We drive through the endless open steppes with different colours of green. Even as we pay the mandatory entrance fee for the Charyn Canyon there is nothing to suggest the dramatic change of scenery that awaits us.
It is my second visit to the Charyn Canyon, so I knew, but still I am impressed by the sight of the canyon that suddenly opens up below. A whole different world of strange red rock formations that are the result of million years of erosion by wind and water.
Why visit the Charyn Canyon
Even though the Charyn Canyon is much smaller than the Grand Canyon in the US, it looks very similar and is equally impressive. The canyon follows the Charyn river for about 50 kilometers with several side canyons. The canyon walls reach up to 300 meters at some point and the colours range from red to brown, yellow and black.
It’s a geologists dream come true with sedimentary rocks that are rich in minerals and are about twelve million years old. There is also a large variety of flora and fauna with over 1000 of plants of which 50 are extremely rare and endemic to the area. The Charyn canyon is also is home to wildllife such as foxes, hares, gerbils, eagles, pheasants, snakes and lizards.
Most people visit the Charyn Canyon as a day trip from Almaty. It is indeed one of the most spectacular places to see in this region, but on a day trip you only get to see the tip of the iceberg. The area is massive and there is so much to see and explore that you could spend days here.
Having some extra time allows you to go on extended hikes to see different valleys where few people come, go wild water rafting or spot some of its wildlife.
There are several options to stay overnight in the Charyn Canyon. You can go camping, stay in a wooden cabin or even sleep in a yurt if you like. To fully experience this place I can strongly recommend you to do so, if only to see the beautiful sunset and the dark starry night. The daytrippres will be gone and most likely you will have the canyon to yourself.
Yes, you can take the standard day tours from Almaty. They are a cheap and easy way to get a sneak peek. If this is all the time and money you have they are definetly worth it, but paying a bit more definetly pays off in the Charyn Canyon.
What to expect on a Charyn Canyon tour
My first visit to the Charyn Canyon was on such a standard tour in which we visited the Charyn Canyon as part of a trip to the Kolsai lakes. It took us four hours driving through the endless open steppes before we reached the turn off point to the canyon.
On my first visit in 2016 the road to the entrance of the canyon was still unpaved. This is where almost all tour groups drop you off. The view is amazing and they give you just enough time to walk the 3 kilometers through the Valley of Castles and back.
I must say that we were lucky, because we left early from Almaty. We had a long day as we needed to continue our journey to the Kolsai Lakes. We arrived well before the tourbuses arrived and the valley was so beautiful and quiet. When we walked back it was already getting more busy.
Even though it was a short visit with only 3 hours inside the valleyt of castles it left a deep impression on me. It tasted like more and on my second visit I decided to spend more time here. We rented our own car and decided to check out some of the other viewpoints and canyons.
Places to visit in the Charyn Canyon
1. Valley of Castles
The valley of castles is the most famous canyon and it is where you will most likely end up if you go on a tour or ask a taxi to bring you to the Charyn Canyon. The road to the entrance point is now paved all the way up to the viewpoint and there is an office where you have to pay an entrance fee.
You can walk 2 kilometers through the valley of castles all the way up to the Charyn river and the Eco park where there is a small restaurant. The eco park also has several accomodation options.
The valley of castles is a beautiful and easy walk. It is the only obvious hiking trail in the canyon. Other hiking opportunities are there, but because the trails are not marked it is up to you to explore around.
2. Other Canyons
Most people only know about the valley of castles, but there are in fact three more canyons inside the Charyn National Park. There is the Temirlik canyon (iron canyon), the Uzunbulak canyon (yellow canyon or moon canyon) and the Bestamak Canyon (red canyon).
They will all need your own transport by four wheel drive though and there are no established walking trails. You are free to wander around and explore on your own. Just come well prepared as there are no facilities in the other canyons. Your effort will be well rewarded and they are a great way to escape the crowds from the valley of castles.
3. Charyn Canyon viewpoints
If you have your own transport and you are visiting the Charyn Canyon as part of a bigger trip including the Kolsai Lakes and Altyn Emel you shouldn’t miss some of the viewpoints.
There is of course the viewpoint where you enter the Valley of Castles, but there are other view points too. They are much less obvious and require no entrance fees. They are right next to the road and worth a short stop with your car.
Check Google maps, because most viewpoints are marked on them. If you drive from the Charyn Canyon to the Kolsai Lakes you will pass a beautiful viewpoint further down the road. On the way to Altyn Emel is another viewpoint where you can even hike down to the Charyn river.
Things to do in the Charyn Canyon
1. Hiking in the Charyn Canyon
The easiest hike in the Charyn Canyon is the 2-3 kilometer hike through the valley of castles. This is the only established hiking trail in the park, but inofficial trails are plenty. If you are an experienced hiker you can explore around. Just be prepared, because there will be no facilities beyond the valley of castles.
