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National Parks of Korea: Jeju in winter

View of the ocean from Route 1132 on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

View of the ocean from Route 1132 on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Visitors descend a trail at Seongsan Ilchulbong, or "sunrise peak,"
on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric
Burks)

Visitors descend a trail at Seongsan Ilchulbong, or "sunrise peak," on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Visitors to Hallasan National Park, Republic of Korea, hike through Eorimok Valley. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Visitors to Hallasan National Park, Republic of Korea, hike through Eorimok Valley. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Snow-covered trees along the Eorimok Trail in Hallasan National Park, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Snow-covered trees along the Eorimok Trail in Hallasan National Park, Republic of Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Editor's Note: This is the ninth article in a series highlighting national parks in the ROK.

When I arrived at Osan, I began to ask around, "Where are the best beaches to visit during the summer?" Nearly every response given was either Busan - located on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula - or the island of Jeju.

Doing a little research, I learned one of the common nicknames for Jeju Island is "the Hawaii of Korea." Featuring miles of beaches, numerous hotels and a mild climate, the island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea, drawing more than seven million visitors annually. Summer is the busiest season, averaging 770,000 visitors each month, according to the Jeju Weekly website.

So, naturally, I would make my way to Jeju ... in the middle of winter.

The summer months came and went, but I always seemed to have something else going on. Finally, about a month before my tour in Korea ended, I booked a trip to the island. At this point, my primary destination was no longer the beach, but Hallasan National Park.

Hallasan was one of the last national parks I needed to visit in my attempt to explore all 20 in the country, and it's also the furthest from Osan. Jeju is the southernmost island off peninsula, and Hallasan is one of Korea's three most sacred mountains, according to the park's website. Hallasan is a dormant volcano that reaches a peak of 1,950 meters above sea level, making it the tallest mountain in the Republic of Korea.

The majority of visitors to the island arrive at Jeju International Airport, but it's also possible to take a ferry from Incheon, Busan or other port cities. As my trip was limited to one weekend, flying was the best option for me. My round-trip airfare from Seoul's Gimpo airport to Jeju was 185,400 Won, and the flight took just 45 minutes.

Once in Jeju City, you can take public transportation to Hallasan National Park, as buses frequently run from the inter-city terminal to different visitor centers. Depending on the district you plan to visit, it can take between 30 and 60 minutes to reach the park.
However, as I wanted to visit more of the island, I rented a car for the weekend at the airport for 79,000 Won. The plan was to spend the first day on a hike to the Hallasan summit, take in the rest of the sights around the island the next morning and afternoon, then catch a 6 p.m. flight back to Seoul.

The first part of that plan would prove to be the most difficult.

As it was winter, I came prepared. Instead of a swimsuit and flip flops, I brought hiking boots, my heaviest coat, warmest hat, and plenty of layers of clothing. What I did not bring, however, was a set of chains or snow tires for my rental car - a compact Daewoo Matiz. It was cold and overcast in Jeju City, but it soon began snowing as I drove south on Route 1139 toward the Eorimok Trail district of Hallasan.

About three kilometers from the park entrance, I encountered a roadblock. To drive any further, I'd need chains on my tires. Undeterred, I parked the car in a small lot beside the road - which was quickly filling up with other adventurous park visitors - and walked the remaining distance to the visitor center.

I had selected the Eorimok Trail as it's the shortest hike to the Hallasan summit at 6.8 kilometers, taking about three hours each way, according to the park website. Even during a snow storm, the trail was popular, with a constant stream of hikers moving up and down the mountain.

The first third of the trail is the most strenuous, passing through Eorimok Valley and ascending Sajebi Hill, climbing from an altitude of 970 meters to 1,423 meters, according to the park website. During my visit, this was also the most scenic section of the trail, as the snow-covered trees of the valley created an impressive winter landscape.

The next leg of the trail climbs Hanse Hill to the Witsae-oreum Shelter, at an altitude of 1,700 meters. The trees are far less frequent at this point, leaving you more exposed to the elements. The wind seemed to really pick up here, and there was very little visibility in the swirling snow. I stopped to thaw out at the Witsae-oreum Shelter, and for just 1,500 Won, enjoyed what seemed at the time to be the best cup of ramen noodles I'd ever tasted.

At the shelter, I also learned the outside temperature was -12.5 degrees Celsius. While I didn't have any handy phone applications to translate that figure into 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit, I did know it was bitterly cold, even with a heavy coat, hat and three layers of clothes. So much for the "Hawaii of Korea." During my visit, it seemed more like the "Alaska of Korea."

Leaving the shelter to continue along the trail toward the south cliff junction, it seemed to only grow colder and windier, with even less visibility. The Hallasan summit is just 250 meters above the shelter, but I couldn't see anything other than white snow on the trail and grey clouds above.

On the way back down, it was a relief to reach the cover of trees in Eorimok Valley, and I was amazed that more hikers were still ascending the trail. I made my way past the visitor center, and eventually back to my car. In the time I had been hiking, the roads had been cleared of much of the snow, so there were no problems driving back to Jeju City.

After eating downtown - where there is no shortage of restaurants, featuring both Western and Korean cuisine - it was time to look for my hotel. When making travel arrangements, I purchased an airfare/hotel package through the USA Travel office at Osan. I would be staying at the Ocean Grand Hotel Jeju, about a 20 minute drive east of Jeju City, taking Route 1132.

The hotel was located on Hamdok Beach, and my room did feature a grand view of the ocean. The winter season rate for one room on a Saturday night was 86,000 Won, with varying rates during other seasons.

The next day, I visited two United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites on the island: the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System, and the Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone. Both sites are located just a short distance off Route 1132, which serves as a perimeter loop around the island.

The Geomunoreum Lava Tube System is composed of six caves around the island, according to the Jeju World Natural Heritage website. Only one of these, the Manjanggul Lava Tube, is accessible to the public. Manjanggul is open year-round, and general admission is 2,000 Won. The lava tube was just a 30-minute drive from my hotel, and averages five meters wide, with the ceiling ranging from five to 10 meters in height. The tube extends for nearly seven and a half kilometers, and the one-kilometer path open to visitors leads to one of the world's tallest lava pillars, standing at 7.6 meters high.

After exploring Manjanggul, I continued east on Route 1132 to Seongsan Ilchulbong, a small volcanic tuff cone on the east coast of Jeju. The cone's name translates to "sunrise peak" in Korean, but the views of the ocean and surrounding landscape are worth a visit regardless of the time of day. While much of the coast of Jeju is very flat, the cliffs of Seongsan Ilchulbong rise to a height of 182 meters. Admission is 2,000 Won, and a short trail leads up to the cone's peak.

Finally, it was time to head back to Jeju City and catch my flight back to Seoul. In just 36 hours on the island, I was able to visit a national park, the tallest mountain in the ROK, two additional UNESCO World Heritage sites, and experience a sub-freezing snowstorm. While other seasons may offer a warmer climate and more "traditional" island activities, if you're looking for a real adventure, consider a visit to Jeju in winter.

For additional information on Hallasan National Park, visit: http://www.hallasan.go.kr/english/.

To learn more about UNESCO World Heritage sites on Jeju Island, visit: http://jejuwnh.jeju.go.kr/english.php.