Where I grew up in California, fall is measured mostly by the presence or absence of Pumpkin Spice Lattes. So, finding myself on a side of the Pacific where seasons are determined by factors other than the Starbucks menu, I set out to find the mythical entity that I’d heard so much about: Fall Leaves.
First, a note on Jeju seasons. While Jeju has been labeled “The Hawaii of Korea,” that title refers more to the island’s volcanic origin and tourism status than to its weather. Jeju has seasons. While it may not experience the frigid winters of other parts of Korea, I’ve been told to expect the occasional snowfall or icy road. There will be winter. There will be spring. There will be summer.
And there is now Fall.
I went looking for fall on the 780 bus, and got off at the Halla Ecoforest on the Jeju City side of Halla Mountain. I had heard good things about this place, and had some vague notion of an elegant forest laced with thin paths.
As usual, my expectations were wrong. What I found was a hybrid between a nature preserve and a botanical garden, with wide, paved paths and fenced-off areas that targeted different types of plants—ferns, maples, fruit trees. There was a visitor center that I did not visit, and a repeating map that I repeatedly perused.
I found the brightest spot of color on the map and walked towards it. Along the way I passed the fern garden, so I took a detour through the short loop trail. The path itself was nothing special, but my footsteps startled two roe deer who disappeared between the fronds. Smaller and stockier than North American deer, they blended perfectly into the irregular shadows of the forest.
I continued back onto the main path. I passed a research area, then a patch of trees labeled the “gene preservation forest.” A smaller hiking trail led away from the main path, but I only followed it for a few minutes before turning back.
Eventually I wound up near the mysterious splash of orange that I had followed on the map. My guess has been right; this section was the maple tree section, home to some of the most vivid of fall species.The scene was rather anticlimactic I had come too late, or too early—many of the trees were bare, while others were still green. A few yellow trees spotted the area, and a very few maples stabbed the sky with fiery red branches. Meh, I thought. I’d expected better.
But then sunlight cracked open the clouds, and all of a sudden the trees changed. Yellow leaves became intensely yellow, greens glowed with chlorophyll, and the reds felt bright enough to scald the sky. Tussled grasses glared like the white-hot stare of the sun. I stood on tiptoe on the gravel, trying to capture the brightness and wholeness of the scene.
The sun shrank back into the clouds, and I continued on to a large pond just below the entrance to the park. Again, the star was not the water itself but the movements of wind and cloud. The water reflected patterns of white in a plane fringed by impossibly bright grasses. I thought of the old King Arthur tales, about the Lady in the Lake who emerges from a crystalline city. I imagined such a city in such a place, beneath the reflection of such a sky.
Such are the dangers of meandering alone beneath a new sky.
As I left I passed through the wild orchid garden. It was empty of orchids, but I noticed a small bird with a rust-colored cap in the branches of a tree. I tried some spishing, and soon a flock of about a dozen birds ornamented the empty orchid garden, slipping between the branches in flurries of black and red and white.
I found the Halla EcoForest exquisite, but not in its own right. The beauty of the place didn’t have anything to do with the suggestive gardens, or the framed wilderness, or the carefully laid paths. The forest was exquisite precisely because it was a part of the sun and the sky and the clouds, a part of the wild and ravenous thrill of the season and the tilt of the planet and the pouring of wind.
In short, I thought the Halla EcoForest stunning, but that was more the result of my own eyes than the forest itself. I would not recommend this forest, at least not for a short visit. Perhaps it would be better seen in spring, or perhaps in summer.
But, if you simply want a canvas for the beauty that is always present, you can find it along the 780 bus route.