This post describes my account on this hidden gem bike journey to South Korea’s less-explored corners – the Seomjingang Trail and the majestic Namhae Island. You’ll find downloadable GPX cycling routes you can use to plan your own journey. One that I hope you’ll be a little more likely to embark on by the end of reading my account.

The first part of my 2-week Korean cycling adventure took me through the rural and picturesque parts of South Korea. The bike route combined a lovely, lesser-known bike route that followed the Seomjin River down to the seaside, before crossing onto the beautiful Namhae Island boasting Amalfi-Coast-like scenery, golden sand beaches and even a German village.

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 Korea’s East Coast Trail

Seomjingang Bike Trail

The Route

The Seomjingang route is a fairly easy dedicated bike path, much of it entirely separate from car roads while at times joining light-traffic B-roads.

 

Total Distance: ~165km (over 2 days)

Total climbing: ~740m

Download GPX

Day 1: Imsil to Suncheong

The journey began back in Seoul, with a 3-hour intercity bus to Imsil, a small town in the central-south part of the country. The otherwise unassuming town has earned national fame for its local cheese, something especially unusual for East Asia. Introduced by a Belgian priest in the 60s, the Korean version of mozzarella even has its very own theme park.

Having satisfied my craving for dairy, I took a short uphill road section up to the official starting point of the Seomjingang trail, making Imsil a great starting option. The trail is marked by a bike passport booth and a cute bike-themed cafe (another spot to try the Imsil cheese).

Almost from the start of the dedicated trail, the views ahead opened to the impressive scene of the verdant Seomjingang valley, backdropped by the gentle Noryeong Mountains. Having been in Seoul just hours earlier, the tranquillity of this section felt particularly stark. I probably meet 3 cyclists for the next 50km to Suncheong. Bliss!

Following a river downstream tends to make for leg-friendly routes and the Seomjingang trail is no exception. With no climbs to speak of, I am only slowed down by the desire to stop and take in the scenery.

Bridge over Seomjing river, South Korea

Arriving in the town of Suncheong deep into dusk, I spend a good 10 minutes dancing around the language barrier in the first-found motel, shortly before offending the owner by forgetting to take off my shoes before entering the room (unfortunately a recurring theme throughout the first few days of the tour).

A great warm up for what’s to come.

 

Day 2: Suncheong to the Sea

Leaving the sleepy Suncheong, it’s barely 5 minutes before I’m in the proper Korean countryside. As countryside as it gets. I pass the occasional grandma planting spring crops, otherwise there is hardly a soul in sight. A flustered deer tries to find the way past a canal, scaring away the group of cranes. A couple elderly gentlemen chat by the riverbank, each armed with 5 very still fishing rods.

Eventually I reach the first sight with a sprinkling of tourists – Hyangga Park. It’s a former railway tunnel from the Japanese colonial era that’s been turned into part of the bicycle path. Inside the Hyangga Tunnel are a couple of sofas – I wonder if they make a great refuge from the peak summer heat.

The path winds its way on a barely noticeable subtle downward slope along the wide river valley, past quaint villages and gentle farmland scenery. I pass a train village, an old riverside pavilion and a mountaintop temple that seems just a little too much effort to reach by bike to make it worthwhile.

Occasionally the bike trail detours due to construction (without much signage) or joins public roads, although never the busy kind. As I approach the river mouth, the trail becomes adorned on either side by colourful shrub, and soon a chain of sakura trees join the finish line parade. Sadly being late April, I’m a couple weeks too late for cherry blossom, and what’s left of the pink foliage is mostly scattered on the ground.

As I speed down the beautifully flat (TT-perfect) last KMs of the trail, the unmistakable smell of the sea marks the end of the trail. The official endpoint (and the final passport stampbooth) is in the Baealdo Waterfront Park just across the bridge on the little Taein island. First trail complete!

I cross the Korea Strait back to mainland and find a seafront motel with a vending machine for a reception. It’s really a love motel, designed to be perfectly discreet to accommodate romantic encounters – you can pay for a few hours as well as for the full night. Just as with bus terminal machines, tapping a few buttons in your own time feels far easier than trying to explain the same to an actual person.

I find a promising seafood restaurant, spend far longer than necessary trying to deduce what’s actually available. It’s both exciting and unnerving to only have a very vague idea of what I ordered, but soon end up with a gorgeous seafood bibimbap accompanied by an orchestra of sides. A well-earned ending to a beautiful first part of the Korean journey.

Namhae Island Route

The Route

Unlike with Seomjingang Trail, there is no official, dedicated bike trail on Namhae. This is a route I created based on research and I can vouch for it. Well, perhaps 97% of it.

 

Total Distance: ~140km (over 2 days)

Total climbing: ~1,800m

Download GPX

Day 3: Farms, Beaches & German Village

It’s another sunny day. I cross that same small island from yesterday – most of it a soulless industrial zone. Before long, I reach the coast connecting the mainland to my next destination – the island of Namhae. The views immediately hint at the joy the next two days’ riding should bring – verdant hills and pretty bays, with what looks like a smaller Golden Gate Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in Korea) inviting me across.

