Muju & Deogyusan National Park
About 4 hours from Seoul, Muju County is known for its annual Firefly Festival in mid-June. Because the Sobaek Mountains divide the county, the beautiful Muju Resort (tel. 063/322-9000) is popular for skiing and sledding in the winter. The summer attracts golfers and hikers.
The Deogyusan (Mt. Deogyu) National Park spans a large area of the Sobaek Mountains and includes the scenic Gucheondong Valley, which is worth exploring for its interesting rock formations, wonderful cliffs, and waterfalls. The town of Muju, the gateway to the valley on its Jeollabuk-do side, is not much of a destination. The city does have the Hanpungnu Pavilion, said to be one of the most beautiful in the province.
One of the remaining temples in the valley is the Baengnyeongsa, named because of a white lotus that appeared after the death of a monk who meditated here in seclusion. The most popular and scenic hiking trail takes you up from the park's entrance to Baengnyeongsa. It takes about 3 hours to go up and back down.
Also in the national park are Anguksa (Anguk Temple) and the Jeoksangsanseong Fortress, both of which offer beautiful views from their height in the mountains.
Entrance to the national park costs W3,200 for adults, W1,200 for teens, and W600 for children, which includes entrance to either the Anguksa or the Baengnyeongsa, depending on which of the two main entrances you use -- plan to head to the Jeoksang entrance if you want to see Anguksa and the Samgong entrance if you want to see Baengnyeongsa.
This small town and county of the same name are located southwest of Jeong-eup in the southwestern part of the province. In this largely rural area, the most famous attraction is the Gochang-eup Fortress (aka the Moyangseong, after Gochang's name during the Baekje period), located on the hill overlooking the village. Built in 1453, during the early Joseon Dynasty, it is surrounded by the slopes of Mt. Bandeug and has three gates, one each to the east, west, and north; two floodgates; and a tower. Most of the original fortress is intact and the rest has been reconstructed, so it is in fine shape these days. The Moryang Fortress Festival is held here on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month of the year (usually in early Oct). If you happen to be in the area then, make sure to catch it, as it is one of the few traditional festivals left of its kind.
Next to the fortress (and walking distance from the bus station) is the Gochang Pansori Museum (http://www.pansorimuseum.com/eng). A private museum, it is a nice introduction to this historic and uniquely Korean way of singing. It's open Tuesday through Sunday 9am to 6pm, but the ticket booth pulls down its shutters 30 minutes before closing. The museum is closed Jan 1. Admission is W800 for adults, W500 for youths 7 to 18, and free for those 65 and older and kids 6 and under.
The prehistoric cemeteries surrounding the small town of Gochang (along with those at Hwasun and Ganghwa) have been collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The thousands of goindol (dolmen) found in these sites form part of the remnants of a Megalithic culture found both here and in other parts of the world. There are over 2,000 (out of the 36,000 on the entire Korean peninsula) found in the eastern mountains of Gochang-eup. The Korean word for dolmen, goindol, literally means "a rock that is propped up by other rocks." The Gochang Dolmen Museum (tel. 063/560-2576; 676, Dosan-li, Gochang-eup; www.gcdolmen.go.kr), which is mainly a bunch of dioramas depicting the life of the prehistoric dolmen makers, is open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 6pm (until 5pm Nov-Feb). Admission is W3,000 for adults, W2,000 for teens, W1,000 for children.
Daily buses from Seoul go to Gochang about every 35 minutes. The ride takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes. Buses are also available from Jeonju (80-min. ride) every 30 minutes. Those from Gwangju run every 30 minutes and take just under an hour. Buses also run from Jeong-eup every 10 minutes and take about 30 minutes to arrive in Gochang. Gochang's official English website can be found at http://culture.gochang.go.kr/eng.
