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Almaty is close to several of Kazakhstan’s most scenic National Parks. Epic snow-covered mountains, pristine lakes, colourful canyons, and giant sand dunes are all within (fairly) easy reach of the city. Best of all, many of these places can be visited as day trips from Almaty.
You can take organised tours to each of the following locations. Just ask at your hotel/guesthouse – they’ll probably be able to sort you out. Alternatively, Kazakhstan Guided Tours offers a decent range of tours (and is better organised than a number of other operators).
However, I’d suggest hiring a car and just doing it yourself. Having your own transport means you’ll have infinitely more flexibility, freedom, and it’ll almost certainly work out cheaper than guided tours – especially if you’re splitting the cost. (See below section for more info on hiring a car in Almaty.)
Read on for my top-4 recommended day trips from Almaty, plus information on potential multi-day trips.
If you’re looking for things to do in Almaty itself, check out this post.
Also, if you have a little longer to explore this beautiful corner of Central Asia, don’t miss the amazing Skazka Canyon across the border in Kyrgyzstan.
** If you need a visa to visit Kazakhstan, I recommend using iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **
Day Trips From Almaty - Top 4
Big Almaty Lake & Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory
Big Almaty Lake is a stunning natural lake, surrounded by towering mountains, a mere 30 kilometres south of the city centre.
The lake itself is located at 2,500 metres above sea level, in the heart of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Easy accessibility, combined with spectacular scenery, makes this one of the most popular day trips from Almaty.
Next to Big Almaty Lake is the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory. Founded in 1957, it was one of the most important observatories in the Soviet Union, and is still in regular use today. If you ask the guards nicely, they might let you in to explore (although this isn’t guaranteed).
The area around Big Almaty Lake is popular with hikers, and there are several trails and picnic spots.
Big Almaty Lake is beautiful year-round. However, it can get a little busy at weekends during the summer months (July – early September). I’d recommend coming midweek if possible to avoid the crowds.
If coming in the wintertime, be very careful when driving as the roads will likely be icy and treacherous. (Snow chains are a must in winter!). Also, the area around Big Almaty Lake can become unreachable following periods of particularly heavy snowfall.
A word of caution:
Big Almaty Lake is an important source of drinking water for the Almaty region, and armed guards patrol the area regularly.
Keep an eye out for signs saying where you can – and can’t – hike. And don’t try to swim in the lake, or get too close to it.
This is also a border region, very close to Kyrgyzstan. The authorities can get a bit jumpy if they think you’re trying to access areas which you shouldn’t. (It’s also a good idea to carry your passport with you, as you may be asked for it.)
You’re likely to be fined if you ignore the signage and stray too close to the water.
How to get to Big Almaty Lake
The easiest way to get to Big Almaty Lake (other than by taking a tour) is with your own car. (See below section on car hire). Once you reach the entrance to the national park, you will need to pay an entry fee of 200 KZT per person.
Alternatively, you can take a taxi – use the ride-hailing app Yandex Go. However, be sure to arrange for a ride both ways in advance, otherwise you will probably struggle to find a cab to take you back at the end of the day.
Failing that, bus number 28 can take you from First President’s Park in the southern part of Almaty up to the entrance of the national park (i.e. the last stop). However, from here you will need to either hitch a ride up to the lake, or hike up along the road. (It’s 11 km from where the bus drops you up to the lake, so I wouldn’t recommend this option unless you’re really keen to get fit and/or save a couple of bucks. Remember – you also have to get back down again afterwards…)
Charyn Canyon – AKA the “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan” – is a stunning red sandstone canyon in the far south-east corner of Kazakhstan, about 210 kilometres east of Almaty.
Whilst Charyn Canyon is smaller than its American cousin, the two share many common features, and are equally impressive.
Charyn Canyon is approximately 100 kilometres long, and was carved out by the Charyn River over millions of years. A geologist’s paradise, the canyon is full of multicoloured rock formations in all shapes and sizes.
The most well known part of the canyon (and the bit which most tours visit) is called the Valley of Castles. There’s a beautiful 3 kilometre hiking trail through the valley which ends at an Eco Park. Here you can spend the night in a wooden cabin or a traditional yurt.
Note: While Charyn Canyon is a fairly popular destination for day trips from Almaty, it does take at least three hours to drive here from the city (and another three to return). You definitely can visit it as a day trip. However, if you’ve got extra time, I’d recommend spending at least one night in/near the canyon. That way you won’t be rushed, and you’ll get to see far more.
The Valley of Castles is only a tiny part of Charyn Canyon. If you have the time, you could easily spend several days exploring various other sections of this amazing natural wonder.
Some of the other highlights include Bestamak Canyon, Temirlik Canyon, and Uzunbulak Canyon. In these places, you might easily be the only visitor in sight. (These sections are also perfect for camping – just grab a permit from the national park office.)
The best time to visit Charyn Canyon is between April and June, or between September and October, when the temperature is most pleasant. During summertime, temperatures inside the canyon can easily reach 40°C, and in the winter plunge to below −20°C.
