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Gaji-san 가지산 (1241m)

Highest peak of Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge. Start of Unmun-jimaek sub ridge

Cheongdo-gun (Gyeongsangbuk-do), Ulju-gun (Ulsan City), Miryangsi (Gyeongsangnam-do)

Gaji-san, taken from the summit ridge of Baekun-san to the south-west

Located in the northern area of the Yeongnam Alps, Gaji-san is the tallest peak in the range - rising above Unmun-san to the west, Baekun-san and Cheonhwang-san to the south and Munbok-san to the north. The Nakdong-jeongmaek trail passes over its summit, heading southeast to Ganwol-san and Northeast to Goheon-san. Gaji-san is a junction for trails leading to all the peaks of the Northern Alps, but the majority of hikers up there will be completing the 10km circuit trail from Seongnam-sa in Gaji-san's deep eastern gorge.

Seongnam-sa (석남사) is the most prominent temple on the slopes of the mountain, located in a deep valley, between two large arms of the mountain which form a horse-shoe ridge making for a good circuit trail to Gaji-san.

Seongnam-sa (석남사)

Seongnam-sa was established by Doui-guksa in 824, and its name is said to mean "Southern Rock Temple" Initially a small temple it grew organically through the generations until it was completely destroyed in 1952. In 1972 the temple was rebuilt by the Abbot Inhong-sunim, a Bhukkini (Buddhist nun) and the Temple is now run entirely by female monks. The main treasure of Seongnam-sa is the Budo monument to Doui-guksa (National treasure No. 369) engraved with a pattern of Lions and Clouds. During the Imjin Japanese invasions of the 16th century, Seongnam-sa was a centre of training for warrior monks, who battled japanese forces in this area.

Getting to Seongnam-sa

By Car - From National Expressway 1 which runs from Busan to Seoul take Exit 6 Seo-Ulsan (서울사) at the town of Eonyang. Take National Highway 24 west, exiting off the modern highway when you see signs for Seongnam-sa 석남사 (often spelt Seoknam-sa), you will the join provincial road which snakes past the Gaji-san Oncheon (Hot Spring) to the temple carpark, and continues on to Baenae-gol Valley.

By Bus - Ulsan city buses 1713 and 807 leave Eonyang Terminal every 20mins or so for Seongnam-sa. The ticket is 1500won and the trip takes about 30-35min. Both these buses start their journey from Taehwagang train station in Ulsan. If coming from Ulsan city proper, the 1713 is the quickest bus as it takes the expressway to Eonyang. Bus 807 stops at the UlsanKTX station, located in Eonyang, so is the bus to look out for if coming on the train.

The Seongnam-sa circuit trail of Gaji-san

Main trail: Seongnam-sa car park - 2.3km / 1hr20min - Seongnam-gogae

The main Seongnam-sa carpark is at the Seongnam-sa-hyugeso, just outside the grand front gates to the temple on a tight bend in provincial road 69 - this is also the bus stop. Seongnamsa-hyugeso has a number of good restaurants, all of which sell fresh and dried mountain vegetables and locally produced makali, as well as the standard meals that can usually be found at busy mountain entrances - a couple of these restaurants are also small marts with basic trail supplies and snacks. It's 2000won for the day to park, and there is a lot of space in the overflow carpark out the back - this is usually only full in the summer months when the stream in the Seongnam-sa valley is packed with wading picnickers.

I prefer walking the above trail clockwise, leaving from outside the temple gates up to Seongnam-gogae (pass), thus avoiding the temple entrance fee! Other than that it makes little difference which way you walk the trail in terms of difficulty, but personally I like the south-eastern approach to Gaji-san, and as a former northbounding Nakdong-jeongmaeker - it just feels right to walk north along the ridge. If you want to see the temple first though do this opposite, after the long hike you might not have the time or energy to do so.

The trail leaves from a second carpark about 50 metres up the road from Seongnamsa Hyugeso. At the rear of the carpark is a monument (right) to fallen soldiers, police and civilians who helped drive communist symapthisers and North Korean guerrilla soldiers from these hills over a sustained period following the Korean War. The trail begins from behind this monument.

From here its just over 2km to Seongnam-gogae, a shallow pass on the high ridge leading to Gaji-san. The trail to the pass is mostly closed in with forest, but offers occasional views both north to the ridge and south-east over the southern shoulders. It gets quite steep toward the top, and there is a bit of low level scrambling but overall the trail is in good condition and well walked - most hikers could expect to be at the pass in not much over an hour.

500 metres south along the ridge trail from Songnam-gogae is the Seongnam tunnel (left), where the road winding up from Seongnam-sa crosses the high ridge. There are more restaurants and marts at this popular high mountain starting point to hike Gaji-san. To get there continue on road 69 climbing past Seongnam-sa toward Baenaegol - turn off at the next right to reach the pass (slow 15min drive from Seongnam Hyugeso - no bus service)

A cold walk from Seongnam-gogae to Gaji-san, -15'c at sea level, Dec 31, 2009 (right)

Seongnam-gogae - 2.3km / 1hr20min - Gaji-san

From the pass the trail offers a bit of respite for tired legs as it heads right (north) along the Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge trail, maintaining good height through a thick, low forest, with occasional views in pockets on all sides. The ridge bends west to face the mountain, and after about a kilometre you'll reach the Gaji-san Seongnam-jae Daepiso 가지산석남재대피소, a beat up old shelter held together with plastic sheets of a variety of colours and ages but with, surprisingly, a proper hardwood, turning knob front door. This is essentially a booze shack doing Makali, beers and soju - with noodles, coffee, tea and water available - as I've mentioned before in this section, the Yeongnam Alps hosts a number of these shelters, this is the first of three on this circuit.

