sunrise on jeju island
You'll never guess the origin of these stones. | Noppasin Wongchum/Shutterstock
You'll never guess the origin of these stones. | Noppasin Wongchum/Shutterstock

This South Korean Island Near Japan Has a Legendary National Park

End a mythical hike with spicy noodle soup.

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A local legend about the Yeongsil Trail in South Korea’s Hallasan National Park captivates visitors’ attention—even if it’s admittedly a bit macabre. The folk tale has many variations, but they more or less agree on the basics: A giant mother (referred to as Grandmother Seolmundae) with an enormous family—500 sons, to be exact—cooked up a pot of soup while the boys were out hunting. Somehow she fell into the giant cauldron, drowning in the scalding broth. When the young men returned home, mom was nowhere to be found; still, they dug into the soup, which contained a curious array of bones. Oops. As the realization sank in, the sons cried their eyes out until each of them turned to stone—where they can still be found along the Yeongsil Trail.

Hallasan National Park is one of the most popular destinations on Jeju Island, which sits just over 50 miles from the mainland and came into being thanks to undersea volcanic eruptions. (Plenty of the island’s creation lore features Granny as a prominent goddess.) Dubbed “The Hawaii of Korea” for its white sand beaches, tumbling waterfalls, turquoise waters, and dramatic scenery, this picturesque island features verdant fields peppered with canary yellow canola flowers, orchards that produce the sweetest and juiciest tangerines around, and abundant black lava stone-scapes.

At its center is South Korea’s highest peak, called Halla or Hallasan, for which the park is named. The summit of the dormant volcano—where some say Grandma’s spirit lives—rises over 6,000 feet above sea level.

Here’s where to find traces of myths, how to get to Hallasan National Park, and what to do once you’re there.

aerial view of yeongsil trail hallasan national park
The park boasts five main hiking trails. | Pichit Tongma/Shutterstock

Find the 500 stone sons

I considered hiking to the summit during my visit to the national park. Many trek the popular pursuit on either the Seongpanak or Gwaneumsa trail, two of the park’s five main trails. But that would mean an exhausting round-trip of eight or more hours. Instead, I decided to forgo the high-sweat factor in favor of a less demanding trek along the Yeongsil Trail (which takes only a couple of hours or so) and then loop back down the slope on the Eorimok Trail, for another two-some-hour jaunt. This duo of trails promises a delight of colorful springtime wildflowers, gurgling streams, thick pine forests and, of course, the much anticipated petrified sons from the folk tale.

The sweet scent of Korean pines was especially intoxicating as I ambled through groves of evergreens and maples along a well-defined trail surfaced with wooden planks. A howling wind whipped across the route for much of the way. (Some locals believe the sound is that of the sons bemoaning their lost mother.)

My leisurely stroll soon became a more heart-pumping aerobic workout as the trail steadily climbed. Still, I was euphoric, listening to the trickling of water over rocks in the nearby streams and spying the delicate pink and purplish colors of petite orchids.

forest in hallasan national park
Forests teeming with flora | Minh Phu Hoang/Shutterstock

Finally, I spotted the impetus for my hike from an observation platform where I joined a cluster of hikers young and old decked out in colorful windbreakers. We all gaped at the craggy cliffs where a multitude of jagged basalt rocks—the “500 Sons”—rose from the greenery. (They’re also referred to as the “500 Generals,” perhaps because they appear to stand guard over the mountain.) Pulling myself away from this sight of mythical cannibalistic woe, I gazed in the other direction across a bucolic valley all the way to the sea.

As I moved on, my path became an extensive series of steep wooden stairs, thronged with a group taking photos. I could easily see why. Another popular sight sat swaddled in clouds: a colossal stone mass that, with its extensively pleated surface, resembles a folding screen.

