Gyeongju’s Mt. Namsan (남산), or literally “South Mountain”, may not be among the tallest or most beautiful mountains in Korea, but to me it’s one of the most magical. It might look gentle from the side, but up close Namsan’s got enough steep valleys, twisting peaks and craggy boulders to give any hiker a run for their money. Not to mention, it’s a treasure trove of ancient Shilla (신라) Dynasty ruins and carvings. Its peaks and valleys are scattered with over a hundred pagodas, hermitages, and stone Buddhas dating back 1,300 years.
Most weekend visitors to Gyeongju miss out on Mt. Namsan, which is a shame. If there’s any single “must do” hike, I’d say it’s Samneung Valley (삼릉골). It’s one of the easier hikes and it only takes 2 hours round trip, so you can head out after lunch and still get back in time to catch the 5:00 bus back to Seoul. Also, you can see 8 different ancient Buddhist carvings on the way up (including the 2nd biggest on Namsan), plus a Buddhist temple and a number of great panoramic views. Unfortunately, all this makes Samneung Valley very popular, so it can get a bit busy on the weekends.
The trail head for Samneung Valley is just off of the old N.R. 35, running along the west side of Mt. Namsan, a few kilometers south of town. It’s got a huge parking lot, information kiosk, toilets and several restaurants, so it’s pretty hard to miss. Before you head off, pick up a hiking map from the info booth by the road. I’d suggest grabbing a Korean hiking map as well, as it has better depictions of the trails. To start on the trail, just cross the street, walk past the orchard and then turn right across a little stream to the three Shilla tombs (삼릉 or Samneung). From here follow the trail straight up through the valley.
About 15 minutes in you’ll come across a headless Maitreya Buddha, who was decapitated by either the Japanese or the 14th century Neo-Confucians, depending which book you’ve read. And just 50 meters up the ridge to his left there’s a 5 foot carving of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy. Over the next 20 minutes you’ll pass several more Buddhist carvings, each more impressive than the last. Be sure not to miss the beautiful Shakamuni Buddha perched on a lotus pedestal off to the left, over-looking the stream.
The trail starts getting steep a few minutes before Sangseonam (상선암) hermitage, making it a lovely spot for a breather before the last 15 minutes up the mountain. Just before making it to the top you’ll hit a 20-foot tall Maitreya Buddha (the 2nd tallest on Namsan) carved on the cliff side looking east over the valley. From here it’s just another 5 minutes up the stairs and left to the panorama of Paduk Rock or 바둑바위 (so named for the patterns in the stone), with gorgeous views of both Gyeongju city to the north and Mt. Byeondoksan (벽도산) to the west.
If you’re like me, and don’t like going back the way you came, try following the return trail to Sambulsa Hermitage, which ends just 15 minutes from where you started. As you start back down the mountain, turn right at the sign post and family tomb just below the 20 ft. Buddha and follow the trail down along the ridge line. It’s a bit rough at times, but you know you’re almost done when you get to the bamboo groves. Definitely check out the ancient Buddha statues of Sambulsa (삼불사) Hermitage and rustic quiet of Mangwolsa (망월사) Temple nearby. If you’ve got the time, sit down, relax and have some tea at the Cheontong Teahouse (전통찻집) in front of Mangwolsa Temple. I’m partial to the omicha (오미차), or “five flavor tea” myself.
To get out to Samneung Valley catch any of the 500 buses (502, 504, etc.) across from the bus terminals (1,500 won). Be sure to check with the driver to make sure he’s going the right direction. But if you’re short on time and have a bit of cash, the easiest way to get out to Samneung Valley is to catch a taxi. Just tell the driver “Namsan Samneung” and the fare should be around 7 or 8,000 won. With it’s huge parking lot, the trail head for Samneung Valley is hard to miss.