We reached Gupabal Station (subway line 3) at 7:00 a.m. in the morning. There’s a bus stop, on the same side of the road, around 5 minutes from exit 1. Most websites recommend Bus No. 704 (on the opposite side) or Bus No. 34. A taxi driver figured we were confused and suggested Bus No. 34. The announcements are in English and Korean. We followed the other hikers to the entrance of the Bukhansanseong Visitor Centre.
Bukhansanseong Visitor Centre
The visitor centre was empty and we couldn’t pick up a brochure on the hiking trails. We were too early or it was deserted because of Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving holiday). The other hikers had already disappeared and we had to figure out the trail on our own. There were two arrows pointing towards Baegundae (the highest peak) in different directions. We followed the route along the arrow that read 4 km. It’s good to take a picture of the map of the different trails in case you get lost.
At this point, the trail forks into two directions, one over a wooden bridge and the other along a stony pathway. We got a panoramic view of the peaks of Bukhansan from here. Baegundae Peak (백운대) was hidden behind the other peaks and the sun made it difficult to get a good shot. The Bukhansanseong Course isn’t a popular trail to reach Baegundae Peak, but it has the best views of the valley and natural forests.
The Bukhansanseong Fortress was first built in 132 during the reign of the Baekjae Kingdom and was later fortified by the Joseon Dynasty in 1711. The wall was primarily built to keep foreign invaders outside and provide a guarded area for the king — if he had to abandon the palace during war.
Starting the Bukhansanseong Trail
The trail starts easy with a clearly marked pathway that runs parallel to a dry river bed. It was around 8:00 a.m. and the trail was deserted. Hiking on one of the most important Korean holidays surely has its advantages.
Buddhist Temples are dotted along most trails in Korean mountains. If you’re confused about the path or which side to turn, these temples also serve as important markers to check with the map. We couldn’t find the name of this temple and decided to keep walking. It’s always good to pace yourself before the sun comes out.
We reached a walkway that hugged the river bed. This place was alive with insects and spiders. I spotted a dragonfly and Korean mantis (a species of the praying mantis). I didn’t have much luck capturing the spider web.
This spot was stunning and I wished we could have stayed here for a bit. But I wanted to keep the pace and we continued walking after clicking pictures.
After this point, the trail goes downhill for a bit and the path deteriorates. It’s good to keep an eye out for signboards as well as distances.
Main Intersection (Borisa Temple)
We reached another information centre with huge boards of the trail. This is the last point where you’ll get a restroom and it’s good to relieve yourself before continuing further. This point is also accessible by car and my guess is that the other trail (the one we skipped) leads to this point. Borisa Temple (보리사) is a important marker and the trail is tucked at the edge of this temple.
The trail doesn’t get too exciting here and debris is scattered all across the path. Clearly, I had no idea how bad it would get from here.
We reached another intersection and fortunately Baegundae Trail was clearly marked. This course has many alternatives — if you’re not looking to reach a particular peak. But it’s good to follow the boards or it’s very easy to get lost. Two weeks ago, a friend of ours had lost his way in the park.
Daesongsa Temple (대성사)
I think this is an important point in the trail because there is no board here. If you can read Korean the rock is helpful. Basil climbed to the top and saw that it was a dead end. So, we continued around the rock and we had some company after a really long time. Without a marked pathway, it’s easy to get confused and meander away from the main trail.
Is it Over?
It only gets tougher from here. Rock debris, sometimes huge boulders, jut out from the trail and it puts reasonable pressure on your knees. I hadn’t worn my knee support and I started feeling the effect of stretching and crunching on my knee. I was happy to spot the rope and eventually used a hiking pole for support. We met a group of students who seemed to be excited to hike this part of the trail.
Enjoying the first views
The views of Seoul City provided the motivation to continue. Honestly, there was no way I’d want to return on this trail and that kept me going further.
Baek-wun Bong-‘am-um (The Secret Gate)
The last stretch was the hardest and the rope wasn’t within easy reach. It was time to use my hands, my hiking pole, and hope that my footing was correct. The rocks are lodged into the ground, but it’s better to test them before putting your entire body weight on them. My knee was killing me, but I just wanted to get this done with. We finally reached the gate after hiking 3.7 km in about 3 hours (with breaks). I was the slowest hiker on the trail and I saw so many rush past me. But, I was happy and proud to have done this stretch.
