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Hwawang-san 화왕산 (757m)

Eastern branch of Yeolwang-jimaek ridge, Changnyeong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do

North across Hwawang Highland Basin to Hwawang-san (left), with Biseul-san in the far distance filling the saddle

Hwawang-san is the dominant peak of the Yeolwang-jimaek, a connected group of four ridges which fork off the Biseul-jimaek range, and divide Changnyeong County in the west with Milyang City to the East. The ridges run south and west to the Nakdong River, shaping its eastern bend to Busan, having run largely north-south from Mungyeong in Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Hwawang-san stands on a western fork of this system, rising sharply above wetland running east from the Nakdong river to Changnyeong town, which lies directly below its summit, on the northern edge of the county park.

Sharp cliff faces form the northern and western faces of Hwawang-san, and an imposing rocky ridge dominates its southern approach. These meet and open to a large, swampy, highland basin, the perfect scene for the Hwawang fortress walls, which have encircled the summit plateau for some 1500 years.

This is also the location for the popular Changnyeong myth of their "Jo" family, - more on both below.

Above left: East from Bae-bawi rocks to Gwanryong-san, and right, South from Hwawang-san summit, looking over a gentleman selling beer and icecream, to the scarred southern ridge.

Two ridges of the Yeolwang-jimaek meet at Hwawang-san, heading east and south from the high plateau. To the south a sharp ridge of white boulder creates a forbidding high wall above Changnyeong town, before dropping west to the Nakdong river. The eastern ridge heads to the sacred peak of Gwanryong-san, and the south-eastern entrance to the park at the head of Okcheon-gyegok, a valley rich in Buddhist history, and home to the most important temples on the mountain, including Gwanryong-sa with its famous Yeonseon-dae stone Buddha, and the Okcheon-saji temple ruins.

From Changnyeong there is the possibility of hiking western circuits along the southern ridge and back down to town, or traversing the park from Hwawang-san to Gwanryong-san and down the Okcheon Valley in the south east - though the Changnyeong and Okcheon park entrances are seperated by 15km of road.

For my visit I climbed from Changnyeong town to the summit, along the southern ridge and back down to Changnyeong, then travelled over to the Okcheon valley to visit the major temples and walk to Yeonseon-dae platform. I'll describe these routes below.

Full Park Map

Ridge View

Western Circuit. Changnyeong Entrance - Hwawang-san - Hwawang-sanseong - Changnyeong Entrance.

The western trailhead from Changnyeong, up the Chiha-gok gorge, is the most popular entrance to the park, and is the most direct route to the summit of Hwawang-san.

From town to the entrance is easy enough, it's just the highest street, and the only road that runs into the mountain.

The paved road into the mountain runs just over a kilometre from the ticket booth to the Buddhist hermitage of Doseong-am, passing a dozen or so restaurants and cafes which line the road next to the stream.

The last carpark is located about 500-600m short of Doseong-am, at the Buddhist prayer centre, Gwaneum-gido-doryang.

The circuit trail meets where the road thins and splits, heading left to Doseong-am, and right a short distance to a San-jang, and a recreational picnic/exercise park.

Doseong-am 도성암

Doseong-am was established in 809 by the monk Jiwol, during the reign of Silla Dynasty King Hyeondeok, however it was burnt completely to the ground during the Imjin Japanese Invasion of the late 16th century. For 200 years thereafter the area remained vacant, with just burnt stone pillars giving any sign of its former presence.

The area was considered to have bad pungsu-jiri , and a series of accidents and tragedies occurred on the steep slopes around the vacant temple location.

It was decided that the hermitage must be rebuilt again in order to stop the bad vibe of the area, and it worked. Doseong-am has gained a bit of a reputation for turning around bad luck, and changing the lives of those who have taken the wrong path. It is said that the vilest of characters can attain virtue by praying here with sincerity.

A quote from Doseong-am - "The power of prayer here is as strong as a snake becomes a dragon by admonishing it, and turning a grasp of sand into a forest."

The treasure at Doseong-am is a 17th century, 60cm seated stone Amithaba Buddha, housed in a shrine near the main hall.

