Korea is a hiker's dream, with well-organised trails in national parks that reward with temples, waterfalls and jagged coastal viewing points at the finish line. Bike trails also meander alongside city rivers and across tiny islands, while skiing and snowboarding facilities are more polished than ever since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Outdoor Activities

Korea’s countryside, coastline and islands are a year-round outdoor playground with a range of activities, including hiking, cycling, diving, surfing, rafting and kayaking. With soaring mountains and a reliable snow record, it’s ideal for winter sports, and in 2018 it hosted the Winter Olympics.

Korea’s Top Parks

National Parks

Bukhansan

Area

78 sq km

Features & Activities

Great hiking, subway access from Seoul

Dadohae Haesang

Area

2344 sq km (2004 sq km marine)

Features & Activities

A marine park of scattered, unspoilt islands

Deogyusan

Area

219 sq km

Features & Activities

Ski resort, a fortress and a magical valley walk

Gyeongju

Area

138 sq km

Features & Activities

A historic park strewn with ancient Silla and Buddhist relics

Hallasan

Area

149 sq km

Features & Activities

An extinct volcano; Korea’s highest peak

Jirisan

Area

440 sq km

Features & Activities

Straddling two provinces; high peaks popular with serious hikers

Seoraksan

Area

373 sq km

Features & Activities

Korea’s most beautiful park

Sobaeksan

Area

320 sq km

Features & Activities

Limestone caves and Guin-sa, an impressive temple complex, to explore

Provincial Parks

Daedunsan

Area

38 sq km

Features & Activities

Granite cliffs, great views, hot-spring bath

Gajisan

Area

104 sq km

Features & Activities

Scenic views; famous Tongdo-sa

Mudeungsan

Area

30 sq km

Features & Activities

Near Gwangju, with an art gallery and a green-tea plantation

Taebaeksan

Area

17 sq km

Features & Activities

Visit the Coal Museum, hike to Dangun’s altar

Hiking & Rock Climbing

Hiking is Korea’s number-one leisure activity. There are 21 national parks and scores more provincial parks, threaded with thousands of trails – everything from leisurely half-day walks, such as those along the Jeju Olle Trail, to strenuous mountain-ridge treks. Basic shelters are available, but expect a full house during holidays, summer months and autumn weekends. If you’re planning a major overnight mountain trek, shelter reservations two weeks in advance are recommended. About a quarter of the trails may be closed at any one time to allow areas to regenerate.

  • Korea National Park Service (www.knps.or.kr) For trail information and online reservations for park accommodation.
  • Hike Korea (www.hikekorea.com) Learn about Korean mountain culture as well as many of the country’s best trails. The site’s author, Roger Shepherd, is one of the authors of Bakedu-Daegu Trail, a book that details the 1400km-long ‘White Head Great Ridge’ down the southern Korean Peninsula.
  • Hiking Hub Korea (www.hikinghubkorea.com/about-hiking-hub.html) Downloadable PDFs of English-language hiking guides for many of Korea's mountains.
  • Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com) As well as running hiking trips, this expat-focused operator offers other adventurous activities, including cycling and rafting trips.
  • Korea on the Rocks (www.koreaontherocks.com) Details on rock and ice climbing across Korea.

Cycling

To hire a bike, some form of ID is usually required. A helmet or lock is almost never included unless you ask.

In major cities it's possible to rent bikes, including electric bicycles – Seoul has great bicycle trails along the Han River. Seoul has its own city bike scheme, Seoul Bike (bikeseoul.com), which visitors can use.

Resorts with waterfront and hordes of tourists are sure to have a stand where bikes can be hired. Most bike paths are geared towards leisure riders, with couples and families in mind, so expect well-marked, paved, flat trails designed for pleasure rather than intense cross-country exhilaration.

The 200km pedal around Jeju-do, Korea’s largest island, takes from three to five days, depending on your level of fitness and how quickly you wish to take it. Hwy 1132 runs around the entire island and has bicycle lanes on either side. Udo, the island off Jeju-do, is a much easier one-day joyride.

Another lovely island to cycle around is Seonyudo at the centre of the Gogunsan Archipelago, off the coast of Jeollabuk-do.

Single Tracks (www.singletracks.com) lists good mountain-bike trails.

Skiing & Snowboarding

In 2018 Pyeongchang county in Gangwon-do hosted the Winter Olympic Games, with Alpensia serving as the main resort and the larger Yongpyong nearby hosting the slalom events.

