The best national Parks in Kazakhstan

The best national Parks in Kazakhstan

Backpacking Kazakhstan: This post is about the best National Parks in Kazakhstan to visit for the independent budget traveller

I came to Kazakhstan with actually very little knowledge about the country. I was not even aware that there were national parks in Kazakhstan worth visiting. My image of Kazakhstan was of a grim ex Soviet country with steppes and nomads on horses. Even from the plane, the vast grasslands below me, looked monotonous and boring.

With my interest in Soviet history I was sure Kazakhstan was an interesting country to visit. However, I wasn’t at all prepared for the beauty and diversity of Kazakhstan’s nature. I could never have thought that I would end up writing a post about the best national parks in Kazakhstan.

There are over 100 nature reserves and national parks in Kazakhstan. Because it is the ninth biggest country in the world, most are very remote and see few visitors. But, quite a few of them are actually quite near the bigger cities and are relatively easy to visit.

This post is about those national parks in Kazakhstan that you can see as a tourist. The good news is that tourism in this region is still in its infancy. Even here you are far away from the crowds.

Considering the beauty of the national parks in Kazakhstan I am surprised that it receives so little attention. It’s true that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan win if it comes to its majestic mountains. But Kazakhstan is number one if it comes to its diversity and vastness of its landscapes.

The Charyn river in the Charyn Canyon national park in Kazakhstan

National Parks in Kazakhstan near Nursultan

1. Burabay National Park

Just around the corner from Nursultan lie the interesting rock formations of Burabay National Park. It’s one of the most popular national parks in northern Kazakhstan. With its lush vegetation, rolling hills and beautiful Borovoe lake it’s a completely different world from the steppes.

Hikers will love this place as there are several trails to the forest. Don’t miss the 30 minute walk up to mount Bolektau for beautiful views over the scenic lakes in the park.

In summer people from Nursultan flock to the lakes beaches for swimming and sunbathing. Lake Borovoe might be less quiet and peaceful then, but there are plenty of other lakes where you can find solitude.

Autumn is a particularly beautiful time with the colourful fall foliage. Winters are cold, but even then you can still visit the park for its winter wonderland.

How to get there

by car it is a 3 hour drive to Burabay National Park. It is 250 kilometers north of Nursultan. Marshrutka’s and shared taxi’s leave from the Saparzhai bus station in Nursultan to Borovoe town. Borovoe is the gateway to the park and has several accomodation options. Alternatively you can take a train to Shchuchinsk, or Kurort-Borovoye and then take a shared taxi to Borovoe. Read more about how to travel by train in Kazakhstan.

2. Korghalzyn National Park

Birdwatchers will love the Korghalzyn State Nature Reserve. Korghalzyn is on the list of Ramsar sites meaning that they are designated as a wetland of international importance. This is because it is a stop over place for several migratory birds on the Indian and Siberian-East African migration routes.

In spring up to 14,000 breeding pairs of flamingo’s gather on the mud islands of lake Tengiz. It is the northernmost population of pink flamingo’s on earth. Other birds in Korghalzyn include pelicans, cranes, different species of duck and birds of prey such as eagles.

There are mammals as well although you need a lot of luck to see them. Steppe marmots are plentiful, but the saiga antelopes and wolves have become extremely rare.

How to get there

From Nursultan’s bus station near the old train station there are frequent buses and shared taxi’s to Korghalzyn village. However, trying to arrange a guide from there to bring you to the reserve can be costly and will probably not be cheaper than booking a tour from Nursultan.

Korghalzyn National Park in Kazakhstan

3. Bayanaul National Park

Bayanaul is one of the first national parks in Kazakhstan and is located in the Pavlodar province east of Nursultan. The Bayanaul mountains are characterized by its bizarre granite rock formations, pinewoods and fresh water lakes.

Few foreign travellers make it this far, but it is well known among Kazakh tourists from nearby cities. There are several sanatoriums and recreational spots. Especially the shores of lake Jasybay can get busy in summer. However, it is easy to escape the crowds in this park.

