Gamak-san 감악산 675m
Paju City, Yangju County, Pocheon City
Paju City, Yangju County, Pocheon City
Gamak-san is a mountain of great
prominence. Rising dramatically from the southern plain of the Imjin River in
northwest Gyeonggi province, its sharp rocky summit watches north over the
rural landscape of Jakseong district, and allows for probably the best
available mountain views into North Korea from western Gyeonggi-do.
On a clear day one can trace the mountains of the north stretching toward Songak-san and the city of Gaeseong (only a few degrees north-west of here), among waves of blue ridge folding into the little-known horizon.
This has led to Gamak-san being coined 'Closest mountain to the DMZ', which is not strictly true, but it is definitely the closest popular major mountain in the Gyeonggi-do region, and draws a large number of its visitors for this reason.
Gamak-san’s dominance over the landscape is reflected in the 'ak' of its name, suggesting prominence and presence. Gamak-san is one of the five famous 'ak' mountains of Gyeonggi-do, which otherwise include Songak-san (Gaeseong), Unak-san (Pocheon), Hwaak-san (Gapyeong) and Gwanak-san, south of the Han River in metropolitan Seoul.
‘Gam’ can refer to a bluish-blackish hue, and represents a mysterious blue light said to shine from the summit rocks of the mountain, evidence of which I did not witness.
Gamak-san is the dominant peak of the Gamak-jimaek ridge system, which stems from the greater Hanbuk-jeongmaek range in northern Uijeongbu city. Gamak-jimaek stretches some 40km north to the confluence of the Hantan-gang and Imjin-gang rivers, just a few kilometres south of the current border between the two Koreas.
The lesser ridges of the Gamak-jimaek stretch a similar distance west to east, connecting some 20 named peaks between the cities of Paju to the west, and Dongducheon to the east.
At 675m, Gamak-san is easily the highest peak in this sub-range, standing head and shoulders above its neighbours, which, aside from a few exceptions, are predominantly between 200-300m in height.
As might be expected, Gamak-san has long been a landmark of strategic importance within Korea, and has seen battle in conflicts stretching far back into the history of the peninsula. Information at the mountain states that this was often an area of battle during the Samguk-sidae period (Three Kingdoms of Korea, 57BC-668AD), as both the Goguryeo and Baekje Kingdoms sought to gain control over the Imjin River area in the 4th century.
Later, during the Goryo dynasty (918-1392), Gamak-san became the scene of brief skirmishes with the Georan (Khitan peoples of Manchuria), who briefly infiltrated into the area during the 11th century.
Most recently, The Korean War has left a legacy which dominates this area. From April 22-25, 1951, the foothills and gorges of Gamak-san were the scene of one of the more famous battles of the war.
The Battle of The Imjin River was an operation central to the 'Chinese Spring Offensive', which saw an estimated 300,000 Chinese troops, along a 40 mile front, committed to the objective of taking control of Imjin River bridge crossings, and to eventually advance on Seoul.
On the night of April 22, Chinese forces undertook a mass crossing of the Imjin River to the immediate north of Gamak-san, under heavy fire from the British 29th Infantry Brigade who controlled the high land south of the river, and a Belgian battalion who held high ground north of the river to the east. Countless Chinese were mowed down attempting to cross the river, but their numbers kept coming. One Belgian sergeant wrote - “There were Chinese everywhere...like mushrooms!!”
When British ammunition ran dry, they were forced to retreat to the northern foothills of Gamak-san, as the Chinese advanced toward and around the mountain. After two days of intense battle The Belgians, supported by US troops, and the majority of the British 29th Infantry Brigade were able to make a risky withdrawal. However a large number of their Gloucester Regiment were left stranded, surrounded, and under constant attack on their defensive position, 'Hill 235', now more commonly known as 'Gloster Hill', which they held against incredible odds until their capture on April 25th.
Seolma Valley Memorial
The Battle of the Imjin River remains Britain’s bloodiest post WWII battle. Of the 1,091 British soldiers killed, wounded or missing, 620 were from the Gloucester Regiment. Chinese casualties are estimated at 10,000 - of the estimated 27,000 soldiers of the Chinese 63rd Army which were committed to the battle.