The steep Northern Face of Hwawang-san

The trail heads into the trees to the right of Doseong-am's carpark, and climbs north-east to the summit ridge. It's only a short hike (1.5km) but its a hell of a steep one, over the first half in particular, before reaching the ridge and becoming a gentle easterly stroll to the summit, the highest point on the northwestern edge of the highland basin.

The summit is celebrated by a large grey stone stele, which looks out west over Changnyeong town, the Upo Wetlands, and the Nakdong river. On a clear day you will see Gaya-san to the north-west, and Jiri-san to the west. The mountain directly north is Biseul-san, while to the east are the major peaks of the western Yeongnam Alps; Unmun-san, Gajii-san, Cheonhwang-san and Jaeyak-san. 

If you're here in summer, bring some cash, there's a fella who sells cold cans of Hite and icecreams from a couple of massive chilly-bins. The prices are obviously a bit inflated, but after a steep climb it's a hell of a treat.

The Eastern Fortress, stretching to Nam-bong

Hwawang Mountain Fortress is thought to have been built in the 5th or 6th century, during the dying stages of the Gaya confederacy, and was in sporadic use right up until the middle years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

The fortress walls stretch 2.7km above the forbidding cliffs of the mountain, encircling the high grassy plateau and basin, which served as an excellent long-term strategic military location during periods of conflict and unrest. The eastern walls of the fortress were built of stones, and after recent restoration, including the rebuild of the eastern gate, look brand-spanking new. The western walls, standing above the already formidable western cliffs, were made from a mix of stone and soil, and are not as prominent, in places non-existent.

During the Imjin Invasions of Korea (1592-1598), the walls were reinforced and strengthened by Gwak Je-woo - The General In Red. Within the walls he built a proper military compund, which was camouflaged along with his troops. Stone catchment pools were built in the natural swampy basin to store water, and a provisions building was established - the Red General was in it for the long battle!

In the lowest point of the grasslands, one of the large catchment pools remains in the swampy low highlands, and looks to have been recently restored. It's quite impressive really, probably 6m x 6m at a guess, and would make for a great mountain-top bath - if the waters had some flow and were a bit cleaner.

A large stone monument between the pool and the east gate tells the origin story of the Changnyeong "Jo" family, and suggests that pools have been present on the mountain top for a millennia before The Red General.

It was here, during the reign of Silla King Jinpyeong (579-631), that Yehyang, the ailing daughter of royal scholar Yi Gwang-ok, took a bath to treat her illness. The story I heard gives no indication as to whether she bathed alone, but upon returning from the mountain Yehyang began showing signs of pregnancy. An angel identified the baby as the son of a dragon, and foretold that he would bear a dragon's mark.

Yehyang had a boy with a prominent birthmark under his armpit, in the shape of the chinese character "Jo". Upon hearing this story King Jinpyeong sent for the boy, and confirmed the tale. He granted him the family name "Jo", and named him Gyeryong (Dragon), Jo Gye-ryong; the founder of the Changnyeong Jo's - proudest family in the county.

The 2.4m high monument was erected and inscribed in 1897 by one of Dragon's descendents, Jo Shin-yeong, the then governer of the province.

From the eastern gate a dirt road runs east just over a kilometre to the film set of "Heo-jun", a popular TV show about the life of the famous court physician of the same name (Heo-jun 1539-1615). From here trails run south east a further 1.5km to the summit of Gwanryong-sa (753m), continuing on down to the Okcheon entrance at Gwanryong-sa.

The Jo foundation legend is referred to in the Illustrated National Geography (1760's), Towns in Gyeongsangdo (1832), and Towns in Yongnam (1895)

North along the ridge to Hwawang-san, the outer shoulder trail to Doseong-am in centre.

For returning to the Changnyeong entrance there is the option of taking a direct, central track down from the west gate, where picnic tables are set up in summer months, and a lovely couple sell refreshments - this track will get you back to the Doseong-am junction in 1.2km.

I chose to walk south along the ridge a while, then take the outer southern shoulder down to Doseong-am.

Climbing south out of the basin the grassland ends at a massive rock called Bae-bawi. From here the landscape becomes extremely rocky, a complete contrast to the grasslands of the Hwawang plateau. The trail enters low forest and follows the "Jongju" (ridge apex) south-west toward the looming cliffs of the north-facing shoulders.