How to get there

Bayanaul lies midway between Nursultan and Pavlodar. You can take a train from either Nursultan or Pavlodar to the town of Ekibastuz. From there you can take a shared taxi to Bayanaul.

National Parks in Kazakhstan near Karaganda

4. Karkaraly National Park

The city of Karaganda lies 4 hours south of Nursultan and although it is not a beautiful city, it is interesting to visit because of its history. The coal mines turned out to be the city’s blessing in disguise. In search of labour Stalin saw Karaganda as the perfect place to develop his network of gulag labour camps and deported a large number of Volga germans to the town.

30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union all that is left of the gulags is the Karlag museum and the coal mines have been replaced by steel factories. As a result nearby Temirtau is one of the most polluted places in Kazakhstan. It’s an irony that also nearby Karaganda you will find the pristine Karkaraly National Park.

Surrounded by the vast steppes are the granite Karkaraly mountains with a number of fresh water lakes and hiking trails through pine and birch forests. Karkaraly derives from the word Karkara that is a jewel on a traditional female headdress. The story goes that the mountains represent one of these jewels that was lost by a beautiful girl on the steppes.

It’s the most popular holiday destination for the people from Karaganda. From the town of Karkaralinsk there are hiking trails leading to the most popular lakes (Basseyn, Shaitankol and Pashenoye). If you have your own transport you can also head to the Kent mountains and Kyzylarai mountains.

How to get there

From Karaganda there are buses and shared taxi’s to the town of Karkaralinsk where you have several accomodation options. If you have your own camping gear there are also camping spots near the lake.

National Parks in Kazakhstan near Almaty

The area around Almaty is home to some of the most beautiful and most diverse national parks in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately not all of them are accesible by public transport.

Tours tend to be pricey, so renting a car might be cheaper. It is in fact the best way to explore this area of Kazakhstan. You could make a one week roadtrip including the best national parks of Southeast Kazakhstan including the Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lakes and Altyn Emel.

Interactive map of a one week Kazakhstan itinerary with a roadtrip around Almaty
Click on this picture to open the interactive Almaty roadtrip map

5. Charyn Canyon National Park

It might not have the size of the Grand Canyon, but the Charyn Canyon National Park is equally impressive. The unique red rock formations formed by years of erosion come as a surprise as you approach them from the green grass lands above. It follows the Charyn river for about 50 kilometers and the walls reach up to 300 meters at some point.

The Charyn Canyon National Park is a geologists dream come true with sedimentary rocks in red, grown, yellow and black colours. They 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. The Charyn canyon National Park is also is home to wildlife such as foxes, hares, gerbils, eagles, pheasants, snakes and lizards.

The only marked trail is the 2 kilometer hike through the valley of castles that ends at the ecopark where you can stay the night. However, the hiking opportunities don’t end here and you are free to wander around and explore on your own.

How to get there

If you want to go on your own you can take a shared taxi to Kegen (5 dollars). 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. To get back you have to hike back to the main road and then hitchhike a ride back to Almaty. Alternatively there are cheap day tours or you can rent your own car.

Charyn Canyon National Park in Kazakhstan

6. Kolsai Lakes National Park

Only 3 hours from Charyn Canyon you go from rocky canyons to green alpine meadows and pine forests. Kolsai Lakes National Park is most famous for its beautiful lakes including the sunken forest of lake Kaindy. They are sometimes also referred to as the Pearls of the Tien Shan mountains.

These lakes are only a small part of the Kolsai lakes national park though. Only 13% of the park is open for tourism, while more than 80% remains under strict protection to conserve the parks unique flora and fauna. There are over 700 species of plants and 50 species of mammals including bears, lynx, snow leopards, mountain sheeps and stone marten.

What is open for visitors is well worth a visit. The rural village of Saty is the gateway to the park. From there you can reach lake Kaindy and the lower Kolsai lake by car. A scenic and challenging hiking trail of about 8 kilometers goes from the lower lake to the second lake.