Had the Chinese succeeded in a faster advance, they would have been able to outflank US and Korean forces gathered to the east and west, weakening the UN line, and likely leading to an advance on Seoul. The 29th brigade's northern resistance allowed UN troops to consolidate defensive positions north of Seoul, where the Chinese were halted.
The French newspaper Le Figaro wrote of the 'Glorious Glosters' - “The courage and obstinacy of those Britains, together with the extent of their losses, compels one to speak of them only in hushed voices, with a mixture of admiration and a kind of sacred reverence”
A memorial to the fallen English soldiers stands at the base of Hill 235, along the Seolma-cheon gorge road, on a bend in the stream almost exactly halfway between the Beopryun-sa entrance to Gamak-san and the centre of Jakseong town (2km from each). The Seolma-ri memorial has become the most recognizable memorial for all British troops lost or injured during the Korean War.
After being such a central location in the theater of war, and located so close to perhaps the tensest border in the world, it would be fair to assume that the area around Gamak-san would be widely cleared of forest cover and have a heavy militarized feel. I expected as much, and was surprised to find the mountain retained the wild feel of nature, and is heavily forested. My approach to the mountain along provincial road 371 from Nam-myeon to the south, through the Seolma-gorge to Jakseong north of the mountain was a beautiful drive, through thick forest and narrow gorge beneath the twisting ridge network.
Above the thick forest, however, Gamak-san’s summit ridge, where all trails come together, is dominated by a major military communications installation. This covers the northern face of the peak, with high barbed wire security fence beginning just a metre or so behind the excellent and mysterious stele marking the summit. This structure replaced the US ‘Kamaksan ASA Facility’, a radio relay facility which once covered a larger area of the mountain.
The newer facility appears to be run by the South Korean military, who were quite friendly on my visit. Despite being a large presence on the mountain it does not take much from the hiking experience here, there is no road leading to the facility, and the few soldiers manning it hike in and out, usually from the northern route. Independent travelers using Korean online mapping such as Daum and Naver maps will notice that this facility has been camouflaged in satellite imagery. This is common of many government facilities in the mountains of the northern South.
On the summit side of the large fences stand two stone statues of Yangju City’s mascots, ‘Goryongi’ on the left, who represents the past, and ‘Mirongi’, who represents hope for a brighter future. Another addition to the mountain is a life-sized white marble Mary of Nazareth, standing above the tree-line on a large plinth of brick. She greets hikers coming from the north, from a vantage point below the peak.
Among this unusual menagerie of highland oddities, stands the true treasure of Gamak-san. The 170cm tall granite stele (biseok) standing atop an altar of rocks is most commonly known as ‘Gamak-seon-bi’, but also ‘Jinheung-wang-sunsu-bi’, after the Shilla king who greatly expanded the kingdom, and ‘Bit-dol-dae-wang-bi’ (rain rock king stele); a large number of names for a simple stele, which hints at the disputed nature of this ancient stone.
Local legend states that the Biseok was originally located on a mountain pass in Hwangbang-ri, a village area to the south of the mountain. Locals would bow to the stele when crossing the pass and pray for their safety, even getting off horses to do so if need be. Outsiders, unaware of this ritual, often failed to acknowledge this, and unfortunate accidents were not uncommon. In an effort to stop this, locals held a ceremony to the Gamak-sanshin, and that night all had the same dream, in which the mountain spirit appeared asking for cows.
The following morning the cows of the area were reported to be sweating profusely, and many locals promptly proceeded to sacrifice them. Those who did not participate, are said to have mysteriously died soon after.
After this episode the biseok was found to be absent from the mountain pass, and was soon discovered standing on the summit of the mountain, where it stands to this day. This stele is still held in high sacred regard, and formal annual ceremonies are held on the altar which it stands. Shaman from all around the country come to this peak to worship throughout the year, and often candles are burning in paper cups at the foot of the altar, as in the photo above.