Prehistoric Dolmen Sites -- The prehistoric burial grounds of Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa contain hundreds of dolmen (stone tombs) from the first millennium B.C. Although similar stone tombs from Megalithic culture are found in other parts of the world (mainly Asia, Europe, and North Africa), nowhere else are they found in such concentration and variety. Dolmens are Megalithic-era funerary monuments consisting of large "capstones" placed on top of two other stone slabs. Like the stones of Stonehenge and Orkney in Britain and the stone circles of West Africa, South Korea's dolmen are also remnants of a Megalithic culture that thrived in the Neolithic and Bronze ages during the 2nd and 1st millenniums B.C. The Korean dolmen appear to have arrived with the Bronze Age.
The dolmen of Gochang are said to be from the 7th to 3rd century B.C. Those in Hwasun date a bit later (6th-5th c. B.C.), while the dates of the Ganghwa dolmen are yet to be determined (although archaeologists figure earlier, around 1st c. B.C., because they are stylistically akin to older dolmen).
Seonunsa (Mt. Seonun) Provincial Park
This park is famous for its dense forest, steep peaks, and oddly shaped rocks (some are sheer-faced as if they've been sliced in half, while others are rounded and almost form figures). Although these are not the highest ranges in the country, the sheer faces of some of the rocks here make this a very popular spot for mountain climbers.
The original Seonunsa (Seonun Temple), built in 577 during the Baekje period, was an impressive complex. It is now only a shadow of its former self (at its height, it had 89 shrines and 3,000 monks living within its confines), ever since much of it was destroyed during the second Japanese invasion in 1597. Still, the temple is renowned for its beautiful scenery during all four seasons -- brilliantly blooming 500-year-old camellia trees and cherry blossoms in the spring, thickly green forests hiding cool valleys in the summer, colorful foliage in the fall, and peaceful white snow blanketing the winter scenery. It also houses a Buddha statue from the early Goryeo dynasty, which was later found to have a hidden record from the Donghak Farmer's Revolution hidden in its chest.
While in the area, walk up a bit from Seonunsa to the Jinheung-gul (Jinheung cave) and the Dosol-am (sometimes spelled Dosoram), a hermitage set in a pine and bamboo grove. Enshrined in the hermitage is the Jijang Bosal, the "King of Harmless Ghosts" and the lord of the underworld, where many come to pray for help in the afterlife.
You can take a direct bus to Seonunsan from Jeong-eup Station. Buses run four times a day and the ride takes about 50 minutes. Buses are also available from Gochang, which take about 30 minutes and run about eight times a day. The park is open daily from 8am to 6pm in the summer, 9am to 5pm in the winter.
If you decide to overnight in the area, your best bet is the Seonunsan Tourist Hotel (tel. 063/561-3377). Located near the entrance to the park, it is the largest hotel in the area. Its facilities are a bit dated and show wear, but their ondol rooms are comfortable and clean, ranging from W60,000 to W100,000. Even if you decide to stay at the less expensive Seonunsan Youth Hostel (tel. 063/561-3333) or any of the private minbak in the area, you can still drop in for a soak or a mud massage at the Seonunsan Tourist Hotel's Cheongjutang (bath).
As for eats, the regional specialty is Puncheon eel, caught in the area streams, where freshwater meets seawater. Many restaurants specialize in this somewhat sweet-tasting eel. Most of them are located around the entrance to the park. One good joint is the Cheongwon Garden (tel. 063/564-0414), where they serve this fish broiled in soy sauce for about W14,000. You can wash it all down with some of their special (and fragrant) wild berry wine for W8,000.
Byeonsan Bando (Mt. Byeon Peninsula) National Park
At the only national park in South Korea to encompass both a seashore and mountains, the mountains here are surprisingly rugged for being so close to the ocean and rising up from the fertile plains. Stretching 35km (22 miles), the park is divided into two large sections -- Oebyeonsan (outer Byeonsan), on the coast, and Naebyeonsan (inner Byeonsan) inland.
The main attractions at Oebyeonsan are Byeonsan Beach and Chaeseokgang (Chaeseok River). One of the few good beaches on South Korea's west coast, its fine sand and nearby pine forest attract tourists, especially during the summer. Chaeseokgang lies at the west of the Byeonsan peninsula, where it meets the sea and the cliffs. Those cliffs, the Toejeokamcheong, look like thousands of books stacked on top of each other. It's a great place to enjoy the sunset any time of year.