2. Rafting in the Charyn canyon
Some companies offer Rafting tours on the Charyn river. Even though I haven’t done this myself I can imagine this is a great way to see the Charyn Canyon from a different perspective.
3. Spotting wildlife
You must be very lucky, but the Charyn Canyon is home to a variety of animals. There are more than 100 bird species and 32 mammals that include eagles, pheasants, mountain goats, foxes, hares, gerbils, snakes and lizards.
Where to sleep in the Charyn Canyon
The Eco park is the only accomodation option in the Charyn Canyon with several yurts (40,000 tenge for 8 persons) and wooden cabins (14000 tenge for 2 persons). It is at the end of the valley of castles. The 3 kilometer walk to the eco park is very scenic, but if you prefer not to walk they can pick you up with an eco park taxi.
You can go camping in the Charyn Canyon for which you need to pay an additional 350 tenge per tent entrance fee. There are some cleared and designated camping spaces near the river. Remember, that outside of the summer it can get very cold during the nights.
Where to eat in the Charyn Canyon
The only place to eat in the Charyn Canyon is at the Eco Park. The menu is limited to what they have available at the moment you are there. Don’t expect anything more than shaslyck, plov or laghman. Prices are relatively high compared to a budget restaurant in Almaty.
If you want to keep things cheap it is best to bring enough food for a picnic lunch and dinner. Even if you plan to use the restaurant it is not a bad idea to bring some water and snacks with you.
When to visit the Charyn Canyon
There are two things to consider about when to visit the Charyn Canyon. First of all, the season and second of all the days of the week.
Let’s start with the seasons. Winters are icy cold and summers scorching hot. The best months to visit the Charyn Canyon are from April till June and from September till October.
Then lets look at the days of the week. The cheapest way to travel to the Charyn Canyon is still by a standard day tour from Almaty. However, these are often only in the weekends. So, if you are looking for the cheapest way to see the Charyn Canyon, make sure you join a bus tour on a saturday or sunday.
However, saturdays and sundays are very crowded in the Charyn Canyon. If you want to escape the crowds and you have the means to travel there on your own make sure you avoid the weekends and go during the week.
How to travel to the Charyn Canyon
By cheap day tours
There are several companies offering cheap day tours to the canyon, especially in the weekends. They are available from $15 onwards. Take into account that it can get pretty busy in the valley of castles with these tourgroups and they will only give you enough time to do the 3 kilometer hike through the valley of castles.
By public transport
If you want to go on your own you can take a shared taxi to Kegen/Saty (5 dollars) and ask them to drop you at the turn off for the Charyn Canyon. From there it is a 12 km hike through the grasslands, without any shade, to the entrance of the Valley of Castles. To get back you have to hike the 12 km back to the main road and then hitchhike a ride back to Almaty. Keep in mind that hitchhiking in Kazakhstan is not free. Read more about hitchhiking in Kazakhstan in my Backpacking Kazakhstan travel guide.
Renting a car or private taxi
Renting a car or a private taxi to get to the Charyn Canyon is not the cheapest option. However, if you can find other travellers to share the costs with it is also not as expensive as you might think. The biggest advantage is that you have much more freedom to choose when and where to visit the Charyn Canyon.
If you are renting a car you could make a bigger roadtrip around Almaty, including the Kolsai lakes, lake Kaindy and Altyn Emel National Park.
Safety in the Charyn Canyon
The Charyn Canyon is safe to visit, but it is good to keep in mind that it is remote and that outside of the Valley of castles there are few facilities. If you plan to do some hiking bring enough water, snacks and a mini first aid kit.
In summer it can get very hot in the Charyn Canyon. To avoid heat stroke it is very important to bring enough water with you. Even better is a water filter system so that you don’t need to use plastic. To protect yourself from the sun also bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. There is little shade so it’s easy to get a sunburn even in spring or autumn.
If you stay overnight bring some warmer clothes as well. It can get cold during the night.
What to bring on a trip to the Charyn Canyon
Sturdy shoes or hiking shoes
Proffesional hiking boots are not necessary. However, the trails can be rocky and require a good pair of shoes.
A sunhat and sunscreen
The sun can be pretty strong in the canyon and there is little shade. Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun
There are no ATM’s in the Charyn Canyon so make sure you bring enough money with you.
There are no general stores in the Charyn Canyon. It is best to carry some snacks with you.
Water purification system
Bring enough water with you. There is no need to add to the plastic waste problem. You can easily fill up your bottle with water from the river. However, do use a filter.
Most toilets are of the drop down variety with no toilet paper in sight.
Last updated: July 2019
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.