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Cheonseong-san 천성산  

Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge. Yangsan, Ulsan Cities

Royal Azaleas in bloom from Cheonseong-san (Wonhyo-bong) looking north to Cheonseong2-bong

The long, high ridge of Cheonseong-san runs parallel to the east of the Yeongnam Alps ridge, joining it at Yeongchuk-san via one of the lowest mountain passes of the Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge, at Sinpyeong, the entrance town of Tongdo-sa (and my current home), on the border of Yang-san and Ulsan cities.

Cheonseong-san is not generally considered a mountain of the Yeongnam Alps, but I've included it here; it shares the same bus service running from Yang-san to Eonyang and living as I do in the eastern alps it's the view I see every day - I'm looking at it now out my classroom window as I write.

Sanhadong-gyegok (valley) 산하동계곡 - North Naewon-sa entrance

From the northern suburbs of Yangsan city to the southern countryside of Ulsan, no roads cross the ridge of Cheonseong-san, although a number of old unsealed military roads weave up its valleys and along its ridges. This makes for some good, uninterrupted hiking, and the possibility of long ridge walking between the three peaks; Cheonseong-san (Wonhyo-san) to the south, central Cheonseong-2-bong and Jeongjuk-san to the north.

Either side of Cheongseong-san are busy highways, National Highway 35 and National Expressway 1 to the west, and National Highway 7 to the east. In this zone between the large cities of Ulsan and Busan a lot of small factories, towns and villages flank these major transport arteries, and from almost every one a hiking trail makes its way to the Cheonseong ridge. Here I'm going to focus on the premier circuit trail from the major temple of Naewon-sa, set in the most beautiful part of the mountain, the deep gorges of the west, about 15km north of Yangsan city proper. I'll touch on some other major trailheads below.

Biro-am, One of the remaining mountain hermitages of Cheonseong-san, below "2-bong"

Cheonseong-san (The One Thousand Sage Mountain) gets its fantastic name from the 1000 disciples of the great Shilla monk Wonhyo-daesa, who followed him here from China, and gained enlightenment on the mountain. Here is the translated version of this fabulous fictional story taken from information boards located throughout the Naewon-sa valley.

In 673 Wonhyo began meditating in Seon Buddhism and eventually ended up going to mainland China. There was a time during his visit when 1000 people from the temple Taehwa-sa in Tang China were in danger of being buried under a mountain of mud after torrential rains. Upon realising this, Wonhyo threw out a wooden board, the people saw this strange board hanging in the air and thinking it mysterious, ran into the prayer hall, immediately upon which the mountain collapsed behind them. On the board thrown by Wonhyo had been the words, "Throwing the board, Wonhyo saves the people".

Because of this the 1000 sought out Wonhyo and became his disciples. Wonhyo began searching for a place for all these people to stay and upon reaching the spot where this Sanshin-gak* now stands, disappeared. Wonhyo built 89 small temples in the area around Naewon-sa in which his 1000 disciples were to stay. Furthermore a large drum was placed in the area in front of Cheonseong-san which would announce the beginning of sermon to the disciples on the mountain, where he would lecture the Avatamaka Sutra.

The place where he taught the sutra was called the field of Avatamaka (hwa-eom-beol) while the place where the drum was sounded was called Jipbukpong (grasp and strike drum).

Furthermore because these disciples who climbed the mountain would get entangled in arrowroot vines and trip, Wonhyo called on the mountain spirits to clear the mountain of these vines. It is said to this day Cheonseong-san has no arrowroot vines. Later it is said that the 1000 disciples who studied under Wonhyo became sages, this is whay the mountain has the name.

Even now the remains of small temples that Wonhyo built here, including the Anjok-am, are still scattered around the area of Naewon-sa.

* the Sanshin-gak mentioned is at the entrance to the Naewon valley, right next to the carpark.

This story, although compelling, has too many factual errors to take very seriously. It is well accepted among scholars that Wonhyo never went to China, that while waiting to board a vessel there he reached enlighenment and decided he didn't need to go - his partner Uisang travelled there alone - so Wonhyo is unlikely to have had 1000 Chinese disciples following him across the pond.

Secondly, Seon Buddhism wasn't established in Korea until the 800's - Wonhyo is considered to have made important contributions to the Buddhist philosophy that later became fundamental to Seon as a transformed from pure meditation practice to having some doctrine of its own - Thanks to David.A Mason for sharing this info.

