Heading North for Diamond Days

For half a century the most beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula was nearly impossible to visit. No longer.

By: Allen Salkin

For half a century the problem for many travelers with the most beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula was that it lay in unreachable North Korea. No longer. The Geumgangsan “Diamond” Mountains are reachable via tours from South Korea that Americans are welcome to join.

The tours take in stunning peaks, valleys, waterfalls and hot springs and will be of interest to clients wanting to set eyes on something few non-North Koreans have ever seen.

Tour Operator

South-Korea-based Hyundai Asan began bringing visitors across the border to the Diamond Mountains in 1998 after forging an agreement with officials in communist North Korea.

The company has fallen onto hard times recently because of financial scandals, but has vowed to continue the tours, even after its chairman Chung Mong-hun, 55, committed suicide this summer, apparently distraught over the scandals.

The Korea National Tourism Organization continues to promote the Diamond Mountains tours and there is no indication that this majestic area of 12,000 rock pinnacles, some reaching over 5,000 feet, will be closed to foreign visitors anytime soon.

According to the tourist organization, between 5 and 10 percent of those who visit the Geumgangsan region are foreign tourists.

The trips to Geumgangsan all include two nights and three days in North Korea. One tour takes visitors into North Korea by boat and the other by motorcoach. Both versions begin in South Korea’s Gangwon-do province, northeast of Seoul. There are optional add-ons that include transport from Seoul.


The boat trip begins at Sokcho Harbor in Gangwon-do and carries passengers on a 3½-hour cruise to Goseong Harbor in North Korea. After passing through immigration, clients visit a hot spring open for bathing. Throughout their visit, those clients who choose the boat option will return nightly to the ship for accommodation.

The 1½-hour bus route passes through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and also includes a hot springs visit. Those who choose the coach option stay at the Haegeumgang Hotel, an eight-story floating hotel located at the same pier where the ship is anchored.

On day two, clients on both the sea and overland trips choose between the same two hikes although a third option is available for those who request it in advance. The standard choice is between the Guryong Falls course and the Manmulsang course.

The Guryong Falls course is the most popular and involves a picturesque hike that can take between two and four hours. It follows the flow of the valley, passing clear pools of water, unusual rock formations and cascading waterfalls.

The Manmulsang hike is slightly more challenging and involves ascending some steep slopes that have stairs in them. The reward is spectacular views of the mountains and countryside spread below. This hike takes three to four hours and passes landmarks like “Snowflake Rock” and the Mangyangdae Cliffs.

A more rarely visited area may be worth requesting in advance for the right client. The adventurous and fit will want to tackle the toughest hike available in the Diamond Mountains, the nine-hour trek through the Sejongbong and Dongseokbong peaks district. This is for those who want to venture along the mountain peaks and really feel they are somewhere unique. Rarely seen springs, falls and passes are all a part of the journey.

That night those not too worn out from the trekking attend an acrobatics show.

On day three, cruise passengers check out of the boat and everyone becomes a motorcoach traveler. The coaches stop at Samilpo Lake, a pretty high-mountain body of water surrounded by peaks. Then it’s back through North Korean customs and through the DMZ to South Korean customs and South Korea.

The Details

The price for either the cruise or bus version of the trip is between $225 and $310 depending on season. That includes transportation and lodging, but not meals. Travel agents booking the trip pay 10 percent less which seems to be the local way to pay commission to agents.

Agents in the U.S. book the trip by working with South Korea-based travel agents who then work with Hyundai Asan.

Visitors are required to pay for meals in North Korea in U.S. dollars. Meals are usually $9 each, but the recommended more gourmet restaurant near the accommodation costs $25 per person.

Guides who speak English are on hand throughout the trip and there is no extra charge for their services.

While most visitors consider autumn the most picturesque time to visit, the tours are offered year-round and many consider winter even more beautiful.

Hyundai Asan offers extended itineraries that include transportation to the tour start points from various airports.

This is the sort of opportunity that might not last forever, but the memories for those who go will.