Compared to the more famous Four Rivers Trail, I think you get to discover more of South Korea following the length of its eastern shoreline. The range of sights and experiences in the roughly 400KMs it covers is remarkable: Fishing villages, sandy beaches, sharpish climbs, storytelling murals, industrial scapes, surfers, temples, giant crab statues, fish markets, resorts, Korean War memorials, the DMZ and even a penis park.

Much of the trail is a dedicated bike path while at other times it joins sleepy roads winding through the heart of quaint fishing villages and bustling resort towns. There’s more climbing involved than with the Four Rivers Trail or Jeju, none particularly long but with some sections challenging you to a series of sharp but scenic ups-and-downs.

As my testimony clearly suggests, I very much recommend choosing the East Coast Route if you’re thinking of touring Korea for the first time, and to help convince you I’d like to share my own experience.

For a broader guide to bike touring South Korea, I recommend you check out this guide to bike touring South Korea. And for the first part of the Korean bike journey (another one that I can vouch for), read on for the tour along Seomjingang Trail & Namhae Island.

The Route

From Gyeongju-si to DMZ

Total distance: ~420km

Total climbing: ~850m

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Once you’re on the coast, the route follows a mostly well-signed road along the coast, marked by blue solid lines that keep you on the right track. There were a couple mildly confusing spots where you could miss a turn, so a GPS or a map always helps. While often separate, the trail sometimes follows mostly quiet roads shared with cars. On the official sections from north of Pohang to the DMZ Observation Center, you’ll find red booth checkpoints which feature unique stamps for marking in your dedicated Korean Cycling Passport. A nice bit of gamification.

Day 1: Gyeongju to Ganggu

~100km

~850m

 

The East Coast Trail officially starts or ends north of Pohang, and the coastal city is where many opt to begin their journey. But it’s really up to you where you want to start, you can even go all the way from/to Busan.

I decided to commence the trip in Gyeongju – a beautiful city akin to Korea’s Kyoto, and one that really warranted a visit. Full of beautiful traditional architecture, temples and ancient royal tomb hills, the once-grand former capital of the Silla Kingdom is like an open-air museum. Even the local McDonalds ended up having to fit in with the traditional architecture. The vast Tumuli Park encompassing the royal tomb complex is ideal for exploring by bike.

From Gyeongju, I followed the riverside path up before joining a couple fairly low-traffic countryside roads towards the sea, to join the coastal trail from there. Just a few ups but mostly downhill and coupled with a gorgeous tailwind, it made for an easy start and wasn’t long before Pohang’s sea of chimneys appeared on the horizon.

Pohang is probably how some might picture South Korea: very, very industrial. It’s the home of some huge steel plants that dominate the views on one side, yet the city and the bike path stretches along a surprisingly pleasant and vast sandy beach.

Pohang's industrial skyline & bike path

It wasn’t upon leaving the Pohang metropolis that the more eye-pleasing views (and the first official East Coast Trail passport stamp booth) appeared. The trail often followed minor roads right along the coast, close enough to feel the occasional sprinkle from the crashing waves.

South Korean East Coast shore

A series of up-and-downs and narrow roads through fishing villages later, I reached Ganggu to find a motel for the night. What became immediately striking about this fishing port is that just about every building and street is adorned with giant crabs. Like a Vegas strip of flashing crabs.

As it turns out, Ganggu marks the start of the “snow crab coast” – which Koreans from all over visit in winter and spring for the sole purpose of satisfying their snow crab compulsion.

Of course I couldn’t pass the chance to see what the fuss is about. Before entering the restaurant, you get to pick your still-alive victim from the fish tank wall. My choice was mainly dictated by the hefty price (the smallest cost around £50 / €55 – it’s a sought-after delicatessen after all). You then choose how you like it cooked, and before long the crab turns up on your table accompanied by an army of sides.

You know it’s going to be good when sashimi is just a side act appetiser. The main act turns up a few dishes later – the crab prepared in just about every conceivable way. And there I was thinking if the snow crab was too small to satisfy a big appetite. It’s a feast worthy of a king, probably because the meal is very much set up for a group dinner experience. Only a foreigner would turn up for this on their own, and even for a ravenous cyclist, there was just no way to finish the myriad of dishes that kept turning up, delicious as they were. Absolutely worth the price.

Snow crab dinner in Ganggu, South Korea

Day 2: Ganggu to Uljin

The Snow Crab Coast

~95km

~700m

 

Still digesting yesterday’s family meal, it was time to explore the rest of the snow crab coast. 

The coastline views continued to impress, even as the weather turned and I was now into the headwind. Every few kilometers there was some ode to snow crabs – golden statues, sculpture parks and even a claw embedded into an active lighthouse.

Where it wasn’t about snow crabs, it was BTS filming locations – somewhat a mania in Korea – with official road signs pointing out to wherever they filmed a song.

