South Korea is quickly becoming famous for its winter wonderlands. In 2018 South Korea will host the Winter Olympics and there are plenty of other reasons why this country is well worth visiting in the chilly months. Enjoy this list of favorite winter destinations from expats and locals living in South Korea!
photos and narrative provided by each contributor
Places to Visit in Korea During Winter
Taebaek Mountain Snow Festival (태백산 눈축제)
Korea can produce some brutal winters with a lot of snow and wintry landscapes. You can spend the winter huddling indoors for warmth praying for Spring or you can venture outside and embrace the landscape, singing songs from Frozen as you go. No other place in Korea celebrates the wintry wonderland then a small town in the center of the Gangwon-do province, called Taebaek.
From January 13th 2017 to January 22nd 2017, Taebaek City is taken over by it’s annual Snow Festival with non-stop ice and snow related activities. Taebaek is an interesting city as it’s located entirely in the mountains and used to be a Coal boom town. The coal mines have largely closed and the city has contracted in size and pivoted towards winter tourism.
The biggest attraction is the Ice Sculpture Competition. Art students from different universities and other teams meet and carve out elaborate and unreal monolithic images and statues. From historical figures like King Sejong to the hottest K-Pop stars, to the Avengers to cartoon characters. There’s also ice slides, a small lake to go ice skating on, igloos, ice cafes, traditional Korean games, all beginning and ending with parades and other ceremonies around the city.
Perhaps most importantly is Taebaek Mountain (TaebaekSan). TaebaekSan is the titular mountain and mountain range that is located in the city of Taebaek in the middle of the Gangwon-do province in South Korea. It’s one of the tallest mountains in Korea and is one of the “holy mountains” where rituals were held on the top in the ancient past. Today it offers several routes with difficulty from very easy to very difficult, all converging to the oval altar on the top where people often meditate in prayer or enjoy a picnic and the view.
Hiking in winter through the snow and ice can be a daunting idea but the gentle slope and walkways of the easy route up TaebaekSan offers a majestic view of the surrounding snow covered mountains and the little town of Taebaek. Typically taking 4-5 hours to go up and down, passing by a small temple near the top.
The Taebaek Snow Festival is definitely worth seeing and one of the better winter events in Korea. Also, Taebaek is known for it’s Han-Woo Barbeque so why not take a day to hike the mountain, ride the ice slide, and afterwards go into a warm Korean barbeque restaurant and enjoy some of the best food that Gangwondo provides.
Taebaek Snow Festival Info:
01.13.2017 ~ 01.22.2017
Address in the city: At the base of TaebaekSan
168, Cheonjedan-gil, Taebaek-si, Gangwon-do
강원도 태백시 천제단길 168 (소도동)
Taebaeksan National Park (Ice slides, ice sculptures, Festival activities, hiking, etc)
Hwangji Pond (more ice sculptures,festival lights, restaurants, etc)
From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, take an intercity bus to Taebaek.
From Taebaek Bus Terminal, take a bus bound for Danggol and get off at Taebaeksan Provincial Park.
* Hwangji Pond (황지연못) is a 10-min walk from the Taebaek Bus Terminal.
Best Winter Hikes in Korea
Seoraksan National Park
Seoraksan mountain range is foreboding and beautiful. Its peaks jet out from the earth, casting a shadow down on the coastal town below. It is the third largest mountain in Korea with a height of 1708m (5,603ft). Seoraksan is beautiful no matter what season you go in but it transforms into a frozen unrelenting force in winter. With temperatures dropping below freezing and a wind chill to factor in, Seoraksan is not a mountain to be taken lightly.
Seoraksan in Winter
Those that venture up the mountain in winter will be rewarded with a stark beauty. The snow-covered sides, bare trees and layers of ridge lines will reveal an unforgettable experience. On a clear day, on top of the highest peaks, you can see the ocean’s waves crash across the rock spotted beach. There are several different shelters on top of the mountain that offer protection from the harsh conditions during the night. It’s important that you reserve a shelter ahead of time, as they are often fully booked but well worth it because watching the sunrise on top of Daecheongbong peak is a once in a lifetime experience!
