Like all great hikes in Korea, the Ulsanbawi Rock Course in Seoraksan National Park includes a Buddha statue, a couple of temples, looming granite mountains, a babbling brook, and more than its fair share of steep staircases. At just under five miles round trip (7.6km), this quintessential Seoraksan hike seemed like a relatively short and not-too-difficult hike.
But then, isn’t that what we think at the beginning of every hike?
We knew that the Ulsanbawi Course was one of the most popular trails at Seoraksan so we made sure to be on the trail around 8:30(ish) in the morning. In the beginning, the trail was as easy as we imagined as we meandered on a paved path by The Great Unification Buddha (Tongil Daebul) and past Sinheungsa Temple. We walked over an arched stone bridge, crossed over gently gurgling streams, said hello to a monk in monk hiking attire, played with a friendly chipmunk, and stared in wonderment at the mountains that surrounded us.
More than half-way into the trail, a clearing in the trees revealed the rock we were about to climb. Actually, I don’t think we quite realized that in less than 2km we would be on top of that mountain, but for the moment, ignorance was bliss.
As we approached Gyejoam Seokgul (Hermitage), we encountered a few stone steps and another couple hiking – our first since the start of the trail. At this point we had been lucky in that, besides the hiking monk and a friendly chipmunk, we had the trail to ourselves. The other couple hiked slower than us, but they took up the entire trail and refused to let us pass them. Instead, they rushed ahead whenever we approached and then, out of breath, took a break on the side until they saw us coming, at which point they returned to the trail and sprinted ahead once more. AUGGGGH! Needless to say, poor trail etiquette is a huge pet peeve of mine (among many others) and having to deal with their constant one-upmanship annoyed the crap out of me. We didn’t care to race them, we just wanted them to pick a frickin’ speed.
We played their stupid game of cat and mouse (we continued walking at our normal pace) until we reached Gyejoam (계조암), a simple, but beautiful, temple built into the rocks.
We made a point to hang back so the annoying hiking couple could speed on ahead. They were in such a hurry that they skipped over one of the most popular sights along the Ulsanbawi Trail: Heundeulbawi (흔들바위), a precariously placed boulder that actually rocks back and forth when pushed.
I waited for the Annoying Hiker Couple to cross the path below the rock and then, taking a page from Wile E. Coyote’s book, gave it my best push… Just kidding, the couple had long since rushed up the trail, but I did manage to rock the boulder ever so slightly. Thousands have tried to knock the rock over, but (so far) none have succeeded.
From the temple, we saw a trail sign indicating that we only had 1km left to hike. Our spirits were buoyed with a sense of surging confidence. Only 1km? Easy! We were practically there!
And then we saw this and knew we were about to pay the piper…
Nearly 900 steps (though I’m not sure if that includes all the steep stone steps or just the staircase steps) over 1km to a height of 876 meters (~2800 feet).
stairmaster from hell
smiling on the outside, crying on the inside
I should preface this section of the trail by mentioning that up until this point, I had maybe six hours of sleep in the course of two days. I oftentimes struggle with insomnia and the night before leaving for Seoraksan I only slept at most 1-2 hrs. The following day we woke up early to beat the crowds on the Ulsanbawi Course. We (stupidly) skipped breakfast and only brought a few measly snacks with us on the trail. In other words, I was running on fumes, and assuming once again that this was going to be a somewhat “short and easy” trail, did not come prepared, mentally or otherwise.
On a good day, I would still consider this part of the trail to be somewhat difficult, but on a bad day, it felt as if I had two concrete blocks strapped to my legs while slogging through waist-high mud. It was slow-going, at times painful, with me struggling with waves of nausea and exhaustion that made me feel as if I were seconds away from fainting.
On the plus side, all the stopping to catch my breath (and to commiserate with other hikers) provided ample opportunity to take photos of the spectacular views.
While we made decent time on the first 2/3 of Ulsanbawi trail, the last kilometer felt like it took an eternity to complete. Every time we thought that we were close to the top, the stairs continued. I say ‘stairs,’ but it was more like climbing a ladder. Multiple ladders tacked on to the side of a mountain. Soon acrophobia set in as a feeling of dizziness began to infiltrate my already disheveled mind. Even with safety rails and textured, grippy treads it was hard not to look down and imagine the worst.
But, as with anything in life, monumental moments are often achieved one (painful) step at a time. By the time we climbed half-way up the stair section, and perhaps because we had allowed ourselves multiple photo breaks, an unexpected burst of energy pushed me through the final grueling stages of the hike.
We had finally reached the top of Ulsanbawi.
Photos of Ulsanbawi have graced the covers of the last two Frommer’s South Korea travel guides.
The top of Ulsanbawi was a lot smaller than I expected, with a majority of the hikers (Annoying Hiking Couple included) hovering under the shade provided by a large rock. We took a brief moment to catch our breaths, take in the view, and appreciate the fruits of our labor. We found a small patch of unoccupied shade and greedily consumed what few pitiful snacks we brought with us. It was our first “meal” of the day and we couldn’t have asked for a better picnic spot.
we made it to the top!
