Korea isn’t a big country. It’s about the size of the state of Minnesota for all of you Yankees out there. For everybody else that means it’s pretty small.
Hey, but great things often come in small packages and one benefit of living in such a geographically compact place is that you can take a day or weekend trip to just about anywhere in the country.
If you’re craving an outdoor adventure in a single day or weekend, Chiaksan in Gangwon-do is a perfect choice. Read on for details!
Chiaksan: A Mountain of Myth and Beauty
When you talk mountain ranges in Korea the big boys are Jirisan and Seorraksan. These are beautiful places to visit and absolutely worth your time, but they’re often crawling with hikers.
Chiaksan isn’t as spectacular as it’s better known brethren, but it still makes for a worthwhile destination and — major bonus! — it’s not nearly as crowded.
Chiaksan is located in Gangwon-do about 30km from the city of Wonju. It was designated a national park in 1984.
Originally it was known as “Jeogaksan” but the name was changed to Chiaksan to reflect a local legend.
Apparently, many years ago a man was hiking in Jeogaksan when he came upon a snake strangling a pheasant. The man felt sorry for the poor pheasant and killed the snake with an arrow. (Or maybe he was just hunting for dinner and missed his target?)
At any rate, later that evening the man was searching for a place to rest and was invited by a woman to stay with her in her home. As the man was sleeping this woman transformed into a snake and revealed herself as the partner of the unlucky reptile the man had killed earlier that day.
This snake-woman coiled herself around the man and swore to crush him to death if the bell at Sangwonsa (a temple on Chiaksan) didn’t ring three times before morning. The man cried out in despair and the pheasant he had saved happened to hear him. It flew to Sangwonsa and struck its head against the bell three times, freeing the man but killing itself in the process.
After that “Jeogaksan” became Chiaksan — which means “Pheasant Peak Mountain” — to honor the pheasant’s sacrifice.
There are numerous artistic representations of this myth littered throughout Chiaksan, including a beautiful engraving on the bell at Sangwonsa.
If you visit Chiaksan this story should help you make sense of the apparent pheasant fetish.
Guryeongsa Temple at Chiaksan
Like all but the most remote and forsaken trailheads in Korea, the base of Chiaksan is populated with an array of stores and vendors selling everything from reliquary beads and Buddhist knick knacks to kimchi pancakes (김치전) and rice wine (막걸리). We packed a lunch and as such didn’t stop for a bite, but the kimchi pancakes sizzling on griddles smelled fantastic.
Once you get through the distractions and delicious smells of this mountain bazaar you’ll arrive at the entrance to Chiaksan. The entry fee to Chiaksan is 2,500 won per person, cash only.
A short walk from the entrance is Guryeongsa Temple.
Guryeongsa Temple is a medium-sized temple complex that dates from the Silla Dynasty. The name literally means “Nine Dragons Temple” and the story goes that Uisang, the monk who originally built the temple in 668 CE, first consulted with nine water dragons about where he should build.
The nine dragons humbly suggested that Uisang build his temple over the pond in which they lived, and thus Guryeongsa Temple was born. Alas, no dragons were spotted on our visit but I think it’s still worth spending a few minutes here before or after your hike.
The temple complex is built on the side of a steep hill. You enter through a pavillion, the towering figures of the “Four Heavenly Guardians” (사청 왕운) looking on, and then ascend a steep flight of stairs into Guryeongsa Temple.
When we visited the air was faint with incense and the rhythmic chanting of monks at their prayers could be heard. It all made for a pleasant and relaxing environment.
I love visiting temples in Korea, and while Guryeongsa Temple isn’t as interesting as some of the places I’ve been, it isn’t without its charm.
Hiking the Trails of Chiaksan
From Guryeongsa Temple it’s about a 5km hike to Birobong, the peak of Chiaksan. For roughly half of that hike the trail is gentle and meandering — more of a walk than a hike, really. You can follow trails through forests of towering pine, down into valleys where the trail runs parallel to a boisterous mountain stream, or do what we did and criss-cross between the two.
Chiaksan is reknowned for being home to a considerable number of plant and animal species, and as the mountain is a relatively low-traffic destination your chances of seeing a critter or two are pretty good.
On our hike Jinah noticed a toad on our path and it was quite a treat. There’s still enough of the adolescent boy about me that I had the little fellow in hand in a matter of seconds.
The local name for the toad is “Ladybug Frog” but they’re known to the English speaking world as the “Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad”. Turns out these toads make for poisonous snacks and they like to advertise that fact to potential predators by rising up on their front legs and arching their backs to reveal their sexy, bright red tummies. If the toad is feeling especially threatened (or dexterous) he’ll do a complete front flip!
My amphibious friend wasn’t crazy about the attention he was receiving but he wasn’t performing any gymnastics either, and after posing for a couple of photos he hopped along on his merry way.
About 2km from the base of Chiaksan is Seryeong waterfall (세령 폭포).
On our visit in late-May it was more of a watertrickle than waterfall. Not particularly impressive but that didn’t stop a crew of shutterbug Koreans from setting up their tripods and going photo wild. As with any hobby, Korean folks don’t mess around with photography — it’s go pro, or go home.
From Seryeong waterfall the hike gets steep. I’m talking a Jekyll and Hyde contrast from the earlier part of the hike, so make sure you’ve got your hiking boots laced up tight before trekking to the peak of Chiaksan.
Jinah and I weren’t quite up for the challenge, so we relaxed around Seryeong waterfall and paid a visit to a lovely botanical garden located between the waterfall and Guryeongsa Temple. There were myriad flowers in bloom and we even happened across another Oriental Fire-Bellied toad.
Rested and refreshed from a day on Chiaksan we piled back onto the bus and headed towards Wonju.
Next time you need an escape from Seoul, or if you’re just looking for your next outdoor adventure, make tracks for Chiaksan. It’s a gem of a mountain and one of Korea’s better kept secrets.
Unless you have access to your own wheels, Wonju is going to be your base of operation for a trip to Chiaksan.
Take a bus to Wonju. Exit out the front of Wonju Bus Terminal and grab local bus number 2-1, 31, 33, or 35. Any one of these busses will take you to a stop called “sanghanjuyooso” (상한주유소).
From here you’ll transfer to either the 41 or 41-1. It takes about 10 mintues to get from Wonju Bus Terminal to the transfer, and another 30-35 minutes to get from the transfer to Chiaksan.
Chiaksan is the final stop for both the 41 and 41-1. Fare is 1,200 won per trip, but your T-Money card (a public transit card available at most convenience stores and at most bus and train stations) will work as well.
Thinking of making the trip Chiaksan or know someone who is planning to visit? Would you consider passing this post around by clicking one of the icons below? It would mean a lot. Thanks! And if you’d like to see lots more photos from our hike on Chiaksan you can do so at our Facebook page.