Jeju Island’s Olle Trails
Caroline Andreea Zgortea, October 11, 2023
Jeju Island in South Korea is mostly known as a beautiful resort, full of volcanic beaches, white and black fine sands, emerald clear waters, and of course, Mount Halla, the highest mountain in South Korea, standing at 1,947 meters, actually an extinct volcano, surrounded by 366 smaller volcanoes or oreum, in Korean, scattered all over the island. Thinking about it, the island isn’t that big at 1,833.2 km2, but to me, it seemed very big while living there for a month and a week this summer. There are a great number of tourist attractions on Jeju Island, everyone can take their pick, for all tastes, from museums to theme parks, from fancy cafés to black pork barbeque restaurants, from art galleries to hiking trails.
I’m a walker, a lover of hiking since little, so Jeju Island meant I could meet the sea as well as the mountains in a perfect combination for the summer, even though summer means monsoon season in Korea, high temperatures and humidity, but that’s when I could go, so that’s when I went. When I first found out about the Olle Trails, I didn’t immediately think – “Oh, I’m going to walk the trails!”, but put it on my to-do list alongside numerous other activities I was planning for Jeju. When I got there though and started walking on the trails, I couldn’t stop, although the weather didn’t allow me to walk daily and then, I have an old fracture on my left foot that needs a break after walking two days in a row.
The Olle Trails aren’t that known to foreigners, I think, as much as they are known to Koreans, of course, and many go to Jeju Island especially to only walk on the Trails that surround the whole island, like on a sort of pilgrimage, making me think of Europe’s Camino de Santiago, which is actually the road that inspired the founder of the Olle Trails to establish her own route on the island, her place of birth, after making the pilgrimage herself on the Camino.
While walking the Olle Trails, I started feeling that this is the best way to know the island, from noticing how local life takes place to marveling at the natural beauty, to learning about farming and how the waves and the sea aren’t the same in different parts of the island. The Olle Trails took my breath away, stretching on and on, along 27 routes, summing up 437 km.
I know not everyone has a month to dedicate to walking the trails, or that maybe, one would want to visit more of the island, like theme parks or sit in a nice café and enjoy the view of the sea, especially foreigners who go to South Korea on vacation, as it’s usually a holiday of only two weeks away from work, and I think Koreans are lucky in this regard since they can go back to the trails anytime they are free to dedicate themselves to walking, as Jeju is only an hour away by airplane from the mainland, and flights are as often as 30 minutes apart from each other. I couldn’t believe how often the flights were, but in the end, they’re almost all fully booked, with Jeju having an international airport, meaning people from all over the world fly in. To my surprise, I didn’t meet as many foreign tourists as I would have thought, most of them were from China and then, other parts of Asia, less from the West.
Jeju has many hotels and various rooms to rent, alongside guesthouses and resorts inside the main resort itself – the island, with many golf courses near big hotels. I noticed Koreans are very passionate about golf, maybe due to one of their most famous players, Pak Se Ri.
As I said, summer in Korea is very hot and humid, meaning you sweat like mad, continuously if you’re used to European climate, like me, which is hot, but dry. I wasn’t planning on wearing full gear while walking or hiking, but that’s exactly what I ended up with. The sun is so strong, it can burn your skin easily if you’re not careful and most locals I saw on the island and walkers on the Olle Trails, were fully covered, with hiking shoes or sturdy sports shoes since the trails carry you from fields to rocky beaches to hills that are actually those small extinct volcanoes, oreums.
As a tourist, and especially a foreigner, you wouldn’t think to go to most of the places the trails take you on, places known only to locals. The trails are marked with orange and blue ribbons and arrows and there is even an app that guides and gives you information with maps and such. You can purchase an Olle Passport and stamp your way around the island. There is the beginning stamp point at the start of each course, the middle and the end one. If you walk all the trails and have your stamps, you can get a certification as an Olle Trails finisher, which I actually find pretty awesome, as I loved stamping my way around. The road is also indicated with metal horses, with the name of Ganse, which is the name for Jeju’s pony (meaning “slow idler” – “Ganse-dari”) and the stamp points are also horses in which you find the stamp and ink. I was always happy to see them! Some of the metal horses indicating the way also have short stories about the road ahead or the area you find yourself in.
