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Munbok-san 문복산 1013.5m

Cheongdo-gun and Gyeongju city, Gyeongsangbuk-do

Looking south-west from near the summit - Goheon-san in the right distance.

The most northern peak of the Yeongnam Alps, Munbok-san stands above Sannae-myeon in the southern-most reaches of Gyeongju city and Unmun-myeon in the west of Cheongdo county - it is the only major peak of the Alps located within Gyeongsangbuk-do. Dis-jointed by the major ridge system, Munbok-san is bypassed by the Nakdong-jeongmaek ridge which connects from Gaji-san to Goheon-san some 4km to the south. This is a real back-country mountain which doesn't see a lot of hikers compared to the other peaks of the Alps, but has a lot to offer and a great circuit trail up the gorge from its most open south-western side.

Hwarang Monument at Samgye-ri

The village of Samgye-ri, west of Unmun in Cheongdo has the strongest connection to Munbok-san of any settlement around the mountain, and is the most appealing and popular trailhead to the summit.

Located deep in the high gorge cut from Gaji-san and flowing west into Unmun, Samgye is a remote mountain hideout, which even today involves some challenges to get to. During and after the Korean War this was, along with other areas of the Alps, a hideout for Communist sympathisers and rebels. Earlier, during Japanese occupation, it was an important location for the 3.1 Independence Movement, and during the Japanese Imjin Invasion of the late 16th century this is where Warrior Monks of Unmun-sa, Pyochung-sa and Seongnam-sa gathered to join arms.

It's most celebrated place in history though is as the spiritual beginning of the "Hwarang" - the elite fighting army of the Silla Dynasty. Upon returning from China, the great Silla monk Wongwang-beopsa based himself here, spending his time in Unmun-san and Munbok-san. Here he was sought out by two lads, Gwi-san and Chwi-hang, who wished for instruction on how to live the rest of their lives. In reply Wongwang composed the Sae-sok-O-gye - five commandments by which to live an honourable and virtuous life. These commandments have been attributed as the guiding ethos behind the Hwarang Movement.

These tough northern mountains of the Alps became the training grounds for the Hwarang army, and the recently built monument to their memory stands at the entrance to the trailhead.

Samgye-ri Seonang-gang

Life was hard for the locals of this remote gorge, who on top of having a lot of human-driven turbulence encroaching on their village, also had to deal with occasional severe flooding and rockfalls which often claimed lives, and according to information within the village - "attacks from wild beasts"! They prayed for peace and stability, and it is no surprise that the Seonang-dang (village spirit shrine) in Samgye-ri is very large and proud, restored most recently in the 1970's with a san-shin (mountain spirit) carving inside. The shrine is located 100m down the road from the Hwarang monument.

Map of our trail to Munbok-san from Samgye-ri (marked with a red circle on Road 69) 

 Samgye-ri - 4.5km / 1hr45min - Munbok-san

The trail up the Gyesal-pi Valley to Munbok-san leaves from Samgye-ri Village itself. Turning into the thin village road behind the Hwarang Monument you'll see a public toilet on your left, if in a car this is the spot to park. From here walk through the village/accommodation, keeping the stream on your immediate right. The village ends after a couple of hundred metres and you should be able to see a trail entrance near the river marked with hiking ribbons - there will also be a trail-head on the left heading into the hills, this is where our circuit will end - or start if you'd want to do it backward.

I followed the valley, crossing the stream where obvious early on and following the path of the dotted red line adjacent to the yellow one in the map above, gaining some height above the river before meeting up at water level again after about 2km. 

Not long beyond this point is a waterfall, at the base of which the trail crosses back to the northern (Munbok-san) side of the stream. This is the location of an unsigned trail junction, with the option of continuing east up the valley or northeast up the southwest face of the mountain, following a steep gorge. I opted to continue east up the valley and climb the south face of Munbok, walking the above dotted yellow circuit anti-clockwise from the junction. As the stream thins higher up the valley, so too does the trail, which crosses the stream a few times before settling on the northern side for the climb to the peak.

A small trail heading right (due east) near the beginning of the climb heads up to a 960m peak on the main ridge running from Unmun-ryeong to Munbok-san - a popular route from Unmun pass on PR69. Our trail stays left, becoming very steep heading NNW before levelling out and turning to the east and an open rocky ledge - the first open views of the climb. This big slab of rock on the high ridge looks southeast over Gyesalpi Valley and Unmun-ryeong to Goheon-san, it has the best views of the circuit, and although lower is a much better peak area than the true summit of Munbok-san, a few hundred metres along up the trail, so a great place to take rest. From here the trail continues NE to a junction (right) where we meet the main ridge trail running from Unmun-ryeong to Munbok-san, turning left here the summit is just 200 metres to the north of the junction.

 Munbok-san (1013.5m)

The summit of Munbok-san is a rounded cleared area with low forest on all sides except the north-east, where there are open views over the countryside and hills of southern Gyeongju and northern Ulsan areas.

Aside from the trail we've come in on, two other paths leave the peak - one heading Northeast and the other heading Northwest. The northeast trail is rarely used and heads into the backcountry hills, eventually meeting a mountain road running east down to PR927, the country road you can see off the peak. The Northwest trail is the continuation of our loop, and will run around the western face of the mountain back to Samgye-ri.

Munbok-san - 4km / 1hr40min - Samgye-ri

Leaving on the northwest trail you'll meet a junction after 200 metres. The trail to your right, turning slightly northerly will wrap around to the south-east, following a ridge down to Samgye-ri. The trail to your left heads down a gorge, meeting up with the Gyesalpi Valley near the waterfall junction. Both trails have similar distances and times.

I headed down the gorge trail, which pretty much flanks the ridge trail for about 300m, before turning more to the south, heading down the centre of the peak. The trail becomes quite steep as is follows alongside a stream, dropping about 300m over a kilometre. As we near the valley floor the trail follows a scree slope bordered with large feature rocks, including one large, impressive slab called Neoreok-bawi.

The gorge trail meets the Gyesalpi Valley at the point where we crossed earlier in the day. Don't cross the river here, but turn right following the trail on the northern side of the river which heads directly back to Samgye-ri. On the way back you will pass the site of Gaseulgap-sa temple, now just a clearing in a bamboo grove with a granite marker post, but a great place to take rest.

Getting there

By Car:

From the east. Get off Expressway 1 (Seoul-Busan) at Seo-Ulsan Exit. Take National Highway 24 west, exiting onto Provincial Road 69 (follow signs for Seongnam-sa 석남사). Once off elevated highway turn right (north) at T-junction of Highway 24 and 69, in the opposite direction of Seongnam-sa. PR69 passes Gaji-san Oncheon (hot spring) and climbs steeply over Unmun-ryeong pass, descending on the western side you'll pass Unmun-san Recreational Forest on your left, about 3km east of Samgye-ri. As the mountain gorge widens somewhat into a valley, and you see retaurants and accommodation, this is Samgye-ri. Look for the Hwaryeong warrior monument on your right.

From what I can tell, Samgye-ri is not on any bus route from either Cheongdo to the west, or Eonyang or Gyeongju from the west. I couldn't see a bus stop out there and subsequent internet searches have come up with nothing. The closest bus stop to the west in Donggok bus terminal, just south of Unmun Lake, about 10km from Samgye-ri. To the east, Eonyang buses 1713, 328 and 807 stop at the foot of Unmun-ryeong pass, at the junction of Highway 24 and provincial road 69 east of Seongnam-sa, another 10km and a huge mountain pass away from Samgye-ri.

Carless hikers are probably best off hitch-hiking from either of these bus stops, the road is quiet, but not dead. Good luck!