Whether you venture out for a day or decide to do some serious hiking Seoraksan has something for everyone. With the mountains as a backdrop, the temples at the base of the mountain offer a unique area to explore. A cable car on one side of the mountain gives easy access to the light hikers. And for the more serious hikers you can venture deeper into the heart of the mountain itself on one of the many routes available. Seoraksan is a surreal and peaceful place to connect with nature and ones self. If I could go to just one place in Korea it would definitely be Seoraksan.
Hallasan National Park
Warren Kim from Seoul Hiking Group
In Korea, mountains are covered by snow in winter, especially Hallasan! It is the most amazing winter hiking destination and although it’s peak on Jeju island it normally has heavy snow from Nov until April or even May. Hikers can choose a Seongpanak trails which leads to the volcanic crater at the peak. It is a relatively easy hike with a gentle incline the whole way. There is a shelter after 1 hour from the entrance and another one after 1st shelter.
From entrance to the 1st shelter is like walking in the nature arboretum and very pleasant. From 1st shelter to 2nd shelter normally snow piles begin to accumulate and the incline grows. You should have good crampons and sometimes the handrails are covered with snow so dress warmly and make sure you have gloves! From the 2nd shelter you’ll have an outstanding view and the trail is at its steepest during the last hour and a half to the crater and the peak.
Winter on Hallasan
It’s well-arranged path, however sometimes the wind is as sharp as a knife so don’t forget a winter mask too. Although its a challenging winter hike it has a vibe like Kilimanjaro and you will be stunned by the amazing crater with the panoramic view all around Jeju. The gorgeous scenery has hundreds small craters at the bottom making the whole trip quite surreal!
Hikers would be best to start at 6AM when the trails open because this is a 9+ hour hike! Entrance fee is free for now but there will likely be a 20K won fee soon as government has been considering it since last year. so don’t hesitate to hike before that!
Places to Visit in Seoul During Winter
Bukhansan National Park
Mike from LiveTravelTeach
Bukhansan National Park is one of my favorite parks in South Korea. In fact with over 5,000,000 visitors every year Guiness World Records lists it as the most popular National Park in the whole world! The good news about heading here in the winter is that there are far fewer hikers on the trails which means you have all the snowy views to yourself! As you start near the bottom don’t fret if you don’t see any snow. There will surely be white blanketed hills as you get higher up; especially where the mountains have cast a shadow blocking the sun.
Be sure to stop at one of the Buddhist temples and embrace nature as traditional chanting envolopes you. There are dozens of trails to pick from but my favorites are Dobongsan and Baegundae and winter is one of my favorite times to go. I’ve been twice on Christmas and again on Lunar New Year when the park was practically empty. No matter when you go to Bukhansan you’re sure to have a great time!
Muju-gun is in the North Joella Province and smack bang in the middle of South Korea. Situated in the Deogyusan National Park, Muju is quite the sight during the freezing winter months and is great for hiking through the picturesque scenery as a trail of hikers converge up the mountain. The sight of the icy Gucheondong Valley below is simply stunning.
Muju is only a small town and is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the major cities. Come for a day, or come for a week, Muju is a great place to unwind and eat some real Korean food at all the restaurants scattered throughout the isolated town.
The Deogyusan Resort is the place to go to hit the ski slopes and never fear if you are a beginner, there are slopes for all kinds of ability. Catch a ride up the Gondola and take in the breathtaking views of the area and the surrounding mountains.
Best Winter Festivals in Korea
Hwacheon Ice Festival (화천산천어축제)
Ronda from RonnieJeaners
Famous for ice fishing, Hwacheon is virtually untouched but becomes the first area in Korea to freeze over each year. The Hwacheon stream becomes a thick sheet of ice that boasts many opportunities for activities. Some of these include: ice fishing (or if you’re brave enough, jumping straight in for bare hand fishing), ice skating, ice hockey, sledding, inner-tubing, four wheeling and so much more. I spent a lot of time waiting for that perfect catch and ended up with three trout we cooked later that evening to eat!
