The great rocky peaks of Palgong-san circle around the northern reaches of Daegu, creating a dramatic backdrop to the city, as well as a natural border with the neighbouring counties of Northern Gyeongsang Province. These are the major mountains of the Palgong-jimaek ridgeline, a chain which stretches east to meet the Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge near Juwang-san National Park. According to information on the mountain, the name "palgong’’ commemorates eight great generals who fell in battle defending its slopes more than 1,000 years ago, but there is every chance this name has a depper Buddhist meaning.
Palgong-san is one of the five most sacred mountains to Korean Buddhism, and it's bold summits and deep valleys are home to dozens of Buddhist temples and shrines, including the major temples of Eunhae-sa and Donghwa-sa, as well as a great number of large Silla dynasty carvings and statues, including the Triad Buddha Grotto of Gunwi (known as Seokguram 2), a relief carving and standing statue on either side of the tallest peak, and the famous and highly venerated "Gat-bawi’’ seated stone Buddha, and many more across the mountain including the massive modern Tongil-daebul at Donghwa-sa (pictured right), making Palgong-san a great place to explore for hikers and strolling tourists alike.
The Palgong-san Provincial Park was established in 1980, and covers some 30,000sqkm, with Biro-bong (1192m), the highest peak of the range, at it's centre. The park includes over 20km of the Palgong-jimaek ridge from Ga-san (902m) and it's mountain fortress in Chilgok county to the west, across Biro-bong to Gwan-bong (850m) and Gat-bawi to the east in Gyeongsan city, as well as long ridge arms stretching north into Gunwi County, north east into Yeongcheon City and south to Daegu city.
The grand ridge trail of Palgong-san running from Gasan Fortress southeast over to Gatbawi is a ridge walk of over 23km, not including access and exit trails, which will add at least another 4km to the journey. This is a long walk by any standards, but along this rocky and at times very slow trail, is a mission best attempted by only hardy hikers, as it'll take the best part of a long summers day to complete, and is an area where it's hard to rush as there is a lot to see.
Luckily there are a number of trailheads accessing the ridge from major temples and valleys, giving options of exit from the ridge every few kilometres.
For most, hiking begins on the southern side of the mountain from the famous entrances of Donghwa-sa, beneath Biro-bong at the centre of the park, and Gatbawi to the southeast. The trail between these two famous sites is the most popular, and probably the most rewarding hike in the park.
I decided to walk this circuit, as well as the route from Pagye-sa temple to Donghwa-sa. Both walks are between 10-15km long - more attractive day walking lengths in this country.
Transport to these temples is easy and frequent from Daegu city, see bottom of page for options.
Donghwa-sa Entrance - 1.9km - Yeombul-am - 1.8km - Biro-bong - 1.4km - Yeombul-bong - 4.6km - Eunhae-bong - 1.8km - Gatbawi - 2km - Boeun-sa (13.5km)
The phoenix eggs outside Bongseoru, The Phoenix Pavilion of Donghwa-sa.
Donghwa-sa is the dominant temple of Palgong-san, a fascinating place to visit, and the trailhead for paths to Biro-bong and our summit ridge walk to Gatbawi.
Located on Biro-bong's southern slopes, leaving from Donghwa-sa is the most direct route to the peak, which can be reached in under 4km, largely along a paved road to the highest of its six hermitages.
Coming up the hill from Daegu city, bus travellers will be dropped off about a kilometre west of the temple in the main Palgong-san restaurant and accommodation area, from where a cable car heads up to a southern shoulder of Biro-bong. Coming by car you can continue to drive up to Donghwa-sa where there is a carpark, but if you want to park for free you can do so in the unpaved carpark near the Campground, on your left just before the main entrance to the temple. The campground runs north, terraced through the trees up the temple end of town. There is a minimal charge for the campground, but when I stayed there this was not enforced.
Through the main gate the road heads east past a dammed pond before reaching the main carpark opposite Biro-am, a charming hermitage which is also the centre of the templestay program in Donghwa-sa.
Here the driving road ends and all visitors must park.
The road path continues east into Donghwa-sa, which is a couple of hundred metres further on, but our path to Biro-bong heads north up the small road to the left of the information kiosk and park map.
It's well worth going into Donghwa-sa for a look-see if you've the time, a fantastic 1500 year old temple, built on the nest of a phoenix, and home of Tongil-daebul, one of the tallest standing Buddha statues on earth.
