I see a surprising number of bike tourists riding along the Haeparang Trail (해파랑길), a 770km trail along the east coast of Korea, stretching all the way from the southernmost point of the East Sea in the port city of Busan to the Goseong Unification Observatory (the northernmost observatory to see North Korea) in Gangwon-do.
I would love to go on a road trip, where I bike the trail from start to finish, and stop to see the sights along the way. With no vacation though, I can only watch with envy as groups speed past on their road bikes loaded with full panniers. Living on the northernmost section of the trail, I can’t help but wonder if the stream of bikers decked out in padded shorts and jerseys came all the way from Busan.
However, living on the trail does have its benefits. Breathtaking day trips through rice paddies and cow farms, along countless beaches and past military bases make fantastic Saturdays. I’ve been on the 200km stretch around where I live, and it runs on a mix of dedicated bike paths and back streets.
Signage is excellent; I have yet to encounter any confusion about which way I should go. Blue lines mark the trail on the ground, and there are colour-coded sign posts periodically throughout to point out nearby destinations. Red points north, while blue points south. Even if you can’t recognize any of the nearby destinations, simply follow the coloured circles in the direction that you want to go. If a road diverges, arrows are painted on the ground to point the way. Rest stops (covered shelters with benches) have also been built along the trail, though I usually just sit on the side of the road whenever I need a break.
The trail is divided into 50 courses. The courses don’t mean anything really, and I rarely notice where a course starts or finishes. On the trail’s website though, you can find bus directions to the start of each course, as well as checkpoints and sights on each course. If you ever do manage to get lost or leave the trail to explore a place of interest nearby, biking towards the coast will surely lead you to the trail again. I managed to go from Goseong (고성) to Donghae (동해) without ever needing to look up directions on a map.
I’ve driven to Busan before, but the sights along the bike trail are completely different. Out of the sections that I have been on, Goseong is home to the most agriculture. The hints of it that can be seen from the highway do no justice to the views that can be seen biking alongside rice paddies, where the water so clearly outlines reflections of the surrounding mountains. Rice is the most plentiful, but fields of pepper, corn, potato and sweet potato plants are never hard to find either.
Continuing south through Sokcho (속초) into Yangyang (양양) brings a surprisingly change of scenery. Here, the trail hugs the coast, and surfing territory starts to emerge. Strips of surf shops and cafés line the beaches, reminding me of the stereotypical Californian beaches so often pictured in movies. Though more crowded (but still not very crowded at all) than Goseong beaches, quiet sections always exist just a little further down from the shops and parking lots.
Heading into Gangneung (강릉), the trail becomes a rather inefficient way to get through the city. I hopped on city roads to save time and energy on my trip to Donghae. The trail is undoubtably safer as there is very little car traffic on it, but rather than going straight along the coast, it loops through the city. This section isn’t particularly scenic, but it does take you to Gyeongpo Beach.
As I continued south from Gangneung, I left the trail and mostly took back roads to shave off more kilometres. Following road signs meant for cars, my bike trip became considerably hillier. Luckily, the ascents and descents were fairly balanced, so challenging climbs were almost always rewarded with exhilarating downhills.
The trail opened only last year, but is already fairly popular. Along the way, I even saw a group of unicyclists making their way north along the trail! I hope that more foreigners will use it as more English information becomes available.
The furthest south I’ve been on my bike is the Donghae Intercity Bus Terminal. I couldn’t make it to Busan, but I can now say that I biked 1/3 of Korea’s east coast!