South Korea is know for many things, but it’s beautiful scenery is top of the list. With 70% of the land in South Korea being mountainous, it’s as if you have stepped back in time and landed in Jurassic Park with all the green hills soaring around you. Hiking is an inevitable pass time in South Korea, especially in Gyeongju. If you are interested in getting off the beaten track of Gyeongju and would rather look down on the city from one of the many beautiful mountains situated on the outskirts, then hiking Mount Tohamsan is the way to go.
With 2 Unesco World Heritage Sites along the way, this hike is as much historically and culturally significant as it is liberating. The hike itself has many different routes to suit all hikers needs, but which ever route you decide to take it won’t take you very long as you reach the peak at 745 meters. It isn’t the hike that will take your time, but the interesting pit stops you’ll take along the way.
The first of the Unesco sites – Bulguksa Temple greets you at the bottom of the mountain, and is considered a national relic, dating back to 528 during the Silla Dynasty. Gyeongju was the capital at the time of the Silla Dynasty and you can see the evidence of its powerful history almost everywhere today (even on a hike up a mountain!). Bulguksa is home to intricately designed temples, three story pagodas, golden Buddha statues, staircases and stunning gardens that will capture your attention as soon as you set foot inside this spiritual place. You will find many monks praying in the temples, and with a majestic lake at the front of the Temple complex you may find it a nice place to meditate as you realise the importance and peace within this ancient yet angelic spot. As the first site that greets you on your hike, Bulguksa Temple is reason number one why hiking Mount Tohamsan is one for the list.
With the first Unesco World Heritage site seen to, exit the same way and turn left up the mountain. This is the way to the next pit stop on your historic hike up Mount Toham, and with the first mile of the mountain being quite flat to Seokaram, you don’t have to worry about sweat marks or smelly odors as you visit the amazing artificial stone temple made of granite a third of the way up your hike. Seokguram is known to have been built with Bulguksa Temple, taking 24 years to finish. According to history, Samgukyosa of the Goryeo Dynasty, that unified the country at the end of the Silla Dynasty, had Bulguksa built for his parents, and Seokguram built for the parents of his former life.
The temple was made to restore the beautiful statues inside, including the bold Bonjon Statue seated on the stage, smiling at its visitors, as well as Bodhi Sattva and his disciples facing the sides of the temple. The temple is perfectly nestled in the east side of the mountain, and with a stunning view of the sunrise, it’s a peaceful time to hike the mountain to witness its beauty for what it’s worth. Reason number two for hiking Mount Tohamsan!
“as I bounced off the crunching leaves underneath me not another sound was heard”
Once you have Bulguksa and Seokguram ticked off your Unesco bucket list, it’s time to get that blood pumping. Exit Seokguram and head right, further up the mountain. You will find various routes making your trip longer, harder, or a returning route back down to Bulguksa. I picked a route that took me down the other side of the mountain, which was my favourite part of the hike.
With no one around, it was a nice comparative to the previous hour I spent with swarms of busy bees and camera happy hordes of people – which is to be expected with such stunning scenes of Korean history. As I bounced off the crunching leaves underneath me not another sound was heard. With a windy path that was clearly not in business very often, it was an exciting challenge to get to the bottom, but one that I felt at ease with as the nature consumed my thoughts and had me in a majestic hold all the way to the end. The mountain has a spiritual significance that can’t be ignored. Even as I hiked through the trees and slid down it’s dirty paths I felt it’s calming nature and historic relevance captivating my mind. As my body was busy at work, my mind was peaceful – reason number three for hiking Mount Tohamsan.
It was an incredible hike. With more shrines buried in the mountain you’re never stuck for things to see if you decide to take a breather. I always prefer to take a new track, and so I didn’t come down the same way I hiked up, which is a popular route for most to take. I found it to be more of a stroll until I left Seokguram, but that is when you focus on the hike at hand rather than the temples tempting you.
However you want to experience Mount Tohamsan for yourself – walk from Bulguksa to Seokguram and be happy. Skip the temples and dominate the mountain from invigorating paths, or do all of the above. The beauty of the mountain and all is contains leaves something for everyone and won’t disappoint.
Take bus 10 or 11 from Express Bus Terminal in Gyeongju and the bus will inform you when you reach Bulguksa, it’s a popular stop. The journey should take about 30 minutes (bus stop outside the front entrance to the right).
Ticket booth to Bulguksa Temple is across the road from the bus stop, and tickets for both Bulguksa and Seokguram grotto cost 4000won. Admission times are between 7.00-17.30/18.00 (depending on the time of year)
If you have any questions, or you’re in the area and want to go for a hike, drop me a message and I’d be happy to help/accompany you!