There are many worthwhile stops along the way, one in particular that was worth a mini detour was the beautiful Wolsong Pavilion and the surrounding forest and seaview. A perfectly quiet spot to enjoy a snack or just reflect.

Forest path to Wolsong Pavilion

As I continued up to Uljin, the lazy drizzle gave way to enchanting sea mist that hugged the crab coast shores (crab coast isn’t an official thing I think, it’s just the name I gave it).

Today’s destination Uljin is another town blessed with ample seafood restaurants as well as natural hot springs. Although I opted for a family-size bucket of Korean fried chicken, the binging interrupted by a red weather alert for tomorrow on my phone. Fun times ahead!

 

Day 3: Uljin to Jangho

Into the Storm

~48km

~760m

In my experience, there is a shit weather day on every single bike tour. This was definitely it. Demoralisingly powerful and cold headwind, relentless sideways rain. Not a day to be out (as instructed by numerous national weather alert text messages) – unless of course you want to test your tenacity, and waterproofs.

The especially hilly section of the East Coast Trail kept up the high scenery score, a new wooden section once even veering up and through the coastal cliffs. Although due to the weather, most stops for the day were limited to cafes and 7-11s try and warm up, with one exception. I just couldn’t not stop at a park entirely dedicated to manhoods. 

The Haesingdang Penis Park is a pretty big open air sculpture park overlooking the sea, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. Phallic statues of every type, size and shape, set greet you along the way, backdropped by (what would have been) a beautiful coastal panorama. 

Korean open air penis museum

The first question that jumps to mind is “Why?”. As it turns out, the inspiration behind the park is deeper than to get a few giggles – it’s based on a local legend. Tl:Dr – a fisherman lost his girlfriend out at sea, her ghostly spirit gave off bad vibes in the area, causing a lack of catch in the sea. So for some reason the fisherman’s solution was to piss in the ocean – and magically, it worked. Kim-Jung-Un-level of superpowers. And so, they dedicated the park to his penis.

As the day wore on, the rain and wind just got worse to the point that I was shaking to the bone. There are times you just have to call it a day, and this was it. Cutting short in a random fishing village called Jangho, I found a basic guesthouse albeit with no bed – Korean-style ondol room with a thin mattress on a heated floor. At this point, anything with a warm shower will do.

On a fair weather day, the village has the Samcheok Cable Car going up the hill right over the sea, but all I wanted at that point was a hot shower, a beer and a seafood bibimbap. 

Traditional Korean guesthouse room with heated floor

Day 4: Jangho to Gangneung

~100km

~850m

 

The worst of the storm has passed, and after a hearty Korean bento box from the local 7-eleven, it was time to make up for the day that was cut short. Sleeping on a floor was far from a comfortable ordeal, although the feeling of not being cold and wet (except the still-soggy shoes) more than made up for the sore neck.

The short but sharp ups-and-dows on this leg offered one panoramic view after another, yet much was subtly changing. Snow crabs gave way to squid and octopuses, while signs of the Korean War and its shadows began to appear the further north you get.

Korean cliffside resorts

Long sections of barbed wire and military watchtowers guarding from North Korean intrusion begin to lace sections of the coastline, and at one point I pass a captured North Korean submarine. Further up the coast before meandering around an active air force base, a Korean War Memorial depicts murals of the bloody war, its heroes and victims. While literally next to it, a new contemporary art museum signifies just how much the country has moved on in contrast to its neighbour.

 

Equally, the gorgeous coastline and its impressive collection of sandy beaches is unsurprisingly popular with domestic tourists, with resort towns scattered along the coastline. Some of the resort architecture is particularly imaginative, like a giant cruise-ship hotel facing the sea from the edge of a cliff.

Cruise ship hotel, East Coast of South Korea

Finally I make it into Gangneung, a lively resort town that’s home to one of the country’s best and longest beaches, adorned by surfers and city-dweller weekenders alike. The weekend vibe was real, the restaurants and bars buzzing with life. It’s an easy town to find a place to stay – seaside guesthouses and motels seem to number in the hundreds. Still feeling raw from sleeping on the floor, I decide to treat myself to a beachfront room with a jacuzzi. 

Day 5: Gangneung to Sokcho

~80km

350m

 

I wake up to wall-to-wall sunshine and a view of surfers conquering the morning waves. The hills are largely behind me, with 2 more mostly flat days left before DMZ where the trail ends.

With the perfect weather and an easy riding day, I become generous with stops along the way for mysterious seafood snacks, temples, pavilions and the occasional viewing platform.

Korean surfing beach

In addition to the fishing villages, the day’s theme is best defined by surfing towns, surfing schools, surfers and the vast sandy surfing beaches. Who knew Koreans are so into surfing – even in the chilly springtime sea.

The bike path is well-established and almost entirely hugs the pristine sandy coastline. The imposing Seoraksan, Korea’s tallest mountain, looms in the backdrop and adds a new dimension to the scenery. 