The great story of Wonhyo-daesa's journey to enlightenment, and subsequent abandonment of his journey to China, is well known, and told here in full. How the local authority or Naewon-sa officials have come up with this alternative story is unknown, but to me it shows the power of local storytelling, and for many in this rugged mountain area this version may well be true, and may have been for many a generation. Whatever happened on this mountain, Wonhyo was certainly a central figure. The highest peak is named for him, on which is a grand hermitage called Wonhyo-am; and the Sanshin-gak at the entrance to the valley, where this story finds its roots is pretty much a shrine to the great master - mystery abounds in the high places.

Getting to Naewon-sa

The entrance to Naewon-sa is well signed from National Highway 35, about midway between Yangsan and Eonyang. A small road heads east off the highway, following the Naewon stream for about 2km to the carpark.

From National Expressway 1, get off at Tongdo-sa IC and head south toward Yangsan on Highway 35, the turnoff is about 5km south of Habuk-myeon (Sinpyeong town)

By Bus: City Bus numbers 12, 13, 63 and 67 running from Busan - Yangsan - Eonyang, stop at the small town at the junction of the road heading up to Naewon-sa. You'll get off at a Family Mart on the corner. Bus 13 takes the same route but begins from the Ulsan KTX station. To get to Naewon-sa entrance itself you'll have to walk 2km up the road, once over the overpass that crosses the freeway this road has a boardwalked footpath, and is a good walk.

At the main gate/ticket booth to Naewon-sa is a large carpark. Trails head west from here up the Sanhadong and Seongbul-am valleys, and a road heads south-west (right) up to Naewon-sa, 3km at the end of this road. You can drive up there and park, but if you don't have a car you'll have to factor in an extra 6km of road walking into the hike explained below, which begins from Naewon-sa itself.

The gate to the main Naewon-sa entrance is locked at 6pm, even in the summer months! If your car is trapped in (as mine recently was) don't worry, the restaurant just over the gate has a key.

Looking west over Naewon Valley to Yeongchuk-san: Trail to Cheonseong2-san

Our trail sets off across the bridge from Naewon-sa following the stream south-east on a wide path. Over the first few hundred metres the stream is crossed twice, there are stepping stones to keep the boots dry but after rain this can be a shallow ford. After the second crossing the trail stays left of the stream and begins to climb, and before long becomes very steep - thankfully (or not) the climb is largely made on new staircases, with sections of rope-fenced path in between.

Love'em or hate'em these new staircases have made a world of difference to the trail up from Naewon-sa; before their construction a couple of years ago, it was a slippery eroding mess! From the last staircase the trail begins to open up as it meets the shoulder-ridge leading to the peak, and there is a great rocky viewpoint to your right, with sweeping views back down the valley and up to the high ridge. From the next few corners there are opportunities for views west over to Yeongchuk-san and the Yeongnam Alps, such as the one seen above.

As the trail takes a turn to the east it meets a junction, a track heads to the right from here, cutting across the valley to the high ridge just north of Cheonseong-san. This is an option if you'd like to bypass "2-bong" and head straight for the main peak. I wouldn't recommend it, it doesn't save much, if any, time, and "2-bong"- just 900 metres up the trail - is the only true peak you'll summit on this hike, as the top of Cheonseong-bong is fenced off for military purposes. Junction: Naewon-sa 1.9km - Cheonseong2-bong 0.9km. South-east track to Cheonseong-san 3.1km. The remaining 900 metres to this summit is moderately steep but farly easy going, you'll see the stele on top of the summit to your right just before you get there.

Looking back to Cheonseong2-bong from the trail to Cheonseong-san

From 2-bong tracks head north off the peak down to Yangsan University on Highway 7, East to Soju-dong on the same road. Our trail heads south along the high ridge toward Cheonseong-san, we initially follow a mountain road before leaving it at a picnic table under a tree and heading southwest into the forest, dropping to the pass of Eunsu-gogae, before rising out of the forest into the open Grassland and Azalea fields of the ridge running to the peak.

Its worth enjoying this open area, don't save any breaks for the peak because it is off limits, at what would be a few hundred metres short of the peak the trail hits a razor wire fence.

The northern side of Cheonseong-san, trail heading west to Hwaeom-neup

Cheonseong-san saw its fair share of action during the Korean War, and large areas of its high ridge are still mined and off limits, including Cheonseong-san's peak, ringed with razor-wire and some pretty heavy warnings to keep out. The razor wire continues for quite a few kilometres along the Nakdong-jeongmaek trail headong south from the peak toward Busan, and in many places is EXTREMELY close to the trail, I've torn clothes on these coils - its worth being very mindful of how close you're getting to them, especially in the wet.

The trail forks at the razor wire with options of going left, around the eastern side of the peak, or right around the northern side.

