A trail network encircling the foothills of Jirisan National Park provides adventurous walkers with a steady diet of bucolic scenery, rural hospitality, and farm-fresh food, all set against the rugged backdrop of South Koreaâ€™s second-highest mountain
By Jonathan Hopfner
Photographs by Craig C. Lewis
Even in a country covered with mountains, some peaks loom larger in the imagination than others. Over years of visiting and living in South Korea I had climbed ridges overlooking the frozen border with the North, scrabbled up volcanic cones on subtropical Jeju Island, and hiked the densely wooded slopes of the peninsulaâ€™s interior.
But I had studiously avoided Jirisan, the highest mountain on the South Korean mainland. Beloved by trekkers for its scenic beauty but notorious for its grueling trails, Jirisan, the only place in the country with a native bear population, had always struck me as a tad too wild.
Then I got wind of the Jirisan Dullegil, a recently completed, 300-kilometer-long circuit of walking trails that rings the mountainâ€™s base, rolling gently through Koreaâ€™s largely rural southwest. Promising abundant scenery, quaint farming villages, and some of the tastiest food in the country, a stroll on the Dullegil sounded like the perfect way to experience Jirisanâ€™s natural wondersâ€”from a respectful distance.
And so I find myself on a high-speed train from Seoul, hurtling toward the southern city of Namwon on a warm autumn day. Returning to Korea is always a pleasure for me, but never more so than in fall, when, as the local saying goes, the â€śsky is high and the horses are fat.â€ť As Seoulâ€™s gray sprawl gives way to a vast dome of blue sky and rice fields ripened to a burnished gold, the expression couldnâ€™t be more apt.
Just under three hours by rail from the capital, Namwon is one of several gateways to Jirisan National Park, whose 472 square kilometers range across three different provincesâ€”North Jeolla, South Jeollanam, and South Gyeongsang. The park was established in 1967 as South Koreaâ€™s first such preserve, a rare acknowledgement of the possibilities of leisure by the development-obsessed dictator then running the country, Park Chung-hee. Jirisan also marks the southernmost point of the massive Baekdudaegan (White Head Great Ridge) range, a chain of peaks that stretches all the way to North Koreaâ€™s border with China.
For those expecting the train doors to open onto untrammeled wilderness, Namwonâ€™s drab cityscape can be a bit of a letdown. But after climbing into a taxi and enduring a few minutes of blaring horns and crowded roundabouts, Hong Kongâ€“based photographer Craig Lewis and I are zipping eastward down a highway into the bucolic district of Sannae (literally, â€śinside mountainâ€ť), overshadowed by an undulating wave of tree-thick hills. Pulling up to a quiet cluster of houses a stoneâ€™s throw from a somnolent-looking town hall, we get our first taste of local hospitality when the owner of the minbak (guesthouse) weâ€™ve booked, the lyrically named Persimmons Flower in May, races out to meet us, fussing over our bags and pelting us with offers of food and refreshments.
After reassuring her that we arenâ€™t on the brink of starvation, Cho Hoe-eun ushers us through sturdy wooden gates to an 80-year-old house that embraces a courtyard and an unruly garden. The houseâ€™s walls are of the yellow earth (hwangto) favored in the oldest Korean homes, supported by rough-hewn timber and scrawled with flowers and other motifs. Sliding doors open onto small rooms where bedding is rolled out on the floor, warmed from underneath by a wood-burning furnace. Itâ€™s cozy, unassuming, and a little ramshackle. In other words, perfect.