Wolchulsan, Korea’s smallest national park, is easily overlooked, tucked away in the far south west of Jeonnam province. It is not the most famous, nor the easiest to get to, but in many ways it is a hidden gem, which easily gives up its secrets for those willing to make the effort to visit.
Detailed information on getting to Wolchulsan is difficult to find in English. There are differing accounts on the regularity of buses, prices, distances, times. As we were walking through Wolchulsan our first thought was how stunning it was, and our second thought was that we needed to provide a detailed account of how to get here; so that others who, like us, have tackled the ‘big daddies’ (Seoraksan, Jirisan) and are greedy to devour all the beauty that Korea’s mountains have to offer, can make the trip a little more sure-footedly than we did.
(Please note: we made our trip to Wolchulsan over the weekend of Chuseok. We don’t know exactly how this affected things like the bus timetables, or the amount of business activity in Yeongam, or the number of people visiting the mountain. We left on the Monday of the long weekend (we didn’t have to be back at work until Thursday) as we knew that trying to leave Seoul on the Saturday of the Chuseok weekend is diabolical. The traffic leaving Seoul on the Monday was not much different than at any other time.)
The first consideration for any trip to Wolchulsan is how to get to Yeongam, the small town in the shadow of the park. We arrived at Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, unsure as to whether we could get a direct bus to Yeongam, and finding that we couldn’t, we took a direct bus to Gwangju. Buses to Gwangju from Seoul are plentiful throughout the day. The only available seats were on the more expensive (but cushier!) bus, and we paid 24,000 won each. The regular bus is 18000 direct to Gwangju. Arriving at Gwangju, we bought tickets to Yeongam for 6,000 won each. Yeongam was on a bus route that seemed to travel through about 10 of the small towns which are within 50 or so miles of Gwangju. Other bloggers have noted that they had difficultly knowing when the bus arrived in Yeongam. If you have GPS on your phone you can be absolutely sure, but the announcements on the bus were clear enough to understand when we arrived at Yeongam, about 80 minutes after leaving Gwangju.
If you’ve travelled extensively across Korea, you will soon notice that the countryside around Yeongam is almost shockingly flat. Tiny towns were dotted along long, flat roads. We were travelling in the late evening, and everywhere was extremely dark. When we drifted into Yeongam, we were slightly concerned that the entire town had shut-up-shop, such was the dark and the quiet. I have seen Yeongam described elsewhere as sleepy, but also the fact that it was Chuseok may have played a part.
The bus stopped at Yeongam Bus Terminal. Straight away we enquired about tickets back on Wednesday. We discovered that we could get a bus directly back to Gangnam in Seoul. There were about 6 or 7 buses throughout the day directly to Seoul. We took the last two seats on the bus for 10.30am and paid 19,100 won each. We didn’t really fancy trying our luck getting tickets on the Wednesday, and we felt much more secure having tickets in hand.
Directly outside the bus terminal is a towering love motel called the Regency Motel. Don’t let the blacked out entrance doors fool you, this place is open all hours. A room without internet is 35,000 won a night, a room with internet was about 51,000. We took a room for two nights and the owner made sure everything was new and changed in the room. The room itself was large, and so was the TV, and it was perfect for our needs. We dropped off our stuff and headed into town to find some food, the orange harvest moon lighting our way.
From the entrance of the Regency, take a right and then at the junction turn left up the hill to the northwest. This road will take you towards the centre of Yeongam, where almost all the restaurants and shops are. It was about 9pm when we got to the main street, and almost everywhere was closed. There was the usual array of fried chicken hofs, a couple of pizza places, a few coffee shops and a smattering of kimbap restaurants and seafood barbeques. On the side streets there are a number of very small family eateries, with a few older Korean men laughing raucously over a table of empty Soju bottles. Feeling more tired than adventurous, we settled on a pizza place and then headed back to the Regency.
The morning was golden and clear. Between the endless buildings of Seoul and the seemingly endless mountains of Korea, it had been a long time since I’d seen a flat(ish) horizon and what felt like a truly open sky.
Long ago in feudal Japan, groups of aristocrats would have ‘moon-viewing parties’. They would climb towers specifically built for the purpose and gaze at the autumn moon over bowls of saké and the gentle trembling of a zither. The name ‘Wolchulsan’ means ‘moon-rise mountain’, and one can easily understand why this experience of the mountain would take precedence: Wolchulsan bursts from the flatlands like a fortress. There are two main entrances, at Cheonghwangsa and at Dogapsa. The trail between these two is the main route across the park, taking in the main peaks and the cloud bridge. Near Dogapsa, the slopes are gentle and heavily forested, reminiscent of the oceanic undulations of Jirisan. At the Cheonghwangsa entrance, where we began our hike, the slopes are jagged and almost sheer; they are not as massive or impenetrable as Seoraksan, but as I will note many times, it is the juxtaposition between the flat farmland and the sudden, skeletal mountain that is the most striking characteristic of Wolchulsan.
Idling in the hard sunlight outside the bus terminal at Yeongam were a number of taxi drivers. We paid about 4,500 won for a 10 minute ride to the trail entrance at Cheonghwangsa. Here the mountain is imminent – it is just 3.7 kilometres from the entrance to the highest peak – and looking up it seems impossible that the trail could be so direct. From this entrance, it is only a 40 minute hike to the infamous cloud bridge.
Search for Wolchulsan on any english language Korean tourist websites and you will immediately find references to the ‘cloud bridge,’ a suspension bridge between two peaks about 700 metres high. Once you have experienced the severity of the slopes at this end of Wolchulsan, it is easy to understand why such an ambitious construction project was necessary. The cloud bridge is an incongruous bright orange colour, but the views it offers and the novelty it presents are certainly an interesting experience. Expect large numbers of people posing for photos, and young children whooping and hollering into the valley as they bounce across the bridge. (Yes, the bridge does shake a little, especially if you jump up and down.)
From the trail head, you will pass a campsite with platforms rented for tents, and a shelter. Here is the last place to get water. (Please note: like Seoraksan, there is NO fresh water available on Wolchulsan. The hike from Cheonghwangsa to Dogapsa is about 6 or 7 hours (if you spend an hour or so in total at the various peaks) so pack accordingly.) After the shelter is a short walk through some bamboo thickets. After about 10 minutes you will arrive at a fork. To the left, 50 metres up the trail, is a temple that was undergoing a large amount of construction and seemed to be deserted. To the right is the main trail. From here the trail is steep, and involves a large number of ropes and railings, climbing over large boulders, all the while the sheer face of the mountain towers above. About 20 minutes later there will be another fork, with signs for the waterfall to the right and the cloud bridge to the left. From this fork the cloud bridge is clearly visible almost directly above you, and the sign states 0.5 kilometres, and a ten minute hike. We looked up and thought ‘How?!’ I remembering saying that there must be ladders, or an elevator. There was no elevator, but in many places the stairs were so steep that they surely straddled the line between stair and ladder, and in some places there simply were ladders. Needless to say, it was hard going, but the pain is very short and sharp, and you will quickly find yourself at the cloud bridge. The cloud bridge is painted an incongruent bright orange. If you visit during a peak time, expect to find yourself surrounding by people posing for photos on the bridge, next to the bridge, behind the bridge, everywhere. To be sure, it’s a great photo spot. As you cross, be sure to jump up and down a little to feel the bridge bounce. Action shots of people running across the bridge are also fun.
To be continued…