Hiking Mt Namsan, the museum without walls – Gyeongju, South Korea

Every so often in our travels we come across a tiny quirk, a twist in the tail, or unexpected opportunity. The hiking trails of Gyeongju’s Mt Namsan was one such experience.

Ask anyone what a typical hike will consist of and I’m sure you’ll get some very similar responses…walking, trees, mountains, occasional wildlife…

While it never seems to get boring for us, I can empathise with those who see it as a rather tedious past time! Now the funny thing is that I suspect many of these very same people would actually prefer to spend a day wandering the art galleries of Paris, or perhaps the ruins of the Roman Empire.

What if I was to tell you that you could actually achieve both?!

That’s right, a breath-taking hike in the Korean wilderness, while simultaneously exploring dozens of ancient Buddhist relics and holy sites up to 1000 years old?!

We’d never come across anything like it before, but the network of hiking trails that criss-cross the Gyeongju National Park provide such an experience for locals and tourists alike.

We were staying in the fantastically gaudy, yet perfectly situated Sugar Hotel, so we started out by taking the #500 bus from town, listening intently for the English announcement telling us that our next stop was for the Samneung Tombs. We don’t normally get a greeting party, but in this case it consisted of a single old Korean bloke helpfully waving at us in an effort, we think, to tell us that the start of the hike was just across the road.

It looked suspiciously like a dodgy trail to nowhere…so we declined his assistance and walked back up the road to realise almost immediately that the tourist information booth, and absolutely massive entry point to the hiking trail (how we didn’t see that while seated on the bus I have no idea!!), were only 30 metres away.

Start of the Mt Namsan hike

Start of the Mt Namsan hike

Literally less than 50m into the hike (just past that hut in the photo above) and we both nearly shat ourselves when a small green snake slithered across the path, only a footstep away!! A bit of research tells us that this was actually a Rhabdophis tigrinus, or ‘tiger keelback’ snake, and it’s quite unusual in that it eats poisonous toads, storing the poison in its neck which it can puff up to act as a deterrent to other predators. Believe me, academic explanations were of no interest to us both as we scuttled past at some speed!!

Rhabdophis tigrinus, or tiger keelback snake

Rhabdophis tigrinus, or tiger keelback snake

As mentioned already, the trails in this park are many and varied, so we took a small detour to the left to make the short walk up to the Mangwolsa Temple.

Loved the artwork on the doors to this temple. Really striking.

Mangwolsa Temple, Mt Namsan

Mangwolsa Temple, Mt Namsan

Mangwolsa Temple, Mt Namsan

Mangwolsa Temple, Mt Namsan

Walking back to the main trail, we passed the Samneung Royal Tombs, before commencing a pretty epic hike up the mountain range.

Samneung Royal Tombs

Samneung Royal Tombs

Mt Namsan hiking map

Mt Namsan hiking map

The next one and half hours or so were pretty brutal for myself. I’m not sure if it was dehydration, the humidity, fatigue or a just a massive princess complex, but I really struggled up that mountainside!

What really helped though was the fact that every 10 to 15 minutes you would stumble across either a statue of Buddha, a pagoda or a stunning relief carved into the hard stone of Mt Namsan.

I won’t give a blow by blow account, but here are the best of those we encountered on the ascent…

My head, my head, I can't feel my head!!

My head, my head, I can’t feel my head!!

Buddha with red pouty lips (allegedly)!

Buddha with red pouty lips (allegedly)!

Three Buddhas carved into stone

Three Buddhas carved into stone

Buddha on a floating lotus

Buddha on a floating lotus

Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha

It sometime pays off when you go exploring off-trail. Found these hidden behind a rock!

It sometime pays off when you go exploring off-trail. Found these hidden behind a rock!

Looking back the way we came, and north towards Gyeongju

Looking back the way we came, and north towards Gyeongju

It was with great relief that we reached the faux-summit of Mt Geumobong, taking a little time out to eat some kimbap (Korean sushi) that we’d brought with us, and drink a bottle of our new favourite alcoholic beverage, makgeolli!

A little bit of time for some general horse play as well. I’m not sure how Karen got her hands on the camera…

Sushi teeth!

Sushi teeth!

Concerned whistling

Concerned whistling

Only 15 minutes later we reached the summit of Mt Geumobong. No views, very boring.

At the top

At the top

At this point we commenced our descent, deciding to take the trail down the Yongjanggol Valley.

Gnarled pine

Gnarled pine

This section of the walk got really steep at times. Ropes were provided in a couple of sections, but we managed to descend just fine without them. I can imagine they would be essential in the wet though.

More Buddha carvings

More Buddha carvings

Three tiered pagoda

Three tiered pagoda + Buddha – head

Just before commencing the last descent of the trail, we came across this fantastic lookout. A perfect place to stop for a breather and take in the gorgeous scenery across the valley!

Bliss!

Namsan dreaming…

Two Clowns

Two Clowns

While there were a few steep sections, the remainder of the hike generally consisted of a gradual descent along the peaceful banks of the river, passing the odd small grave site.

Before long we were back to civilisation and catching one of the buses on the main road back to Gyeongju.

It was a fascinating hike, with the historical and sculptural aspects setting it apart from anything we had ever attempted previously. Well worth the effort and one of our fondest memories of our time in Korea!

Where is it?

About 5km south of Gyeongju. Maps of the trails can be obtained at the tourist information centre at the Samneung Tombs bus stop.

This map from the Korean tourism board is fantastic! BUT!! Pay attention to the compass…this map is not oriented north-south! Gyeongju is actually located off page to the bottom-left, not at the top as you may assume.

