The Baekdu-daegan as a life force, represented as the trunk of Hanbando Maewha Plum Tree (above) and the spine of the famous Hanbando Horangi Tiger (below)
The Baekdu-daegan ridge system (White Head - Great Ridge), runs unbroken for approximately 1700km, through almost the entire Korean Peninsula. The ridge is the major watershed for Korea, channeling its rivers through numerous subsidiary ridges, which connect every mountain of the two nations to it's main line.
The Baekdu-daegan stems from Baekdu-san, the highly revered 2,744m stratovolcano in the far north of the peninsula, on the border with China, and stretches south to Cheonwang-bong (1915m), the highest peak of mainland South Korea, in Jiri-san National Park.
Baekdu-san is the only piece of dry land connecting the Korean peninsula with the continent, as it sources the Yalu and Dumen rivers which flow south-west and north-east to the Yellow Sea and the East sea respectively.
This gives Korea a symbolic natural border and physical identity, as the land south of these mighty rivers, and it is not surprising that Koreans consider Baekdu-san their ancestral home, and birthplace of the nation, when the mythical founding King Danggun established the first Kingdom, Gojoseon, here in 2033 BC.
The Korean geomantic principles of Pungsu-jiri, adapted from Chinese Feng-shui by Zen master Doseon-guksa, hold that a powerful and divine force known as Gi, flows from Baekdu-san through the Baekdu-daegan and all its connected topography, delivering its life-giving energy and protective power throughout the entire peninsula.
This energy manifests itself through sacred waters and all that they provide, from forest vegetables and animals, to rice fields and fruit orchards. This power can be accessed from portal points of high energy, the sacred peaks, where Shaman pray to the mountain spirits to harness and channel this power.
The sacred energy of the Baekdu-daegan is passed through 14 major subsidiary ridges known as Jeongmaek, some of which are many hundreds of kilometres long, and stretch to all corners of the peninsula. These in turn branch into smaller ridges, the Gimaeks and Jimaeks, and together include every mountain in Korea, an unfractured system, connected like veins to the main Baekdu-daegan artery; like a living organism.
Hiking the Baekdu-daegan
West Songni-san National Park, from Munjang-dae on the Baekdu-daegan
The Baekdu-daegan trail follows the ridge for it's entire journey through South Korea, from it's start point of Cheonwang-bong (1915m), of Jiri-san National Park, north to Jinbu-ryeong, a pass just south of the DMZ - the end of the line for civilian hikers.
Over its course of 735km, Baekdu-daegan hikers walk through 7 of South Korea's National Parks: Jiri-san, Deogyu-san, Songni-san, Worak-san, Sobaek-san, Odae-san and Seorak-san - and the two provincial parks of Mungyeong-saejae and Taebaek-san.
Pure mountain by nature, the Baekdu-daegan is a magestic, unrelenting trail, that crosses literally hundreds of peaks. It's a tough walk, a slog at times, and provides a real feeling of isolation and a challenge to the hardiest of hiker.
Throughout its course though, no matter what the terrain, you're never far from human contact on the trail. The mountains are well walked recreationally and their rich produce of ginseng, mushrooms, and wild vegetables are passionately harvested by those living below. As mentioned above these peaks are sacred, and their slopes and gorges are home to hundreds of Buddhist temples and hermitages on and near the line of the
trail, and active shaman shrines to the mountain spirit on
peaks and passes.
Outside of the parks the trail meanders through the peaceful mountain villages of rural Korea, centred around fertile farmland, where fresh produce thrives in the shadow of the Baekdu-daegan. The people of rural Korea live a life far removed from their city brothers and sisters, time moves slowly with a steady routine, and the hospitality is out of this world.
Korean hikers have been walking the Baekdu-daegan trail in growing numbers over the past few decades, initially marking the trail with colourful club ribbons, which still adorn the path.
With it's growing popularity, the trail has become a well defined route, with hundreds of Koreans taking on the challenge each year, sometimes in "one shot" but more commonly as weekend warriors, getting out of the office Friday night, and walking hard through to Sunday.
Since the 2007 expedition of Roger Shepherd and myself, a steady trickle of foreign hikers have begun to explore the Baekdu-daegan, undertaking an experience unlike any other, through the heartland of Korea, and into the current of Gi flowing down the great ridge.
Our 450 page guidebook provides trail descriptions, maps, water stops, transport, accommodation information, and everything else you'll need to know to plan and undertake the trek.
The trail is all walkable, with the exception of some National Park areas which remain closed for ecological preservation, in these zones alternative routes are provided in the guidebook.
In late winter many highland areas prone to forest fire are temporarily closed, this restriction is usually lifted by late April. Check Korean National Parks Authority homepage for closure details.