Everyone says and writes about South Korea’s Naejangsan National Park being one of the best places to see the autumn foliage in the country. And looking at the pictures, I absolutely believe them. We (my partner Fong and I) were to travel to South Korea in autumn (with the Korea Tourism Organization’s DKYW 2019 discount booklet for Malaysian travelers, you can find out more about it here) — and because different areas of the country see the colors of fall at different times, I specifically timed our visit to catch the colors of Naejangsan at its peak. This was the main sight I wanted to see. And what a wonderful sight it was.
The Naejangsan National Park (내장산 국립공원)
The Naejangsan National Park (내장산 국립공원) is located on the border of the North Jeolla (Jeollabuk 전라북도) and South Jeolla (Jeollanam 전라남도) provinces of South Korea, with its centrepiece being the 763meters high Naejang Mountain (내장산). The entire park is 76,031sq.km in size, and was designated a National Park in 1971.
Naejang loosely means “hidden with many secrets,” which is the perfect name for this mountain that was used to hide and guard important Joseon Dynasty documents, annals and portraits during the Japanese Imjin War. Now, most parts of the mountains are open to the public with its many trails that lead to its 8 summits, and a few hidden temples — and almost a million people come every year for its breathtaking views, especially in autumn.
Getting to Naejangsan
We were based in the city of Jeonju (전주), which I think is a good base to make the trip to the remote area of the Naejangsan National Park. From the Jeonju Hanok Village where we were staying, we took a taxi (for KR₩5,000~US$5) to the Jeonju Inter-city Bus Terminal (시외버스터미널). From there, we bought a ticket from the counter to the city of Jeongeup (정읍) for KR₩4,900 (US$4.9). The journey to Jeongeup took a little more than an hour, with a few pick-up/drop-off stops in between.
We arrived at the Jeongeup Bus Station at about 8.30am in the morning. Upon exiting the bus terminal, we took a left and in a few meters arrived at a bus stop. The public bus that heads to the town next to the Naejangsan National Park is Bus 171, and it comes every 20-30 minutes. We missed the 8.50am bus, but another one arrived at 9.10am. The fee is KR₩1,000 (US$1).
The public bus ride was about 30-40 minutes, and we were dropped off at the CU Convenient Store at the edge of the town. From there, it is about a 30-minute slow stroll to the entrance of the park. On our way back, there was a long queue waiting for the public bus (and it seemed like we had to wait a whole hour for our turn), so we decided to take a taxi to the Jeungeup Bus Station. The taxi driver asked for a fixed KR₩10,000 (US$10) fee, but he helped us find another 2 people to share the ride with us so we only paid half. Pretty worth it in exchange for the time we saved!
From Seoul, there are trains and buses straight to Jeungeup; and from Busan, take a train or bus ride to Gwangju, and get to Jeungeup from there.
Arriving at the National Park
We arrived at the Naejangsan National Park entrance a little after 10am and it was already pretty packed. We paid the KR₩3,000 (US$3) national park fee to enter — but we were still not at the base of the mountain yet! From there, you can either walk up the 2km uphill road towards the base; or take the KR₩1,000 (US$1) shuttle bus up the road. We took the bus up, and walked down at the end of the visit (it is a lovely shaded path/road lined with trees in gorgeous autumn colors). Don’t forget to buy the bus ticket at the counter before boarding the shuttle bus!
And yes, the autumn colors! We could already see all that beauty as soon as we arrived in the Naejangsan town. From the walk to the entrance, and the bus ride up to the base — I was already clicking my camera non-stop and internally squealing in delight!
The Beautiful Autumn Foliage
The BEST time to go to Naejangsan National Park is in autumn — in the first two weeks of November. We were there at the beginning of the second week; and were surrounded by a mix of the most vibrant colors of red, yellow and orange, reflecting the sunlight and shading the bright blue sky. And when we managed to get away from the crazy noisy crowd; it was also a feast for my ears with the rustling of the leaves in the air, and the sound of dried crunching ones with each step I took. I was so mesmerised.
But yes, the crowds. And the whole fiesta that happens at the base of Naejangsan in autumn — visitors picnicking by the benches and on the grass, stalls selling all kinds of street food, live band performances (and people dancing), and we could even hear one of the singers on the super loud speakers all the way up the mountain! It gives the national park a very festive and happy vibe, but I for one, prefer some peace and quiet to enjoy the beautiful views. And thankfully, we managed to find it for a moment — just a little further up the mountain (we didn’t go far though), and deeper into the hiking trails (not far either).
What to Do in Naejangsan:-
Other that just admiring the autumn foliage, and admiring it some more (honestly, I could do that all day); there are many things to do and see at the Naejangsan National Park.