Rocky viewpoint and the final approach to Gaji-san

Gajisan Seongnam-jae shelter is at the base of a long staircase, from which the climb to the summit begins in earnest as the ridge rises over 200 metres over half a kilometre to a rocky outcop (left), offering great views of Gaji-san, and its south-western ridge - and beyond to Cheonhwang-san in Milyang from just off the trail.

The trail heads north-west, dipping into a shallow pass before climbing steeply up Gaji-s eastern face, its summit is a rocky dome. Over the final couple of hundred metres you can stick to the left, ascending on the main trail or have a scramble up the rock face to the marker stele on the summit.

Being the highest peak of the Alps, the view from the top can be quite spectacular, south-east and north-east you can follow the path of the Nakdong-jeongmaek. West over Milyang's mountains you may be able to make out Gaya-san on a clear day. To the east, the city of Ulsan and the Sea to Japan.

Gaji is a pokey, rocky summit, and can only accommodate a few sprawled out hikers, if you want to rest and picnic there is an open helipad area on the southwestern side of the peak, and also another shelter, the classic Gani-sanjang just below the peak on the same side.

Gaji-san Sanjang

Although little more than a tin shack, this shelter just below the peak is a real beauty, and quite an iconic feature of the Yeongnam Alps. The couple who run the place are interesting and very welcoming, they make their own makali on site, and serve up Dubu-kimchi, ramen and sometime Pajeon (this depends if the wife is there). The star of the shelter is "Jisan" their dog, a friendly Jindo with painted on eyebrows lovingly applied by the lady of the shack - they look hilarious. Jisan has made his way on to a couple of Variety TV shows, and most hikers are keen to give him a pat and take a picture. Jisan was retired this year, the owner tells me he had too much stress - ah the pressures of fame - his replacement is "Haneul", Jisan's son, a chirpy little puppy who for the time being has his own eyebrows.   

Gaji-san - 1.3km / 35min - Ssal-bawi 쌀바위

The three rocky tops of Ssal-bawi are said to resemble a reclining Buddha from far away, kind of like a compacted version of the famous ridge of Duryun-san in Jeollanam-do which has this shape.

Ssal-bawi literally means "Rice Rock". Legend has it that small amounts of rice would come out of the rock when monks prayed here. The monks apparently got too greedy and broke into the rock to access all of the rice, which is why it no longer produces any today, just a steady trickle of fresh water from the spring on its eastern face.

The trail leaves from the peak of Gaji-san, heading north-east along the ridge toward the Ssal-bawi rocks. This is an easy 1.3km stroll through low sub-alpine forest, with occasional views through openings in the tree cover and rocky viewpoints off the trail, over Eonyang to the east.

You'll see the southern section of Ssal-bawi off the trail to your right, and there is an opportunity to check it out off trail, sticking to the main trail will lead you to a boardwalk and decked rest area, which runs down to the face of the rock, and the spring flowing from Ssal-bawi.

NOTE - there was once a trail running from Ssal-bawi directly down to Seongnam-sa, and was probably the preferred return route for most hikers. This trail has been closed, but remains on many maps, don't plan on taking this trail, it's off-limits and bordered up.

Ssal-bawi marks the end of an unsealed mountain road, which runs along the ridge from Unmun-ryeong, the next road crossing of the Nakdong-jeongmaek. To mark the end of the road, where many people stroll or mountain bike to from the pass, is yet another rest area (right) where you can get a drink and a bite to eat.

Ssal-bawi - Sangun-san bypass - Seongnam-sa - carpark 3.6km / 1hr20min

The trail follows the mountain road from Ssal-bawi north-east, in the direction of Unmun-ryeong. After 800m or so you have the option of joining the ridge trail which climbs over Sangun-bong and Gwi-bawi rocks just above the road to the left - this 800m trail eventually joins the road again after crossing the peaks. To return to Seongnam-sa look out for signs on your right leaving the road down to Seongnam-sa. The last of these leaves the road just shy of 1.5km from Ssal-bawi.

The trail heading down to Seongnam-sa is not too well maintained, its steep and meandering, and appears a bit ad-hoc with numerous options around rocks, trees and bends - as long as you're heading down you're going in the right direction. It's 1.7km from the road to the temple, expect this to take 45min plus, particularly in the wet when the clay based trail can be quite slippery. Once near the temple the grounds are bordered off with barbed wire, stay to the left of this and once past take trails which favour the right. You'll end up on a small road on the northern side of the stream flowing through Seongnam-sa, walk toward thye temple on this road and cross the bridge to get to the main Seongnam-sa entrance driveway. This beautiful lane is 600m long and will take you down to the main carpark and Seongnam-sa Hyugeso.


About a kilometre from Seongnam-sa carpark/busstop in the direction of Eonyang is the Gaji-san Oncheon Hotsprings resort, there are a number of motels and minbaks in this area, and the sauna is worth a visit. The town of Eonyang also has a number of motels. Camping on the high ridge is acceptable, but not in the temple grounds, outside the gate you