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South Korea Sojourns V: Hallasan Mountain

Travelers hike up Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. At 6,398 feet, Hallasan Mountain is the tallest mountain Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

Travelers hike up Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. At 6,398 feet, Hallasan Mountain is the tallest mountain Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

Hikers ascend the steps on one of the hiking trails of Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. The mountain is located in Hallasan National Park, and has seven trails of various lengths. Located centrally in Jeju, the height of the mountain offers broad panoramic views of the island. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

Hikers ascend the steps on one of the hiking trails of Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. The mountain is located in Hallasan National Park, and has seven trails of various lengths. Located centrally in Jeju, the height of the mountain offers broad panoramic views of the island. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

Travelers hike one of the trails up Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. A dormant volcanic crater, Hallasan Mountain is home to the oldest Buddhist Temple in Jeju. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

Travelers hike one of the trails up Hallasan Mountain March 9, 2014, in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. A dormant volcanic crater, Hallasan Mountain is home to the oldest Buddhist Temple in Jeju. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Author's Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction, or event within the authorized travelling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture, and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service members, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.

An imposing and majestic sight, at nearly 6,398 feet tall, Hallasan Mountain is probably the first thing you'll notice when exiting the airport at Jeju Island. It's certainly what I noticed. Before I hit the curb and hailed a cab, my eyes glanced skyward and took in the massive volcanic peak, canvasing the sky like a mural painting. Located centrally in Hallasan National Park, this attraction is the geographical and spiritual center of Jeju, and perhaps the most touted of the island's many attractions.

I visited Jeju Island early in March for the Fire Festival. However, since those festivities didn't heat up until the evening, I was left with a chance to explore the rest of the island in the day. No matter whom I talked to, Hallasan Mountain seemed to be regularly brought up as a "must see" attraction in Korea.

The park's central location makes it accessible by intercity bus for travelers, assuming you're staying somewhere in Jeju City, otherwise a rental car or cab ride will be required. The city bus is easily the cheapest option, at W6,000 each way, but since I was located away from the city, I took a cab. Round-trip cab ride cost me W50,000.

While I paid the price for staying at a hotel out of the central area in cab fare, I learned a lot about Hallasan Mountain and Jeju Island from my cab driver, Lee, Dong Hee, who happened to speak good English.

"Jeju Island is the paradise of Korea," he told me as we drove to the park's hiking trails, the massive peak of Hallasan always visible in the distance. Lee told me the island's temperate climate makes it a prime vacation spot for Koreans and foreigners alike, and since the temperature rarely drops below freezing, it's a pleasant place to visit year round.

Jeju Island itself is a dormant volcano, with Hallasan the most dominant of the remaining craters. Around the mountain there are dozens of inferior craters, known as Oreums.

After talking for a while on the cab ride, Lee asked why I was in Jeju. When I explained that I was in Korea on military orders, I found out Lee is a Vietnam veteran, having fought with the Korean Army in places like Da Nang in the '60s. I enjoyed getting to hear his stories. He told me Vietnam is now renowned for it's natural beauty, but he doesn't remember much about the country from his time there, "I was too busy ducking and keeping my head down," he said.

He told me he had a great appreciation for all service men and women, but thinks the relationship between America and South Korea is a special one.

"What they (the Americans) did for us before, it means so much to us," he said. "I don't think we'll ever forget. Never."

Before I got dropped off at the park, Lee gave me some hiking tips as well. I came equipped with the hiking essentials: outdoor shoes with good traction, cool weather gear and crampons (those spikes hikers wear on their shoes, they're essential when hiking in sloppy conditions and can prevent unfortunate falls on the ice.) There are no less than seven hiking trails in Hallasan National Park, and they vary in length from 1.3 - 9.6 kilometers, with a lot of uphill climbing. Lee advised me on which trails to take to be done in the time I wanted to. I took one of the moderate trails, the Eorimok, which is approximately 6.8 kilometers, and depending on your speed can take 2-3 hours each way.

Equipped with all my gear, plus water and snacks for the physical hike, I took off up the mountain. Despite the cool weather and slippery conditions, people were out in droves.

The ascent wasn't too difficult, but would challenge an out of shape person. A lot of groups and travelers were taking their time up the steep sections of the trail, enjoying the beautiful scenery and their company. There was one spot, located slightly off the marked trails, where a group of hikers took to sledding down one of the many hills and slopes on the mountain trail.

The atmosphere during the hike was cheerful, a lot of groups and individuals greeted me in English since I so obviously stood out hiking in my winter-weather ABU cap and camera gear, and some strangers were even interested in what kind of camera gear I had.

Further up the trail, there's a shelter of sorts, a hard facility that sells noodle cups and other snacks. I had my own food, so I didn't buy any at the shelter, but the prices were pretty cheap. Just remember to take cash with you since there's no ATM on the mountain.

The closer I got to Hallasan Mountain, the chillier it got and the snow piled up higher. Still, hiking conditions were pretty fair and it's possible to see the entirety of Jeju in panorama, making the climb worth it. Anyone going up the mountain should make sure to have some kind of camera with them, as there are some sites on Hallasan they won't want to forget.

Descending, for many people, is even harder than going up. I had to take my time going down, as tired and shaky legs made it hard to get solid footing. More than few times, despite the crampons, I nearly slipped.

Overall I embarked up the mountain at 10 a.m., and was back to the bottom at 2 p.m., when I caught another cab back to my hotel. If you're in Jeju and planning on seeing Hallasan Mountain, at least a half-day is necessary to really get to enjoy the activities and sights.

As the central feature in Jeju Island, Hallasan Mountain certainly lived up to its billing for me. It's a grand site of nature with multiple paths to explore, and had a genuinely fun atmosphere on top of the beautiful landscapes. I said in my last feature that I considered Jeju Island a must-see for any service member on tour in Korea, and I can say now that I consider a view of Hallasan Mountain, up close, an essential site for anyone in Jeju.

Location/event: Hallasan Mountain.

Directions: Jeju Island is accessible by ferry or plane. Hallasan National Park can be accessed several ways, depending on where you stay on the island. Bus fares are cheaper than cab rides.

Total Cost: Depending on what you're equipped with, the only real cost should be transportation, which varies whether you use the public buses or private taxi.

Time: Entrance times vary by season, 5 a.m. in the summer, 5:30 a.m. in spring and fall, and 6 a.m. in winter. Nighttime hiking is forbidden, and there will be park officials on hand to let you know when you need to descend.

Documentation required: No special ID is required.

Who it's for: Outdoor lovers, hikers, people who love beautiful panoramic scenery and meeting other people. It's customary on the hiking trails to say hello to other hikers when passing by, so don't be shy.

When it's open: Year round, although the hiking trails can be closed for bad weather.

Activity required: Moderate to strong, depending on the trail taken. There are numerous ways to ascend the mountain, some harder and longer than others. The trip is not for the easily winded, but once you get into the open air, the scenery should be more breathtaking than the cardio.

What to travel with: Dress according to the season, keeping in mind it's a little cooler on the mountaintop. Crampons for hiking boots are essential for some passages, particularly in damp weather, which can cause slippery conditions. Taking food and water is a good idea, as the hike can take all day. A camera is a must too; Mt. Halla is renowned for its beautiful scenery. Make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable and the views will look even better with friends. It's customary for hikers to greet each other on the hiking trails, so don't be shy when you come across Koreans who say "Hello." There are a lot of mountain peaks to ascend in the park, so take your time; they're not going anywhere. Enjoy the climb.