I wrote an article on Donghwa-sa's templestay program for the Korea Times a couple of years back. For more information on the program and the temple, read it here
From within the main compound of Donghwa-sa are two trailheads which run to the main ridge. The first, just inside the temple runs 2.6km north to Byeongpung-bawi, 2.3km east of Biro-bong. The second heads east from Tongil-daebul up Pokpo-gol gorge to Bareun-jae, 3.4km west of Gat-bawi, this is the quickest route over that way, but doesn't cross any of the major peaks.
Yeombul-am (left) and its Amithaba Buddha relief carving (right)
Donghwa-sa Entrance - Yeombul-am - Biro-bong - Yeombul-bong
Our small road heads north from the info booth through lush forest (depending on the season) alongside a gorge for about 800m to Budo-am hermitage.
Here the road forks. To the right it leads to the hermitages of Naewon-am and Yangjin-am, while our road heads northwest for a further kilometre to Yeombul-am, becoming very steep over the final few hundred metres to the highest hermitage of Donghwa-sa.
Yeombul-am is a beautiful hermitage in a dramtic setting at the head of a vibrant stream and enclosed in thick forest. Behind the main hall is a massive pyramadical granite boulder, with relief carvings on two of its sides. On it's western side is Amithaba, Buddha of the western paradise, while on the south side is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Mercy.
Our trail leaves from the left of Yeombul-am as you face the mountain, while another trail leaves from the right of the temple, climbing to Yeombul-bong (0.9km), bypassing Biiro-bong if you need a short cut.
Our left path becomes hiking trail for the first time, climbing steeply northwest for 700m to Cheoltap-samgeori junction. Here turn right (north), climbing steeply a further 800m to the high ridge trail which runs west - east below Biro-bong.
From here its a 300m walk side trip through low forest to the summit.
Biro-bong has great views as you'd expect, but is completely dominated by a huge communications facility which takes up the whole southern and western side of the summit, and makes through walking to Dong-bong impossible, so at this stage hikers have to backtrack and pass around the southern side of the peak to connect with the trail east.
On my last climb to the peak was a protest banner, not for the communications facility, but for the name of the peak, claiming Biro-bong is not the original or proper name. It's alternative name is "Jewang-bong" (제왕봉). Also Seo-bong should be Samseong-bong and Dong-bong should be Mita-bong.
These are old sacred Buddhist names, and are probabaly the originals. Seo and Dong simply mean west and east, and Biro, although having a great meaning referring to the closest point to the "cosmic light", is a very common name for the highest peak in many parks.
Backtracking for a time off the peak the trail wraps around the southern face into a shallow pass between Biro-bong and Dong-bong (Jewang-bong and Mita-bong).
Here you are met by the massive Yaksa-yeorae statue, a very feminine looking 6m tall masterpiece of the barefoot standing Healing Buddha.
The pass is a 3-way junction. Here a track heads north-east down a gorge to Jinburam Temple (2.5km), while we head east over Dong-bong and a further kilometre along a narrowing ridge to Yeombul-bong (1036m).
Yeombul-bong - Byeongpung-bawi - Sinryeong-jae - Bareun-jae - Eunhae-bong
Quite a rocky peak, Yeombul-bong marks the beginning of the thin ridgeline we'll walk to Gatbawi, signposted as the Jongju-trail. The Jongju is the highest point of the ridge - what all Korea's distance trails follow.
The trail passes Byeongpul-bawi some 400 metres on from the peak, with good views all around. Over the next 2.5km there are 3 junctions where tracks head off the ridge back down to Donghwa-sa. 500m east of Byeongpung-bawi, 0.9km further east at Sinryeong-jae pass, and a further 1.2km on at Bareun-jae. Those final two tracks meet in the Pokpo-gol gorge and head to Tongil-daebul in Donghwa-sa.
Sinryeong-jae, the 2nd junction, also has a track heading north off the mountain to Sudo-sa temple by way of the Gongsan-pokpo falls.
Along the thin, rocky trail, the jongju trail occasionally splits offering hikers the option of walking around some of the rocky spires which rise from the jongju. The alternative trail always favours the northern side of the ridge. The true jongju trail is for the most part walkable, it's just hard work, and at times involves a bit of dodgy scrambling.
Our trail turns true south and to the east you will see Gwan-bong and the scattered buildings of Yaksa-am and Yongju-am hermitages high on it's peak (right). After 1.2km the trail reaches Nojeok-bong (891m) and drops a further 300 metres into Seonbon-jae pass.
From both Nojeok-bong and Seonbon-jae tracks head south-west down to Bukjijang-sa temple (3km ridge track from Nojeok-bong / 2km gorge track from Seonbon-jae).