Gamak-seonbi is also an academic mystery. By its styling and material it is most definitely from the Shilla Dynasty, and is of extremely high quality. Its similarity to the famous Jinheung-Wang-Sunsubi stele (National Treasure no.03), atop Bi-bong in Bukhan-san National Park has led to speculation that this is a fifth of King Jinheung’s 4 famous Sunsu-bi, which the 24th King of Silla placed marking the great extent of his kingdom; on Bi-bong as mentioned, in Changnyeong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, (National Treasure 33, standing now in a park in the center of town below Hwawang-san), and on Hwangcho-ryeong and Maun-ryeong passes in Hamgyeongnam-do province (DPRK). These are very famous monuments, which all Korean students are taught of and know, if it could be proven that this was a fifth it would be an incredibly significant find. A research team from Dongguk University was inspired by this possibility, and in 1982 began an extensive research project and examination of the stele to get to the bottom of the mystery. However the markings on the stele have been so significantly worn that no conclusion on the matter was reached, and it remains another grand mystery of the hills. It’s nice to know that the idea of a cantankerous mountain spirit with bovine fever shifting the stele, is for now as good a theory as a King marking out his boundaries.
Western Trails - From Seolma-gorge
The dominant trails to the summit begin in the west, from Beomryun-sa temple, and a site slightly further north in the Seolma gorge, to the north from Mita-am hermitage and Sanchon Village in Gaekhyeon-ri, just a couple of kilometres east of Jakseong town, to the south from Nam-myeon and to the south-east from Hwangbang-ri village. These all come together within 500m of Gamak-san’s summit, making interesting loops and traverse options viable.
Beomryun-sa Trail Head – Gamak-san (3.4km – 3.9km) – Elevation gain 530m
The trail head starts from PR371, 4km south of Jakseong town, at a point in the Seolma gorge where the stream crosses under the road, to flow north on the eastern side of the road. There are bus shelters on both sides of the road, a large trail map of Gamak-san, and a brown sign pointing east toward Beomryun-sa. There is little parking here, most hikers seem to park on the side of the small road leading to the temple.
The trail follows the concrete road running into the mountain for 800m to Beomryun-sa. At the first bend is a small restaurant and store, the Turtle Rock hyuge-so, the only option for light supplies if needed, although the temple has ample fresh water.
At Beomryun-sa the road meets the trail, and the Gamak-gyegok gorge stream, which flows west down to the Seolma gorge. The nearby Ungye-pokpo waterfall 운계폭포 is well worth checking out. Beomryun-sa is a well presented temple in a peaceful spot in the gorge, and dates back to the Silla Dynasty. Literature here tells us this is now the largest temple of the mountain, previously a temple called Gamak-sa stood on the slopes but no longer exists. I was unable to find information as to the whereabouts of this presumably destroyed temple.
From Beomryun-sa we join a well-trod trail under a generous canopy through the narrowing Gamak-gorge, tracing the stream for 800m or so. Beyond the temple are a number of overgrown ruins which are the remains of a coal making plant. These were quite common in mountain areas until the 1960’s, particularly in areas with a large population of oak (참나무), such as here. 1km from the temple a junction offers the option to go north for 100m, meeting the ridge of the Ggachi-san summit trail. Our route continues east toward the peak.
A junction 100m further on, at a bench, gives the option of going straight up to the summit on a lesser track, or going via Imggeokjeong-bong on the main path. The later adds an extra 500m to the trail, but I recommend it for superior view options. Both trails come together on the ridge near a large Jeongja, a great place to rest just a couple hundred metres south of Gamak-san.
Ungye-neungseon ridge trail.
PR371 – Ggachi-san – Gamak-san (2.8km) – 1hr30 Elevation gain 600m (approx.)
This is a popular return loop route for hikers taking the Beomryun-sa trail, and meets the road just 1.2km north of the Beomryun-sa entrance. There are no services at this trailhead.
The trail starts from a point in the road where the large new elevated highway crosses between two ridges. Here a small bridge crosses the stream onto a dirt road, which we follow to the ridge trail. Note: this entrance has been used heavily during construction of the new highway and edging/clearings associated with it. Specific trail entrance may vary, look out for ribbons.
Our trail climbs along the lower shoulder of the ridge, heading predominantly east for 1.5km before reaching the junction which connects this and the Beonryun-sa trail. The final 1.3km crosses some steep rocky ground, particularly on and around Ggachi-san. There are good wooden staircases over the rockiest sections, from which are great views to the south and west. 100m short of the summit stands a very impressive large jeongja, a true gem. This is the junction for the trail running north to Sanchon-maeul. Shortly beyond the jeongja stands the military facility below the summit.
Transport – Bus 25, and 25-1 From Uijeongbu bus terminal, Bus passes by Uijeongbu subway station following line one as far as Yeongju station, before heading northwest toward Jakseong.
