[pullquote align=”left”]Autumn, in all its multi-colored and pleasant-weathered glory, is Korea’s season for getting out and getting into nature.[/pullquote]Koreans use this time of year to enjoy a favorite national pastime, hiking.  Many make pilgrimages to any number of national parks throughout the country, but perhaps the most famous is Jirisan.

Located in Korea’s southern region and spanning three provinces, Jirisan National Park is the largest in the country. The mountain itself is rooted deeply in Korean history and is considered one of the three legendary mountains, along with Geumgangsan and Hallasan.

Jirisan serves as an astonishing stage for some of Korea’s best sunset performances. Yet, many flock to the mountain for a different reason.  At 1,915 meters above sea level, Jirisan’s Cheonwangbong peak is the highest on mainland South Korea. Its elevation is second only to Jeju Island’s Hallasan and by a mere 35 meters.  There is no better time to stand on the rooftop of Korea than during the autumn season, when the sunsets are rivaled by the foliage. Even considering its grandeur, conquering the highest peak on the mainland is still an achievable feat.
The easiest route begins in the city of Jinju. From there, catch a bus bound for Jungsan-ni at the Jinju Bus Terminal. This sleepy village is in the foothills of Jirisan and only a short walk from the park’s southeast entrance.  There are a number of quaint restaurants and minbaks (an affordable but bare-bones form of accommodation) between where the bus lets you off and your hike begins.

You’re most likely to make it to the peak and back before sunsetif you spend the night in a minbak and set out at sunrise.  I passed the park entrance just as daylight was breaking, along with tours of brightly-clad Koreans. The route from Jungsan-ni Village to Cheonwangbong peak is the shortest to the summit at 5.7 kilometers and, therefore, considerably steep.  However, the scenery and hoards of other hikers kept me motivated throughout the hike. There is a shelter around the midway mark with bathrooms and benches for resting and refueling.

The final 200 meters of the climb to Cheonwangbong peak is unique from other hikes in Korea. There is virtually no trail along the ridge, just a steep ascent. As I made my final steps up to the peak, the view presented itself and truly made my throbbing thighs and weak knees worth it. The engraved letters of the stone marker on Cheonwangbong reads, “The spirit of the Korean people originates from here.” With those words in mind, it was something to stand there among my fellow-hikers and look out over the country I’ve called home from the past two years.

Ahead of schedule and lacking in energy, I stopped off at Beopgyesa Temple during my descent. The temple holds the title of Korea’s highest and is located just meters from the Rotary Shelter at the midway mark. I rested and recuperated while sharing a free meal of bibimbap among monks. Jiri means “a place where the foolish become wise” and the trek to the top is truly one for making you the wiser.

[frame align=”center”][/frame] It should be noted, there are a number of trials leading to Cheonwangbong peak, starting from various points within the national park and ranging in length and difficulty. If time is not an issue, there is also the option of making the journey over multiple days and spending the night in a mountain shelter, which can be reserved from 15 days before your trip on the Korea National Parks Service website. 
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