This article covers all the information you need to know about visiting Charyn Canyon, including how much it costs, how to get there from Almaty, where to stay, what to do and how to prepare.
After weeks of crossing the endless wide-open plains and deserts of Western and Central Kazakhstan, we were up for a big surprise when we visited the Southeast region of Kazakhstan. This region, stretching from Almaty (Kazakhstan’s former capital city) to Lake Balkhash, is known as Zhetisu, meaning Land of Seven Rivers. It’s one of Kazakhstan’s most varied regions: from semi-deserts to lush greenery and dense forests, from Grand Canyon-like rock formations to waterfalls and lakes fed by the glacial meltwater of the snow-peaked Tien Shan mountain range. This part of the country is nicknamed ‘the Golden Triangle’ for its trio of major natural attractions: the Charyn Canyon, the Kolsai Lakes and the Altyn-Emel National Park. In this I focus on visiting the Charyn Canyon. If you have a few days to explore the area, I would also recommend you to read our complete guide to the Kolsai lakes and the nearby sunken forest of Kaindy lake.
Exploring Charyn Canyon – the Grand Canyon’s little Kazakh brother
The Charyn Canyon (or Sharyn Canyon) is part of the Charyn National Park and stretches 154km along the Charyn River, one of the deepest rivers of the Northern Tien Shan mountains. For more than 12 million years, wind, water and sand sculpted Charyn’s red sandstone to form the wonderful shapes and shades that vary from deep orange to light brown. Some of the cliffs resemble fantastical figures, the reason why some parts of the canyon are also called the Valley of Castles, the Devil’s Gorge and the Ghosts Gorge.
The multicolored rock layers are the product of different stages of sediment deposits, from volcanic lava rocks at the bottom to red debris on top, deposited by the rivers that once flowed through.
The Charyn Canyon consists of 5 different canyons: the Valley of Castles, the Temirlik Canyon, the Yellow Canyon, the Red Canyon and the Bestamak Canyon. The Valley of Castles is the most famous part of the Charyn Canyon but if you can spare 2 days, drive around in your 4×4 and visit all of them!
There are a few legends about the canyon. People believed that it was a place haunted by spirits who didn’t like to be disturbed by the living. To keep people away, these evil spirits drove animals to the cliffs and forced them to jump down on anyone walking through the canyon. Now there are stories that these evil spirits were in fact wolves that were hunting people.
One part of the canyon – I don’t know which one exactly – is also called the Witch Canyon. The legend says that witches flew there late at night, luring travelers on the rocks so they could push them off the cliffs. Whether these stories are true or not, if you’re camping in the canyon, you shouldn’t pitch your tent too close to the edges of the cliffs… The darkness alone is treacherous enough for you to trip and fall, even without wolves or witches!
Want to explore more in this area? Read our guide to the magical turquoise lakes of Kolsai and Kaindy
What you need to know about visiting Charyn Canyon – practical travel information
How much does it cost to visit Charyn Canyon – Entrance fee
Before you can reach the Valley of Castles, you will come across an entrance gate. The officer in the little kiosk will ask for your passport, documents (if you’re driving) and will want to know if you’ll be camping there for the night. The entrance fee without camping is 727 tenge per person (about $3), if you want to spend the night in your tent, you’ll have to pay another 350 tenge per tent (the prices tend to change, depending on the season). You will have to pay an additional fee if you intend to drive into the canyon with your vehicle, if not, you can park your car near the entrance of the park.
How to get to Charyn Canyon from Almaty (and how to get back)
It takes about 4 hours to reach Charyn Canyon from Almaty (don’t always believe Google Maps)
Getting to Charyn Canyon by public transportation
Getting to the Charyn Canyon by public transportation is probably not your best option. We heard that there is a bus leaving from Sayahat bus station (Almaty) to Saty. However, out of all the (local) people we asked, no-one knows when this bus leaves and it definitely won’t drop you off at the entrance of the Canyon, which is 10 km from the main road. If you’re lucky enough to catch this bus (if you did, please provide us with more info in the comments below), you’ll have to ask the bus driver to drop you off at the intersection with the road to the Canyon. From there it’s a 10km walk before you reach the entrance gate. You could always try to hitchhike that part of the way as there should be a few cars passing by. Getting back with the same bus will be very hard, if you were able to take this bus to get there in the first place! You can hitchhike back or read how to get there and back by taking a shared taxi.
Getting to Charyn Canyon by shared taxi
If you don’t have your own transportation and you don’t want to hitchhike the whole way, this could be the best and cheapest way to Charyn Canyon. Go to Sayahat bus station and search for the shared taxis that go to Kegen, the name of a village near the canyon (the drivers will shout it). Ask the driver to drop you off at the intersection with Charyn Canyon (say “stop Charyn povorot”) From there it’s another 10km walk or you can always try to hitchhike. The shared taxi should cost around 2000 – 3000 tenge per person (about $6 – $9 at the current exchange rate). Getting back might be trickier. You can hitchhike back from the entrance of the canyon to the intersection. There you can signal to stop any passing cars by waving your hand up and down. When the car stops, it will likely be a shared taxi (if you’re lucky, they’ll understand you’re hitchhiking and you won’t have to pay). First ask if they are going to Almaty. If not, try to get a ride to Kokpek, a nearby village. That should cost you around 500 tenge. Once you’ve reached the village, you will have more chances on finding a bus or a shared taxi to Almaty for 3000 tenge.