A large majority of people (especially locals) visit Naejangsan to hike its many trails. The mountain has a total of eight peaks between 600-700 meters high, and you can actually hike to each one of these summits. The routes range from beginner to advance; and most of the full trails usually require a whole day to complete. During our visit, we decided to do a little hike (despite not being appropriately dressed for it) up to the cable car observation platform. The hiking board rated the climb up as ‘advanced’ but since it was only 2km, we decided to do it anyway. It was an extremely steep and windy hike up, but we made it! Yay!
The Cable Car & View Point
If you don’t mind joining the long queue for the cable car, you can take a ride up to the cable car observation platform (instead of hiking, like us). It’s a good option for those who don’t want to hike but would like to see Naejangsan National Park from up high — the scenery of the autumn foliage from the top is absolutely breathtaking. There’s a pavilion at the end of the trail from the cable car ride for a 360 degree view of the park, and a small (yet extremely expensive) restaurant with simple Korean food selections. The restaurant has a rooftop dining area, so we ordered ourselves a bowl of udon to share — and spent a good amount of time just chilling and admiring the views.
After our hike up, we were too lazy to hike back down so we descended the mountain via the cable car. The queue heading down at mid-day wasn’t as crowded as the ride up, but we were still crammed like a sardine can into the cable car. The one-way trip cost KR₩5,500 (US$5.5). For those taking the round-trip, tickets cost KR₩8,000 (US$8).
The Naejangsa Temple
Naejangsa Temple (내장사) is located at the base of Naejangsan, and we just happened to arrive at its entrance while aimlessly wandering about the park (and probably following the crowds too). The temple was first built in the early 7th century, and was so huge that it had more than 50 buildings within its grounds. Unfortunately, the entire temple was completely destroyed from fire and wars throughout the centuries — and the present one we see today is a reconstruction that was completed in the 1970s. There really is not much to see in the temple vicinity, but the temple’s colorful and rustic architecture against the backdrop of the mountain’s vibrant hues is really quite a sight.
The view of Uhwajeong Pavilion (우화정) reflecting on the lake it sits on, is one of the most lovely sceneries in the Naejangsan National Park. Despite being located at the base of the park (near the Visitor Information Center) that gets really crowded, this pavilion still manages to exude a sense of serenity and calm. You can skip over the giant rocks to get to the pavilion for a different view, but be careful in case it grows wings and ascend to the heavens — because that’s what its name means.
At the End of the Day
Despite our day hiking up part of the mountain, taking the cable-car ride, visiting the temple and taking tons and tons of pictures — I think the best way to enjoy Naejangsan National Park is to take your time and enjoy a walk through the park. The beauty and the autumn colors at Naejangsan is more than enough to fill your day with wonder; and if I were to visit again, I’d just soak in all the beauty by doing nothing. My favourite part of our visit to the park was probably that slow stroll we took from the base of the park back to the entrance — at the end of the day.
But the festivities didn’t end at the park — the town next to the Naejangsan National Park was in full swing in the evening. When we arrived back at the town, we were engulfed in the aroma of delicious South Korean street food, and we couldn’t help stopping by almost every store to buy some snacks to eat. There were also restaurants that line the river that flows through the town — pork slabs were on the grill, pork knuckles were being stewed in big pots, and there was a variety of seafood and other meats on display. We would have stopped for a meal if we had more time, but we wanted to get back to our base in Jeonju before dark.
Some Useful Tips When Visiting the Naejangsan National Park
Here are just a couple of things you can do or bring to make your visit to the Naejangsan National Park more enjoyable — especially if you’re visiting in autumn.
I think the most important thing here is comfy shoes as you’ll have to walk quite a fair bit in search of your favourite autumn view. If you’re planning to hike, it’s best to wear proper hiking shoes. The weather was not too cold during my visit in autumn (I just had on a light sweater, gilet and a scarf), but do layer up as it gets colder in the evenings.
I don’t think I noticed any places selling water. So don’t forget to bring your own bottled water, and some snacks too.
I went on a Thursday and it was already crowded with people at the base of the park; and lines to get on the buses and cable car were crazy! I’m pretty sure that the weekend would be even more packed, so best avoid it if you can.
Arrive Early and Leave Early
We reached the park just after 10am, and some of the tour groups had already got there so it was pretty busy. I’m sure if we arrived just an hour earlier, we would not have ran into the crowds. And when leaving the park, try to time your exit more than 2 hours before closing time. We ended up leaving a little too late and the queues for the buses were snaking around the bend!
Join in the merriment and festivities that happen at the Naejangsan National Park in autumn. I’m not one for loud noises and crowds, but this has been an annual affair for more than 500 years — so I guess it’s custom! It can be fun joining the locals and listening to the live band performances, enjoying a picnic underneath the warm-colored trees, and perhaps having an early start to a drink or two.
*She Walks the World went to South Korea under the banner of the Korea Tourism Organization of Malaysia, to promote the DKYW 2019 coupon booklet and encourage free and easy travel in South Korea to Malaysian travelers. As always, all opinions stated here are my own.
* For more information, visit www.visitkorea.com.my.