Mention Ulleungdo (울릉도) to a Korean and they might act surprised that you’re going. It’s a unique and fantastic island to get away to for a few days, and probably underrated compared to its larger cousin destination: Jeju Island. The whole idea of going to Ulleungdo had been on our minds for a few months. We frantically tried to get ferry tickets on a long weekend in the spring but everything was sold out. It’s definitely a popular destination, perhaps mostly for Korean nationals though. We finally made it to the island as part of a summer vacation in July/August 2015. So let’s break it down and figure out why Ulleungdo is a place you need to visit if you are in Korea!
What is it?
Ulleungdo is a island created by a catastrophic volcanic explosion nearly 10,000 years ago out in the East Sea. It’s 120km away from Korea and the nearest other land are the Dokdo islands, 92km away. Ulleungdo has almost no flat land, resulting in stunning geological scenes of mountain ridges, cliffs, caves and rocky shorelines. Historically, it’s been under Korean control since the 6th century but in modern times, it was only allowed to be inhabited in 1881.
First, my girlfriend and I tried to navigate the ferry websites in Korean, but it was pretty hopeless, as you’d know if you’ve ever tried to buy something on a Korean site. So we used Ask Ajumma to help buy our tickets and hotel for this trip, and holy did it make it easier. We told them about the ferry tickets we wanted on Kakao, then they found and purchased everything. We paid them and got our ferry tickets in the chat. Same with the hotel – most hotels on Ulleungdo don’t have websites so it means you’d need to call. We basically told Ask Ajumma what we wanted and when. Then they got back us with options and we chose and paid. Even at the hotel when there was confusion with the check-in counter they called in and sorted everything out for us. It felt pretty good having concierge at our fingertip when we were on the go. Honestly, we’ve used it a few other times and really recommend it for travelling Korea. Their Kakao ID is ‘askajumma’ if you’re interested.
A problem (or a blessing) with getting to Ulleungdo is the total absence of an airport. One must take a ferry from 1 of 3 ports on Korea’s east coast. You can depart from Mukho, Pohang or Gangneung. Be sure to get your ticket in advanced if possible, since it’s a hot item in travel season. The ferries were nice and modern. We had a window seat on the way there from Pohang, though we were boxed in by an ajumma/ajoshi party on the floor next to us. The older group hung out and drank the trip away despite attempts by the ferry staff to stop it. The ferry had a little snack bar with various Korean snack and ramen. As for the smoothness – the trip from Pohang went off without a hitch. You could barely feel it rocking. The way back to Mukho, however, was a different story! It was rocking pretty good and we had the sounds of seasickness all around us. So I’d recommend the anti-sickness medicine on sale at the departure terminals if you have a weak stomach. Just ask for 멀미, pronounced mol-me, at the counter and you’ll be all set! All the ferry contact info was on the map we got on the island. It’s really useful so here’s a photo of it if you need ferry times, prices and phone numbers. We found it had more information that we could find on the Ulleungdo travel site.
13 things do on on the Island
1. Get maps & schedules
The first thing you need to do once you arrive at the island is find the tourism information booth and get your bus schedule and island map. My girlfriend and I found them extremely useful throughout the trip. After you walk off the terminal bridge turn left towards the police station and there’s a tiny little booth giving out free maps and schedules to get started. Everything we did was done with either bus or taxi. Note, it was really difficult to get a taxi on the far side of the island, and we were once left waiting a couple of hours for a bus.
2. Haengnam Seaside Walk
This one is a must. It was pictures of this walking trail that sealed the deal on Ulleungdo. A walkway has been laid around the rocky cliff shoreline between Dodong and Jeodong, allowing people to experience a landscape that was previously totally off limits. Blue water, black rocks, huge cliffs – this place is a great hike. For an added bonus, check it out at night for a view of the squid boats on the horizon, and listen to nothing but ocean waves.