Leaving Seoul behind…
I had thought that I’d sit back and enjoy the view when we reached the top. In reality, I was feeling a little dizzy with the height. I wasn’t sure if I’d climb the last part (along a rocky face of the peak) to the top. Basil was encouraging and said he’d be there with me at every point. Maybe, a part of me wanted to finish this trail, but it was a real challenge to control my fear.
Do not attempt the last part: if you have an uncontrolled fear of heights, are severely exhausted, have a bad knee/s, or have even the slightest doubt in your mind. Once you’re up, it can get really scary. I wish the other blogs had emphasised more on the challenge. A man collapsed (near the edge) and had to be rescued by an air ambulance on the day of our hike.
Gulp! I can do this!
I focussed all my energy and willpower on trying to reach up. I didn’t look anywhere other than the trail and the metal rope. I kept repeating, “No fear”. This wasn’t about conquering the mountain. I had to conquer something bigger: my fear!
The sun was out now and it started to get hot despite the mountain breeze. The narrow pathway — that hugged the rocky face of the mountain — was going to be a challenge. Strangely, I stopped feeling scared at this point. I numb my fear and continued walking, oblivious to my crazy husband clicking pictures of me. Seriously, pictures are not important at this point. Unless you have a great balance, please don’t be stupid to take a selfie here.
We finally made it to the top and I couldn’t believe it. Now, 836 m doesn’t sound high enough, but the route to get there is what makes the hike challenging. And then again, if you’re a hiker and don’t get easily bothered by heights (like Basil), this may not seem like a big deal.
Soaking those mountain views…
Bukhansan was designated as a national park in 1983 and lies at the north of Seoul. In fact, Bukhansan literally translates as “big mountain in the north”. Its proximity to Seoul makes it pretty popular. It’s estimated that around 10 million visitors come here every year, earning it a place in the Guiness Book of World Records for the “Most Visited National Park per Unit Area” in 1994. And that’s why it took us 2 years to attempt this hike. I’ve heard that weekends are a nightmare and the line to the top can be quite a turn off.
We sat on the sloping face of the mountain and had our sandwich. It was nearing noon and we didn’t want to stay too long before the crowd started to pick up. Looking at mountain kitty on the highest point in Seoul was a bitter twist to my melodramatic finale.
Eeps! What goes up has to come down!
I thought I would faint on my way down, but I was so intent on trying to be a mountain goat (Basil’s words) that I didn’t have time to look around. Obviously, there was some slipping and few nervous looks from my fellow Korean hikers. I never thought I would hear the words 천천히 (slowly) so many times. They even helped me locate the grooves in the rock and gave me advice. In Seoul, everything has to be 빨리 빨리 (quickly) and if you’re not fast enough — you’ll lose your seat or the bus. On a mountain top, it’s a parallel world where Koreans live in slow motion and urge others to do the same. The rat race is left behind.
We decided to try the other route to descend. There’s a shelter here and few restrooms. We picked up ice creams and took a short break here. This route was the more popular side to reach Baegundae Peak. I also saw kids try this route. It’s about 1.7 km to Doseonsa Temple.
Baegundae Trail (Towards Ui Ranger Station)
My knees were killing me on the way down. I wore my knee support, but the rocky terrain wasn’t fun. This trail isn’t very easy, but at least the path is well marked. Some hikers asked us how long it would take to reach the peak. Honestly, I was tired by this point and distances stopped making sense. I was also disappointed because I had hoped my knee wouldn’t be an issue this time.
Doseonsa Temple (도선 사)
We reached Doseonsa Temple and the Baegundae Information Centre by 3:00 p.m. It had taken us around 2 hours (with many breaks) to reach here. The place was packed with tourists and temple visitors. We followed the other hikers towards Ui Ranger Station and caught glimpses of the fortress wall along the way. Fortunately, we found a bus depot en route and caught Bus No. 120 to transfer at Suyu Station.
- Bukhansan National Park (Seoul District) (북한산국립공원 (서울)) link
- Korea National Park Service link
- Bukhansanseong Fortress (북한산성) link
- Bukhansan National Park (Dobong) (북한산국립공원(도봉 지구)) link