Located just outside of Daejeon, Gyeryongsan National Park is a wonderful escape from the bustling city life. The national park is characterized by beautiful temples and scenic views as you climb to one of several peaks located within the park. The name of the mountain literally means “chicken dragon” mountain because the mountain ridge resembles a dragon wearing a chicken crest on its head, according to someone who lived a long time ago. While the ancient Koreans might have seen something that we didn’t, the views are still breathtaking from the summit of Gwaneumbong Peak.
Getting to Gyeryongsan National Park is fairly easy. We opted for a train down to Daejeon, as there are many options from various stations throughout Korea. We also found that the “slow trains” are actually only slightly slower than the KTX for nearly half the price. We arrived in Daejeon the night before and found a motel near the station just for the night. Be warned, though, the area near the train station is a bit… seedy. There might have been some illegal activities going on involving ladies of the night. The next morning, we took bus number 107 to the park. Walking straight away from the train station exit, walk underground and cross the street. The stop is is just down the street, in front of a dentist office. Bus 107 will take you to Dong Hak Sa, which is the last stop. Once there, you will find many different shops to buy souvenirs, strange mountain roots, and food (or Makkoli) for your trip up the mountain. There is a modest entrance fee of 2,000 won to enter the park.
The first portion of the trail is a very gradual incline along a paved road. This road leads to several temples, the biggest of which being Dong Hak Sa. Dong Hak Sa differs from other Korean Buddhist temples in that it is an all women’s temple. The shaved-head lady-monks were buzzing all around the temple, talking to visitors and hitching rides from cars going up the road. It was nice to see an active, working temple. Everyone had smiles on their faces, creating a humble, welcoming atmosphere among the beautiful colors and architecture of the temple.
Near the temple, there are several options for trails. Naturally, we chose the highest peak we could, Gwaneumbong (816 m). After the temple, the trail becomes, well, rocky. I don’t know how they did it, but the entire trail is rocks and boulders situated in a path, switch-backing all the way up the mountain. Almost the entire trail is wooded, and the trees make the scenery burst with all different shades of green. Along the way, there are several observation decks, and even a waterfall! Don’t get your hopes up, though, it was more like a water trickle. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we encountered was quite possibly the largest, meanest looking spider in the history of the world (at least according to Casey). The incline was quite steep, but at least it was steady, and the rocks provided makeshift stairs. Also, unlike some of the other hikes we have done, there were never any parts where we thought we could possibly die by tumbling over a cliff.
When we reached the summit, we were greeted by groups of smiling fellow hikers. One of the greatest things about hiking in Korea is the sense of brotherhood among hikers and the party at the top of the mountain. There was a lovely pagoda and observation deck, with plenty of space to have a picnic. We chose a place overlooking the valley to enjoy some kimbap and (well deserved) makkoli. From the top, there is the option to continue to the next peak and return to the temple in a loop. While we were tempted to go further, we decided to head back the way we came in order to save our legs.
Gyeryongsan was our seventh national park, meaning we have now seen a third of what Korea has to offer in that category. While not high on the must sees for tourists to the Land of the Morning Calm – unlike Seoraksan or Hallasan – Gyeryongsan was subtly impressive. The views were beautiful, the temple was fairly unique in that it was actually functioning, and the hikers were friendly and, most importantly, not overwhelming in their numbers. Though seemingly overlooked as a weekend hiking destination, Gyeryongsan ranks high on our national park list for its beauty and accessibility. It may not be Seoraksan, but then again, you don’t need a three hour bus to nowhere in order to get there. Just stay away from the spiders.