Hiking the Red Clay Trail in South Korea
Updated: Apr 4
Every time I begin a trip, whether it's for a day or a year, I always have some amount of travel anxiety. Usually it starts a few days before with a slew of anxiety-driven dreams starring me missing flights, forgetting my passport at home or leaving my suitcase in a cab. All of this stuff never happens but it fuels my stress leading up to the big day.
Traveling to Daejeon from Seoul
I had an early morning train to catch and rushed over to Seoul Station half asleep and with my backpack half open. I intended to spend most of the day hiking so I packed water and a few necessities like a phone charger, notebook and an extra charged battery for my camera. It was my first time riding KTX, which I found was tourist-friendly with all of their signs written and announcements made in English. This helped alleviate some of the fears enough to fall into a dead sleep within five minutes of the train departure. By the time I arrived in Daejeon, all I had to do was stop at a bakery for some summit-snacks.
Gyejoksan mountain is located north east of Daejeon city and is a mere thirty minute bus ride from downtown.
The walk from the bus stop to the trail is quite long and steep. As I lunged forward, panting and taking frequent stops, I assumed that I'd already passed the trail head and was well on my way up the mountain. In reality, I was heading upward but not in the way I expected. I was walking on a long street where cars occasionally passed by. Clearly, this wasn't the forest covered pathway I had expected from a hike. I later learned that the red clay trail is more horizontal than it is an incline. A steep walk up the street will get you to where the trail starts and the vertical walking continues a little bit further. Of course, if you drive up like one of the many people who probably passed me and wondered why I was exerting myself so needlessly, you can go straight to the car park and bypass this step.
Gyejoksan Mountain & Gyejoksanseong Fortress
Walking did have its perks, however. As I climbed I noticed this sound kind of like dogs barking. I assumed it was exactly that, just dogs in the distance. However as I neared the sound, I realized I was right on top of it, with no dogs in sight. I edged even closer to the noise, which brought me to a small pond off the side of the road where I found the culprit. Hundreds, possibly thousands of baby toads ribbiting in unison. Toads hopped all around my feet and paid no attention to me whatsoever. It was so loud that the sounds melded together to make a humming engine noise once I was next to them.
The path leading up to the red clay trail is a winding one masked by lush green vines and tall, spindly trees. Together, they create a canopy up and around the path, making it nearly impossible to see several meters ahead. There aren't many trail markers either, as I've noticed with quite a few trails in Korea. The best course of action is to keep heading up and follow what looks like it's already been passed over by heavy hiking boots.
Here's what you should bring for the red clay trail:
Water (a few bottles)
A change of socks
A hand towel you don't mind dirtying
Snacks or food for a picnic at the top
A fully charged camera
Once you're in the right spot, it's hard to miss the red clay trail two hundred meters up. For one, the pathway you walk is atop a naturally occurring landscape of terracota red clay. The second is that all other hikers around you will be hopping on one foot or the other as they yank off their shoes and socks.
Locals herald the red clay trail as a natural medicinal goldmine. A walk along this 14 kilometer trail is thought to cure ailments like insomnia, depression, muscle aches and digestive problems. Even the president of Seychelles once came to participate in the barefoot trek.
If you check for signs, you can branch off of the Red Clay Trail and climb the steepest part of the mountain, a stretch upward that at least feels like a ninety degree incline. You won't regret it once you're on top. You'll come across an old fortress wall that is estimated to have been constructed during the mid to late sixth century, during the time of the Three Kingdoms in Korea.
Ancestors built the Gyejoksanseong fortress wall in a circular fashion and intended to protect the tip of the mountain. While walking along this solid length of grey stone, it's easy to forget when time period you're in. Everything old is still intact and wildlife up there seems untouched by humans. You can hear a mix of insects buzzing and wind rustling through tall grass. Down below and past the natural veil of trees and bushes is the hazy picture of downtown Daejeon. Sounds like faint car engines manage to make their way up the mountain and are a reminder that you aren't so far away from modern civilization.
For anyone interested in this trail, it's an interesting experience paired between the natural world and the city. Like much of Korea, a mountain that can lead you far from civilization is usually only a short distance from a bus stop.
I though this particular hike was a lot of fun, historically interesting and overall a unique experience. It's not everyday you get to walk along a healing path!