Next, the trail became an ankle-twisting, rock-laden challenge, but one that couldn’t be more scenic: an expansive alpine plain sprinkled with immense boulders—once spewed from volcanic eruptions—and accented with foliage-covered cinder cones. I noticed a trio of hikers eating ramen while perched on the stones, as a misty veil blew across a field of stunted and gnarled fir trees, eerily sculpted by the ever-present wind. A carpet of azaleas with magenta and pastel pink blossoms completed this scene, which truly felt like it was pulled from a fairy tale.

benches overlooking the waters of hallasan national park
The views are well worth the hike. | Pinglabel/Shutterstock

How to get to Hallasan National Park

The fastest way to Jeju Island is flying from Seoul to Jeju International Airport. Or take a scenic ferry from one of several ports. It’s only 4.5 hours from the Mokpo Ferry Terminal. Depending on the boat, you’ll likely have numerous eating and entertainment options.

The most convenient way of getting to the park’s trailheads is by renting a car (or two cars if you’re not hiking solo and you take a different trail back.) For the Yeongsil Trail, head south from Jeju City on 1139 Highway (a.k.a. 1100 Road). The park road leads to a pair of parking lots, and the upper one is adjacent to the trailhead. It’s small, so aim to get there just before 9 am.

snowy trees in the mountains of hallasan national park
Visit in the winter for a different kind of landscape. | Sanga Park/Shutterstock

Best time of year to visit

In the spring, the park is vibrant with blooming wildflowers, while in the autumn the trees show off their fiery orange, red, and yellow hues that are a magnet for leaf peepers. Some diehards are attracted to the park in the winter when the park is draped in a crystalline cape of ice and snow. (Though of course you can expect slick trails at that point, so bring traction devices if this speaks to you.)

The Songaksan Mountain on Jeju Island coast
Take in Songaksan Mountain. | AzmanMD/Shutterstock

Other highlights and hikes on Jeju Island

Beyond hiking Hallasan peak or the mythical Yeongsil Trail, there are cliffs, caves, forests, gardens, and beaches to explore.

Dedicated to the nutmeg-yew tree, Bijarim Forest is a relatively serene place to spend an hour or so rambling in the shade. Many of the thousands of evergreen trees growing here are hundreds of years old.

Despite the crowds, the Jusangjeollidae Cliffs are worth photographing for the hexagonal-shaped charcoal black pillars that look to be carved into the coastal rock face. The curious shapes resulted when the molten lava rapidly cooled, fracturing the rock into columns.

Jusangjeollidae in Jeju Island
Behold the breathtaking Jusangjeollidae Cliffs. | DMstudio House/Shutterstock

You could also explore a subterranean landscape. Formed when lava flowed underground as the outside surface cooled and became a solid rock shell, the Manjanggul Lava Tube is much loved for its rock formations that resemble animal shapes. You can wander half a mile of its slippery, five-mile stretch. If cave-like spaces aren’t your thing, roam the surrounding lush gardens, complete with several benches enveloped by foliage.

Or chill on a seaside stretch. Locals and visitors alike flock to scenic Hyeopjae Beach, fringed with pine forests, for its soft, pearly sands and cobalt blue waters. You’ll find umbrella and chair rentals and plenty of cafe options. At low tide, explore the shallow waters and tide pools. And definitely try to stick around for the stellar sunsets.

Lastly, saunter among myriad botanicals. Though Hallim Park has everything from lava caves to zoo exhibits, this expansive park’s best side is its botanical gardens with plants grouped by theme. Some of the most stunning flora include an allee of soaring palms, the coffee trees and bamboo in the Subtropical Garden, and in the spring, the brilliant-hued tulips in the Wild Grass and Flower Garden.

Where to grab a bite to eat

At the Yeongsil trailhead, the Rest Area doubles as a cafe and convenience store, selling everything from walking sticks (definitely necessary) to rain gear. Food options include pork soup with rice or noodles, bibimbap, and vegetable pancakes with seafood. At the terminus of the Yeongsil Trail (and near the Eorimok Trail), the Witse-Oreum Shelter is where you can grab lunch or snack fixings, such as spicy noodle soups and chocolate bars.

Lotte Hotel Jeju
Choose from a variety of hotels in Jeju City. | LOTTE Hotel Jeju

Where to stay near Hallasan National Park

Bustling Jeju City gives you close proximity to the park as well as anything else you may want on the culinary, accommodation, or entertainment front. LOTTE City Hotel Jeju, for example, is a minimalist-style hotel with a heated outdoor pool and jacuzzi on the rooftop as well as a well-equipped gym.

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Jeanine Barone is a contributor for Thrillist.