Rural Korea on the Jirisan Trail

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This article has gotten quite a few downloads so I’ve decided to write a post about it here. The Jirisan Trail in this article is not the same trail that runs up Jirisan Mtn. It is a newer trail that runs through the villages around the national park.

You can read the online version of this article I wrote and photographed for the NOV 2009 issue of 10 Magazine, or take a look at the tear sheets and PDF version below.

[View in PDF format here.]

Rural Korea on the Jirisan Trail

Pack up your bag, lace up your boots, and get ready for a slow-life adventure like none other.

Words and pics by Peter DeMarco

“Dynamic Korea” does not strike most people as a very laidback country. From eating to driving, the “ppalli ppalli” or “hurry up” mentality permeates almost every aspect of the culture today. Fortunately, though, there are still some places left in this country of speed where you can kick back and soak in the slow life. Look no further than the Jirisan Trail to take you on a journey back in time to Korea’s simple agrarian past.

Not to be confused with the trails that go up to the peak of Jirisan, Jirisan Gil (지리산길) is a 300 km trail that encircles Jirisan National Park. The trail also connects a web of 16 towns and 100 villages around the outskirts of the park. Currently, only five sections of the trail (about 70 km) are open. However, an additional 80 km of trail is projected to open by the end of 2010.

A Yellow Brick Road of Sorts

Walking along the trail feels uncannily like being in the Wizard of Oz. Bright orange balls of fruit hang from persimmon trees. Scarecrows stand guard in open fields of spicy red and green gochu (peppers).  There are even a few Korean grandmothers selling noodles along the trail who, on a dark night, can surely be mistaken for witches.

The highest peak along the trail is about 700 meters but most of the trail snakes over rolling hills, along terraced rice paddies, bamboo stalks, rivers, fields, farms, forests, beekeepers tending their hives, and quaint villages. The Jirisan National park is so rich in biodiversity that it contains 30% of the 1500 species of plants known to Korea and 100 species of animals. Buddhism also flourished in the peaks and valleys of Jirisan. Today there are around 400 temples in the park registered as Korean cultural treasures.

Red and black arrows clearly mark the way along the Jirisan Gil so you don’t have to worry much about getting lost. The terrain changes from single-track dirt trails to paved or dirt roads near farms and villages. Shops and food stands are few, so be sure to bring some snacks along with you.

Suggested 1-2 Day Itinerary

Of the sections of the Jirisan Trail that I’ve hiked, the route from In-wol to Geum-ge offered the most to see and the best home stay options. If you are pressed for time, you can complete the 19.3km in one day if you make an early start and are in great shape. However, a more leisurely option is to spend the night in Changwon (roughly 5k before Geum-ge), a small hillside farming village. If you have more time and would like to hike the full 70 km from Ju-cheon to Su-cheol, you’ll need about 4 days.

Where to Stay

Probably the best thing about the Jirisan Trail is that the local tourism board has set up a loose network of home stays along the trail. Visit one of the information centers or better yet, call ahead to reserve a place in a local home. A village home stay for one night will cost about W30,000 for 2-3 people.  Since most of the small farming villages where the home stays are located don’t have any restaurants or markets, you’ll probably want your host to cook for you. This only costs W5,000 – W6,000 per meal per person.

Another option is to spend the night in one of the many pensions along the trail. You should definitely reserve your pension ahead of time, especially if you are staying over the weekend. You can find information about pensions on the English website below or call the information number.

Home Sweet Home Stay

On my last hike along the trail we slept in an idyllic mountainside village. The 30 or so houses were shrouded in a thin blanket of smoke, and you could smell the burning wood from the fireplaces. The sign with the name of the village on it, Changwon (창원), could have easily read “Get Away From it All.” There wasn’t a store in sight. No ubiquitous 7/11, phone shop, or neon sign to spoil the view.

When we got to the village, we called the local representative of the home stay network. She met us and brought us to the home we would spend the night in. Surprisingly enough, our host family had a small barn with two cows in it right next to their house. Our host family couldn’t say more than “Hello” in English but it didn’t matter. We smiled, laughed, and talked in broken Korean over a meal of grilled duck, some of the freshest vegetables I’ve tasted, and glasses of beer. At night, it was refreshing to just walk around the empty streets under the stars and breathe in the fresh crisp evening air. “Now this is the simple life at its best,” I thought.

There and Back Again

Go to the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and take the bus for Namwon, Inwol.  Look for the Jirisan Trail info center near the Inwol bus station. From other points in Korea, you may need to go to Hamyang first and transfer to the Inwol bus. Alternatively, take an express bus to Jinju or Gwangju and get on a local bus to Inwol from there. Another choice is to take a train to Namwon station. From there, get a city bus or taxi to Namwon Bus Terminal and board the bus to Inwol.

Once you hike to the end of a section of the trail, there are local buses that will take you back to one of the main bus terminals.

More Information (in Korean):
Website: Phone: 063-635-0850




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