Korea's snow season runs from December to March. Lift tickets cost about ₩75,000 and equipment rentals about ₩35,000 per day. Package deals from travel agents include transport, tickets, rentals and, if required, lessons and accommodation. Overnight packages vary from ₩60,000 for a night in a minbak (private room in a home) or basic hotel, to upwards of ₩300,000 for condos and upmarket suites. Weekends are often very crowded, especially at resorts near Seoul. Skiers and snowboarders alike are catered for; boarding is especially popular with Koreans.

Many resorts run dedicated shuttle buses to/from pick-up points in Seoul, making for a long, but easy, day on the slopes.

Gangwon-do

High1 Modern ski resort with among the best facilities and snow in Korea. Set in the Taebaek Mountains and boasting 18 slopes, five lifts and four gondolas, this is also home to Korea’s first ski school for the disabled.

Yongpyong Korea’s oldest and biggest resort, with slopes ranging from bunny options to advanced runs.

Alpensia The 2018 Winter Games host resort. Its compact size makes it a good place for families and anyone learning to ski.

Elysian Gangchon Small, slick ski resort reachable by the Seoul subway.

Jeollabuk-do

Muju Deogyusan The only ski area inside a national park, its 26 slopes are set in a village containing an Austrian-themed hotel.

North Korea

Masik-Ryong A pet project of Kim Jong-un, offering several runs (one over 5km long), bunny slopes, Skidoos, skating and the luxurious Masik Ryong Hotel.

Ice Skating

Indoor ice skating is available year-round at Seoul’s Lotte World. In winter there's an outdoor rink outside City Hall, and the Grand Hyatt and Sheraton Walkerhill hotels have temporary outdoor rinks. The vast, new Gangneung Ice Arena that was the venue for figure skating and speed skating events at the 2018 Winter Olympics is planned to be converted for local use.

Surfing

Haeundae and Songjeong beaches in Busan are among the best places to experience South Korea’s surf. However, you’ll need to suit up as the best time for surf conditions is winter, when waves are whipped up by strong winds from the north. Water temperatures at these times dip to 3°C, but could be as high as 10°C. If that’s too chilly for you, head to balmy Jungmun Beach off Jeju-do’s south coast.

Diving

Korea has an active scuba-diving scene. The top dive site is just off Seogwipo on Jeju-do’s south coast, with walls of colourful soft coral, 18m-high kelp forests (March to May), schools of fish and the occasional inquisitive dolphin. Diving here is a mixture of tropical and temperate – rather like diving in Norway and the Red Sea at the same time. Visibility is best from September to November, when it can be up to 30m (it's around 10m at other times) and water temperature varies from 15°C to 28°C.

Other good underwater sites on the east coast are Hongdo, off the south coast; Pohang, Ulleungdo and Dragon Head, off Sokcho; and a wreck dive off Gangneung. The west coast has some dive operators – at Daecheon beach, for instance – but visibility can be poor.

Golf

In 1998 Se Ri Pak put South Korea onto the golf map by winning the US Women’s Open. Today, Korean women dominate the American LPGA Tour and golf is a national pastime, with hundreds of courses dotting the country.

One of the most popular golfing destination is Jeju-do, where courses include Jungmun Beach Golf Club and Pinx Golf Club.

Playing on a course in Korea isn't cheap. An average 18-hole round of golf may set you back ₩200,000, and you may have to book months in advance. But for virtual golf, there are thousands of golf cafes around the country, so you’ll find one in just about any city. A round of virtual golf at chains such as Golfzon (www.golfzongolf.com) costs about ₩30,000. Also common are golf practice ranges.

Birdwatching

With some of the widest and most extensive tidal flats in the world, the Korean Peninsula is a natural magnet for birds. More than 500 species have been spotted in Korea, including 34 threatened species. Most are on their migratory route between Siberia and Manchuria in the north and Southeast Asia and Australia and New Zealand in the south.

Popular birding spots include the following:

  • Suncheon Bay This wetland park on Jeollanam-do’s south coast is where the hooded crane winters.
  • Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) A preferred stop for migrating birds because it’s been uninhabited for 65 years. The southern section is promoted through a nature tour as the Peace and Life Zone (PLZ).
  • Bamseom Island Bird Sanctuary This pair of islets in Seoul's Han River is off-limits to humans, but birds – including mandarins, mallards, spotbills and great egrets – can be spotted from an observation platform in Yeouido’s Han River Park.

Birds Korea (www.birdskorea.org) has photos of Korean birds and lots of info for bird lovers.

Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Gangwon-do’s northwest is the hotspot for kayaking, canoeing and rafting trips from mid-April to October. Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com) and Koridoor also offer white-water rafting trips.