There’s no question about it when it comes to exploring some of Korea’s natural beauty that many of its majestic, rugged peaks up and down the peninsula offer some of the more breathtaking and exhilarating outings for serious mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

No matter where one travels in Korea to seek a mountain adventure—whether it’s for a day or longer—there are plenty of peaks to scale and foothills to explore and enjoy. While some of the more popular mountain getaways like Mt. Sorak, Mt. Chiri and Mt. Halla on Cheju Island beckon outdoor enthusiasts with their rugged beauty and stunning vistas year-round, other summits like Mt. Pukhan in northern Seoul or the Mt. Namhan Fortress south of the city are equally magnificent and alluring.

Not to be overshadowed by some of these more famous natural wonders across the nation, Mt. Kumchong in Pusan is just as impressive and worthy of a day or two of hiking and exploring. Famous for some of its more beautiful nature scenes in the Pusan area, the mountain also holds valuable cultural assets including Kumchong Fortress and Pomo-sa Temple.

Sitting high on the ridges of Mt. Kumchong (790 meters/2,590 feet) and Mt. Sanghak (638 meters/2,093 feet) in northwest Pusan, construction on the fortress began in 1703 and was completed in 1807. With a height of 1.5-6 meters and an original length of 17 kilometers, the fortress was once the largest fortress in Korea. While only four kilometers of its wall remains today, the wall, which was rebuilt in 1970 and its two gates to the east and west are listed as Historic Site No. 215.

While there are numerous trails leading to entrances to the fortress and the summit, those looking for a more rugged and invigorating climb to the top of the summit might want to try the hiking course which starts from the left of Pomo-sa Temple and runs up to Pukmun (North Gate). This course, which can take a little over an hour to reach gate, is strewn with boulders and rocks of various sizes for a bit of strenuous rock climbing, but the course also has a few sections of steps for hikers to catch their breath (not to mention rest their weary legs) before proceeding to the summit.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a more leisurely hike along the ridges, the East Gate, which is accessible by bus No. 77 from Onchonjang Subway Station, is the quickest way to reach the summit. From there, it’s only a four-kilometer hike to the North Gate which takes you along one of the more scenic views found in the Pusan area. Weather permitting; the views from the top of the fortress and along the ridges are breathtaking no matter what the season. It’s even possible to enjoy some of autumn’s colorful tapestry—but you’d better hurry.

Much of the course between the East Gate and the North Gate is easily traversed along this well-laid out course with only a few arduous climbs over some of the more difficult terrain. One of the more noticeable features of the fortress are the rock formations called “tors,’’ which jut up from the slopes. These tors which are a jumbled mass of fracture-bounded granite blocks abruptly exposed along the ridges of the summit are what give the mountain its fortress or castle-like features. Formed during the interglacial and glacial eras, there are 50 prominent tors along the ridges and summit of Mt. Kumchong. Of these, Kodambang is one of the more famous granite tors at the top of the summit and the subject of countless photographs.

Although the fortress might not have some of the more rugged hiking courses found in other provincial parks or mountains, it still offers visitors a chance to experience a bit of Korea’s unique “mountain culture.” There’s just something special and refreshing about getting out and experiencing some of Korea’s rugged and natural beauty, not to mention the shared experience with other outdoor enthusiasts.

Away from the hustle and bustle of Korea’s urban sprawl, this mountain culture manifests itself in many forms: from the friendly greetings and offers of food from other hikers to numerous vendors providing refreshments and bowls of instant ramyon for a quick snack along the way.

Those with a lot of time on their hands will find the area adjacent to the North Gate a great place for a picnic lunch and time to relax before heading down to Pomo-sa Temple or the East Gate. However, for a truly memorable experience, nothing beats taking a break by stretching out on some of the craggy rock formations at the top of the summit for an awe inspiring panoramic view of the fortress and Pusan in the distance before heading back down the mountain.

Depending how much time one has to hike in the fortress, it’s also possible to combine a day at Mt. Kumchong with a visit to other attractions and cultural sites in the area including Pomo-sa Temple. Built in 678 during the Silla Kingdom, the temple, which is situated, halfway up Mt. Kumchong is one of the nation’s five great temples and designated Historic Site No. 176. Inside the temple, there are a number of cultural assets, including a three storied stone pagoda designated as National Treasure No.250, Taeungjon Hall designated as National Treasure No. 434, as well as Iljumun Gate (front gate), and Tanganjiju (two pillars supporting a pole with a large Buddhist painting).

How to Get There

To reach the temple walk out of the subway station exit No. 5 and take to the first road on your right to a small bus terminal just one block west and catch bus No. 90. Buses run approximately every 10 minutes.

For those with more time to spend in the area, Kumgang Park located at the southern edge of the fortress features a Buddhist temple, an aquarium, a zoo, a folk art exhibition hall, botanical gardens, pavilions, restaurants and a children’s playground. There is even a cable car, which runs to the mountaintop from the park below this walled mountain fortress to the South Gate. From here one can continue along the fortress wall to the East Gate and the North Gate.

Also nearby is Tongnae Hot Springs, located 14km northeast of Pusan Station. First developed in 1691, during the reign of Choson Dynasty’s 19th King Sukjong, the spa’s long history has made it one of the most convenient areas for visitors to Pusan with comfortable accommodations and accessible cultural attractions in the area. It’s a great way to finish up your outing at Mt. Kumchong with a nice relaxing dip in the spa to soothe all those aching muscles.

This first appeared in the Korea Times in October 2003