Located in the mountains near Daejeon and Gongju, Gyeryongsan National Park is one of the oldest, smallest, and most beautiful national parks in Korea. There are hiking trails that run from one end of the park to the other, with Buddhist temples situated near both entrances. Donghaksa temple is closer to Daejeon, and is a working temple stay. I read that it was the less spectacular of the two temples, so we opted to go to the other side of the park and go the Gapsa temple route. Since Koreans love hiking, there is a big parking lot with restrooms, a row of restaurants and souvenir shops that can be avoided by taking the trail to the left, and a little trail running next to a stream to get to the main gate and ticket booth. We had read that the trail was stroller accessible, but since we didn’t know for how long, we put Owen in the backpack. The trail to Gapsa temple was completely stroller/wheelchair/handicap accessible.
Hiking on the nice level, paved trail to the temple, we wondered how long the paving lasted. Soon enough, we got our answer when the nice paved trail ended at Gapsa temple. Gapsa is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Korea. It was built originally in 420 A.D., and then expanded over the years. The original buildings were all burnt down during the Japanese war and occupation in the 1500s, but rebuilt soon after. I loved the bright colors and intricate details of this temple. We took a break on some benches under big shade trees before exploring the temple.
To reach the main hall and other buildings, there were stone stairs from the trail up to the temple buildings. The main hall had many more golden Buddhas than other temples we have visited. There were also administrative offices and buildings for the resident monks. Because of its location inside of a national park, this temple was more set up for tourists in that there was a working shop selling big ceramic tiles, rice and others paraphernalia for making offerings at the temple.
As we approached Gapsa temple, Landon ran off to dig in the dirt and Austin followed him, leaving me and Owen to take a break and then wander around at our own pace. When I couldn’t find them, I found a stream running alongside the temple and paused there for some photos. We also found a small shrine to the medicine Buddha situated alongside the trail further up the mountain.
Brace yourselves, this is the time where I geek out about the greenery of Korea. Again. Growing up in the dry environs of California, any amount of greenery and water is appreciated. It was SO green and there was still a ton of water rushing down this stream. We visited in early October, hoping to catch the leaves changing. Unfortunately, we were a few weeks early for the leaves, but it was still a gorgeous hike.
Hiking with a baby and four-year-old is always dicey. We never know how long Landon is going to last walking! At the trailhead, there was a confusing map that outlined all of the trails with distances. We had a goal to reach a second, small temple a little over half way up the mountain, with a stretch goal to get to the summit. We started hiking in the early afternoon on the trail that continued up the mountain from Gapsa temple. The trail from this point onward consisted of flat rocks and stairs, so it was definitely not stroller friendly. It followed a beautiful stream for most of the hike, with some steep stair sections. Landon did great for the most part, with some encouragement.
When we reached this point, the summit did not look that far away! We had made it to our goal- the small Buddhist temple, and gave Owen a break from the baby carrier. It was unclear where the continuation of the trail was located, so we stopped at the temple. We contemplated going further, but we knew we only had a few more hours of sunlight and did not want to get stuck on the trail in the dark! As we were sitting there, a national park employee and his intern came walking down the trail. He was really excited to see us, and made the intern take pictures of us talking. I’m sure we will end up on some tourism brochure for the park someday! We asked him how much further to the closest summit. He said it was another hour of climbing. We knew we did not have enough time, so he showed us to a scenic overlook above the temple and we turned around.
The cute little temple at the halfway point of our hike had some interesting details. Instead of the normal gold, metal or stone Buddha, this Buddha was wood-carved. The paintings on the front of the temple were so intricate and colorful!
The trail was not crowded on the way up, but on the way back down we ran into a large group of Korean hikers. Their specialty hiking gear and brightly colored outfits are perfect examples of the typical extra-prepared Korean hiker. They are awesome!
When we descended back to Gapsa temple, we ran into the national park employee again. He took a picture of our whole family in front of the temple. I had to get a picture of Landon on the stone turtle, because a little over a year ago he posed on a similar turtle at Tianyi Pavilion in Ningbo, China.
Gapsa temple and the hiking trails of Gyeryongsan National Park were a wonderful way to spend an afternoon near Gongju. I would highly recommend the hike to the temple for all ages and abilities. The hike further up the mountain was doable for our four-year-old with a little help on some stretches. Go in late October/early November to see the vibrant fall leaves!