Posted by: Matt Kelley | 25 October 2008

Where to See Autumn Color


A snapshot from Bukhan Mountain, just north of Seoul. The bright yellow leaves are from an old Gingko Tree.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on October 25, 2008.)

The French existentialist and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” That famous line reminds me why this is my favorite time of the year, and Korea is a great place to see autumn in all its colorful glory. Korea’s climate has four distinct seasons, and fall is when the mild climate and limited rainfall make traveling especially comfortable.

The Korean word for autumn leaves is danpoong (단풍), … and come to think of it, it’s funny that English doesn’t have its own word, at least to my knowledge. Maybe the leaves here are just more spectacular?

Typically, mid-October into early November is peak time to see the leaves turn, and it’s probably no surprise that Korea’s many mountains are among the best places to see the forests in “bloom.” Generally, the color first hits the nation’s northern areas and moves south quickly. Word has it that this autumn’s lack of rainfall might mean a slightly less spectacular show than usual, but I still strongly suggest you go.

Here is a quick look at some of the best places to go:


Seorak Mountain is Korea’s favorite location for spectacular autumn views (photo from the Korea Tourism Organization).

Seorak Mountain
Mount Seorak in Gangwon Province is undeniably Korea’s most famous destination for leaf viewing. I visited Outer Seorak several weeks ago, and given how gorgeous it was during the summer, it’s got to be even more breathtaking this time of year. There are many paths that lend dramatic views of its craggy cliffs, including a 9-hour course that takes you between the best peaks. If you take the 5-hour bus from Seoul, I’d suggest allocating at least 2 days for your trip.

And here’s another reason to stay. Many of Korea’s popular hiking trails, including Seoraksan are located near natural hot springs, so why not incorporate a refreshing mineral bath along with your hike?


Jiri Mountain in Southwestern Korea is among the nation’s most beloved (photo from the Korea Tourism Organization).

Jiri Mountain
Moving south, straddling the borders of South Gyeongsang, North Jeolla and South Jeolla Provinces is Mount Jiri. Jirisan is among Korea’s most famous mountains and site of the nation’s first national park. And for hikers, at 1,130 meters above sea level, it also boasts the highest altitude of all mountain paths in Korea, which, of course, means especially spectacular views.

Jirisan’s Piagol Valley is especially famous, even hosting an annual Crimson Leaves Festival. Jo Shik, a Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty once said, “People who have not seen the red-tinted leaves in Piagol dare not say they know red-tinted leaves.” Yes sir!


Naejang Mountain, in the Jeolla Provinces, is a great place to see late autumn color (photo from the Korea Tourism Organization).

Naejang Mountain
If you’re running late, head down to Naejang Mountain on the border of North and South Jeolla Provinces. The Korean Meteorological Administration predicts peak color won’t occur until mid-November. And while you’re there, don’t miss the 200-meter long natural tunnel of yellow, orange and crimson leaves. Other attractions include Baegyang Temple, and nearby traditional folk villages and Confucian academies.

But before you go, a word of caution. We’ve talked before on the show about the incredible popularity of hiking in Korea, so if you can plan your trip during the weekdays, I highly advise it. But if work obligations leave only the weekends, be sure to arrive as early as possible. Most parks open at least one hour before sunrise.


There are many gorgeous places within Seoul to see the leaves turn. Deoksu Palace in central Seoul is just one of them!

Seoul
Now if you can’t get out of the city, don’t worry! Many of Seoul’s streets are lined with gingko trees, called eunhaeng namu (은행남우). And although I admit I wasn’t very impressed by the trees when I first arrived here during the spring, in the autumn they decorate the city in stunning golden foliage. Better yet, step inside one of Seoul’s five palaces for a nice mix of autumn color and traditional architecture. Deoksu Palace in central Seoul is a particularly nice setting.

Getting There:
→ Seorak Mountain: Over 90 buses shuttle between several Seoul bus terminals and Sokcho every day. Trip duration is between 3-5 hours. cost: 14,900-22,000 won. 06:25-23:00. Once in Sokcho, buses 7 and 7-1 run frequently to Seorak-dong. Admission is 1,600 won (youth: 600). open 2 hours before sunrise.

→ Jiri Mountain: Between 06:00-19:20, buses leave every 20-40 minutes from Seoul to Namwon. Trip duration is just over 4 hours.

→ Naejang Mountain: Take a bus from Gangnam Express Bus Terminal (in Seoul) to Jeongeup. Trip duration is 3 hours 20 minutes.

→ Deoksu Palace (Seoul): Take subway line 1 or 2 to City Hall Station (exit #2). 1,000 won for adults, 500 for youth and free for seniors, the disabled, and anyone clad in a traditional Korean hanbok. Open 09:00-21:00. Free English tour Tues-Fri at 10:30 and weekends at 13:40 (closed Mondays).

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Responses

  1. What gorgeous photos and an apt quote. I can’t wait to visit Korea and some of the beautiful mountains you suggested in the Fall!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joanna. I hope you will visit Korea soon! Fall and spring are the best times to come, and there is no shortage of great places to go hiking.

    Matt

  3. Hi Matt,

    The autumn colors are soo nice. But when is the best time to see it? If im going in early November, do you think i’m still able to catch the red, orange and yellow leaves?

    We plan to go Mt Seorak.

    Thxxx

  4. Hi there,

    You’re right, the danpoong (단풍), or colorful autumn leaves are great, and if you’re here in early November you should catch just the tail end of them in parts of Korea.

    As you might guess, there’s a little variation on when peak color hits depending on weather and northern latitudes and higher elevations (like Seoraksan) tend to change first… usually the first weeks of October.

    That said, I hiked Gwanaksan (a small mountain in southern Seoul) in late October last year, and although it was past peak time, the colors were spectacular.

    Mt. Seorak is amazing and I’d still suggest you go (but avoid the weekends), but if seeing peak color is your thing, consider Naejangsan, on the border of North and Seoul Jeolla provinces.

    Good luck!

  5. Hi Mat,

    Nice Website and good info. I was wandering if you can suggest place to go, if i want to see red autumn.

    Thanx.

  6. Hi Matt

    May I know if you happen to know when is the best time to visit Paigol Valley course in Mount Jirisan? I was thinking of visiting korea in October 26 to November 4. Will I be able to catch the foliage?

  7. May I know if you happen to know when is the best time to visit Paigol Valley course in Mount Jirisan? I was thinking of visiting korea in October 26 to November 4. Will I be able to catch the foliage?


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