How to get to Charyn Canyon
From the direction of Almaty, once you pass through the village of Kokpek (Көкпек), continue along the A-351 for 23 kilometres.
Then, turn left onto the minor road which should be signed Charyn Canyon (Шарын шатқалы) / Charyn National Park (Шарын ұлттық табиғи паркі). Follow this road for another 10 kilometres until you reach the parking area.
The Valley of Castles is accessible by 2WD vehicle, but you’ll need a 4WD to visit the more remote parts of the canyon. Bring lots of water and spare fuel – you don’t want to get caught out.
Kolsai Lakes National Park (& Kaindy Lake)
Kolsai Lakes National Park is one of the most scenic and beautiful areas in Kazakhstan.
The park consists of a series of stunning alpine lakes nestled among the northern slopes of the Tian Shan mountains, just north of the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Commonly known as “the pearl of the northern Tian Shan”, the Kolsai Lakes are surrounded by lush green forests, snowcapped mountains, and thundering waterfalls.
There are three main lakes, helpfully named Lower Kolsai Lake (at an altitude of 1,700 metres), Kolsai Lake (2,250 metres), and Upper Kolsai Lake (2,500 metres).
The area around the Kolsai Lakes is popular for hiking, horse riding, mountain biking, and camping.
There’s a gentle walking route around the lower lake, offering stunning views of the surrounding scenery.
There are several hiking trails in the national park, including a well-marked route which links the three lakes. It’s 9 kilometres from the lower to the middle lake, and takes about 3 hours to hike up (allow 2 hours to get back down again). You can also do this trail on horseback.
Given the proximity to the Kyrgyz border, the section of the trail between the middle and upper lakes is usually closed – keep an eye out for signs. (Always carry your passport when hiking here – you might be asked to show it.)
The best time to visit the Kolsai Lakes is between June and September. Outside of these months it’s very cold, the roads deteriorate, and accommodation options become severely limited.
On weekends, the lakes can become a little crowded. If possible, try to come midweek – you’ll probably have the whole place to yourself.
Within the national park, but separate from the main three lakes, Kaindy Lake is also worth a visit. (Sorry no photo – see here instead).
A powerful earthquake and landslide in 1911 created a natural dam that slowly filled up with rainwater and snow melt. Over the following years, the forested valley flooded and became a lake.
Today, Kaindy Lake is a sunken forest. An army of petrified spruce trees stick out from the icy turquoise waters of the lake. It’s beautiful, eerie, and utterly unique.
Kolsai Lakes Accommodation
The village of Saty (Саты), 15 kilometres north-east of the lakes, has a range of guesthouses, home-stays and yurt camps. Most places don’t take online bookings, but you shouldn’t have any problem finding a place to stay. Accommodation here tends to be fairly basic, but perfectly fine.
Alternatively, the Jibek Joly Guesthouse overlooks Lower Kolsai Lake, and also has a few yurts with basic facilities. These are a bit more expensive than the places in Saty, though still fairly reasonable (under £15/$20 per night) – and the views are fantastic.
Camping is permitted within the national park (with a permit obtained at the park entrance), but only as far as the second lake. If you’re planning to camp, there’s a great spot by the shore of the second lake. (Remember to bring plenty of supplies, a suitable tent for wild camping, and a warm sleeping bag. At 2,250 metres, temperatures plummet at night – even in the summer.)
My favourite tent for camping in remote places is the MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent.
You could – in theory – visit the Kolsai Lakes National Park as a (very long) day trip from Almaty. However, you’d be extremely pushed for time, and I think this would ruin the experience.
A much better idea would be to combine visiting the Kolsai Lakes with the Charyn Canyon as part of a multi-day road trip (or a tour, if you prefer). The road to Kolsai from Almaty goes via Charyn anyway, so it makes sense to visit both places.
How to get to Kolsai Lakes National Park
Kolsai Lakes National Park is 280 kilometres east of Almaty by road. The road from Almaty to Saty – and then on to Lower Kolsai Lake – is paved all the way, and takes about 5 hours by car.
You’ll need to pay a small fee at the entrance to the park (bring cash), and an additional fee if you want to camp. The fees seem to vary, but shouldn’t cost more than $2 per person.
The road from Saty to Kaindy Lake is not paved. You could probably make it in a decent 2WD with high road clearance, though a 4WD would be better. An alternative would be to leave your car in Saty, and take a 4WD taxi from here to Kaindy Lake. Either ask the driver to wait for you, or hike back (it’s about 13 kilometres).
Altyn-Emel National Park
Altyn-Emel is a vast national park that stretches east from Lake Kapchagay, about 260 kilometres north-east of Almaty.
The park contains a wide range of scenery and distinctive landscapes, including barren steppe, colourful mountain ridges, and giant sand dunes. It’s remote, desolate, and beautiful.
Parts of Altyn-Emel look a bit like Badlands National Park (in South Dakota), only several times larger and way more remote.
There are three main routes through the national park. You’ll need to arrange a permit for each one of these at the park office in Basshiy (Басши). Check the Altyn-Emel National Park website for more information on permits and fees.