An eastern track also leaves Seonbon-jae, heading 800m down to Seonbon-sa temple.
Heading southeast from the pass, our trail is only 300m from Gatbawi, and meets the Gatbawi - Gwanam-sa trail just a hundred metres below the mighty statue.
Gat-bawi - Buddha of the Stone Hat
Gatbawi, with his unique "gat", rain hat, was carved in the mid-7th century by the monk Uihyeon-daesa as a dedication to his deceased mother, and depicts the Buddha of medicine and healing, Bhaiṣajyaguru.
The otherwise flat-topped peak of Gwan-bong is cobble-stoned flat and laid with hundreds of prayer mats to accommodate the scores of pilgrims and tourists who visit here each day. Vendors do a roaring trade in incense, and there is a giftshop selling everything from Buddhist literature to key rings. Ridge walkers coming to the end of the hike may be pleased to know there are vending machines with ice cold refreshments.
Gat-bawi faces south off the peak, which is the direction our trail will take down to our trail end at Gwandeok-sa.
If you walk around behind Gatbawi, a staircase track leads down to Yak-sa-am hermitage which is well worth checking out, from here a trail heads east along a high road down to Daehan-ri in North Gyeongsan City. From north behind Gatbawi you can walk a kilometre to Seonbon-sa temple.
Our trail off Gwan-bong heads back down the southern staircase which we came in on, and continues past the ridge junction for 900 metres to Gwanam-sa temple. From here the trail is paved, and continues a further 1.1km to Boeun-sa temple and the main Gatbawi entrance to the park .
For Donghwa-sa - Daegu City Bus Palgong 1 (팔공1) runs through the city from Chilseong Market to Donghwa-sa via Dong Daegu station and all places in between. To catch it near Dong-daegu station turn right out of the main station and walk to the next major intersection. Turn right again to the first bus stop, it's opposite the Daegu Fatima Hospital 대구파티마병원
From Dong Daegu station itself you can get on a Daegu City tour bus, which heads out to Donghwa-sa. These buses leave at 10, 11:20, 12:40, 14:00, 15:20, 16:40 and return at 11:05, 12:25, 13:45, 15:05, 16:25, 17:45.
For Gatbawi - Daegu City Bus 401 leaves from Beommul-dong and stops by Dong Daegu Station on its way to Gatbawi.
Between Donghwa-sa and Gatbawi - Palgong 3 bus runs along the Palgong-san beltway road connecting Gatbawi, Donghwa-sa and Pagye-sa.
The toothy ridge looking east from Tomnal-bawi to Biro-bong
The ridge stretching west of Biro-bong is a much quieter trail than the eastern trail to Gat-bawi, but offers very rewarding walking along a thin, rocky ridge with some good peaks and vantage points.
West of Dongwha-sa are a number of trailhead options on the southern side of the mountain, at Buin-sa, Pagye-sa and Gasan fortress in the far west of the park. There is also the option of starting from the high mountain pass of Hanti-jae, which eliminates much of the initial climbing for those who don't like a struggle.
I started from Pagye-sa, the major temple west of Donghwa-sa, through to Biro-bong and down to Donghwa-sa via Yeombul-am hermitage.
Pagye-sa to Dongwha-sa Ridge Trail. 11-13 km
Pagye-sa is located 7km west of Donghwa-sa, and is the major western access point to the mountain off the Palgong beltway road, which runs the southern face of the mountain to Donghwa-sa and on to Gatbawi.
The Pagye-sa entrance has a large carpark right off the beltway road where the bus also stops. There is a Family Mart convenience store and a couple of swanky looking western restaurants.
Pagye-sa itself is a kilometre toward the mountain from the carpark, and the trail follows the paved driveway to the temple, passing an excellent, modern campground, my pick as the best in the park.
A vibrant temple complex, Pagye-sa somewhat resembles a himalayan mountain village, with 17 buidings and shrines in a tight cluster around the main hall.
Quite unusually for Korea the complex has an incredible amount of English information on it's signboards, not just describing it's history and dimensions, but information for each of the main buildings of the temple.
From Pagye-sa the trail to the ridge leaves to the left of the main buildings. The map indicates the trail follows the gorge directly north 1.3km to Pagye-jae pass. This trail is indeed there, but depending on the time of year it may be closed, if so signs direct you north-west up a concrete road toward Seongjeon-am hermitage, from where you can access the ridge. This was the case on my visit, and adds another 1.5km or so to the journey.