Taking subway to Yeongju first is quicker than bussing from Uijeongbu.
Depending on trail head get off at either Beopryun-sa 4km from Jakseong, or the following stop at Biryonggyoyuk-ipdae, walking back a couple hundred metres to the Ungye-neungseon trailhead.
Sanchon-maeul (Gaekhyeon-ri) – Gamak-san 2.7km, 1hr30min. Elevation gain 570m (approx.)
The trail begins beyond the Sanmaru Grape Farm, vineyard and auto-campground in this small village of Gakhyeon-ri http://www.sanmeoru.com/.
The trailhead starts from a small carpark with toilets and a couple of nice jeongja for resting. The trail heads south up a ridge shoulder for about 1.5km to a height of 500m. From here the trail steepens somewhat, there is a decent staircase over the most challenging section. The elevation brings occasional good northern views. The trail meets the ridge 100m from the summit.
Mita-am – Summit 2.4km (1hour)
Heading east past Sanmeoru Farm, the road thins, and turns north, 1.2km to Mita-am, a lovely hermitage deep in the mountain north of the summit. This trail is quite popular despite its difficulty to get to. The path to the summit is well marked, and reaches the summit ridge north of the military structure.
Transport: Bus 91b running from Jeokseong east to Jeongok and back heads as far as the cheese factory half way up the road to the Sanmeoru farm, every 60min from 6:55 to 8:40.
Taxi from Jeokseong bus terminal is approx. 7500 won.
Sinam-ri – Summit 2.2km (from northern lake edge)
This trail starts from the Sinam reservoir, which fills the upper end of the valley between two south leading ridges; the one on the west being the Gamak-jimaek making its approach to Gamak-san, and the eastern ridge heading south to the peak of Sari-san standing above the township of Nam-myeon. The trail follows country road from Nam-myeon north to the reservoir, following the western coast and on to the small Simwon-sa temple. This road continues quite a long way into the mountain. The trail eventually meets the Beomryun-sa ridge trail some 600m south west of the summit. Look out for "Face Rock" on the climb, it's really something.
Sari-san ridge trail – Summit 5.3km
Aside from the Gamak-jeongmaek trail, this is the longest approach route to the summit. The ridge trail follows a small road which starts from the Nam-myeon eorini-jip 남면어린이집, a large brick kindergarten just around the corner from the county office. Follow the road north through village and farmland before entering the forest of Sari-san, dropping into a wide saddle and climbing to Gureum-san (336m). From here it is a good long approach at a steady gradient, reaching the summit ridge 100m south of the peak.
Transport: Same bus which travels on to the western side of the mountain (25, 25-1).
For Sinam-ri get off at Yeondae-ap (연대앞), or Sinam-samgeori stop, just 2km on from Nam-myeon town.
For the Ridge trail get off at the river-side park in Nam-myeon centre, and walk to the kindergarten trailhead.
Hwangbang-ri - Summit
This trail, beginning from the south-east, is known as ‘the path of legend’, due to the association of the area with the Gamak-bi/San-shin story. The trail starts north of the Wondang Jeosuji (reservoir), at a small rest area with benches and signage. Follow the street alongside the stream flowing down Gamak-gol gorge. As the streets end the trail turns northwest into the mountain, climbing to meet the Sari-san ridge trail 100m short of the summit-ridge.
From Jihaeng-yeok subway station (line1) bus 17A and 17B head to Hwangbang-ri. Get off at ‘Gamak-gol’ bus stop.
Gamak-jimaek Ridge Trail
Hangang-bong – Nogo-san (381m) – Gamak-san (675m) – Machi-san (588m) – Hantang-daegyo bridge.
The Gamak-jimaek leaves the Hanbuk-jeongmaek ridge at Hangang-bong (400m approx.) north-west of Uijeongbu-city, south-west of Yangju city. The trail heads north-west over Noa-san (337m), then north over PR360, Nogo-san and into Gamak-san, staying west of Nam-myeon as it rises to the peak. The ridge then heads west to Machi-san, and follows its northern arm down to its terminus at the river.
I have not walked this trail. Korean maps and information are available on the homepage of the great Korean ridge walker Mr. Cho Jin-dae (Fred Cho)