Jaha-jeong Jeongja

You'll meet the junction down to Doseong-am about 1km south-east of Bae-bawi. From here it's just over 1.3km down to the hermitage.

It's possible to keep walking along the southern ridge, which ends about 3-4km further at the pass of Bideul-jae 비들재, where a rarely used road runs throught the mountains from Changnyeong to Okcheon.

This trail down from the ridge is a real doozy, winding through a landscape of massive granite boulders, which could be a lot of fun for anyone who likes an off trail scramble.

1km down from the ridge the trail meets a large jeongja (right), from where the trail enters shade forest, following small cairns through an exercise/picnic park, and down a short stretch of road to the Doseong-am juction.

Soi-salmusa 쇠살무사 pit-viper

It might be worth mentioning that along the rocky trail leading to Doseong-am, I saw two of these snakes.

As anyone who walks Korea will know, it's not unusual to see the odd snake, but to see two of the same species over the space of a couple hundred metres may suggest it's a favourite spot for them.

The Salmusa 살무사 , and the Soi-salmusa 쇠살무사 are vipers, and apparently pack a pretty nasty punch. There are a few sub-species with different colours and markings than the one on the left, but they all seem to blend in pretty well!

It might be wise to pay attention to the track in these areas :)

Okcheon Entrance

South over Yongseon-dae and the Okcheon Valley

The Okcheon entrance to the park is near the end of pleasant country road 1080, running north east up the Okcheon valley from Gyeseong-myeon, the small town some 7km south of Changnyeong. The road passes through quaint farmland, a number of shrines and temples, and the Okcheon resorvoir, alongside of which are a number of nice looking cafes and restaurants.

This is a much more scenic entrance to the mountain than that in Changnyeong, and there is a sense of a long history in this idyllic countryside, certainly the most famous temples reside on this side of the mountain, facing south from the face of Gwanryong-san.

Almost another 7km up the valley is the Okcheon ticket booth, the entrance to Gwanryong-sa, Yongseon-dae and southern trails to the mountain are 1.6km up a small road running north from here, while the 1080 continues to the east.

Guardian Deities of Gwanryong-sa lower entrance. Male left and female right

The road up to Gwanryong-sa follows first the narrowing Gyeseong stream, before turning off at the entrance to Okcheon-saji, the ruins of former Okcheon-sa temple, which unfortunately I was too late to visit on my way down the mountain, but looks a very popular destinantion (for these parts anyway).

A few hundred metres before reaching the temple itself are the old stone guardians of Gwanryong-sa, which are quite unique in my experience, with their big bulging eyes they look a little like the famous guardians of Jeju Island.

Here there is quite a large carpark, which acts as an overflow for the smaller carpark up at the temple itself.

Gwanryong-sa and Byeongpung-bawi ridge of Gwanryong-san (753m)

Nestled under the southern face of Gwanryong-san, or Guryong-san (the mountain of nine dragons), Gwanryong-sa is the largest and most important temple in Hwawang-san County Park, and one of the eight major temples of Silla.

There are two possible dates for Gwanryong-sa's foundation during the Silla Dynasty, either in 349 during the reign of King Heulhae, or in 583 by the monk Jeungbeop-guksa during the reign of King Jinpyeong. Either way it's early history was shaped by the great traveling monk Wonhyo-daesa (618-86).

Wonhyo is credited with naming the temple after seeing nine dragons flying into the sky from the ponds of Hwawang-san, on the last of 100 days of prayer with his apprentice, Songpa. Wonhyo is also said to have preached the "Hwa-eom-geong" (CHECK) here to his 1000 disciples, perhaps the same 1000 who he settled in Cheonseong-san

The 3 metre seated Sakyamuni Buddha, Yongseon-dae, is a 400 metre walk west of the temple. It's spectacular position on a protruding rocky outcrop, looking south-east over the Okcheon valley and surrounding mountains make it a popular tourist and pilgrimage point. Yongseon-dae was carved in the Silla dynasty, probably around the 9th century. Sakyamuni points to the ground, which according to information on site drives all evil down. The information suggests that the site of Yongseon-dae was chosen in accordance with the thoughts of pungsu-docham, which believed in suppressing evil to the ground. (CHECK)

Trails to Gwanryong-san

There is a nice little circuit 2.5km from Gwanryong-sa to Yongseon-dae, and up to the Bunpyeong-bawi rock face to Gwanryong-san and back down to the temple.

