Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 19

Seorak-San: Stairs to Nowhere on Ulsan-Bawi

Those mountains seem to lean over Sokcho for a reason: they’re close. We turned inland through some pleasant farmland; Wouldn’t mind walking that, I thought. Barely half an hour from the beach, the bus pulled up and I followed the throng of walkers to the ticket office and into Sogong-Won (Small Park).

Sogong-Won is the trail hub. Everyone else took off at a hearty clip, obviously with the benefit of an objective or a clue where they were. A pair of cable cars whisked passengers up and down Mt Gwongeum, the most accessible of the numerous peaks. I’d already decided I would hike that one — later. I chose the 4km trail to Ulsan-Bawi first, a great face of smooth, pale granite like something you’d see in Yosemite, and started up past Sinheung-Sa, Korea’s oldest Zen temple…

Sinheug-Sa dates from 652

..along the upper reaches of the Ssang River and into the woods.

I was already very impressed. I’d expected crowds, but they quickly diminished the further I ascended from the gates. I was also unprepared for the rugged, craggy wildness of the terrain around me. Despite the hordes at the entrance, everything beneath the peaks was clean, well-constructed, tasteful. No unnecessary noise or signage — and no electrical pylons and cables strung across the valleys!

Even the commercial enclaves — and there’s always an overlap of nature and commerce in Korea — were restrained and limited. The big hotels, amusement arcades, restaurants and souvenir hawkers were down-valley, outside the park gates. Inside, there were a few low-key refreshment areas like this along the accessible trails:

Water piped from the river cools drinks

The ancient hermitage of Gyejo-Am, with the face of Ulsan-Bawi behind:

As old as Sinheung-Sa, it is beautifully secreted in a natural grotto. It must have felt very remote and mysterious centuries ago. Perfectly carved Chinese characters — ancient graffiti — adorn some of the rock surfaces around it, and there’s a boulder called Heundeul-Bawi that tourists like to rock, so far without dislodging it. One day some visiting rugby team will knock it off its pedestal and east-west relations will take another tumble.

The trail steepened as we left the river and neared the base of the outcrop. You may remember the name Ulsan from my walk up the coast a couple of months back — the large industrial city down south. Well, according to one of the legends, that’s the origin of Ulsan-Bawi’s name. There was a story connecting the two places, but it was so convoluted (and frankly implausible) I stopped paying attention.

The other theories are that the name refers to a fence — that one I can see — or that it came about when “crying mountain” was expressed in Chinese characters.

The serious climbing (mountaineers, avert your sneering gaze) was about to commence. The view back:

I just noticed the high, distant peak on the far left of the picture above. At the time it was just another mountain — I didn’t realise I would be sleeping on it that very night!

Here’s the fun part. Purists may scoff at these steps (there are 800 or so), but they’re actually fun, and steep and narrow enough to add a few thrills:

This section was closed off:

Six peaks make up Ulsan-Bawi; the whole mass is 4km around. The trail ended, after several intricately placed flights of steps, here at the 873m summit — which came with a souvenir stall! You could even buy an iced coffee! No lattes, though — I was pretty pissed.

Check out those blue skies. It was shaping up to be a great day for walking:

Stallholders assist with summit snaps

Koreans are charmingly patriotic. Flag-waving even on pretty tame little summits is a common sight. I enjoyed it up here — the views of Sokcho, the ocean, and the surrounding greenness were beautiful. There was only space for a dozen or so, though, and I didn’t wait long before retracing my steps downward.

I did encounter a few unhappy acrophobes struggling to keep it together on the descent. It would be pretty hairy on a wet day. You couldn’t go over the sides, but you could spark a pretty impressive human domino chain if you went glissading down those smooth, steel steps.

You’ll remember the Chinese graffiti I mentioned earlier. Here I am again at Gyejo-Am:

Self-Portrait with Impatient Jackass

All too soon I was back in the forest. Crowds had really exploded in the last hour; it pays to start early in Korea.

I zoomed back to the park and zeroed in on a very nice cafe for a delectable latte brewed from freshly roasted beans. For $6 (mountain prices) it had better be good. It was. I sat on a lovely terrace in the sunshine, sipping, tripping, slipping into mountain mode. My on again-off again love affair with Korea was back in the On Zone. What a great start to the day. I was ready for a serious walk. I took out my typically vague and practically useless tourist map.

How about Daecheong-Bong, third-highest peak in the land, several hours into the backwoods, deep in the Valley of a Thousand Buddhas?

Hell, yes…

* * *

Mercury Rev: Little Rhymes. Please enjoy the most beautiful voice and some of the most haunting psych-pop in all of alt-rock:

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. I like that you have people to sneer at your mountain climbing just as I have you to sneer at my little strolls around the neighbourhood! Looks like a nice day!

    • Little strolls around your neighbourhood?! AMATEUR.

      I hope you have some people you can sneer at as well. The walking pecking order can play a big role in letting us feel good about our endeavours!

  2. What a beautiful place! Especially before the crowds arrived. I am intrigued by the stone sculpture up the tree trunk. I am strangely attracted to ephemeral art. Are you familiar with the work of Andy Goldsworthy?

    • I’ve heard of him and seen some pictures. Yesterday I saw a couple of girls on a big boulder on a river bed earnestly daubing faces on the rock with a set of paints. That looked pretty ephemeral. On the long trails I’ve done, people often make little messages with stones and sticks to communicate with hikers behind them. I like that sorta stuff. These stone cairns (for want of a better word) are really common over here, but inside half-hollowed trunks they look especially good.

  3. Wow, action aplenty on those stairs! How long have you been waiting to include the word ‘glissading’ in a post? It’s a beauty! The usual applies regarding your vibrant photos. Beautiful colours (again!)

    • Cheers — the next coupla posts are even more vibrant. I’ve always liked “glissade” since finding it in an Ed Abbey book and checking its meaning. Not much opportunity to use it, true — and it’s a word loaded with ominous import for yours truly as I nearly met my maker via such a seemingly innocuous activity whilst descending Mt Whitney. After that I steadfastly avoided every single opportunity to try it on the PCT — even when there weren’t lethal boulder fields waiting at the bottom of the slide!

    • I think every sane person has it to a degree. I like the George Carlin quote, “I don’t have a fear of heights — I have a fear of falling from heights”!

  4. a strawberry patch says

    Love the photo of the tree in front of the peaks-beautiful! A bit acrophobic mysel, but looks like it would be worth the climb for the views!

    • Definitely worth it. I think several near-freakouts in the Sierra Nevada helped put things in perspective for me. A slide on my backside down a few hundred metal steps would almost be fun in comparison to some of the awful, awful mountain passes in the Sierra, all covered in deep snow and perhaps some ice, and with serious injury or death waiting if you got it too wrong…

  5. Pingback: Seoraksan – not a baaaahd day’s hike | The Parrot on the Power lines

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