Located a short distance outside Jeonju in the undulating hillsides of South Jeolla Province in the country's southwest, Mount Naejang is one of Korea's finest and arguably one of its most visited attractions. The mountain brings hordes of people to view its foliage during the autumn months every year.
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"The best time to go is the first week of November," said Jin Hyun-ju, a visitor's guide at the mountain's national park. "This is often the busiest time of year, and we see visitors from all over the country coming here."
The name "Naejang" means "many secrets," and dotting the park are temples, cliffside waterfalls and stunning views from the summit. Given the arduous conditions and inevitable dangers of getting lost, it's promising to know that all courses start and finish from the same entrance.
Despite it being one of Korea's most visited and admired mountains, it is by no means an easy hike. The walk alone from the where a bus drops you off -- along a quaint street lined with traditional Korean restaurants -- is between 2 and 3 kilometers. From the entrance of Mount Naejang National Park, it is another 500 meters or so to Naejang Temple, the starting point of a number of different trail options.
"We come here every year during the fall to hike the Ridge Course," said Kim Min-young, an accountant from Seoul. Not for a casual day-tripper, this course stretches over 12.8 km and takes seven hours to scale the park's eight peaks, the highest of which is 763 meters (above sea level). "It's not easy, but it's really the best way to take advantage of the views," Kim assures.
A less daunting option is the Seoraebong Course, assures Jin the guide, which is 5.9 km and takes a little more than three hours to complete. It winds up along Byeongnyeonam all the way to Seoraebong's 624-meter summit, the first of eight peaks that circle the park's colorful grounds below.
Much of the path on the way to the summit of Seoraebong hugs precariously close to a cliff wall. The course then stretches over to Bulchulbong (622 meters) before descending via Wonjeokam, a smaller temple said to have been built during the third year of the reign of King Seonjong (1083-1094), and back down to Naejang Temple.
Legend has it that if fog enshrouds the summit of Bulchulbong, severe drought will follow for that year.
Regardless of which course one chooses, each offers its own set of challenges and what awaits visitors above makes them worthwhile. The sign at the summit of Seoraebong claims the valley below resembles a "flowing traditional Korean dress" in the way the hillsides seem to drape and flow to the ground below.
Before the hike up, it is recommended one explore the peaceful Naejang Temple. First built in 636, during the reign of King Mu of the Baekje Kingdom, by Youngeunjosa, one of the founders of Korean Buddhism, the temple has endured several tragedies. It was burned down twice, first in 1539, after which it was rebuilt in 1567 by a prominent Buddhist priest. It burned down yet again in 1951 during the Korean War (1950-53), before being restored in 1971, when the grounds were designated as a national park.
Another interesting site in Mount Naejang National Park is the Byeongnyeonam Temple, the second temple along the Seoraebong Course, which sits at the foot of Seoraebong. It was originally named Naejang Temple and largely considered to be the park's most noteworthy temple. Its buildings were also pummeled during the Korean War and later restored by prominent Buddhist monks.
Buddhist legend has it that the foundation stonework for the temple was made from stones collected at the summit of Seoraebong by a monk named Huimuk. He is said to have thrown the stones down to his fellow monk Huicheon who caught them and proceeded to build the temple as it stands today.
On the way down from Bulchulbong, the course winds past Wonjeokam Temple. Originally built as a stand-alone structure comprising seven rooms in the reign of King Seonjong, it was also completely destroyed during the Korean War and restored as a small temple in 1961.
There are few better ways to finish one's hike than in any of the restaurants that flank the main road from the bus stop for makgeolli (rice wine) and Jeonju bibimbap, the region's signature dish featuring the area's vegetables and diced raw beef on a rice base.
Naejangsan bokbunja, a Korean fruit wine made from wild or cultivated Korean black raspberries, is also delicious.
For those wishing to spend a night in the area, there are a number of accommodation options also along the main street beside the bus stop.
How to get there: The KTX is the easiest and fastest option. From Yongsan Station it takes 2 hours and 19 minutes to get to Jeong-eup Station. From there, take bus number 171 just up the street from the station -- as you leave the entrance, cross the street and keep straight. The bus stop is 100 meters from there. (Yonhap)