From the north-eastern edge of Gwangryong-san a trail heads to the Hajun film set and across to Hwawang-san.

I'm kicking myself a bit for not getting up this side of the mountain beyond Yongseon-dae, but such is the life of the weekend warrior!

I reckon I'll be back to have a proper look up Gwanryong-san, and check out it's high hermitage, Cheongryong-am.


To Changnyeong

Cheongnyeong has it's own exit on the Jungbunaeryuk Expressway 45.

The exit is west of town, the expressway exits onto National Highway 20 which takes you east into the town.

Non expressway drivers coming from the north in south will arrive on NH 5, which runs from Masan in the south to Daegu in the north.

Coming from the east (Ulsan/Milyang) follow NH24 west to Changnyeong.

Bus - Buses leave from Daegu's Seobu Terminal for Changnyeong every 30min - 1hr from 7am to 9pm, with a late bus at 11pm. Buses also run to Changnyeong from Nam-Daegu, Masan, Milyang and Seo-Busan.

Changnyeong to Okcheon and back

The bus from Changnyeong to Okcheon runs at 7am, 9:40am, 12pm, 2:10pm, 3:50pm and 6pm. Returning at 7:25, 10:30, 12:30. 2:40, 4:40 and 6:30.

Driving from Changnyeong follow NH5 south 7km to the eastern (left) turnoff of the 1080 (the western turnoff is somewhat before). Off the raised highway go through Gyeseong town and follow the 1080 up Okcheon valley 6km to the ticket booth.

Changnyeong Town

The County Seat of Changnyeong (pop. 75,000) occupies the flat, fertile ground east of the Nakdong River and the famous Upo Wetlands to the Peaks of Hwawang-san. The town doesn't get high tourist numbers, but is a pleasant place with some interesting things to see in addition to Upo, and is the hub for both major entrances to the mountain.

The old market and downtown is centred around a nice park at the foot of Hambaek-san, a foothill of Hwawang-san. At the parks centre is a large single grasstopped structure, which looks identical to an old Silla tomb. This is the old town refrigerater, thought to have been built in the early 18th century. Made with thick clay walls, and a complex ventilation system the fridge could apparently keep ice in its solid state throughout the summer months.

South of town in the village area of Gyeseong-myeon stand a grouping of some 270 pre-silla tombs, dating back to Korea's 3-Kingdoms period of Korea (57 AD - 668 AD). Research on the tombs began with a preliminary excavation in 1967, followed by 5 in 1999, and a surface survey in 2011. Artifacts and relics excavated include iron weapons and tools, earthenware inscribed with writings, and some gold and silver accessories and jewelery. Along with Hwawang Fortress, the tombs at Gyeseong are a great source of pride for Changnyeong locals; standing proof that although a small town now, their town was once at the centre of an important region.

Changnyeong Yeongsan Man-nyeon-gyo

For bridge lovers, Changnyeong boasts two fine design examples from their respective periods of history.

Yeongsan Mannyeon-gyo crosses the Yeongsan-cheon stream as it meanders through Hoguk Park in the centre of Yeongsan-myeon, just south of Gyeseong town. The bridge was first built in 1780 by the reknowned rock-mason Baek Jin-gi, and rebuilt by mason Kim Nae-gyeong in 1892. "Mannyeon-gyo's unique curves and arches remind one of a rainbow on the surface of the water" - translated from local info.

Namjicheol-gyo- bridge

Namjicheol-gyo is certainly the most stylish entry point to Changnyeong, crossing the Nakdong River from Namji-eup in southern Changnyeong to Gyenae-ri in Haman-gun.

The truss constructed iron bridge was built in 1931, during the most recent of Japanese occupations of Korea, and is regarded as one of the most beautiful iron bridges built during the time, particularly noted for its subtle 'wave-rise' shape.

Beside the large traffic bridge is a pedestrian bridge, well worth checking out.