A historic walk on Ganghwado Island

By Lee Woo-young

Ganghwa Nadeulgil traces Korea’s history from prehistoric to modern times, crossing the mountains and following the coastlines of the western island

  • Published : Jun 12, 2013 - 20:47
  • Updated : Jun 12, 2013 - 20:48
Walking on Ganghwado Island never leaves you bored of the view. South Korea’s fourth-largest island, located at the northwest end of the country, has a variety of landscapes that reflect its dramatic history.

Several times a key place where Korea resisted foreign invaders ― not always successfully ― the island features well-preserved historic remains, in the downtown area, rural villages and along the coastline.

The island is also a place where hikers can get a close look at North Korean territory just across the strait. North Korea’s Gaepung-gun can be seen from Ganghwado Island’s northeast.

The island takes walkers past prehistoric sites, old battlefields, heavily fortified walls and barbed-wire fences along the borders with North Korea. 
A mountain trail on Mt. Buksan (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)

Lesson in history

The first course is a 17.2-kilometer moderate-level walking course that takes about six hours to complete. It crosses some of the island’s most important historical sites, as well as quiet rural villages and mountain trails.

From Ganghwa Bus Terminal, the first stop of the trail at Yongheunggung is a 30-minute walk. The former residence of Joseon King Cheoljong (1831-1863) is hard to find as it is hidden in a small alley among houses and eateries. The small house also shows no sign of extravagance compared to other houses of aristocrats. Inside sits a simple, frugal house with a small back door close to the front gate of Korea’s first Anglican church.

Established in 1890 by the Korean Anglican Church’s first priest John Corfe, the church is worth a visit for its rare architectural form, built in traditional Korean style.

The next historic site is Goryeo Palace, which served as a shelter and defense point for Korean kingdoms against foreign invasions. When the Mongols invaded Goryeo Kingdom in 1232, the royal family of Goryeo designated Ganghwado Island as their second capital and stayed at the palace for 39 years while defending the country. Today, only the front gate of Goryeo Palace remains.

The buildings within the gate date back to the Joseon era. Here sits a royal library, Oegyujanggak, which was in the limelight recently as royal books containing texts and hand-drawn illustrations of royal ceremonies, taken by the French forces during their invasion in 1866, were repatriated.

The journey along Ganghwa’s historic pathway continues as the trail leads to a shrine Queen Myeongseong of Joseon built to bring good fortune to the kingdom.

The road continues into a hanok village and to Ganghwa Girls’ Middle and High School. From the school, the mountain trail leads to a more energetic walk to the North Gate, where walkers can take a break at a local coffee shop, which also serves as a guesthouse.

A sign near the North Gate directs walkers to the “Water Way and Wind Way Coffee Shop and Guest House,” which is about 300 meters from the gate. The venue offers accommodation to those who need more than one day to explore Ganghwado Island.

It has a big room for groups and dormitory rooms, which can accommodate up to 30 people. The price per person is 15,000 won, including a breakfast of coffee and toast. It offers a 20 percent discount for groups of more than 10 people.

“There are not many guesthouses offering inexpensive rates for guests on the island along the Ganghwa Nadeulgil walking trails. Ganghwado Island has more large pensions than small guesthouses,” said Kim Ae-young, who runs the guesthouse.

“The Jeju Olle now has many guesthouses along the paths, but Ganghwado still lacks good accommodation where walkers can drop in and take a break without worrying about the price,” she said.

After more walking on the mountain trail from the North Gate, the trail enters a village with vast rice fields and a few eateries. The first course has no more than five restaurants so it’s a good idea to eat well before walking or to try to drop by what local restaurants there are.

Yeonmijeong Pavilion, standing at the end of the village, is also an important historic landmark, and bore witness to a shameful chapter in Korean history. Here King Injo of Joseon surrendered to and signed a humiliating accord with the Qing Emperor Taizong in 1637.

From the pavilion, you can see the North Korean village across the narrow Yeomha Strait. The sight where barbed-wire fence running alongside ancient military watch points here shows the strategic role the island has had in Korean history.

From the pavilion, a long seaside trail continues down to Gapgot Dondae Fortress, which was one of the strategic defense points against Mongol invasions.

Island made for walking

Ganghwado Island has a total of 15 walking trails, completed in 2009. The diverse landscape of the island makes it perfect for a fun, breezy and refreshing walk.

Spring and fall seasons are the best time of the year for a brisk walk, but early summer also offers a refreshing experience walking amid lush green forests on courses that cross the inland part of the island (courses 3, 5, 6, 14 and 15). 

Some courses take walkers close to prehistoric cemeteries ― the island boasts some of the highest density and diversity of dolmen sites in the world. The coastline trails (courses 2, 4, 7 and 8) offer a chance to have local seafood and go into the sea during low tide.

Adjacent islands such as Gyodongdo Island and Seokmodo Island offer scenic coastline walks.

Along the trails, directional arrows are painted on telephone poles or on streets in pink and blue. On mountain trails, yellow and green ribbons are hung on trees for directions. If you face two diverging paths, you are advised to ask locals or other walkers.

Travel tips

It’s easy to get to Ganghwado Island from downtown Seoul as bus No. 3000, a non-stop bus, leaves from Sinchon to Ganghwa Bus Terminal. The trip to Ganghwa Bus Terminal takes one hour and 45 minutes. The Ganghwado Tourist Information Center at the bus terminal offers information on Ganghwa Nadeulgil, public transportation and travel maps, as well as some useful tips on where to eat and how to return to the starting point. The travel center opens from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (032) 930-3515.

By Lee Woo-young (