Backcountry Camping & Photography in the Yeongnam Alps

Backcountry Camping & Photography in the Yeongnam Alps

It was to be my first wild camping trip in years and my first solo trip ever. My goal was to photograph some of the stunning vistas and avoid getting caught in a torrential down pour, which are near daily occurrences here in Korea during the rainy season. After a few weeks of waiting a couple of clear day and nights finally seemed to clear up.

My plan was to follow the Sky Reed trail starting at the Baenae pass (배내고개), over Sinbul mountain (신불산) and finally setting up camp in Eoksae (reed) Plains just below the summit Youngchuk Mountain (영축산).  The Eoksae Plains are a well known local attraction during the autumn as the long reeds that fill them turn a brilliant glowing golden brown.

Day 2: I would descended from camp, pass through the village of Jukjeon (죽전) village and then summit Jaeyuk (재역산) and Cheonhwang Mountain (천황산), another area almost as well known for its reed fields and a likely area to find a spot to pitch camp.

On the day of the hike the skies during the drive out were overcast and low clouds engulfed the peaks around Sinbul Mountain. Arriving at the Baenae Pass I became more optimistic about the weather, as the valley on the other side of the mountains was cloud free.

I had been to the Baenae Pass once before and knew that parking was plentiful, free and that leaving my car overnight here wouldn’t be an issue. The Pass also features a large rundown restaurant, which currently appears to be under partial renovations and a toilet which offers a spot for hikers to fill up drinking water.

Quickly turning my back on the Baenae pass I began my ascent up Ganwol (간월산) Mountain, the first summit on my route, and soon found myself surround by misty clouds. For the next couple of hours I trudge along with all views of the landscape hidden behind a veil of clouds.

Fortunately, the poor visibility was short lived and as I climbed up out above the clouds I was rewarded with some majestic views of the large cloud inversions that lapped and trickled over the east side of the mountains. These views continued all the way to Ganwol Pass (간욀고개), where the cloud inversion had completely enveloped the buildings and popular resting area, yet the summit of Sinbul Mountain remained clear on the far side.


Looking back at the Ganwol Pass from Mount Sinbul

I had been up to the Ganwol Pass before and with its relatively easy climb which follows a pavedroad half way up, I knew it was a popular place for families and hikers alike. I also knew it had a reliable spring and I rested and filled up my bottles not sure if I would the chance again till the following day.

Beginning the final leg of my journey for the first day, I once again climbed out of the clouds and up to the peak of Sinbul mountain. From here one is rewarded with grand views in nearly all directions. I took a few moments here to reflect on the beauty of the area and then began a short Eoksae fields.


The famous Eoksae (reed) Fields from a previous trip

Given the popularity of Eoksae in autumn, the trail at this point is very well maintained, and riddled with boardwalks and staircases. I made quick progress, yet as it was early summer and rainy season I had the place nearly to myself.

I soon found myself setting up camp just below the summit of Yongchuk mountain and with about 40 minutes left till sunset I set off towards a small hill to the west. The interesting feature of this particular hill is that the ruins of Silla dynasty fortress, built to help defend the area from Japanese invasions, that runs along its crest. I was hopeful that this area would provide a sweeping view of the mountain range for the coming sunset.

Though the view from the old wall was beautiful it wasn’t quite what I had hoped, yet with not enough time left before the sun dipped behind the horizon I setup my tripod and did my best to capture the scene. I had learned my first lesson of the night: it’s always best to scout your locations.

Watching the colours fade from the sky, I packed up my gear and began my short trek back to camp on my weary legs, when I learned my second lesson of the night. Suddenly, the darkening sky started coming back to life. I quickly pulled out my gear but finding myself in a poor vantage point desperately sought to find a strong composition. I managed a couple of ok shots but was disappointed to have not have had a majestic foreground to match the epic sunset. Lesson 2: in the mountains the sun sets first behind the mountains and afterwards behind the horizon (which provided the brilliant colours I experienced).


Sunset Colours

Reaching camp, it was time to relax, eat some dinner and soak up the Beautiful scenery as the last rays of disappeared from the sky.

The alarm rang 4:50 am. Wearily I rose. Sunrise was at 5: 24 am and not having scouted a location  before hand I knew I would need a bit of time to find a good vantage point. The weather was overcast, but from the ridge-line I could see that the cloud inversion still floated over the lowlands in the east. I stood between layers of clouds, which provided a spectacular view, but would also mean that sunrise would come and go in a few minutes.


Cloud Inversion viewed from Eoksae Plain

Again, my failure to scout meant I ended up setting up in a spot I wasn’t completely happy with. Still it was beautiful sunrise and I had the mountain completely to myself.

After breakfast and a quick cup of coffee, I began my descent. The trail crisscrossed a cool mountain steam and I soon found a spot for quick dip to wash away the sweat and humidity of the previous day’s hike. Feeling refreshed I took a bit of time to photograph some of the tiny waterfalls before continuing on.

As I neared the base of the mountain I checked the weather forecast. Unfortunately, a tropical storm was moving into the area that evening. Not wanting to get stuck on the mountain in heavy rain and high winds I decided to follow the road from Jukjeon village back up the Baenae pass, but vowed to come back to finish the Sky Reed trail.

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Bad weather moving in

The trip did however hold one more pleasant surprise. A kindly Korean couple, having seen me leave the mountains early, offered a ride back into Ulsan but were more than happy to drop me off at Baenae pass. I’ve always been impressed with Korean hospitality and this trip was no difference.

If you’re interested in hiking the Sky Reed Trail I highly recommend the Korean Trails post. Buses are available between Jukjeon village and the Ulsan KTX station. Supposedly they run hourly (though this was not the case during my visit).

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