Here at Caravanistan, we are huge fans of Kazakhstan’s nature. The country often gets the cold shoulder from tourists eager to see the much-talked about mountains of Kyrgyzstan or the wild roughness of Tajikistan. But if you ask us, in terms of diversity, expansiveness and sheer delight, no country in Central Asia can beat Kazakhstan’s nature reserves and national parks.
There are 106 protected nature sites in Kazakhstan. We lift out the 20 most important ones in this illustrated guide to the main national parks of Kazakhstan.
1. Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve
As the oldest nature park and Kazakhstan’s best-run ecotourism project, Aksu-Zhabagly is an excellent place to go hiking and see wildlife like bears, ibex and packs of large vultures. The symbol of the park is Greig’s Tulip, of which the deep red colour fills the fields of Aksu-Zhabagly come spring. Other sights include the large Aksu Canyon, whose flanks show an abundance of wildflowers in season.
Visiting the park is quite expensive, but for those on a budget, luckily nature does not stop at the edge of the nature reserve.
2. Sayram-Ugam National Park
Much less visited than Aksu-Zhabagly, Sayram-Ugam offers an even more peaceful setting in the same area. Plenty of wildlife here too, such as boar, wolves and bobcats, as well as protected wild variants of staple foods such as apples, walnuts, plums and grapes. The Sayram river flowing through the park turns a beautiful turquoise colour once winter is over and melting glacier water hits the stream.
3. Katon-Karagay National Park
Katon-Karagay, in the high northeast of Kazakhstan, has one of the most incredible settings of any national park. Set deep in the Altai mountains, it’s a delight for anyone who enjoys trekking in Altai’s pristine nature. Famous for their tasty food and mountain honey, the simple villages of the area are a great place to get away from it all.
The area of Katon-Karagay and the West Altai nature reserve is known for its eagle hunters.
4. West Altai Nature Reserve
A huge nature reserve in the northeast of Kazakhstan, West Altai nature reserve is still unknown to foreigners. Ecotourism is getting underway but is still in the beginning phase. Once again, animals in the park include all large Siberian mammals and hundreds of bird species, and the flora of the region has inspired its own field guide. Obviously, the village farmers are known for their tasty produce.
An excellent place to go if it does not work out with the permit for the high Altai mountains of Markakol.
5. Markakol Nature Reserve
It is a long ride to get to Lake Markakol, and an expensive journey because of the need for permits, but foreigners who make it this far will be rewarded with some of the most spectacular views of the Altai mountains. If you make it to lonely Urunkhayka, the peaceful landscape will wash away the pains of the bumpy ride there.
Rare fauna and flora are under threat here, as the reserve does not have the money to fight off Chinese poachers from across the border.
6. Bayanaul National Park
Popular with locals from nearby Pavlodar in summer, Bayanaul’s claim to fame are its 3 lakes, whose coasts give off a distinct beach holiday vibe – otherwise difficult to find in Central Kazakhstan. Away from the lakes, hiking trails lead through fields and hills of wind-sculpted rocks and strangely-shaped trees, all bathing in the mystery of folk tales.
7. Burabay National Park
Burabay (Borovoye in Russian) is the playground of Astana’s bureaucratic elite and its burgeoning middle class. Its iconic mountain stands tall above the lake that bears the same name. Burabay still has lots of fresh air to be sniffed at, but it’s animals are difficult to see these days as human pressures have chased them deep into the forests.
8. Karkaraly National Park
In the heart of Kazakhstan, in the middle of the unrelenting steppes around Karaganda, Karkaraly national park (Karkaralinsk in Russian) is a relief, and filled with gorgeous, pure nature. Eagles are common and prone to steal your dinner, while you admire the granite rock formations that protect the park from the fierce steppe winds.
9. Buyratau National Park
Established only in 2011, Buyratau national park is new and has little in the way of tourist facilities. The park has been set up to protect steppelands and its rare flora and fauna. Besides flat steppe, forest and rocky ridges make for a diverse ecosystem that supports more than 200 bird species, 450 plant species and a pack of wild sheep.
10. Kokshetau National Park
A typically Siberian landscape awaits you once you leave Kokshetau: rolling steppe flats covered with pine forests, interspersed with clear lakes. Typical species of animals of the taiga like elk, lynx, marten, white hare and ermine co-exist here with the inhabitants of the southern steppes like gopher, polecat and steppe marmot.
Kokshetau national park is not as spectacular as some of the other national parks in Kazakhstan, but it is very accessible and an incredibly healthy place, coming from Astana.
11. Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve
Known as the most northern home of flamingoes, Korgalzhyn is another national park which will delight birdwatchers. The big lake in the otherwise empty steppes attracts a diverse set of birds making their way to or from Siberia. Although some accommodation option are set up, doing this trip by yourself seems to be very complicated.
12. Naurzum Nature Reserve
In the north of Kazakhstan in Kostanay region, Naurzum nature reserve, with its mix of birch forest, steppe, wetlands and semi-desert, does not have much in the way of a spectacular landscape. For those eager to see wildlife, this is the place to be however. Many of the endangered steppe animals like the saiga antelope live here.
13. Charyn National Park
Charyn canyon is an iconic picture of southeast Kazakhstan, and a frequent goal for visitors of Almaty.
14. Altyn-Emel National Park
Altyn Emel is a very large national park north of Almaty with a lot to offer. The fact that you need to be guided by one of Altyn-Emel’s drivers is perhaps a setback for independent minds, but it makes that you have a large chance to see some of the rare hoofed animals like kulan. Other sights within the park are the singing sand dune and the Aktau and Katutau hills.
15. Ili-Alatau National Park
On the footsteps of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Ili-Alatau is a beautiful national park that never feels overrun by tourists. It stretches far beyond the city and incorporates sights like Turgen gorge, Big Almaty Lake, Kumbel peak and Aksai gorge. All in all, a wonderful place to get away from the busy city and free camp for a weekend.
16. Kolsay Lakes National Park
3 mountain lakes, stunningly beautiful. It is a long drive from Almaty, and the water never gets warm enough to go for a long swim, keeping the Kolsay lakes relatively devoid of tourists for now.
17. Dzhungarian Alatau National Park
Land of milk and honey would be an apt description of the Dzhungar mountains. The Dzhungar mountains are settled by a few villages that live in a rural idylle surrounded by alpine grasslands and forests rich in berries and mushrooms. Despite an appealing ecotourism project, not many people take their vacation here, even though they can, because of the necessary special permit.
18. Alakol Nature Reserve
The Alakol nature reserve is based around the large Alakol lake, where a few villages host a summertime crowd of beach enthusiasts. Away from those villages, it is, next to Balkhash lake, one of the best places to see water birds.
19. Karatau Nature Reserve
Karatau nature reserve in South Kazakhstan was set up in 2006 especially to protect the argali mountain goats and the large number of unstudied herbs living on the mountain. There is little or no ecotourism set up in the reserve as far as we know.
20. Ustyurt Nature Reserve
Only for die-hards, the Ustyurt nature reserve lies deep in the unwelcoming desert of West Kazakhstan. Its location means it stays well-protected. Interesting rock formations like Sherkala and the mysterious Valley of Balls can be found here, as well as desert-hardy fauna and flora like the endemic moufflon and caracal.