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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Escape to Juwang-San

Story and Photos by Jason Behuniak

One hot summer weekend, my wife and I were in need of a little peace and relaxation. We grabbed a map and started looking for national parks not too far from Ulsan, in an attempt to thwart the life draining forces of our young English language students. We both love being outdoors and tramping around anywhere green and wanted to get off the beaten path or at least away from the hordes of people at the beaches. We zeroed in on Juwang-san National Park, located approximately 45 minutes east of Andong in the North Gyeongsang Province.

Mist sinks intro the valleys and rock formations in Juwang San National Park

Mist sinks into the valleys and rock formations in Juwang San National Park

The first thing that drew our attention to Juwangsan was that it receives fewer visitors than any other National Park in Korea. Also, it’s a relatively short distance from Ulsan, the campground is easily accessible and, as back up, should a thunder storm decide to spoil our communion with nature, we had our pick of minbaks (30,000 won per night).

We got an early start and caught the train out of Hogye Station at 8:26 am and were relaxing in the shade of a large maple tree before noon. We were greeted by a deep blue sky with only a handful of clouds hovering overhead. A lush green valley accented by massive sandstone formations beneath a mountainous horizon framed our view to the west.

After deciding on a campsite we set up the tent. I then pulled out my hammock and quickly realized the rope I had wasn’t long enough to span the distance between the two trees in our camp. We walked around asking different vendors for rope, but no one seemed to have any. I finally caught a friendly smile from a lady who offered up some twine, not realizing what we were intending to do with it. Then her daughter spotted a thick piece of rope tied off to a tarp. She cut me off a six foot section and handed it to me with a smile. I offered to pay her, but she refused. So I grabbed a bandana and said, “Olma imnika, chuseyo?“ “Sahm Cheonon,” she responded. People in Korea can be incredibly hospitable and this was just another perfect example to us that we were welcomed guests in the Land of Morning Calm.

A spider has slung his web across lotus flowers

A spider has slung his web across lotus flowers

As we made our way back to camp we noticed a few families were in a nearby creek swimming, while others were lazily grilling fish and chicken. The rest seemed to be napping under their Jackal sunscreens or laughing it up over Hite and Soju.

The intensity of the sun became more apparent after getting back to camp with the rope (94F/32C). The heat compounded with the humidity persuaded us to wait it out before running off for a hike into the mountains. We spent several hours lounging around camp, taking turns in the hammock and reading books under the scattered shade of our maple tree.

While laying there looking up at the sky through the maple leaves’ sublime movements I was drawn back to my childhood; lounging at the beach with my family, napping under the shade of an umbrella. Maybe it was the heat or maybe I was slowly drifting to sleep, but the nearby sounds of yelping children and quips from a group of teens snapping self portraits with their cell phones slowly began to drift away. Everyone and everything seemed to soften in the heat. Soon, all I could hear was the rise and fall of the locusts. Their rhythms weaving into a hypnotic tapestry of sound until I was finally no where. It’s no wonder Buddhists tuck themselves up into these lush mountain valleys to escape the encroaching modernity and meditate on their scriptures.

A toad menacingly guards against intruders

A toad menacingly guards against intruders

After the heat started to break and a few more cumulus clouds collected in the sky we ventured into the park. No one was collecting money at the entrance, so we strolled right in. We followed a wide, well groomed path for about a kilometer into the park watching the sun over head beat down on the orange sandstone cliffs. This was the first time in Korea I drew a mental comparison to the American Southwest. Though the scale was smaller, the rock formations, trickling creek, and large deciduous trees were reminiscent of a trip I took to Zion National Park; walking along the Virgin River and skipping stones, in Southeastern Utah.

I was quickly falling in love with the sights and sounds of Juwang-san, but the sun was setting quickly and my wife didn‘t want to get stuck out in the dark. We made our way back to camp slapping off a mosquito or two and taking in the notes of the creek meandering next to the trail.