3. Go to a festival
Ulleungdo has numerous annual festivals, and some impromptu ones – which we were lucky to stumble onto. All the tourists turned out for the Dokdo Sovereignty concert to watch. Complete with pyrotechnics, kpop stars, and adorable performing children. There’s even a famous squid festival where you can catch a squid with your bare hands (if that’s your thing).
4. Bongnae Waterfall & Wind Cave
At the end of the bus line in Jeodong you can walk up to a beautiful waterfall where most of the community gets its drinking water from. It was SCORCHING hot when we went but a nice man selling photos up there offered to take our photo for free. He was full of photo ideas, that’s for sure… Afterwards on the way down you pass a wind cave, where highly cooled air from underground jets out of a hole in the rocks to create an extremely cold cave to cool off. It was great after being outside in heatwave temperatures. People were napping inside and cooling their water bottles, too. The funny thing is in Korean it’s literally referred to as Air Conditioning.
5. Dokdo Observatory
The Dokdo observatory is situated on top of a mountain peak that overlooks Dodong Harbour and is reached by a cable car a short walk from Dodong. It was still way too hot when we went up, but we made it to the 2 separate lookouts for some sweet photos of the town and island. It was too hazy to see Dokdo on our day, but the hikes and views were nice nonetheless. And who did we run into on top of this mountain lookout? The freakin’ ajumma/ajoshi party from our ferry ride in. They were better this time and it was funny to recognize each other again and try to talk to each other.
6. Catch a sunrise
Depending on your location and transport options, it this could be a difficult one. Our hotel was in Jeodong and a short walk to the Haengnam walkway so we chose that spot. There are several other sunrise locations on the island though. Most would either require a car, a campout or an extremely early morning hike. We managed some great photos and it was incredibly peaceful.
7. Hike to the top! Seonginbong Peak
Ulleungdo is one large volcanic relic. It has countless peaks all throughout, with some more accessible than others. The highest point in Seonginbong at 984 metres. From there you get a spectacular view of the entire island and the Nari Basin – the only flat land on the whole island. There are a few recommended routes by the Korean tourism site. I recommend the KBS relay station as a starting point. We had told our taxi driver to take us to the foot of Daewonsa Temple but he said it was too steep and suggested we go to the KBS starting point. It was definitely a better choice, as we climbed at least 100 m in the car before going out a foot. It was a welcome reduction in the hike given how hot it was. From Jeodon it was only 10,000W to the KBS Relay station. We hiked down into the Nari Basin on the way down, and effectively crossed the island on foot. From the basin there is a bus to Chunbu or you could walk. Be sure to check out the traditional houses scattered in the basin while you’re there, too!
8. Cheonbu Underwater Observatory
After we caught our bus out of the Nari Basin, we found ourselves in Cheonbu – the bus terminal point of the far side of the island. Nearby people were swimming and there was an underwater observatory. It was a building at the end of a long pier with an elevator that took you 6 metres under the under to watch hundreds of fish and sea creatures swimming on by. It was actually pretty cool and no one was in the ticket booth on the day we went so it was also free!
9. Go Swimming!
Ulleungdo is an island. It might not be filled with white sand beaches, or even and sandy beaches, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a beautiful spot to cool off. We swam at a few different locations, and each one had breathtaking scenery. Rocks jutted out of the ocean and were surrounded by cliffs on all sides, with very few people to spoil it. The downside of these beaches is their composition – they are mostly made of large rounded pebbles that are hard to walk on and a little slippery. We did find one beach that was very small pebbles that didn’t hurt your feet.
There was a great beach near the village of Tonggumi and Gajaegul-bawi. It had the small rocks which were easy to step on, and was enclosed by two enormous rocks on either side, creating a secluded feeling. Around us were some other families, diving classes, and people diving for seafood. Highly recommend!