How to get there

Having your own transport is best, however it is not impossible to get there by public transport. In Almaty there is a bus at 6 AM to Saty, but the service is not very reliable. On my last trip I was told it was not running every day, because of a lack of demand. Therefore, your best bet is a shared taxi to Kegen. From there you can use your hitchhiking skills to catch a ride to Saty.

Just keep in mind that hitchhiking is not for free in Kazakhstan and you should contribute towards the fuel costs. Also keep in mind that Saty is still 15 kilometer from the Kolsai lakes. You will need to book a taxi in Saty to bring you to lake Kaindy or the Kolsai lakes. Don’t get out at the entrance gate where you will have to pay a park fee. From there it is also still 8 kilometers to the first lake.

Kolsai lakes National Park in Altyn Emel National park

7. Altyn Emel National Park

One of the most beautiful national parks in Kazakhstan is Altyn Emel National Park. This vast area includes mountain ranges, volcanic rock formations, ancient petroglyphs, Saka burial mounds and singing sand dunes.

Altyn Emel National Park combines history and nature like nowhere else in Kazakhstan. The diverse landscapes and amount of wildlife is nothing less than spectacular. It is, for example, one of the few places on earth where you can see wild horses and wild donkeys in their natural habitat. With luck you might also see persian gazelles or Bukharan deer.

Tours to Altyn Emel often only visit the famous singing sand dunes, but it is best to have your own car so you can explore all 3 routes that you can follow. The most spectacular route leads to the out of this world landscapes of the Katutau and Aktau mountains. For history follow the third route with its petroglyphs from the early iron age and the Saka burial mounds.

How to get there

There are two ways to reach Altyn Emel National Park. The northern entrance near Basshi (route 1 & 2) that is most popular and the less used western entrance near Shengeldy (route 3).

There is no public transport to Altyn Emel National Park and even hitchhiking would be difficult. Altyn Emel National Park is huge and without your own transport you won’t get far. Unfortunately tours don’t come cheap and often only include the singing sand dunes (the first route).

If there is one place in Central Asia where I would say it is worth it to rent a car it would be Altyn Emel National Park. With the high tour prices, renting a car might be much cheaper, especially if you can share the costs with others.

Altyn Emel National park is the best place to see Kazakhstan's nature for wildlife safari's

8. Ile Alatau National Park

The Ile Alatau National Park is the most accesible national park in Kazakhstan. It lies south of Almaty and includes the Big Almaty lake and the Turgen Gorge. Being so close to the city there is an astounding amount of wildlife including snow leopards, bears and mountain goats.

The deep blue Big Almaty lake is less than an hour by taxi from the center of Almaty. Another nearby access point is through Medeu and Shymbulak from where you can hike to the Butakovka waterfall or the Furmanov Peak.

The Turgen gorge is a bit further away, but a true hikers paradise. The canyon of the Turgen gorge is about 45 kilometers long and there are several waterfalls.

How to get there

Shymbulak is easy to reach by taking bus number 12 from opposite the Kazakhstan hotel in Almaty to the Medeu ice skating ring. From there you can do several hiking trails. To reach Big Almaty Lake you can either join a tour or take a taxi from Almaty (use the taxi hailing app Yandex !). TTo explore the Turgen Gorge you would need your own transport.

Big Almaty lake in Ile Alatau National Park

National Parks in Kazakhstan near Shymkent

9. Aksu Zhabagly National Park

If you make it to Shymkent to see the mausoleum in Turkestan also include a visit to the Aksu Zhabagly National Park.

Southern Kazakhstan is where the steppes end and the mountains begin and therefore the parks landscapes ranges from flat grasslands to rolling hills and snowcapped mountain peaks. The park has a spectacular location and borders the Chimgan mountains in Uzbekistan and the remote corners of eastern Kyrgyzstan.

Aksu Zhabagly is well known for tulips. As a dutch person I was surprised to hear that this famous flower actually comes from Kazakhstan. In spring the green alpine meadows turn red with the blooming wild tulips. This is when Aksu Zhabagly is indeed at its most beautiful and people come from far and away to see them.