I cannot begin to say how many times the trails have made me go “WOW!” since I lost count! The trails follow the history of the island and its inhabitants, the most notable events that happened in its history and the main attractions, so after walking the trails, you can decide if you want to visit those attractions separately or not, for you might want to stay more at a certain attraction and time doesn’t allow you while walking, since some trails are almost 19-20 km long. For example, I went separately to the Buddhist Temple Yakcheonsa, found on Olle Trail no. 8 as I wanted to take my time and meditate there.
While the trails themselves are breathtaking and some take you on paths you might not have thought of taking otherwise, like between portions of beaches found after the tide retreats, coming out from a portion of a small forest, taking you by surprise with their raw beauty, the people you meet on the trails, walkers like yourself, are special. Just like the founder of the trails, Suh Myung-sook told me, “those who walk are special”. Just like I always thought, albeit subjectively, that hikers are a special kind of people, open and warm when you meet them on trails or at night, at the mountain chalet and it’s like you had known each other forever, those who walk the Olle Trails are just as open and warm, no matter if you’re Korean or foreigner. The Koreans I met while walking were happy to hear me say “Annyeonghaseyo” (“안녕하세요” / “Hello”) in Korean and get along with the little Korean I know, helped by their knowledge of English and the translator app. They felt like feeding me, giving me gifts, telling me about Korea, about their travels through Europe, their families, we took photos together and had fun while walking the trails! With some of them I still keep in touch, so yes, the people who walk the Olle are truly special.
I was very surprised to find that people of all ages walk the trails, and as they say in French, chapeau and great admiration and respect for the ones who are in their 70’s, not to mention in their 90’s for walking the trails, as some of them were quite challenging to me, a 40 year-old, during Korean summer. They encouraged me, told me jokes to take the tiredness away and warmly smiled as I was going in one direction and they in another, after meeting each other at the shade of a wooden pavilion.
As a graduate of tourist and commercial management, I totally appreciate the fact that the trails boosted the island’s economy, as more people came in especially to walk on the Olle, meaning rise in transportation income, from buses to taxis, restaurants, traditional markets, guesthouses, cafés, various shops, including the Olle Trails souvenir shops, which also meant creating jobs to cover the Olle Foundation and the making of maps, books, souvenirs and other such things. I very much appreciate Koreans’ abilities when it comes to marketing, I think they could market absolutely anything and do a very good job at it.
The best seasons to visit would be spring and autumn, I would say, as the weather is milder and it isn’t as hot or as rainy as in summer, although to be honest, I would love to walk the trails in all seasons just to see them change. I would need to live there for a year…
Walking the trails also means getting a glimpse into the daily lives of the islanders and also, there are a few trails covering small islands near Jeju Island that fall under its administration, so you have the chance to take the ferry and increase your experience of what South Korea’s islands are about!
Getting around Jeju Island is very easy with the bus system, you just have to be careful at the schedule since some buses come rarely, like 30 or more minutes apart. I walked the trails going from my accommodation and didn’t necessarily walk on them in order, I started with course 16, and then, went back home, but there are some walkers who start with course 1 and walk in order, staying at guesthouses or hotels for the night, carrying their backpacks with everything they need for whatever time they choose to spend on the trails. Then, you have small marts and restaurants on many of the courses, so you don’t have to carry too much water or food to weigh you down, although on some trails, marts and restaurants are rare, so it’s good to study the trail before you start walking to make sure you don’t run out of water or food. You can do this on the Olle Foundation website or get the book with all the trails and what you need to know, although if you’re a foreigner, there aren’t that many in English, so maybe learn a little Korean before you go? (ha ha) I have to say that knowing some Korean and being able to read the alphabet was definitely useful for me and just like in any other country, when you speak the language, even if just a little, people open up more since you can get along and you find out things, experience and receive way more than if you only knew English, although of course, you can get around just with it and a translating app.
On a lot of trails, for long periods of time, I didn’t meet anyone, I was by myself, dressed from head to toe and sometimes with the rain umbrella, to shelter myself even more from the sun, and walking started being my meditation. I didn’t get the chance to walk on all of the trail, only on half, so I will go back for the rest! These trails just call out to the soul, an oasis for you to simply be, filling your being with the beauty the earth created, feeling small in front of creation and all that amazing geology, feeling happy and grateful the trails exist and you get the chance to walk on them, meeting people who will stay in your memory forever and the views that imprint themselves not only in your brain, but in your soul as well.
I’ll meet you on the Olle Trails!