Jeju Island was made for walking. Whether it’s a rambling hike along rugged black cliffs, a lazy beach stroll, or a walk through citrus farms whose trees swell with tangerines, Jeju’s natural beauty is best seen on foot. And the best way to do that is to look for the blue and orange ribbons that mark Jeju’s innovative system of walking routes, known as the Jeju Olle trails.

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Olle – The basics

Olle (올레) is a word in the Jeju dialect that refers to the slender path between a house and the street. It means a place of meeting, a space between the private and the public worlds, and it carries a feeling of welcome and exploration – an invitation to walk and explore. Olle is the perfect word to describe a system of walking trails designed to show off the best of Jeju and open up the island to visitors.

The first Olle trail opened in 2007, with the goal of introducing less visited parts of Jeju’s coasts and countryside to visitors who often see little more than the island’s main sights and resorts. The idea proved popular with locals and visitors, and the system of trails grew. Today, twenty-one Olle trails ring the mainland coast, plus five auxiliary routes that cover smaller islands and other points of interest.

Every trail is marked with ribbons and arrows in the Olle system’s colors: electric blue and bright orange, and the Olle symbol, a stylized stick figure of a Jeju pony (it doesn’t really look like a pony but it is distinctive). The ribbons can be seen tied onto tree branches or hanging from signposts. The arrows are painted onto walls and footpaths. Both the arrows and ribbons are placed regularly along the routes, and are highly visible without distracting from the landscape.

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Choosing a trail

With more than twenty different trails, picking one may be the hardest part. A good resource for choosing the right trail is the official Olle website, which has an excellent overview of the trail routes, as well as basic instructions in Korea, English, Chinese, and Japanese.

Whichever trail you choose, expect rocky coastal views interspersed with beaches, stone-fenced villages, and some unsightly concrete ports (we are still in Korea, after all). Nevertheless, the trails have been carefully designed and they each have a unique flavor. Here is a quick rundown of several popular Olle trails.

Route 6 – Stretching between the Oedolgae rock pillar and the peaceful Soesokkak estuary, route 6 stops by the charming town of Seogwipo and also passes up through Jejigi oreum, an extinct volcanic cone with sea views on one side and a view of Mount Halla on the other.

Route 8 – A 19-kilometer stretch of Jeju’s beautiful southern coast. In between modern-looking villages and ports you’ll find Jusangjeolli, an impressive set of natural basalt columns rising from the sea, and Jungmun beach, one of Jeju’s best and most popular beaches.

The octagonal pillars of Jusangjeolli

The octagonal pillars of Jusangjeolli on Olle route 8

Route 10 – A nice, long walk taking in great coastal scenery with plenty of grassy hills and sandy beaches, all within sight of Mount Sanbang, a nugget-like rock with sheer cliff sides and a cave temple.

Sea views on Olle route 10

Sea views on Olle route 10

Route 12 – A walk along part of Jeju’s west coast. There are rugged, grassy headlands, the sea is filled with rocky islands made of twisted lava tubes, and you can watch the sun set from the top of Suwolbong.

Route 1-1 – Take the ferry over to Udo, a lovely island just off the Jeju mainland. The trail covers most of the island’s perfect mix of white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, grazing horses, and acres of stone-fenced farmland. You can walk the 16km trail in a long daytrip, hire a bicycle, or cheat and take a local bus for part of the way.

More than a pleasant walk

The Olle system is more than a set of colored ribbons and arrows. It’s about a certain ideal of what travel and tourism can mean, and it’s rooted in the word Olle itself, with its feeling of invitation and exploration. As Jeju Island’s popularity as a tourist destination grows, so inevitably does the number of resorts, theme parks, and tour buses. Overdevelopment and popularity can threaten to tip the balance in favor of convenience and construction over nature and open spaces – the very things that make Jeju special. The Olle trails on the other hand, cost nothing to enjoy and very little to establish: just painted arrows and ribbons tied to trees, the land itself is left alone. The focus is on enjoying the island as it is rather than by reshaping it for human ends.

Reflecting this spirit, the Olle trails are maintained by a community of dedicated volunteers, some Korean, some foreign. One of those volunteers is Jim Saunders, an Englishman who has made his home on Jeju Island. He has worked as a volunteer on the Olle trails for two years, helping to keep the trails clean and providing information on his Olle website. When asked about the appeal of the Olle trails, he says ‘It is a little difficult to put a finger on what makes Jeju Olle trails great. It means something different to everyone. From the single walker who meets their future husband or wife on the trail, to the volunteers that walk a route every month picking up trash all day. And to those who have just retired and spend their first moments of freedom from the job out here.’

Olle route 6, typhoon coming on

Olle route 6, typhoon coming on

Safety and practicalities

You don’t have to be incredibly fit to walk an Olle trail, but they can be tiring. And while all the trails can be walked in a day, some literally require a walk from morning until sunset, while others are more leisurely half day affairs. Of course you don’t have to walk an entire route – it’s the journey, not the destination, etc. It’s also a good idea to wear sensible shoes to help you scramble over rocks and up hills. Bringing a bottle of water is also obvious advice, but most trails pass by small marts and convenience stores – very convenient, even though finding a 7-11 at the end of a four-hour nature walk can be a bit of a letdown.

The only real dangers are falling rocks (look up), falling off a rock (don’t look down), or storms: the island is prone to heavy winds and typhoons so check the weather before you set off.

Wherever you go, on Jeju you’re rarely far from a bus or a taxi. Most of the trails are near a bus stop of some kind, or pass through towns and villages. Consult the official Olle website for specific transport advice for each Olle route.

Photos by Richard Whitten of Seoulsync