A mountain with friends in high places

By Korea Herald

For Gumi residents, the favored mountain for spring hiking is the historically rich Mount Geumosan

  • Published : Mar 21, 2014 - 19:41
  • Updated : Mar 21, 2014 - 19:43
The granite peak of Mount Geumosan rises prominently above a reservoir of the same name west of the city of Gumi. It’s rather on the fringes of the Taebaek Mountain Range, just as Gumi is decidedly off the radar of tourists.

For many KTX passengers, Gumi is nothing more than a short stop on the way to Daegu or Busan. In fact, it’s the second-largest city in North Gyeongsang Province, behind Pohang, and helps power South Korea’s export economy through its production of cellphones, TV screens and semiconductors.

While Geumosan means “Sun Mountain,” the characters for Gumi signify “Tortoise Tail.” Gumi was the hometown of former President Park Chung-hee, and thus of his daughter, current President Park Geun-hye. The home where the senior Park was born, at the bottom of the eastern slopes of the mountain, now serves as a museum.

While it is probably no coincidence that Mount Geumosan was appointed the nation’s first provincial park in 1970, when Park was in power, the mountain deserves the status on its own merits, regardless of its personal and political ties. More like a rich historical tour than a hike, the provincial park is like a best-of compilation of the Korean mountain experience.
The temple of Yaksa is perched just below the peak of Mount Geumosan, North Gyeongsang Province. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)

Mount Geumosan can be reached on foot from Gumi’s slow-train station. The walk progresses from a swank cafe district to a farmers’ market of tent-stalls and then to the reservoir, moss-green with reflections from the surrounding slopes and with an armada of swan boats. Here the peak makes its appearance, impressive in aspect but somewhat grotesque, with wart-like protuberances and goiter-like bumps.

The walk turns into a hike at the cable car station. For 4,500 won ($4.20) one way, or 7,000 won round-trip, one can be spirited up to Dahye Waterfall. But it’s still 2.3 km to the summit, and taking the lift means passing over cursive rock calligraphy from the Joseon Era and the first section of the double fortress, which includes a restored gate.

Between the cable car station and the waterfall, though, is the Buddhist temple of Haeunsa. Like the dignified Hotel Geumosan far below, it was built at the base of a cliff facing a stream, a position with good “ki,” or landscape energy, according to Korean feng shui.

A short side trip along a cliff-hugging, vertigo-inducing ledge brings one directly above Haeunsa Temple, to a cave named after the ninth-century Zen priest Doseon, who is said to have reached enlightenment there.

At the time of research, a mouse scampered down from food offerings set before a Buddha statue in a candlelit alcove. Beyond the anchorite’s cave, a waterfall drizzled past a scooped-out hollow in the cliff.

Down below, Dahye Waterfall flowed more forcefully ― like a shower nozzle turned on full blast. An information sign commemorates how in the fall of 1977 President Park arrived at the scenic spot to find “broken pieces of bottles and trash littered around,” bent down to pick up the junk and declared, “Alright, let’s get started with the cleaning!” thus ushering in a nationwide movement.

After the waterfall, the path becomes much steeper. A set of power lines sweeping all the way to the top is a bit of an eyesore, but one can hardly pine for unspoiled nature at a mountain that was used as a fortress since the Silla Era, and perhaps earlier. Some naturalization efforts have been taken, though, with the park administration having closed off several paths until May of next year, ostensibly because of forest fire danger.

Just under the bouldery summit, Hanging Moon Peak, is perched Yaksa Temple, with a sign for its street address: 433-3 Geumosan-ro. There had been a spring snow the night before, and a monk was bent double using a hatchet to clear ice from the steps to the living quarters. At the base of a cliff, a couple sat eating a picnic lunch, admiring the bell pavilion at the end of a “cloud bridge.”

Higher still are a set of KBS broadcasting towers and an U.S. Army installation, marked “High radiation area ― Keep out,” showing that the strategic value of Mount Geumosan is still recognized into the 21st century.

To see more remnants of the fortress wall, proceed from the summit in the direction of Beopseongsa Temple, but exercise extreme caution on the way down. If wet, the rocky section ― equipped with an exhausting succession of ropes ― could be slippery.

● Getting there

The KTX train to Gimcheon-Gumi Station takes about 1 hour and 25 minutes from Seoul and 1 hour and 10 minutes from Busan, with over 20 trips a day from Friday to Sunday. Mugunghwa and Saemaeul trains are cheaper, more leisurely alternatives and arrive at Gumi Station, which is within walking distance of the provincial park. Express buses from Seoul leave from the East Seoul and the Gangnam Express terminals.

By Matthew C. Crawford (