At one point, I pass the 38th Parallel – for some reason marked by a sculpture of a happy bear couple holding up a boulder at a service station. Anything north of this line was the USSR-backed North Korea between WW2 and the establishment of DMZ at the end of the Korean War. I bet the locals are happy with how that border ended up.

38th Parallel, Korean East Coast

The East Coast’s other famous resort city, Sokcho, introduced itself from afar with its cluster of high-rises and a ferris wheel. It’s the gateway to Seoraksan National Park, and if you have more time than I did, I’m sure a wonderful base to really explore the region for a few days. 

If you’re into raw fish, don’t miss out on Sokcho’s other specialty – the hoe. This is basically Korean sashimi made from whichever local catch. While you can find hoe all over the city, I recommend paying a visit to the city’s traditional seafood market to really get a taste of the local culture.

Satisfied, I unhurriedly roll along to a quiet village a few KMs past Sokcho, leaving just a modest flat section for tomorrow’s finale. With the village appearing close to dead in the evening, I end settling for a convenience store dinner. By night, the spooky, stadium-like floodlights beam towards the sea, illuminating the beach into daylight and reminding me that the border with North Korea is only 50kms away.

Day 6: Sokcho to DMZ

The Finale

~40km

350m

 

The trail finale is set up for another day of spring sunshine, this final 30km stretch to the final checkpoint featured my favourite beaches of the entire East Coast Trail. And unlike before, they are mostly empty of tourists and surfers – just the occasional local fishing for something in the shallow waters.

Sandy Korean beach, East Coast

Once I pass the local fishing villages and some an expanse of camo bunkers and watchtowers, I reach the Unification Observatory, the official end of the trail. Across the road I find the final stamp-booth – the passport segment is complete!

DMZ Observatory and end of East Coast Trail, South Korea

The Observatory itself is essentially a large gift shop and the gateway to visit the observation tower about 10 mins’ drive up the road, the closest you can get to North Korea here. Unfortunately you can only get there by car, taxi or an official tour, and not wanting to abandon the bike I decide to see how far I can get anyway.

So I roll down a quiet country road for another 4-5 KMs, only meeting a local tractor and a handful of military trucks. I manage to reach a desolate beach, broken up with barbed wire and a message offering 2 billion KRW reward for spotting an enemy submarine. It’s eerie, yet beautiful.

Northermost public beach on South Korea's east coast

I get a little further down the road, but soon hit a Humvee-accompanied checkpoint with a couple of young soldiers politely instructing me to turn around. So that’s the closest I get to Kim Jong Um’s realm. A nearby hill offers a gorgeous panorama of the mountains to the north – somewhere up there lies the border. I’m left wondering what it’s really like on the other side, and whether I’ll ever be able to tour the other side in my lifetime.

A brief 10-km backtrack to the nearest bus terminal at Daejin and armed with a bag of convenience store treats, I buy my bus tickets from the granny next to the station and say goodbye to the memorable adventure that was the East Coast Trail.

How to Get to the East Coast Bike Trail

 

Northern end: If you don’t feel like (or have time to be) extending your journey to/from Seoul on the hard-shoulders of the fairly busy mountain roads, chances are you’ll want a bus.

Good news is there are regular buses departing from the small coastal towns near the DMZ. If you backtrack a few KMs from the Observation Tower, you can get a 3-hour bus from Daejin station. They leave every couple hours and are very unlikely to be full in advance.It’s a tiny bus station so if the ticket machine is still broken and there’s no one at the ticket booth, go to the house next door – you can buy tickets from the granny. There shouldn’t be a problem with booking on the day unless perhaps there’s a public holiday.

Alternatively you could start from Sokcho with more frequent bus connections, if you don’t mind missing the northernmost section.

At the southern end, it’s even easier. Regardless of where you start – be it Pohang, Gyeongju or even Busan – they are all very well-connected to Seoul with Express and InterCity buses. I think there is even a train option for unfolded bikes from Seoul to Busan.

Which Direction is Best?

Either works, but I chose South to North as you’re on the beach side of the roads, and it felt more symbolic to finish by the DMZ. In April, I got a complete mix of tail, side and head wind and I don’t think one particularly prevails over the others.

The hilliest sections are in the Southern half of the trail, so if you want to get those out of the way first with more energy to spare then that’s another reason to do South to North.

If you haven’t already seen it, I made a number of recommendations for touring South Korea here, and also another fantastic route I’d recommend for a Korean adventure here.

How Long Does the East Coast Route Take?

It’s around 400km or more / less depending where you start, so decide for yourself. I’d say 6-7 days is ideal, but I’m sure others would do the trail in anywhere between 4 days and 2 weeks. There’s plenty to stop for if you enjoy and have time for slow touring, and with more time you could base somewhere like Sokcho or Uljin to explore the surroundings or venture inland.

» Read more: Bicycle Touring South Korea: A Beginner’s Guide

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