Trying to decide on your next running adventure? Before sending in your yen for a race in Japan, consider spicing things up with a running holiday to Seoul instead. With discount flights (check out Jeju Air), the ticket might be cheaper than the entrance fees and lodging costs charged by many marathons and trail races in Japan.
Imagine if Mt. Takao and Okutama were surrounded by Tokyo rather than outside of it. Or visualize Yosemite-like rock faces next to downtown Osaka. Take a morning run to the top of one of these mountains and be downtown for a late lunch of spicy bulgogi, oxtail soup and kimchi. This is Seoul.
Korea has a vibrant road running scene. The Han River will draw hundreds of runners each morning, as will the city’s main parks. However, in my opinion, the best place to join the shuffling crowds is the running course that encircles Namsan, Seoul’s most prominent downtown hill.
Seoul Tower rises from the north peak and can be seen from most of the city. A paved road (no cars allowed) and running track undulates six kilometers (with several variations) around the entire mountain. It’s beautiful, green, and it provides sweeping sunset and sunrise views of the city’s business district.
Buses and a cable car run to Seoul Tower, which lies at the apex of the road and is a convenient start for the run. Join the milling crowds enjoying the sweeping views, while young couples tie locks to the metal fence, symbolizing their unending love (this is also Seoul’s premier dating spot).
To get the full experience of the mountain from base to top, forgo the cable car and run up. A good access point is from the National Theater of Korea (Gungnip Geukjang).
It’s entirely possible to run Namsan on any weekday morning before work, especially from major hotels such as the Hilton, Hyatt or Shilla, or from the bustling Itaewon District. Ultra running is well established in Korea, and the world ultra running championships are frequently held here. Yet trail running in Korea is still a bit of an obscure activity.
The country has produced one trail running champion, the enigmatic Jaedeok Shim, who has bagged some of the world’s top races, including Japan’s Hasegawa Cup. But presently mountain trails in Korea are somewhat bereft of runners, mainly packed with slow, older hikers traveling in small groups.
They often don’t move aside for runners, mainly because they don’t know what you are doing. Politely saying “Shilrye hamnida” (excuse me) in Korean doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt. Until they get used to sharing the mountains with trail runners, politeness, patience and trying to avoid running on weekends is the best advice.
On to the big stuff. For the serious trail runner, two areas to highlight are Gwanak and Bukhan national parks. Gwanak Mountain is located in the southwest Seoul, visible from trendy Gangnam. To get there, take the Line 4 subway to Gwacheon, use Exit 7, and then follow the shaded alleyway that goes along apartment buildings until it joins a larger road. Turn left there until getting to the temple complex and the rather obvious trailhead. You can also just follow hikers clad in the latest expedition gear heading toward this splendid 632-meter mountain.
The next four kilometers up the ridge are steep, calf-frying, lung-busting fun. As in running up Bukhan, there is some scrambling to be done and some sheer drops over Seoul’s brilliant white rocks. When in doubt, remind yourself that hundreds of Korean grannies negotiate the same terrain every week.
The temple near the summit, Yeonju Hermitage, is the sort of view one expects in Tibet and a highlight of a running trip to Seoul. The area below the temple can get icy in winter and early spring, so take care.
Gwanak’s peak has a large radar tower on top but is still enjoyable on rare uncrowded days. For the descent, follow the same trail or descend the ridge trail from the summit, which is a harrowing series of chains and ropes dropping precipitously from the summit. You will need a taxi and extra time if descending this way. For the average trail runner, a traverse of Gwanak will not take more than two hours by the route described here, depending on the crowds.
Bukhan National Park is one of the world’s great urban national parks. The shark’s tooth profile of this wonderful range on the northern horizon can be seen from most points in Seoul. Frankly, I love this place and have run its trails some 30 times in the past 10 years.
I should mention one slight drawback to trail running in Seoul: the maps. There aren’t any worth mentioning, and theories range from, “The government doesn’t want to make things easy for the North Korean Army,” to “Most groups just follow their guide.” But the fact is trail running in Seoul entails a certain degree of wandering. Fortunately it rarely turns out badly, since public transport at the base of Gwanak and Bukhan is readily available. Taxis and buses are everywhere. Just stick to well-traveled trails and avoid any off-trail activity.
The most obvious access point for Bukhan National Park is the national park office. It’s about 10 minutes by taxi from Gireum Station (Line 4, Exit 3). After arriving at the national park office, there are various routes further on to reproductions of ancient fortifications at the top of the ridge.
The trail to Bukhan’s main peak is a long harrowing ridge scramble to the east (your right) or you can descend two kilometers north from the wall until finding signs to Bukhan’s main peak. Running up here is only for the very fit. Most will find speed hiking Bukhan’s ascent trails to be more than enough exercise.
Within this surprisingly spacious national park, runners can explore any number of trails at their whim. Rather than prescribe an exact course, explore and find your own running adventure. Buddhist temples, ancient fortifications, sheer cliffs and fantastic running trails await. Dangerous areas are clearly marked with recognizable warning signs.
Start early, have a big adventure and be back to downtown Seoul in time for a late lunch, tea or something stronger such as soju, Korea’s national drink. Gunbae! (Cheers!)
Writer’s Note: I would like to thank Barbara Schulz, a true running champion on Korea’s trails, for her contributions to this article.
Robert Self came to Japan from northern California’s redwood country. He has been running in Japan’s mountains for 20 years and has coached runners from beginners to international champions. He is the director of Hanno Trail School which specializes in running tours and trail running lessons.