Conveniently, the two best routes through Altyn-Emel both start and finish in Basshiy.
For both routes, the road is unpaved, sandy, and bumpy, although Route 2 is worse than Route 1. You could make it through either in a 2WD, and people do. However, having a 4WD (or at least a 2WD with high ground clearance) would be much more comfortable, and you’d be less likely to chip the paintwork or get a puncture.
Altyn-Emel Route 1 - the Singing Sand Dunes
The shorter of the two routes is about 80 kilometres (40 km each way), and takes you to the Singing Sand Dunes. These massive mountains of sand are up to 1.5 kilometres long and 150 metres high, and emit a strange, low hum (a bit like an aircraft engine) when the sand moves. (Hint: running/sliding from the top to the bottom often triggers the sound.)
It takes about 2 hours to drive from Basshiy to the dunes, and the same again to return. Keep an eye out for a set of stone monoliths along the way. You may also see kulans (rare wild donkeys), wild horses, antelopes, mountain goats, and eagles as you venture through the national park.
If you are pressed for time, provided you leave early enough in the morning, you should be able to get to Basshiy, do this route, and return to the city in one (long) day trip from Almaty. However, if you have the time, I’d recommend staying overnight in/near Altyn-Emel, so that you can see more of the national park.
Altyn-Emel Route 2 - the Katutau and Aktau Mountains
The second route from Basshiy takes you to the Katutau and Aktau Mountains.
This is the most spectacular area in the Altyn-Emel National Park. Another geologist’s paradise, this place looks and feels like something from a different planet. Here you’ll find multi-coloured mountains and canyons, with horizontal bands of red, orange, yellow, brown, blue, grey and white rock. The rippling cliffs are stuffed full of the fossilised remains of ancient animals and trees.
This route is about 160 kilometres in total (80 km each way). However, you should allow the whole day as the road is fairly rough, and there are many beautiful places to stop and hike.
Altyn-Emel Hotels & Accommodation
There are several guesthouses and homestays in Basshi – Hotel Altyn-Emel is a decent option.
Alternatively, if you have camping gear, you can camp for free inside the national park. (I highly recommend doing this, it’s peaceful, stunning, and just awesome!)
The best place to camp on Route 1 is a place near the Singing Sand Dunes called Mynbulak (Мынбулак). There’s a ranger’s station where you can get water (bring a form of water purification).
On Route 2, there’s a beautiful camping spot half way between Basshi and the mountains, at a green oasis called Kosbastau (Косбастау). Here you’ll find a hot water spring, and a large tree that’s over 700 years old (apparently).
How to get to Altyn-Emel National Park
Altyn-Emel is very remote, and virtually impossible to reach via public transport. Unless you’re planning to take a tour (which can be expensive and/or rushed), the best way to get to Altyn-Emel is with your own car.
First, drive to the small village of Basshiy, which is 260 kilometres from Almaty (via the A3 and A353) and takes 4-5 hours by car. Here you need to visit the national park office to arrange the necessary permits, and pay the entrance fees.
Fees are per day and per person – with a supplemental charge for each vehicle – although shouldn’t cost more than a couple of dollars per day.
Day Trips From Almaty - Car Hire
You definitely don’t need to hire a car to get around Almaty itself. However, if you’re planning to take day trips from Almaty out to some of the national parks located further afield (and you should, they’re awesome!), I’d suggest hiring your own wheels.
Hiring a car gives you a lot more flexibility and freedom, plus it’ll almost certainly work out cheaper than taking guided tours. Prices tend to be around around £30 ($40) per day for a standard medium-sized 2WD car.
Most of the major international car rental companies (Avis, Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty, etc.) have offices in Almaty. Use a price comparison site (like rentalcars.com) to find the best deals.
Be sure to check that the rental company is happy for you to take the car out of the city. Not all companies allow this.
Also, you’ll (probably) need an International Driving Permit. I’ve heard some people say that this isn’t always asked for, so you might be able to get away without having one. But, to avoid potential issues (with the hire company and/or the traffic police), I’d strongly recommend having one. They’re usually pretty cheap and easy to get in your home country.
For more info about driving in Kazakhstan, check out this great article on Caravanistan.
(Multi-) Day Trips From Almaty
Each of the above locations is, in theory, doable as a day trip from Almaty. (A return trip to Altyn-Emel would be a very long day.)
But, if you have the time, why not plan a multi-day road trip, incorporating some (or all) of the above. This would significantly cut down the amount of driving per day, allow you to spend much longer enjoying each place, and make the whole experience a lot more chilled. 🙂
A potential multi-day itinerary might look something like this:
- Day trip to Big Almaty Lake (return to Almaty).
- Charyn Canyon (overnight at the Eco Park inside the canyon / camp*).
- Kaindy Lake & Kolsai Lakes NP (overnight here – there are a few simple guesthouses / camp*).
- Altyn-Emel NP (overnight in one of the simple hotels run by the national park / camp*).
- Return to Almaty.
Do you know of any other great Almaty day trips? Let me know in the comments.
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