Posted by: Matt Kelley | 30 October 2008

Fall Color at Bukhan Mountain

Phenomenal views from the top of Bukhansan Mountain.

Bukhansan Mountain (also known as Samgak Mountain) has formed much of Seoul’s northern border since the Joseon Dynasty. The name means “mountain north of the Han river”… which is exactly where it is! Today, one of Korea’s oldest national parks covers nearly 80 square kilometers and features 1,300 different types of plant and animal life. Something I noticed shortly after moving to Korea was that Koreans love hiking, and the 5 million of them who visit Bukhansan annually make the park the world’s busiest, in terms of the number of visitors and park size.

The Bukhansan Mountain Fortress was first built in 132, and greatly expanded in 1711.

During much of ancient Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE-668 AD), the Bukhansan area was hotly contested. An earthen fortress was built here in 132 during the reign of King Gaeru (개루왕) of the Baekje Kingdom. He sought to stop the southward expansion of Baekje’s northern rival, Gogurye. Subsequent battles against the Mongols in 1232, the Japanese invasions of 1592-98, and another incursion by the Manchus in 1636, compelled the Joseon King Sukjong (숙종왕) to expand fortifications in 1711. As a result, a stone fortification was built on top of the original fortress’ ruins. At the time, the wall featured 14 gates, three command posts, 12 temples, 99 wells, 26 reservoirs and a temporary palace. Today, the 12.7-kilometer wall encircles more than 1,600 acres. Four gates and the east command post remain.

Bukhansan Mountain features granite peaks with a great view of Seoul’s northern neighborhoods.

Bukhan Mountain’s most popular photo-op is its dramatic granite peaks. The most famous is Baekundae (백운대), which tops off at 836.5 meters. Because I visited on a weekday, I avoided the lines of impeccably-dressed hikers who flood the park during weekends. For the most part I was alone on my hike, and in the quiet I could hear the faint chanting of Buddhist monks whose temples dot the mountainside. On the final half-kilometer to the top, the smooth and steep granite surface necessitates hoisting onesself up via metal cables. After 2 hours of hiking and nursing a cramp-happy calf muscle, using my arms was a welcome change.

I was lucky to visit Bukhansan Mountain to see the last few days of autumn color.

After summiting, I spent a while enjoying the spectacular view. Seoul’s northern areas were in clear sight. With minimal smog, you can see the Han River winding through the city and you can even spy Namsan and N Seoul Tower in the distance. It’s no wonder why that ubiquitous spire is a city symbol. While enjoying the view I also saw a halmohni (grandma) about 20 meters below me. She had chosen a rocky perch to bow, pray and make offerings of food. I’ve heard that part of Korean shamanism includes communicating with mountain spirits. I’m not sure if that’s what she was doing, but when she finished a good 40 minutes later, this woman in her late 70s or 80s, made her way gingerly down the granite mountain’s face with a cane. It made me nervous!

Bukhansan Mountain’s trails feature great stone staircases and well-signed paths.

On the way down the leaves didn’t disappoint. Instead of taking the same route back, I talked with a couple of ajussi (middle-aged men) who recommended descending via a couple of beautiful valleys where orange, red and yellow leaves formed bright canopies over the stone steps and modest streams. As is typical with me, somehow I made one or two wrong turns and happened upon a large Buddhist temple at the foot of the mountain.

Colorful lanterns decorated Doseonsa Temple.

The Doseon Buddhist Temple (도선사) belongs to the Korean Joggye Buddhist Order. Built during the second year of Silla‘s King Gyeongmun (경문왕), faithful come here to pray for the nation’s defense. The temple is well-known for a 30-foot tall image of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva that is carved on a cliff. It is said that Dosunguksa (827-898), the national monk of his time, split a huge rock in half with a tap of his cane and created the image through his supernatural powers.

Getting There:
→ From Seoul, take subway line 3 to Gupabal Station (exit #1), then take city bus #704 to Bukhansanseong (Bukhansan Mountain Fortress). The entrance fee is 1,600 won, but free if you arrive before the ranger station opens.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on June 7, 2008.)



  1. Thanks for the report and photos. Fall is my favorite time for hiking as well. It looks like the fall foliage in the Seoul area is very similar to that of the Eastern US. Do you see the same kind of trees?

    Also, were the Bukhan fortresses used as part of the signal tower system? I remember seeing the signal fire towers on Namsan in Seoul. It sounds like Bukhan has a clear line of sight to Namsan. I’ve wondered how extensive that signal system was in it’s heyday.

    Thanks again for bringing Korea to all of us through your words and photos!

  2. Hey again, Jeff!

    I went to college briefly in Connecticut, and I think nobody in the world is more proud of their leaves than New Englanders! The most common fall color in Seoul proper is the Gingko tree, whose leaves are a magnificent yellow right now. I’ll be posting about them shortly!

    RE: the smoke signals, it’s my understanding that they started near the present North Korean border with China and ended at the one you saw, at Namsan. There’s a small mountain behind my home in the Edae neighborhood that was also part of the chain. Pretty cool stuff.

    By the way, I enjoyed taking a look at your K9 Trailblazers web site :)

    As always, it’s great to hear from you, Jeff. I hope you and your growing family will be back again soon.


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