Don't be disappointed though if this is the case, Seongjeon-am is a beautiful amja in a great spot, with commanding views south over Daegu city from it's open platform location below the ridge.
In February of 2007 much of the hermitage was claimed by fire, effects of which are still evident in the surrounding forest,. Seongjeon-am was rebuilt in 2010 The monks of this hermitage practice deep meditation, and often maintain silence. Signs at the temple acknowledge this and ask visitors to also respect this.
Seongjeon-am became quite influential during the middle years of the Joseon Dynasty, in the reign of King Sukjong. The story goes that Sukjong had failed to produce a male heir, and desperately wanted one, consulted with Seongjeon-am resident monk Yongpa-seonsa. The request was for Yongpa to pray for 100 days in the hope this would help the King's efforts. After the 100 day prayer, Yongpa-seonsa left to travel the country, and meanwhile Sukjong's wife became pregnant. Yongpa became deeply impressed with the monk Nongsan-seunim, who he observed in his travels, and decided that Nongsan is the only man worthy of ruling Joseon. Nongsan-seunim knoew of this story, and upon dying appeared as an apparition to the Queen, saying "I will be born again in this world"
Sukjong and his wife had their boy, the future King Yeongjo, the reincarnation of the monk Nongsan.
Sukjong was so overjoyed he traveled to Pagye-sa with the offer of a huge amount of land for the temple, but Yongpa-seunim declined the offer. Instead he had some other requests, he requested that every temple in Joseon have a Giyeong-gak (shrine) built to pray for Sukjong's mother. He also asked that all monks be free over labour, and be able to spend their time in meditation. The requests were granted.
When Yeongjo became King he gave Yongpa the title HyeonUng-josa, and the signboard at the hermitage refers to its name as Seongjeon-am Hyeonung-seonwon
From Seongjeon-am our trail heads west, keeping above a gorge to the ridge trail, which you'll meet about a kilometre or so west of Pagye-jae. Walking east the trail joins the Palgong-jimaek trail at a the Hanti Junction, the high road pass of Hanti-jae is 1.7km north-west from here, and our trail heads 400m east to Pagye-jae.
Pagye-jae is celebrated by a large stone stele in a clearing near the trail, The Wondang Bongsan Pyoseok. The stele was erected in 1696, when Pagye-sa was designated as a place to wish for the security and good fortune of the Joseon Dynasty, this is where the term "Wondang" comes from.
"Bongsan" designates this as a conservation area, and the
stone serves as a notice not to cut trees, and to preserve this mountain
area. Whether this is a response to the
monk Yongpa's, or response to unsustainable practice in the area, this
is a heck of an old conservation sign!
Hiker looking west from the stairs to Seo-bong
Climbing out of Pagye-jae the trail becomes more open on the 1.3km to Pagye-bong, with occasiona views to the south, particularly from a large, cleared helipad area. Pagye-bong (991m) is a small rocky protrusion amogst trees.
1.2km on from the peak, a track runs south off the ridge from Madeung-ryeong pass to Buin-sa temple (3km), our ridge trail turns north east and climbs to Tomnal-bawi rocks at 1054m. From here the view east along the ridge is the best of the day, over Seo-bong to Biro-bong and east across to Gwan-bong, quite spectacular!
From the rocks the trail becomes thinner and the trail largely runs below the northern side of the increasingly jagged jongju ridge. In almost complete daytime shade, this 2.5km section to Seo-bong can be a slippery struggle in the winter, and crampons are definitely advised if there's snow or ice about, it tends to stick around in this area and become a feature into the early spring.
The trail opens out of this shady section for the climb to Seo-bong, which is made considerable easier by a large modern staircase.
Just before the peak itself, a track heads southwest down to Buin-sa (3.6km).
Descending 400m east from Seo-bong into Odo-jae pass, the trail meets it's first junction with a track heading down to the Donghwa-sa area, this track will take you to the Daegu Safety Themepark area, a couple of kilometres west of Donghwa-sa.
Ma-ae - 8th century
Ma-ae Yaksa, Medicinal Buddha carving
Odo-jae is only 800m from Biro-bong summit. Continuing east the trail passes the impressive Ma-ae Yaksa relief carving, facing south from a cliff face in the ridge.
From here it's just 200m to the junction to Biro-bong. As mentioned above, this is a one way track, and after visiting the peak you'll have to return to this junction to move on, or descend.
From the junction you have the option of heading on east along the great Jongju trail to Gatbawi or go down to Donghwa-sa via Yeombul-am (3.4km).