Namsan hiking Gyeongju

Click the map to view it in a larger size.

How to get there?

You could take a taxi, but I’d recommend taking the local bus since it’s so close to town and the buses are so cheap and frequent.

From the local bus terminal in town, take either the 500, 505, 506, 507 or 508 bus and get off at the Samneung Royal Tombs (there will be an English announcement for this stop).

When returning, simply wait at one of the bus stops on the other side of the road and catch the next bus coming through as I believe they all take you back to Gyeongju.

As always, confirm these details at the Tourist Information Centre in town just to be sure!

How much does it cost?

It’s free!!

How long does it take?

It took us around 4.5hrs to complete the loop, but as mentioned, there are numerous trails you can follow. Many people simply reach the summit and then return back along the same track, whereas others do the Jeolgol Valley loop. It’s up to you!

Photography tips?

  • We visited in late June and found the conditions to be very hazy. While this was interesting in itself, I suspect that autumn would bring much better light, and the foliage would look sensational as a backdrop to the numerous statues, carvings and pagodas!
  • Late in the day will bring good light as the sun approaches the horizon. Just make sure you can get back to the main road before it’s dark, or take a head lamp with you.

Where to stay?

We had the penthouse suite (complete with private moon-roof!) at the Sugar Hotel; the strangest, cheapest, most incredible place we think we’ve ever stayed!! For more info on this awesome accommodation have a read of our review here. To have a closer look, drop by Booking.com.

More information?

Drop by the Visit Korea website, here.

23 Comments

  1. Namsan was one of the most moving experiences of my 6 years in Korea. Sinseonam in particular. I went up to Chilbulam, where a Buddhist nun told me about a “special sculpture” up the mountain. Up I went, followed the signs, and scurried round the narrow path along the rock face. Went to the end of the short trail and wondered “just what is supposed to be here? Turned around and there it was. I had been so nervous and fixated on the path that I had walked right past it. Stunning. 1200 years old, right where the artist left it. More precious still in that you have to climb a mountain to see it.

    I hiked along Namsan on three different occasions, and never once saw a snake! Didn’t even think about them. One memorable hike took me from Chilbulam across to Samneunggol. A clear morning when I started and then raining when I finished some 8-9 hours later.

    1. Wow, don’t you love it when you get surprised like that? We’d love to get back there and explore some of the other trails around the mountain.

  2. Great description and photos of the hike – THANK YOU 🙂 I was reading about your encounter with the snake and thought: wow, how likely is it to come across a snake on such a hike (something I’m not too eager to experience). This morning we hiked around Namsan and guess what – on our descent into the Yongjanggol Valley the same kind of snake rushed through the bushes next to the path 😉 glad it was far enough away from us!

    1. EEEK!!! I can remember how we felt, and I don’t envy you! You survived though 😀

      Do you get many snakes in your home country?

      We get quite a few back in Australia, but I still get the heebie-jeebies when I see one. In snake-prone areas I’ve also taken to wearing gaiters, as they give me that extra bit of peace of mind.

      Thanks so much for the feedback as well. It’s a real buzz knowing others are getting value out of the information we post up 🙂

      Are you spending long in South Korea?

      1. Yes, survived it 🙂 think the snake was more scared of us than the other way round. We stood for a moment and watched it. It then disappeared under some leaves.

        We hardly get snakes in Germany (and they’re not poisonous).

        We’re spending 2 weeks in SK. After a week in Seoul we headed off to Sokcho. Only just read your blog on Ulsanbawi – love the header “stairmaster from hell”, totally describes it 😉 We climbed it early in the morning and had a superb view with sun shining, before the ambitious hiking groups arrived.

        Heading for Busan tomorrow, for another 2 days. Then back to Seoul and home

        Great blog you have – it’s a pleasure reading it! Good combination of info and great humor 🙂

  3. Glad to find your site!

    Gyeongju and Namsan remain the most memorable of my experiences in Korea. One of your pictures is identical to one of mine, yours captioned “Looking back the way we came…”

    I went up Namsan three times, the last was an all-day trek from Chilbulam to Samneunggol. Day began clear, was raining when I got to the other side.

    My favorite places: Sinseonam, and the line-carvings midway through Samneunggol.

    Carl

    1. Thanks for dropping by Carl, we’re glad you found us!

      It’s a pretty special place isn’t it? Definitely one of our fondest memories of Korea. There’s so much to see in such a small space if you don’t mind a bit of exercise. I can understand how you would go back three times.

      That all day trek sounds great! Something to look out for if we ever return.

      Andrew.

  4. Great pictures! This was one of the first hikes I did in Korea, I loved the blend of the outdoors and Korea’s history 🙂 Reading your post really took me back, thanks!

  5. Gyeongju is probably my very favorite city in Korea. It’s so beautiful and full of so much history. We don’t do a lot of hiking, but I think we will try this trail out in the fall if we can because we are both suckers for the fall colors and Gyeongju isn’t too far from where we live.

    1. We loved Gyeongju. So easy to get around, lot’s of wide open spaces and heaps of stuff to see and do. There were plenty of other hikes in the area that unfortunately we didn’t have time to do. Next time!

    1. Thanks, I know what you mean! We were in Japan a couple of years ago in fall and the colours in the leaves were just ridiculous! Coming from Australia where we don’t have a lot of trees like that it was just magic.

  6. More and more I see these amazing places in and around Gyeongju. I’m starting to kick myself after moving somewhere so far from it here. Namsan looks awesome and like you said, it’s a museum. So much history to be found there.

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