The festival has recently been considered as one of the Seven Wonders of Winter by the travel site CNNGo. It’s an excellent event to take the entire family, or even a fun date if that’s what you’re into. If you find yourself in Korea during the winter, it’s highly recommended to check out. Plan to spend about 12,000w for ice fishing. Additional activities can cost anywhere between 5,000w to 20,000w depending on what you do. Check out www.narafestival.com for more details.
Pyeongchang Winter Festival
Mike from LiveTravelTeach
I visited the Pyeongchang Winter Festival back in January of 2015 and they were just getting ready for the 2018 Olypmics. It was great back then and will surely just keep growing as the Olympics get closer! Situated close to a ski resort you can easily have a day on the slopes and then spend some time at the festival afterwards. You can find massive Ice sculptures, sledding, Ice ATV rides and even curling! As with any Korean festival there are plenty of tasty foods to try and there will be plenty of rice wine. Rather than keep explaining it why not just watch this video of the Pyeongchang Winter Festival!
Pyeongchang Winter Festival Info
December 30, 2016 – February 12, 2017
– Festival Venue No. 1: Dong Seoul Bus Terminal → Jinbu Intercity Bus Terminal (approx. 2 hr 15 min)
– Festival Venue No. 2: Dong Seoul Bus Terminal → Hoenggye Intercity Bus Terminal (approx. 2 hr 30 min) → Daegwallyeong Snow Town (Take a taxi for about 12-min)
Great Ski Resorts in Korea
Gangwon Province & High 1 Ski Resort
Edward Rivera from @AerialAspects
Gangwon Province is know for Seoraksan Mountain and Mt. Odae with its ski run, attract a large number of national tourists. Both are located in national parks in the Taebaek Mountains. If you are an avid skier or snowboarding or just someone looking for an amazing weekend at a nice resort; I highly suggest heading up to High 1 Resort in the Gangwon Province. The resort has beginner, intermediate and advanced slopes for all to enjoy, investing in a season pass is also recommended if you really enjoy the slopes.
I have been to Gangwon twice, once in the Fall where they have an alpine roller coaster. High 1 resort also offers amazing accommodation and access to outdoor hot tubs, in the winter it is very enjoyable to relax outside in the hot tubs while enjoying the crisp winter weather. Even if you are not into skiing it is still worth the trip with a group of friends and enjoy the hot tubs. The best way to sort out a trip to High 1 is through Enjoy Korea Travel company, Bruce and Stacey run a great company and accommodate everyone professionally.
Travel Korea in Winter
Garden of the Morning Calm
Edward Rivera from @AerialAspects
There are many light festivals in Korea but one that I enjoyed very much was The Garden of the Morning Calm located right outside of Seoul. It is the oldest private garden in Korea and absolutely amazing in the winter with thousands of lights illuminating the night!
The garden’s scenic walkways, beautifully manicured grass, and flower beds connect 20 different themed sections. The Sukgeun Garden is shaped like the Korean Peninsula and is carpeted with beautiful flowers on both sides representing the desire for South and North Korea to be reunited. It is easily one of the most popular and meaningful attractions at the garden. The Garden also holds are a variety of festivals and displays throughout the year.
It is very easy to get lost among big names. It is a similar case with this city name ‘Jeonju’. Do not underestimate the beauty of this small city in winter. It may not have big tourist attractions to fill your eyes but it will make you fall in love with its simple streets. If you are looking for a place away from the bustling cities then this can be perfect place for you. Jeonju is famous for its fresh vegetables and delicious food. It is also a birthplace of Korean traditional dish name bibimbap (비빔밥).
Looking for a winter destination around the world? Check out my friend Lauren’s Top Winter Travel Article!