The Fortress Wall Trail of Bugaksan Mountain
This day ended up being more epic than I could have ever imagined. When you are sick with a chronic illness, you dream of being able to climb one flight of stairs without being over your heart rate limit and completely fatigued. My doctor once told me that I needed to stop on each landing and wait for my heart rate to decrease in order to further ascend. But this day, my stops were to take in spectacular views as I scaled a mountain.
Korea is the country of stairs, or un pays d’escaliers. Seriously. If you have bad knees or suffer from illnesses/injuries that are not fit for stairs, you may want to look elsewhere for your next voyage. Every metro stop seems to have hundreds, and being that the country is formed of mountains, you will find stairs—lots of stairs—everywhere you go. Likewise, it is a country of trails. I can hardly imagine a country more saturated with hiking trails than Korea. Being that there are many in Seoul, I was eager to give them a try and experience something unlike I had ever done before.
Our trip to the Bugaksan Mountain Fortress Trail was nothing short of a comedy of errors. We took the metro to a bus, but upon arriving, had really no idea WHICH bus to take and in which direction. We asked police officers and some sweet ladies standing at the bus stop and were convinced we were going the right direction. The ladies told us to get off 5 stops after them. Before we arrived at their stop, however, they realized they had completely led us astray and instructed us to get off and take a different bus, which of course we couldn’t find. Finally, we found the bus, and again took it in the wrong direction (or maybe it wasn’t the right bus at all? we will never know.) Being that we had already started our day behind-schedule, we gave in and hailed a taxi, which we should have done from the beginning as taxis are so cheap in Korea.
When we told the driver where we wanted to go, he indignantly told us in Korean that he couldn’t take us there. We scrambled to google directions one more time and found another access point on the map. We pointed to the general area and he seemed satisfied with our newly-chosen destination. Turned out that we chose what is typically the exit, but we preferred this route as the steep and unshaded portion was tackled last and downhill. If you are trying to find your way to the Fortress Trail by way of Warring Park, you can get a taxi to Samcheong Park from Anguk station.
PRO TIP: Do the Fortress Wall Trail “backwards” so you can do the arduously steep section last and downhill.
We finally arrived, still not 100% sure we were in the right place. We mimed and gestured our way through a conversation with the café owner near the Warring Park entrance who told us that wherever we were going was beautiful. Good enough for us. On y va! (let’s go in French)
Traveling in a country, much less exploring, where the alphabet is not your own is so much harder than just being amongst a foreign language. The words are all squiggle squiggle squiggle and certainly not something our brains can remember and then recognize. We resorted to taking photos of signs and trying to compare them to future signs to see if we were still following the same direction. This kinda sorta worked.
This trail isn’t super-easy, but admittedly, I didn’t have much of a point of reference. My friend classified it as a 4/5, but I’m not positive it was THAT hard. Maybe I don’t give myself enough credit! I thought it was doable with a decent amount of endurance, good knees, and appropriate attire and provisions. We hiked in the heat of summer and the heat/humidity were undoubtedly the most severe. Fortunately, when you make it to the Fortress Wall gates, they have water fountains where you can refill your bottles and rehydrate, which I most definitely recommend you do.
Once we reached the observation point, we were richly rewarded with spectacular views and also picnic spots nestled among the trees and rocky formations. This wasn’t officially part of the fortress trail, but it was leading us to an entrance point, and was a part not to be missed. We stopped for a little break to re-nourish and take in the panoramas—which were impossible to capture in a flat photo. I couldn’t believe how high I had already climbed; what a victory!
So we continued along the trails and climbed more and more stairs until we found our way to an end-point of the Fortress Wall Trail. In order to hike the Fortress Wall, you will have to present your passport and get an official visitor credential. There is high security as this trail was once used by northern invaders in an failed attempt to assassinate the president. Despite the high security, and thus the photo restrictions in entire cardinal directions, the trail offers breathtaking views of the city below and the mountains amongst which Seoul in snuggled.
I can’t explain in words what this experience was like, nor can I even show you pictures! Mostly because the most spectacular views were prohibited to capture, which is actually kind of cool as it requires you to go experience it yourself. But also, each time we stopped, I looked down to the city from which we ascended and couldn’t believe just how far I had come—both in the last few hours and in the last few years. In Orlando, my house has two flights of stairs and they posed a problem for me to climb in one fell swoop. Those 34 steps raised my heart rate too much and could literally cause me to crash for the day. And now, I was climbing mountains. MOUNTAINS. I was above tree tops and sky scrapers.
After about 1.5 hours on the Fortress Wall Trail, we reached the summit at 342m (1120 feet). For avid climbers out there, this is a relatively tiny mountain summit. But for someone that was told to take rest breaks when climbing each flight of stairs, climbing the equivalent of 112 stories was no tiny accomplishment… and would be the first of many city and mountain trails we hiked in Korea.
We HIGHLY recommend that you do the trail from the western access point as the climb down is pretty steep and would make for the rest of the trail to be significantly more difficult if you start with that ascent. Our legs were definitely trembling after our hike, but it was so worth it.
We then headed to the Cheonggyecheon Stream to soak our tired feet and then to nearby Myeongdong to eat some of Seoul’s best noodles and dumplings and biggest ice cream cones (as found on the street).
We ended up going back to Myeongdong Kyoja during our week in Seoul, it was THAT good (and affordable!). It is also a very popular place with locals and has a simple menu of 5 delightful Korean dishes.
PRO TIP: Eat noodles or dumplings at Myeongdong Kyoja. SO GOOD! The spicy Bibimguksu (above) were my favorite, but all items on their menu were exceptional. The rice and kimchi are all-you-can-eat so order up if you like!
All in all, very rewarding day very well spent.