Words and photos by Sean Walker
The Damyang House’s “Bike’n Hike” concept – free, multi-day cycling tours to the surrounding national parks – was born out of a failed backpacking trip to Jirisan in February 2014. The logistics of that trip, for whatever reason, were not coming together, and out of frustration, we got out our giant wall map of Jeollanam-do and started looking for alternatives. Naejangsan, the closest national park to Gwangju, was an obvious alternative. Within about 15 minutes, Jirisan was long forgotten, our bikes had replaced our car, and the first Bike’n Hike tour was organized and ready to go.
“Bike’n Hike,” admittedly not the most creative of names, was intentionally branded in such a literal way to aid in the introduction of this alternative form of bike touring to the local cycling community. Three-day tours are the ideal length and involve cycling to and from a chosen destination, usually a national or provincial park within 100 kilometers, and one full day of hiking. These trips have been modified to one-day adventures around Jeollanam-do or longer, multi-day trips as far as Hallyeo-haesang National Park on Namhae Island. The Bike’n Hike tours are hosted by The Damyang House, so it is not uncommon to finish off the adventure there with a BBQ, bonfire, and a well-deserved beer.
These bike tours easily dominate any Korea-related top-ten list of mine, and it has been an amazing way to explore the country I have called home for over a decade. Finding willing participants, however, has been an uphill battle (no pun intended). This is due mostly to my naivety in assuming everyone enjoys hiking up a mountain after a long day of cycling, drinking copious amounts of makgeolli (Korean rice wine), sleeping in dingy countryside minbaks (rooms in private houses), and then doing it all again the next day. Also, my preference for countryside roads through the mountains is in stark contrast to the popularity of the river bike paths that crisscross the country and has perhaps further sabotaged my concept from gaining any traction. Factor in the summer humidity and mosquitoes, and you have just created most peoples’ worst nightmare.
However, after hosting 14-plus official tours (and many more unofficial ones) over the past few years, I can honestly say that while the aforementioned factors may have contributed to the continued lack of participants, the biggest obstacle has been people’s own self-doubt. On paper, it sounds like an intimidating endeavor, and probably doubly so if you are not an avid cyclist. Luckily, cycling is a sport where improvements can be seen relatively quickly, and building the skill and confidence to tackle longer, more ambitious rides typically happens much faster than expected.
Additionally, I have long argued that Korea is the perfect country for this style of bike touring. For starters, the countryside in Korea is extremely accessible from most major cities, Gwangju included. A section of the Four Rivers Bike Trail runs directly through Gwangju and provides a safe and efficient way to get out of the city and into the countryside. The trail heading north to Damyang makes for a scenic day trip and is an excellent route for confidence-building. If you want a taste of the mountains, you can simply exit the bike path and head in just about any direction. The climbs through the mountains in Korea are just big enough to show you who is boss, but small enough to be conquered with a bit of determination and enough gears on your bike. As an added bonus, every grueling climb is met with an epic descent down the other side and, more often than not, through a scenic countryside valley. The modern expressways have left many of these countryside roads virtually traffic-free.
Next, despite what you may imagine, judging by the Korean approach to sports, cycling does not require expensive equipment. A decent hybrid bike, saddlebags, and a helmet are more than enough to get you started on your first adventure. And in today’s world where smartphones are standard, even rudimentary map-reading skills make it nearly impossible to get lost. You are never far from the next countryside mart or even a delicious restaurant for a proper sit-down meal where you can binge on all the local delicacies guilt-free.
Furthermore, Korea’s unique and affordable style of countryside accommodation, the minbak, was developed for the exact purpose of exploring the countryside. They are a way of providing a bit of much-needed income to residents in rural areas and give modern generations an opportunity to escape the city for a day or two without breaking the bank. They are certainly in the no-frills category of accommodation, and it is unlikely the owner will speak English, but they are also usually cheap, comfortable, and run by friendly and curious Korean grandparents.
Lastly, it may seem odd to give a shout out to Korean public transportation in an article about bike touring, but in the event you do overestimate yourself and get a little too far away from home or are caught in some unfriendly weather, you will be reminded of how amazing the public transportation is here. Buses are efficient, tickets are cheap, and bikes travel in the luggage storage underneath the bus for free. Even a half-completed bike tour makes for an adventurous story.
Bike’n Hike Stats
Kilometers cycled: 1582
Kilometers hiked: 88
Fastest speed: 84.3 km/hr
Flat tires: 1
National parks visited: 6
Provincial parks visited: 5
Beaches visited: 2
Nights in a tent: 5
Nights in a minbak: 11
Seasons cycled: 4
Provinces visited: 3
Calories burned: 50,000+