Bridges to Namhae Island, South Korea

Namhae is affectionately called the “Treasure Island”, and it only takes a few minutes of riding to understand why. 

The island’s routes broadly come in two themes. Namhae’s inner coast offers an easy-riding, flat route on a quiet road lacing through fishing villages and farmland – especially known for its garlic and spinach. In contrast much of the outer coastal route is an unforgiving roller-coaster of sharpish climbs and descents, but you’re rewarded with stunning views and sandy beaches that make you question if you’re still in Korea.

I decided to mix up the flat and painful roads on both days, starting the first with a laidback inner coast section towards the island’s main town in the centre – Namhae Eup. I cruise past rows of seaweed drying in the sun, groups of storks fishing in the shallow bays and the occasional Korean lycra gang giving friendly greetings as they zoom past.

Past Namhae Eup, the fun really begins, with a couple juicy climbs into the inland section, on a busier road. Thankfully there are hard shoulders most of the way. The descent back to the coast opens up with a view of a stunning bay of Sangju Silver Sand Beach. Spacious and uncrowded, Sangju proves a glorious place for a snack rest, although as it turns out the late April waters are a little too cold for anything more than a very brief dip.

Namhae Island beach

Another series of shortish but punchy and relentless ups-and-downs follow as I make my way up the scenic east coast, before reaching my stop for the night – one that looks entirely out of place in Korea.

It’s an entire German Village. Complete with typical German houses, churches and even bierhausen. Nope, this isn’t a theme park. The village was built for Korean miners and nurses who migrated to Germany in 1950’s and wanted to retire closer to home. They certainly picked a great spot – the village spreads along a steep hill overlooking the beautiful coast. The German Village has more recently grown in domestic tourism popularity, even holding its own annual Oktoberfest.

After a nice chat in German learning the life story of an elderly Korean couple running a local bar, I settle down for a cold stein and a hearty plate of currywurst. A perfect, if unexpected, recovery meal.

Day 4: Namhae’s Amalfi Coast

Daraengi Village, Namhae Island

The dawn draws an end to the cacophony of frog croaks that flooded the night from the fields below the guesthouse. Fuelled by a fresh German pretzel, I set off to explore the other side of Namhae. The route takes me up on the flat inner coastal route and once again through the central main town, before the hilly terrain resumes. I come across another emigree village – this time an American-Korean outpost, marked with its own mini Statue of Liberty. Thereafter, the most memorable views of Namhae begin.

The sea view from high up is enhanced with a multitude of little islands, and once I reach Daraengi Village, a series of terraced rice paddies line the steep hills alongside the colourful roofs of the traditional Korean houses. The views here are very much reminiscent of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Except with far less tourists, the rice terraces replacing vineyard terraces and the colourful roofs more vivid than the warm palette of Amalfi.

Energised by the scenery and yet another seafood bibimbap, I make my way up the West coast, the seaside panorama now complemented with the hazy Yeosu peninsula peering out on the horizon. I cut back inland through the farmland and before long, arrive in the main town for the third and final time.

Some destinations I’m especially sad to leave behind, wishing I could spend another few days exploring its every corner. The gorgeous Namhae Island is certainly one of those. But there’s much ahead and the East Coast awaits, so I make my way to the bus stop for a 3-hour Intercity bus to Busan.

Transport to Seomjingang Trail & Namhae Island

It’s not the most accessible of Korea’s bike trails, but neither is it especially complicated.

I recommend going north to south, gently taking you down to the sea level. In this case, I recommend catching one of the Intercity buses to Imsil from Seoul. Regular intercity buses leave from Seoul Nambu Station, as well as more buses from the Express Bus Terminal. The bus takes around 4 1/2 hours, and you may have to swap buses in Jeonju (a worthy stop in itself!) depending on the service – so best check with the helpfu; staff.

At the other end, your best option is a bus from the Namhae Bus Terminal in the main town in the island’s center. From here you can catch a 3-hour bus to Busan or a 4-5 hour ride back to Seoul. If you only want to do the Seomjingang trail, make your way to the nearby coastal city of Gwangyang for your cross-country bus connections.

As with all long-distance buses in South Korea, you can place your bike in the luggage hold and hope the driver isn’t a nutter.

Namhae Island Beaches

How Long Does the Seomjingang & Namhae Route Take?

The Seomjingang Trail is ~165km with a couple small detours, and the route I followed around Namhae another ~140km. So that’s a modest ~300km combined, although the Namhae part definitely feels longer with the climbs added. So depending on your fitness I’d say 4-5 days is adequate to cover the full route while still having ample time to take it easy along the way. You could definitely add in a couple days in Namhae to appreciate more of this little gem.

Keep in mind that the bus from Seoul takes 4-5 hours, so plan your first day accordingly.

 

» Read more: Bicycle Touring South Korea: A Beginner’s Guide
» Read more: Cycling Korea’s East Coast Trail

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