The next morning we woke up a little after 5am, packed up a few snacks and a couple bottles of water, and off we went. Unlike the clear blue sky of the previous day, a dense white fog had settled in overnight. It was as though we were walking through some exotic dreamscape. Well, actually…we were. Less the dream. I looked up on occasion expecting to see Chow Yun Fat battling on the limbs of bamboo trees, but everything was still. It seemed no one was awake yet, only a few birds jostling around in the tree tops over head.

As we approached the park a Korean gentlemen sweeping the entrance collected the nominal 2,000W fee. The previous evening we bypassed Daejeonsa Temple; where several buildings, ornately trimmed trees, and a large collection of lotus flowers lay (Nelumbo nucifera). This time we turned in to get a closer look. The lotus’ delicate purple and white petals are offset by the lime green seed pod at the center of the flower. I later learned that the seed pod of the lotus is used in some of the banchan (side dishes) served alongside traditional Korean meals.

We located the trailhead to Juwang-san Peak, only a few hundred meters down the trail from the temple. The narrow dirt path immediately began climbing and was broken up occasionally by sets of wooden stairs. The climb to the summit was a moderate 2.3km. Gorgeous views of sandstone rock formation were visible after only 25 minutes on the trail. In the distance, we could see more expansive views of soft peaks poking up through the low lying fog. It took roughly two hours to slowly lumber to the peak. We were in no rush. Various parts of this trail provided nice resting spots to grab a nip of water or a handful of pistachios.

The peak was marked at 722m, a rather low peak compared with some of the climbs Korea has to offer. The only disappointing part of the trail was that the peak didn’t offer up a view. However, the summit was littered with wild flowers, which attracted a variety of butterflies and blue dragonflies. The most notable among them all was a large black and white butterfly (nearly 4-5 inches in width); moving from flower to flower drawing nectar.

After a rest on the summit we continued down the backside of Juwangsan Peak. This portion of the trail followed a ridgeline, toggling up and down with several steep declines along the way. Parts of the trail (2.5km) were under construction; people with unsteady footing might opt to turnaround. But, if you’re able – a pristine view looking out over the confluence of several forested peaks opens up about half way down this leg of the trail, which eventually leads to the 3rd Fall. We had the trail to ourselves for nearly 3 hours, passing only one lone photographer. A true rarity considering the fervor Koreans have for hiking.

Once we were off the mountain side and into the valley, we hiked one kilometer along a trail that crisscrossed a small stream. We saw countless butterflies, dragonflies, several large toads the size of a man’s fist and a couple of yellow bellied toads. We had heard that the elusive Eurasian flying squirrel lives in Juwangsan, but we saw only a couple of regular squirrels running along the ground.

As we approached the 3rd Fall, we were quickly snapped out of our trance. The falls were impressive, but the instantaneous increase in the number of people left us wishing we had lingered up on Juwang-san for a little while longer.

Along the final section of trail (2.5km-to the park entrance or 0.4 up to the 3rd Fall) the most impressive part was a narrow gorge. Several dozen small falls and massive rock walls were traversed by a well-built wooden pathway. I don’t know how they managed to construct it (with running water and steep rocky falls under toe) but the scenery was spectacular. The boardwalk clung to the edge of the canyon wall and slowly toggled downward en route to a larger dirt trail. Families with young children could easily make it to this particular spot with out any trouble.

The heat of the day was more apparent after leaving the cover of the forest canopy. We decided to make a Bee-line back to camp, pack up and check on bus tickets to Andong. Though we got more out of our trip than we expected, we were both a bit grubby; craving a cool shower, a solid meal and a bit of A/C.

When we got back to camp we packed up and caught a bus to Andong for 7,500W each. The bus and train station in Andong are only a couple of blocks apart, which isn’t a bad walk – unless bus driver decides to kick you out a bit early and the clouds split open and unleash a torrential rain, which they did. Luckily, we nabbed a cab and missed the brunt of the storm.

The train tickets back to Hogye ran us 11,000W each. We were home, showered, and lying in bed with the AC cranking by 9 pm. Overall, our weekend away from the from the city did the trick and cost around 60,000W each.