means the mountain’s weather is unpredictable and, although this is true, one can always expect to rely on a Seongpanak hiker’s constant: you will share stories about where you come from, have your picture taken, and swap food with complete strangers. My first Jeju mandarin orange was given to me up on the summit. I’ve also had the good fortune to complete the hike down to the visitor’s center with hikers met at the summit. But perhaps my favorite encounter is when, after telling people that I come from the United States of America, I point just a hair shy of the mountain’s southern ridge, down towards the sparkling coastal city of Seogwipo and say that, “I’m living there now.”
No matter what season, at the peak you can always grab a good perspective on where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going to go next.
(Cho Hyun-ju contributed to this article)
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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