Seafood restaurants line the shore of Byeonsan Bando on the way to Chaeseokgang. Great scenery and a bowl of hwaedupbap (rice and raw fish) can be had for W10,000 at such places as the Hwang-geum Hwaetjib (tel. 063/582-8763, San 47, Gyeonpo-li, Byeonsan-myeon, Buan-gun). Plates of fresh hwae (raw fish) cost anywhere from W20,000 to W80,000 depending on the size and assortment of fish.
Naebyeonsan is especially well known for its waterfalls, gorgeous valleys, and fragrant pine woodlands. On the east side of the mountain is the diminutive Gaeamsa (Gaeam Temple), originally built in 676. It was expanded in 1313 and has gone through many reconstructions. The largest temple in the park is Naesosa (tel. 063/583-7281, 268 Seokpo-li, Jinseo-myeon, Buan-gun), which was originally built in 633 during the Baekje period as Sosoraesa. It has also been through many renovations, with the latest done by a Zen monk in 1865. It's one of the few temples in the country with buildings left unpainted. The walk to the temple is beautiful, lined on either side with fir and pine trees (although the recorded Buddhist chanting can be a bit distracting). It's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. Entrance to Naesosa is W2,000 adults, W800 teens, and W500 children.
From the Buan Bus Terminal, there are buses every 20 to 30 minutes from 6:30am to 8:30pm that go to Naesosa. The ride takes about 50 minutes.
The easiest way to get to Byeonsan Bando National Park is to take a bus or taxi from either Jeong-eup Station or the Busan Bus Terminal. The park is open daily March through October from 8:30am to 6pm (from 9am Nov-Feb). Admission is W2,000 for adults, W800 for teens, and W500 for kids, free for children 6 and under and seniors 65 and over. There is no admission fee for beach access. If you get a chance, try to buy a jar of the wonderfully aromatic wild honey from local vendors in the Naebyeonsan area, which is supposed to have medicinal value and is one of the three famous things (sambyeon) from the region. The other two are the wild orchids and the tall, straight fir trees.
Accommodations in the area include a number of small yeogwan and minbak with single/double rooms usually in the W30,000 to W35,000 range on weekdays and W40,000 to W50,000 on weekends. The most high-end hotel in the area is the Byeonsan Daemyung Resort (tel. 063/580-8800; 257 Gyeoppo-li Byeonsan-myeon, Buan-gun; www.daemyungresort.com), which has both Korean and Western-style rooms. In popular summer months (July-Aug), it may be easier to find a place to sleep in the nearby town, Gyeokpoham.
Daedunsan (Mt. Daedun) Provincial Park
Daedunsan is almost equidistant from both Jeonju and Daejeon, making it an ideal day trip from either city. Its dramatic high peak can be reached by hiking up for 2 hours or by taking the cable car (which offers beautiful views of the valley below). At the top, one trail leads you straight up to a metal staircase (go up about 10 min.) to the Geumgang Bridge, a narrow suspension bridge which is 50m (164 ft.) long, 1m (3 1/4 ft.) wide, and about 80m (262 ft.) high. But the fun doesn't end there. After the bridge is another set of metal stairs, steeper and more precarious than the last one. Climbing up those stairs takes you to the top of the mountain, where you may be surprised to find old women selling bottles of water and candy bars, which they carry up the mountain every morning.
You can take a bus from either Jeonju or Daejeon and get off at the small tourist village near the Daedunsan Tourist Hotel. There is only one bus daily from Daejeon Dongbu Intercity Bus Terminal to Daedunsan and it leaves at 10:30am. The 1-hour ride costs W3,200.
Maisan (Mt. Mai) Provincial Park & Jinan
The name "Maisan" means "horse ear mountain," so named because the two peaks are said to look like the ears of a horse (especially when looking at them from Jinan).
Tapsa (Pagoda Temple) is one of the most unique small temples in the country. About 120 pagodas made from neatly piled stones were created here by a hermit who lived here. Only 80 of them exist today. You'll pass the smaller Unsusa on the way up, and another temple, the Geamdangsa, just below Tapsa. Near this temple, there is a trail that leads up to Naong-am, a grotto cave used as a sanctuary by a Shilla monk. Farther down the road is the Isan-myo, a shrine dedicated to Dangun and Joseon Dynasty kings Taejo and Sejong. The way up to Tapsa is steep and precarious, but it's worth the climb.