In the foreground: an ostentatious resort hotel. In the background: the East Sea
Our tip to hike the Ulsanbawi trail early proved to be dead on. We started on the trail around 8:30-9a.m., and after tons of stops for photos, breaks, and to complain, we summited Ulsanbawi just over two hours later. I always tend to believe that for the most popular hiking trails in Korea, it’s best to plan on reaching the summit before noon as Koreans love to a) hike in large groups b) picnic with said groups and c) break for lunch at exactly noon.
For about an hour or so we shared the view with very few other hikers. I hiked down to another one of Ulsanbawi’s six granite peaks while Sly took a bunch of photos of me unobstructed by others. We took a million more photos, at every conceivable angle, of Ulsanbawi, the view, and of course, ourselves. At noon, as if on cue, the tiny patch of granite we were standing on filled to capacity with a fresh batch of wary, out of breath, hikers. We could hardly move without bumping into someone with a selfie stick. Sly and I gave each other knowing looks and then began our trek back down the mountain.
Before reaching the end of the trail, we made a slight detour at Sinheungsa, the temple we had skipped on our way up the mountain. I don’t know if it was because the temple was not popular, if it was because we arrived later in the day, or if it was because everyone was eating lunch, but we found ourselves more or less alone inside the temple walls. After escaping the crowds at the top of the mountain, and the hoardes of people hiking up the trail as we hiked down, we more than welcomed the solitude.
This temple is believed to be the oldest Zen temple in the world (so says Wikipedia), and the The Great Unification Buddha (shown above) that marks the path to the temple is one of the largest bronze Buddhas in Korea at 14.6-meter/48-feet tall. Contained within the Buddha are remnants of a sari believed to have belonged to Buddha himself, as well as original Buddhist scriptures known as Tripitaka.
As impressive as the Buddha statue was, we really loved looking at all the Buddhist artwork that covered the buildings’ exteriors. Most were faded by time but that in itself added a certain charm. The relationship between nature and Sinheungsa seemed tenuous at best, as if at any moment the ever-watchful mountains could gobble up the brightly painted man-made structures.
Four Heavenly Kings guard the temple’s entrance
someone put stones on top of this lion-dragon’s head and for some reason we found its expression deliriously funny.
According to the legend Ulsanbawi comes from the city of Ulsan in the south east of Korea. As Kumgangsan (금강산) was built, Ulsanbawi walked to the north as the representative of the city. Unfortunately Ulsanbawi arrived too late and there was no more room. Ulsanbawi was ashamed and slowly trudged back to the south. One evening the rock went to sleep in the Seorak area. Ulsanbawi felt it was so beautiful around there that it decided to stay for good.
Other descriptions of Ulsanbawi claim that it looks like a fence, or that it means “crying mountain” as translated from Chinese. Personally, I kind of think “Ulsanbawi” translates to “stairmaster from hell,” or “laugh first, cry later,” but then, my Korean isn’t very good.
The beauty of Ulsanbawi is that it can symbolize different things to different people; that no two experiences are the same; that one can traverse the same well-worn path a million and one times, and each and every time walk away with a different meaning.
Ulsanbawi Rock Course – Seoraksan National Park | DIFFICULTY: The KNP website lists this as a Grade B Hiking Course – a combination of intermediate and advanced hiking. | DESCRIPTION: 7.6km (~5miles) return, with the first 2.8km being relatively easy, and the last 1km involving a climb of nearly 900 steps. It takes approximately 2hrs, one-way, with at least half that time devoted to the steps alone. If you are severely scared of heights, this may not be the hike for you. What I loved most about this hike was all the sights to see while on the trail: The Great Unification Buddha, Sinheungsa Temple (you can also do a temple stay here!?), Gyejoam Seokgul, Heundeulbawi, and then finally, the top of Ulsanbawi. | GOOD FOR: While the last section of this hike was admittedly difficult, I wouldn’t necessarily let that fact alone discourage anyone from hiking it. We saw people of all ages make it to the top, kids and elderly included. I’m also pretty sure I saw several ladies hiking in heels, which, is pretty par for the course in Korea. | FACILITIES: there several bathrooms on the lower part of the trail, as well as a few restaurants scattered throughout. If you time your hike just right you may also encounter someone at the top of Ulsanbawi selling snacks and cold drinks, for an inflated price, of course. None of these options were available during our hike so make sure to pack snacks and plenty of water just in case. There are also plenty of places to eat near the park entrance. | TIP: It goes without saying: start early – 8-8:30 am or so. The space at the top of the rock is quite small, and you have to share that space with a bunch of other people, it can really detract from the overall experience. | VERDICT: As one of the most popular trails in Korea’s most popular parks, Ulsanbawi had a lot to live up to — and that it did. Painful at times, but worth it at the end. Probably on our top ten list of activities to do in Korea. Highly recommended.