“The spirit of the Korean people originates here” – a stone marker at Cheonwangbong
Words and shots by Bryce Weibley
At 1,915 meters (6,284 feet), Cheonwangbong (천왕봉) stands proudly as the highest peak in mainland South Korea—second nationally only to Hallasan on Jeju Island. The mighty summit sits atop Jirisan National Park, the oldest and largest national park in the country. Since ancient times, Jirisan has been considered a sacred place of gods and legends, worthy of enlightened monks. Today more than 400 temples lie within the park boundaries. Jirisan is also a sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife, including the re-introduced Asiatic Black Bear.Cheonwangbong is one of Korea’s quintessential hikes. In autumn, the mountain ridges burst with fall colors, creating panoramas as if from an impressionist’s brush. In addition to scenery, spirited groups of hikers always seem happy to share stories and drinks. Cheonwangbong itself is positively buzzing with cheers, photo ops, and picnic parties. For those looking for a quieter hike, a visit to Beopgyesa — the highest temple in Korea at 1,450 meters (4,757 feet) — offers a chance to reflect on Jirisan’s serene spirituality.
Cheonwangbong is most easily accessed from one of the entry points in the eastern part of the national park (see table below). Although conquering it in a single day hike is possible, you’ll need an iron will and an early start. Spending a night at a daepiso (mountain shelter) is highly recommended since it not only breaks up the hike but also adds to the overall experience. Whichever shelter you choose, it’s hard to beat a fine Jirisan sunset with a hot meal, a cold flask, and jovial company.
Hiking in Jirisan can be strenuous and requires adequate preparation. That said, you’ll see Korean pensioners jogging up the trail with soju-laden packs. Bring plenty of water, food, sturdy hiking shoes, rain gear, a flashlight, a map (see link below), and extra clothing layers, as the peak can get cold. Happy hiking!
Direct buses link Seoul’s Dong Bus Terminal to Baengmudong. To reach Jungsan-li or Daewonsa, transfer at Wonji. From Busan, the Seobu (Sasang) Bus Terminal runs direct buses to Jungsan-li and Daewonsa. Transferring buses in Jinju is another good option.
Mountain Shelter Information Most mountain shelters can be reserved on the Korea National Parks website up to two weeks in advance. Some shelters are full within hours of opening reservations, so book early! The Chibanmok shelter does not require a reservation. A shelter costs W5,000-8,000 per person (rental blankets W1,000). Drinking water, boiling water, instant ramen, and snacks are available at the shelters.