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From the Winter 2011 American Trails Magazine
Story and photos by Melina Taylor, American Trails Magazine Staff Writer
On the Jeju Olle Trail
Jeju Island off the southern tip of South Korea was just named as one of the provisional winners of the New 7 Wonders of Nature contest, and it comes as no surprise considering the picturesque volcanic lava rock scenery, ocean cliff views, and beautiful groves of tangerine trees. Recently designated as Korea’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jeju is home to the Jeju Olle Trail that follows the coastline almost all the way around the entire island.
Established in 2007 by the Jeju Olle Foundation, the Jeju Olle Trail now spans over 376km (234 miles) of beautifully maintained and managed walking and hiking trails. The founder, Suh Myung Sook was inspired by her spiritual journey along the El Camino de Santiago Trail in Europe, and brought back to Korea the ancient rejuvenation tradition of taking a long journey to cleanse one’s soul and find spiritual tranquility.
“Olle” translates as a narrow pathway that connects the street to the front gate of one’s house, and the Jeju Olle Foundation is expanding this interpretation to make the Jeju Olle Trail as a gateway to the rest of the world.
Jeju has been mainly a Korean tourist destination, with popularity rising in the 1970s as a top honeymoon location for newly-weds, but thanks to the Jeju Olle Trail, Jeju is experiencing a surge in tourism. With the first trail route’s opening in 2007, over 3,000 people made the trip to the island to hike the trail, and the numbers have only continued to rise. Estimates for 2010 have established tourist numbers around 800,000 with more people predicted to hike the trail system next year.
The mantra of the Jeju Olle Trail is to walk slowly, enjoying the natural surroundings in order to help calm your soul and to find inner peace. A majority of the trail paths are based on old footpath routes between and around neighboring villages, providing the user a connection to the foundation of the Jeju Island people. Ecotourism is one of the main focuses of the Jeju Olle Foundation, and because of this, they try to use only natural products to construct trail routes (although some portions of the trail are on roads through villages) and try to avoid asphalt and cement as well as all trails being constructed by hands and not heavy machinery. Not only does this help preserve the natural landscape of the island, it provides a better connection for the trail user to the land.
There are currently 23 different trail routes all connected (except for route 1-1 and 10-1, which are located on separate islands) ranging from 5km to 22.9km in length. All levels of hiking experience can find a route that is suited to their abilities, with routes ranging from a casual stroll on wooden planks on a level surface, to intensive climbs up the islands famous volcano cones. The system is designed for clockwise walking, so the transition from one route to the next is seamless.
All the paths are clearly marked with a variety of signage in case users are uncertain of the path. Blue and orange arrows guide the walker (blue pointing the clockwise direction and orange pointing the counter clockwise way), ribbons hang from tree branches, and spray painted arrows in blue also help lead the way. But, the most famous route marker is the Ganse pony.
The Ganse pony is the symbol of the Jeju Olle Trail
The Ganse pony is the symbol of the trail and the Jeju Olle Foundation, and represents the small ponies that used to roam the island. The name comes from an old Jeju dialect meaning slow, lazybones, hence, the spirit of walking slow on the trail. These markers are prevalent at major stops along the trail routes and mark how many kilometers the user has walked of the specific route. Trail enthusiasts all show their support of the Jeju Olle Trail by hanging Ganse doll key chains from their hiking gear.
Trail users also show off their love of the trail (and their accomplishments) by taking part in the Passport Program. Each route has two or three unique stamps that can be placed in a passport booklet once that section of the trail is completed. Hikers can collect the stamps to display the length of the trail they have accomplished. The passport program is a great way to capture the enthusiasm of children hiking along the trail with their parents; a goal that the Jeju Olle Trail and Foundation are working towards.
Not only is the trail a tourist destination, it is embraced by the native Jeju people on a daily basis, both for transportation and for the economic benefit. Instead of visitors to the trail purchasing from big chains and corporations, the Jeju Olle Trail provides them with a plethora of small, local businesses to purchase food and goods through. There are currently over 250 locally owned restaurants on or near trail routes, where a hiker can enjoy a traditional Korean lunch or dinner. Street stalls also line the trail, allowing users to buy a light snack, such as kiwis, dragon cacti, or tangerines (the island’s main agricultural crop).
Grave markers of ancestors line the trail
The Jeju people have fully embraced the Jeju Olle Trail by also providing housing along the routes for hikers traveling for the long-term. Many guesthouses, where hikers can rent a room for the night, and grandmother houses, where users can rent for longer extended periods of time, are frequent along the trail and make planning a long hiking expedition easier. The Jeju Olle Trail is a prime example of the positive economic benefits that a trail can have on a community.
Hospitality and generosity are attributes the Jeju people take pride in, and this makes for an enjoyable hiking experience. Many sections of the trail routes cross private land; including walking through farmer’s fields of carrots, lettuce, and turnips, or an occasional cow or sheep pasture. The connection of the user to the land is enhanced by this aspect of scenery, and provides for a cultural experience as well. Grave markers of ancestors also line the trail surrounded by lava rock walls giving the hiker an insight into traditional Jeju life. When a relative passes away, they are buried in their favorite spot on the island, so it is not a surprise that the trail passes by so many of these markers!
The Jeju Olle Walking Festival
Performance at Jeju Olle Walking Festival (photo by Jeju Olle Foundation)
For the second year in a row, the island held the Jeju Olle Walking Festival. The theme this year, Discovering Love on the Trail, attracted over 10,000 participants. Spread over four days, and in conjunction with the World Trail Conference, the festival traversed trail routes six, seven, eight, and nine for over 51.6km total. Attendees were able to walk the trail with their special loved one while sampling local Jeju food from neighboring villages and experiencing cultural events such as a traditional Korean wedding ceremony, the ritual ceremony of the women divers before they enter the sea, popular Korean opera songs being performed on top of a volcanic cone, and a traditional Jeju open market.
The Walking Festival also incorporates the principles of ecotourism and sustainability that the trail promotes. Part of the festival is known as the Clean Olle Campaign. Participants were encouraged to bring their own water bottles, cups, bowls, and chopsticks or forks to cut down on waste. As an added incentive to help keep the trail clean, people who filled five 10 liter bags of trash collected along the trail received a special Jeju Olle Trail water bottle. In addition to these steps, the festival also provided a free shuttle bus transportation system for pre-registered participants.
The Walking Festival is one way that Jeju is promoting eco-friendly, sustainable tourism and hopes to bring Jeju to the world through this event. In its second year, the festival is growing and expanding its reach not only in Korea, but around the world. Seven thousand people attended the first festival held last year, with 60 percent being from the mainland of Korea and only ten percent being from other countries (the rest from Jeju natives). This year they had a greater international representation with larger numbers from Japan, Taiwan, and countries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.
To learn more about the Jeju Olle Trail & Foundation visit: