▲ Staying to the pathway will protect the natural beauty of the fragile Halla Mountain environment. The Donnaeko trail was closed for 15 years until December, while badly damaged areas of the hiking path regenerated. Photos by Kim Hong Gu
If walkers approach the newly reopened Donnaeko trail expecting a leisurely way to spend a day, they will be sorely mistaken. The 9.1-kilometer hike to the peak of Witseoreum has many steep inclines, a hard rocky path and almost no rest areas. This is not your run of the mill Sunday nature stroll - Donnaeko trail is a different and fiercer beast.
Donnaeko trail officially reopened on Dec. 4 after a 15- year hiatus. The trail had been closed “to protect the damaged areas,” said Yang Chun Suk, Halla National Park environmental interpretation manager. “A lot of people climbed the mountain and plants died and the soil was destroyed,” Yang said. The most badly affectedareas were near the halfway point of the trek and at the peak of Witseoreum. Presently, the trail does not continue on to the top of Halla, due to the damage to that section, but ends at Witseoreum. Yang said the park has no plans to reopen the remainder of the original trail.
The road to the trail makes it quickly apparent that the reopening has been no small deal. For two kilometers before the trail’s mouth, the road is lined with blue and yellow flags indicating where the path is located. Once in the parking area, there is a steep hill that must be surmounted even before arriving at the official start of the trail. This area is scenic of itself as it passes through a large Korean cemetery. The green of foliage against the yellow grass and black crows flying over the mounds create a somber yet beautiful sight.
▲ Winter is a perfect time for walking the newly reopened Donnaeko trail as the scenery is improved by the light dusting of snow on the foliage. Photo by Kim Hong Gu
The beginning of the trail is the most daunting, particularly for a novice hiker like myself, with a sharp incline that will deter the less experienced. After the first kilometer the trail evens out, though the respite is short, and becomes quite a pleasurable trek through the forests of Jeju, passing several volcanic caves, moss-covered rocks and dry river beds filled with boulders. The pathway itself is made of Jeju volcanic stone and looks natural rather than laid by hand. At this point, the hiker is completely immersed in forest and the usually ever-present Jeju shore line cannot be seen.
On the day I walked the trail, most other trekkers, bedecked in the latest hiking apparel, were warm and friendly as they said hello, often sharing their water or offering tangerines as they passed. Coincidentally, the Jeju tangerine is a great companion for this three and a half hour hike. Its sweet juices help to quench a hiker’s thirst and hunger without creating a belly full of water, which can cause cramps and be very uncomfortable.
Hikers must start the trail before 10 a.m. or they will be prevented from even beginning the trek. Meyoung Jae Song, one of about 100 workers that tend the trail, said this is because, “You cannot spend the night on the trail.” It is indicative of the length and difficulty of Donnaeko that there is a chance of being caught on the mountain after dark if your climb is not begun by 10 a.m. Yang had earlier sought to be reassuring: “It is not difficult, but it is not easy either,” she said.
The early morning start has an interesting effect on the climb. Being December, the mornings tend to be rather overcast which creates pale hues. On the day I walked, the trees were grey, the leaves a matted green and the only vibrant color was the dark blue of crows’ feathers. By 11 a.m. the sun had fully risen without my noticing, untilsuddenly I saw the colors in full bloom.
No longer did the trees seem depressed in an apparently lifeless state, but they were fresh in browns and reds. If, like me, one is alone during this realization, although the Hallasan National Park Web site clearly states to always travel in groups, the struggle of the trail quickly falls away and stillness takes its place. There was no echo on the trail so the quiet was deep and thick and all I noticed was how sunlight changes everything.
Once at the peak of Witseoreum, the sense of achievement I had expected was obtained. My aching muscles and sweaty brow were now badges of honor to revel in, though my euphoria was short-lived when the realization set in that I had to face the trail again, only this time in reverse. I rested only briefly at the peak and avoided getting too comfortable. I had achieved a rhythm on the way up, which I was afraid, if lost, could take much time to regain.
The Donnaeko trail is marked out similarly to the Olle trails, with subtle red ribbons that indicate the route. To me, they added to a sense of following my own feet as opposed to a strictly plotted path. A hiker I met on the trail, 67-year-old Won Jong Moon, came from Daegu specifically to walk Donnaeko. He said the secret to enjoying hiking was to “Go slowly.” As the hike is at least three and a half hours uphill and two more on the way down, going slowly appeared, to me, to be the only option.
The beginning of the trail is located 10 minutes from Seogwipo City. Take the 1132 towards Jeju City and take a left at the brown sign that says Donnaeko. The blue and yellow flags on either side of the street can’t be missed.
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