Korea’s largest national park, JIRISAN (지리산 국립 공원), pulls in hikers from all over the country, attracted by the dozen peaks measuring over 1000m in height, which includes Cheonwangbong, the South Korean mainland’s highest. It has also found fame for its resident bear population; a park camera spotted an Asiatic Black Bear wandering around in 2002, almost two decades after the last confirmed Korean sighting. The bear group was located and placed under protection, and continue to breed successfully. Although you’re extremely unlikely to see them, it lends the park’s various twists and turns an extra dash of excitement – nowhere else in Korea will you be fretting over the sound of a broken twig. Jirisan is one of the only national parks in the country with an organized system of overnight shelters – there are few more atmospheric places to fall asleep in this corner of Korea. This makes multiday hikes an exciting possibility; one popular route heads across the main spine of the park from east to west, and takes three days to walk. There are large peaks all the way along this central ridge, from which numerous picturesque valleys drop down to the fields and foothills below. It’s impossible to detail all of the possible hikes and sights in the park, better instead to arm yourself with the park map (available at park entrances and nearby tourist offices for W1000) and find your own lofty piece of paradise.
The park actually sprawls across three provinces, with its most popular access point – the temple of Hwa-eomsa – on the west of the park, and actually located across the provincial border in Jeonnam. The eastern side of Jirisan, in Gyeongnam province, lacks such a focal point – there are dozens of entrances, but though none are particularly popular or easy to get to, this usually makes for a quieter visit than you’d get at other national parks. One of the most popular trails is up from Ssanggyesa (쌍계사), a beautifully located temple at the south of the park. There’s little of historical note here, bar a stone tablet apparently dating from 887, but the surroundings are delightful, particularly in the early morning before the sun has risen beyond Jirisan’s muscular peaks; it may also be Korea’s noisiest temple in terms of birdlife. Daewonsa (대원사) is another pretty temple, this one on the park’s eastern fringe, and also has trails leading up to the peaks.