Heading right is the most direct way to continue the circuit, the trail drops into forest and crosses a mountain stream before rising to meet open grassland of Hwaeom-neup (above) , its a 1.7km walk from the beginning of the razor-wire to a stone cairn marking the western beginning of Hwaeom-eup.

Wonhyo-am and its Bodhisattva relief carvings

Heading left from the razor-wire fork, takes you around the eastern side to Wonhyo-am, the hermitage looking south off the summit, and only 900 metres from our junction. From Wonhyo-am you can cut around to Hwaeom-neup from the trail which heads eventually down to Hongryong-sa, or walk back along the same path to the fork in the coils and cross the northern grasslands.

Cairn at the western edge of Hwaeom-neup

The trail heads west through the grass and azalea fields of Hwaeom-eup, joining a well formed path where tracks from all sides meet on the ridge. This area is extremely popular with hikers in late spring/early summer when the azaleas are in full bloom, and quite spectacular. To the right the path is fenced, this area is off limits not because of mines but for conservation, Hwaeom-neup is a sensitive ecological area, and home to some quite rare species of plant and animals. The shelter beyond the fence is not for rest, but is for monitoring the ecological zone, and is often manned in the busy season to keep people (photographers) behind the fence.

Aim for the cairn on the peak to the west, from here stay right along the fence, and join the trail into the forest for the descent.

Looking over the Naewon valley from the mountain road

Keeping to the right-hand trail, we reach the end of an unsealed road after 1.2km. Follow the signed trai lpointing to "Yongju-sa" and heading back into the forest, after about a kilometre of gradual descent the trail reaches a junction. The track to Yongju-sa heads left (west) while our trail to Naewon-sa continues north, climbing to a mountaon road.

Turn right on the road, and follow for 600-700m, look out for ribbons to the right of the track, this is our trail which flanks the road for a short while before heading east away from the road, descending down to Naewon-sa. There is no sign marking the trail to Naewon-sa, and although the path flanks the road for a while, its worth sticking to it, so as not to miss the final turnoff. Our trail ends at Naewon-sa's lower carpark, about 900metres downstream from the temple.

Other trails to Cheonseong-san

Hongyrong-sa - Wonhyo-am

The famous Hongryong-pokpo waterfall, pouring into a deep pool aside Hongryong-sa's Yongwang-gak (Dragon King Shrine)

Hongryong-sa is one of Yangsan City's more famous tourist spots, located below Cheonseong-san's western face, some 5km north of the city.

The trail from Hongryong-sa to Cheonseong-san is the most direct route to the summit, 1.8km (1hr15min) to Wonhyo-am, from where you can join the Naewon circuit trail, or make a loop back down to the temple.

Getting there: Get off Highway 35 at Daeseong, following the signs to Hongryong-sa from Yangsan. Join the road heading toard the mountain, Hongryong-sa carpark is 3.5km up this road.

On the bus: Buses 12, 13, 63 and 67 will stop at Daeseong, you'll have to walk the 3.5km of relativley steep road up to the temple, unless there's a taxi floating around.

From the road heading to Daeseong to Hongryong-sa a paved road heads to the right up into the hills, this road serves Wonhyo-am and goes all the way to the top! You can drive up here (or mountain bike) if the gate is open.

Yongju-sa - Cheonseong-san

The huge cairn garden on the valley trail from Yongju-sa

Yongju-sa is located in a deep valley, slightly north-west of Cheonseong-san. The summit trail starts from the temple, located in thick forest, just off Highway 35, and follows a beautiful valley up to a mountain road, meeting the path to Naewon-sa and meeting the ridge at the cairn on the western edge of Hwaeom-neup.

Directions: Off highway 35, the turnoff for Yongju-sa is less than a kilometre north of Sangbuk,a northern suburb of Yangsan. Its a difficult turnoff to spot, and poorly marked. The small road heading to the temple crosses under the expressway. Yongju-sa is about 500 metres up the road.

Bus: Get off bus 12, 13, 63 or 67 in Sangbuk, at the Nanseong apartments. Walk a block behind the road to the right and walk north a few hundred metres to meet the small road heading up to Yongju-sa.

Map of the Cheonseong-san Mountain area.

Our circuit trail is marked in red, running clockwise from Naewon-sa.

Yongju-sa and Hongryong-sa to the west of the trail.

Coming Soon

Trails from Northern Naewon-sa Entrance up the Sangri-cheon and Seongbul-gol Valleys to Jeonmang-bong, with connection to Cheonseong2-bong.

Also info for Mita-am trails, the high hermitage east of the Cheonseong ridge 

Below: Seongbul-gol gorge, from the ridge trail to Cheonseong2-bong