You can take a daily local bus from Jinan, which leaves every 30 minutes and takes about 10 minutes. To get to Jinan, catch the 50-minute bus ride from Jeonju (buses run 7:30am-6pm). Jinan itself is a charming little provincial town near the edge of a forest, well known for its insam (ginseng) and shiitake mushrooms.
Gangcheonsan County Park
Although national and provincial parks are popular tourist destinations, county parks are usually lesser known. That's a shame, because some of them are truly special. Jeollabuk-do has two county parks, one of which is Gangcheonsan. Located southeast of Naejangsan, it is just outside of the small village of Sunchang. Although this park's peaks aren't very dramatic, the big draws here are the gently curving surrounding valleys and streams that flow through them.
To the left of the park's entrance is a lake, Gangcheon-ho, which usually has clear, calm waters that mirror the surrounding landscape. The area is great to visit any time of year, with cherry blossoms, forsythias, and azaleas blooming in the spring; refreshingly cold waters flowing in cool valleys in the summer; maple trees aflame with color in the autumn; and snow-capped mountains in the winter.
The main hiking trail (now covered with sand) runs along the stream to Gangcheonsa (Gangcheon Temple). Built in 887 by Monk Doseon Guksa, the temple used to be a huge complex with several associated hermitages, but it was destroyed during the Imjin Waeran in the 1590s. Rebuilt soon after, it was destroyed again during the Korean War. It was reconstructed slowly afterward, but it never again attained its former glory. The buildings are rather unimpressive today, but the setting is idyllic.
Just beyond the temple is a suspension bridge that was built in 1980. If you cross the bridge and follow the trail up the hillside, you'll reach a pavilion, where you'll get the best view of the valley below. From the top of the reservoir there are two steep trails that lead up to the fortress. The southern trail is steeper, while the northern one runs along the ridge.
You can catch a bus to Gangcheonsan from the Sunchang Bus Terminal about every hour. Buses also run from Gwangju and Jeong-eup (the one from Jeong-eup stops a few kilometers below the mountain village). Many restaurants, souvenir shops, and a handful of accommodations are available in the small village outside the park's entrance. Admission is W1,000 for adults, W700 for teens, W500 for children, free for those 65 and older and 6 and under.
Sunchang (the village and county) is well known for is gochujang (chile-pepper paste). It's so popular, in fact, that it has a museum dedicated to the fermented condiment, the Janghada (Jaryu Museum), Baeksan-li, Sunchang-eup, Sunchang-gun (tel. 063/650-1161; www.janghada.com). If you reserve in advance, you can make your own gochujang and take a jar home with you. Visitors can also learn how to make shikhae (the sweet rice drink) and injeolmi (a traditional rice cake dusted in toasted soybean powder). Open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 6pm; the last admission is an hour before closing. Admission is free, but it costs W24,000 for adults and W14,000 for children for the 2-hour experiential program. They even have sleeping quarters for those who want to spend the night in Sunchang.
Nearby, at the foot of Amisan is the Sunchang Gochujang Minsok Maeul (Chile Paste Folk Village) (tel. 063/653-0703), a relatively "new" village, where several dozen artisans moved into the town's hanok (traditional houses) to make and sell their handmade chile paste. Visitors can visit each place and taste the gochujang and jjangajji (picked vegetables), made the old-fashioned way. They even have a Sunchang Gochujang Festival in early November.
There are express buses from Seoul Central City Terminal to Sunchang five times daily, at 9:30am, 10:30am, 1:30pm, 2:45pm, and 4:10pm. The ride takes about 3 1/2 hours. There are buses from Incheon (via Damyang) to Sunchang twice a day, taking about 5 hours. There are also direct buses from Jeonju (every 30 min. 6:30am-8:30pm) and from Gwangju (every 20 min. 6am-9:30pm).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.