Getting there by renting a car in Almaty
A more expensive option is to rent a car. If you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll get a lot more time and freedom to explore and drive around the canyon. Try to rent a 4×4 car if you’re planning on driving off-road. Friends of ours were able to rent a car for 30.000 tenge per day ($90 at the current exchange rate) through a local office in Almaty but if you search the internet (f.eg. rentalcars.com), you can find cheaper deals. You can always ask fellow travelers in your guesthouse/ hostel if they are up for joining you on this trip and share the costs.
Hitchhiking to Charyn Canyon
If you have the time, you can definitely get there by hitchhiking. It won’t cost you anything and the trip towards the canyon will probably be an adventure on its own. Take a mashrutka or shared taxi to get out of the city center and once you reach the highway (A-351), you can start hitchhiking towards Kegen. Once you pass Kokpek, it’s another 30 minutes to the intersection. Say “stop Charyn povorot” so you don’t miss it! Make it clear from the start that you’re not paying for the ride, otherwise you might get some problems. Please read our tips on hitchhiking in Kazakhstan.
Booking a tour to Charyn Canyon
Charyn Canyon is one of Almaty’s most popular destinations so it’s pretty easy to organize a day trip. If you speak some Russian or know someone who can help you (maybe the owner of your hostel/guesthouse), you can book a day tour to Charyn Canyon with HappyTravels for 6000 tenge per person. During this tour you will get to see the Valley of Castles and have some time to walk around the canyon. Booking an English tour will be more expensive. You can always have a look at the tours that Caravanistan promotes, or have a look at the website of Center Smart Tourism to find a good and affordable deal. If you want to explore the Canyon to its fullest, go for a 2-day tour!
Where to stay in Charyn Canyon – accommodation options
Camping in Charyn Canyon
It is possible and safe to camp in Charyn Canyon. You’ll be charged an extra 350 tenge per tent at the entrance gate. You might see some fellow happy-campers and I heard that it can be quite crowded during high season (June – September). We were there in October and were camping by ourselves. Just be careful not to pitch your tent too close to the cliffs and take your rubbish with you (there are plenty of rubbish bins around). Note that it can be pretty cold at night from halfway September on, so be prepared to camp in cold temperatures. I would recommend you to camp there at least one night. You’ll be treated to a canopy of stars at night and if you manage to get up early enough to see the sunrise, you’ll see a spectacle of golden colors that give the red cliffs a very special glow.
Staying in a yurt in Charyn Canyon
There aren’t many accommodation facilities in Charyn Canyon but if you don’t want/like to camp, you can always pay the price and stay in one of the yurts or wooden cabins of the eco-park at the bottom of the canyon, near the Charyn River. The park also has a restaurant and hot springs. Count on 25.000 tenge per person per night, including 3 meals. You can book a night in the eco-park through this website. However, I’m not sure if it’s open throughout winter (we will soon find out).
What to do in Charyn Canyon – free and paid activities
Depending on how much time you have, you can walk as much and as far as you want in the canyon. Hiking and trekking directly in the canyon is fairly easy but if you want to go on other routes, ask for professional guidance. The most popular part, the Valley of Castles, is about 3 km long. You’ll find signs pointing you into the direction of where you can safely descend the cliffs.
If you have your own car, you could do some off-road driving. Just check with the guards where you can safely drive around – please be careful near the steep cliffs!
During the summer, the canyon can be scorching hot so if you need to cool down, you can go for a swim in the river.
Some tour companies offer extra activities, such as rafting, kayaking, fishing and guided off-road driving tours.
Best time to visit Charyn Canyon
If this place would be somewhere in Europe, it would be swarmed by tourists from all over the world. Luckily, Kazakhstan is not on the radar of many tourists yet, so you can still enjoy the vast beauty of the canyon in a rather peaceful way. However, during the high season (June – September) you will likely bump into many other tourists. If you want to “have” the canyon for yourself, go on a weekday before or after the high season. Tour operators still organize tours during this time but only on weekends.
Winter is probably not the best time, although the canyon must look amazing covered in a blanket of snow. We’ll find out when we go back there this winter!
How to prepare yourself for a visit to Charyn Canyon
- Bring enough food and water with you for the amount of time you’re going to spend in the canyon, since there aren’t any food stands or convenience stores. You could always have a meal in the restaurant of the eco-village, but remember that it’s only open during the high season.
- Wear suitable footwear, as in firm hiking boots. The surface of the canyon can be slippery so watch out where you walk. Avoid going off-tracks as it can be dangerous.
- If you’re planning on spending the night in the canyon, be aware that it can be pretty cold. Bring a warm sleeping bag and an extra sweater to keep you warm at night. You can find more tips about camping in winter here.
In case you’re traveling by yourself, let someone know that you’re going to the canyon and how long you will stay there. If you stick to the path, nothing will happen but remember: it’s better to be safe than sorry (ever watched the movie 127 hours?).
Watch how we were blown away by the beauty of the Charyn Canyon:
We hope this guide provided you with all the information you need to have a great time in this stunning canyon. If you have more questions, let us know in the comments below. Feel free to post some photos or share stories of your own visit to the canyon. Have you ever visited the Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon in the USA? Do you think they look similar to this one?
If you’re planning a trip Kazakhstan, check out our complete travel guide to Kazakhstan for more useful tips and information.