Another beach was near Gwaneumdo Island. We ended up waiting for a couple hours for a bus and decided to go for a dip. The rocks were clean and the water was so warm! To get to the water, you need to walk behind the building and you’ll see an old staircase leading down to the shoreline. It’s a great spot if you have time to kill, there’s shade, bathrooms, and food trucks.
Last but not least: don’t swim at Jukam (Jugam) Mongdol Beach! We had read a few blogs that recommended it for it’s nice shore and beautiful scenery. The scenery was great but the beach itself was not up to par. It lacked any real shaded areas, had very large rocks on the shore with broken glass and metal strewn throughout. The rocks were covered in small muscles making walking into the water without shoes difficult. The sleepy town had a small store, but not much else. We learned our lesson and sought better beaches for the rest of the trip. At least we got a cool photo…
10. Take a boat tour
There is a list of boat tours available on the map. The most popular trip travels around the entire island in about 2 hours, showing the stunning rock formations. You can buy tickets for it from a ticket booth just outside the main Dodong ferry terminal. It turns out when we went that the ship was undergoing maintenance and wasn’t doing tours! We had an idea though and caught a ferry from Jeodong port to Gwaneumdo. For 4,000W each it took us towards the recently opened Gwaneumdo island. On the 30 minute boat ride we saw some great views of Ulleungdo and even nicer parts of Gwaneumdo. This included a pirate cave which was thought to be a refuge for pirates back in the day. And everyone feeds the seagulls on the boat! People came with snacks and held them up off the back of the boat. Seagulls would swoop in and snag them from your hand. A friendly korean person offered us some snacks to feed the birds with, which is more fun than it looks. I really recommend doing some type of boat tour if possible.
11. Gwaneumdo Island hike
At the end of the long road around the island, there is Gwaneumdo. It’s a small island just off the coast of Ulleungdo that, until recently, was inaccessible to people. In 2012, a large pedestrian suspension bridge was built, connecting Gwaneumdo to the main island. You can walk the pristine trails and get a good view of Ulleungdo on a good day. Be careful though, the buses run very infrequently here so plan ahead. You can swim like we did while you wait or walk back to the ferry dock to catch a ride to Jeodong. Just check your schedules before trekking out here.
12. Try the seafood
Ulleungdo is famous for its squid. The island is overflowing with seafood restaurants to eat at. We tried the famous Osam Bulgogi (오삼불고기). It’s a sweet and spicy bulgogi sauce with squid and pork together. Our meal was at a nice little place in Dodong and came with at least 10 side dishes. Some restaurants are even right on the shoreline and make for a great atmosphere. Be sure to try some pumpkin products while you’re on the island too, as it’s another famous item. We tried some pumpkin makgeolli which was very good, as well as pumpkin yeot candy, which is incredibly sticky but not bad either.
13. Talk to the locals & Explore
Everyone in Ulleungdo was so friendly it was almost unbelievable. The instant we stepped off the boat, groups of student volunteers were talking to us and letting us know about the special events in the area. I think we also made it into a promotional video…We’ll have to wait and see about that one. We were greeted by everyone we hiked by on the mountain and had some nice conversations with various people – one of whom did winter ski trips on the island! People always wanted to know where we came from and what we were doing on Ulleungdo. On a sweltering day we were walking towards a beach when a family who hired a taxi pulled over and offered us a lift! We squeezed into the back of their taxi and they drove us to our destination for free. Like the old man at the waterfall, people were always ready to go out of their way to help us out. When were went to buy ferry tickets to Gwaneumdo, we had gone to the wrong ticket booth. The man left his booth to bring us to the correct sales office. After we purchased our tickets, the man at the second booth walked us to our boat. Once on the boat, we had another guy offer us snacks to feed the birds with. Overall, the kindness of people on Ulleungdo was unforgettable and helped make the trip what it was.
Have you gone to Ulleungdo before? What was your favorite thing? I think going back in winter would be a wild experience. Supposedly the island gets quite a lot of snow and backcountry skiing is really popular!