But even outside of spring, Aksu Zhabagly is well worth a visit. Besides tulips and other rare plants and flowers there is an astonishing amount of wildlife as well. Snow leopards, bears, wolves, marmots and mountain sheep all roam around in this corner of the world.

Zhabagly village is the gateway to the park. From here you can organize a range of activities. Jeep tours to the Aksu canyon, horse back riding or hiking. A park guide is mandatory, because there are no established trails.

How to get there

There is one direct marshrutka that operates on demand. When we were there it was not running, but if it does, it usually leaves between 9 AM and 11 AM from Aina bus station.

Rather than looking for the direct marshrutka, you can also take one of the frequent marshrutka’s to either Tulkibas or Turarkent (also called Vanovka or Turar Ruskylov) for 400 – 500 tenge. From both Tulkibas and Turarkent you can take a shared taxi to Zhabagly village (300 – 500 tenge).

Tulkibas also has a train station so it is even possible to take a train from Shymkent, although times are not that convenient.

Aksu Zhabagly National Park in Kazakhstan

10. Sairam Ugam National park

Sairam Ugam National Park lies right next to the Aksu Zhabagly National Park. Surprisingly it gets much less attention even though it offers the same beauty with similar sceneries and the same unique flora and fauna.

Another bonus is that it doesnt charge the high park fees of Aksu Zhabagly. Therefore it is a good and much cheaper alternative.

There is an excellent community tourism programme with some nice homestays in the villages of Lenger, Dikankol, Kaskasu and Tonkeris from where you can go hiking or horse back riding into the park.

How to get there

From Shymkent (Voenkomat bus stop on Tole Bi) you can take a marshrutka or shared taxi to Lenger. For Dikankol, Kaskasu and Tonkeris public transport leaves from Tashenov near Shymkent’s Central Bazaar.

Sairam Ugam National Park in Kazakhstan

Remote National parks in Kazakhstan

11. Katon Karagay National Park

Katon Karagay National park is the largest national park in Kazakhstan. It is defined by the spectacular Altay mountains and is located in the far eastern corner of the country bordering both China and Russia.

Few visitors make it this far to this remote corner, but it is one of the most scenic places in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Altai is a true wilderness that has lots to offer. It’s like a miniature Kazakhstan with steppes, taiga, forests, alpine meadows and snowcapped mountain peaks. Highlights include lake Markakol, Mount Belukha, the Rachmanov springs, Scythian burial mounds, fresh honey and deer antler extract.

It’s a hikers paradise, but beware that this is bear country. While in other national parks in Kazakhstan you need to be extremely lucky to see one, here you need to be cautious. Wolves, deers, mountain sheeps, snow leopards and lynx all roam around.

How to get there

Ust Kamenogorsk is the gateway to the Kazakh Altai mountains and the Katon Karagay National Park. To get to Ust Kamenogorsk it is best to take a train from either Nursultan or Almaty to Semey Palatinsk. From there it is quicker to take the bus to Ust Kamenogorsk. There you can arrange your own transport to explore the park (tour or renting a car).

12. Ustyurt National Park

Ustyurt National Park is the most remote national park in Kazakhstan. Aktau is the nearest city and lies more than 2500 kilometers southwest from the capital Nursultan. Even from here the park is difficult to get to, because there are no roads leading to it.

After Zhanaozen it’s a matter of following the car tracks in the vast Mangistau desert that is also home to mysterious underground mosques and islamic shrines. It’s a lunar like world full of colours and strange rock formations, canyons and salt plains.

Tours are necessary and don’t come cheap and that is why very few people visit this park, spectacular as it might be. Therefore, if you plan to enter Kazakhstan by taking the ferry from Baku to Aktau you are pretty close and it is worth considering.

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Backpacking Kazakhstan: This post is about the best National Parks in Kazakhstan to visit for the independent budget traveller