Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon is a spectacular sight set to a backdrop of flat steppeland near Almaty. The multi-colored gorges display millions of years of history, and are a great place for walking, rafting, photography, 4WD driving and nature appreciation.
The landscapes of the steppe are unforgettable, if you take your time for it.
Most tourists want to visit Charyn Canyon as a day trip from Almaty. This is possible, but it is a 4-hour drive there and 4 hours back, leaving precious little time for visiting the canyons, a wonder of nature. You can only see the Valley of Castles in such short time.
We advise you to make it a 2- or 3-day visit, to make sure you get the full experience: see all 5 canyons, experience sunset & sunrise and camp under a starry night sky.
You will not regret it.
The 5 canyons
Valley of Castles
The Valley of Castles is the famous bit of Charyn Canyon. Standing on top, looking down, it is an inspiring sight. Especially when the sun is low in the sky, the walls take on colours that are not their own, and eroded stone casts strange shadows on the valley floor. Walk down in the valley and feel the walls closing in. Near the river, a lodge hosts those who need comfort. If you enjoy camping, move on to the next canyon and put your tent up.
After a hair-raising descent (4×4 only), you reach the river valley at Temirlik canyon. Temir means iron, and this canyon is of the reddest iron red. Relic ash trees on the river bank make for a cozy camp spot. Light the camp fire! This canyon is most enjoyed by kids, who love to clamber around the towers and inside the overhangs and little caves. Explore a bit more and you will find a small waterfall, good for morning showers on hot days. Colourful streaked boulders might get you interested in geology. You can also try to photo-hunt a mountain goat.
If you don’t care for camping; nearby Chundzha has a number of guesthouses built around hot springs.
My favourite, perhaps. You can walk down and feel the walls closing in. This is another really cosy canyon. There is more nature here too: hardy plants in bright steppe colours that add to the drama. At the end of your walk is a picture-perfect picnic spot.
Most people are canyoned-out after 3, but if you want more, visit Bestamak, another deep, multi-tinted canyon. Located between the Valley of Castles and Temirlik, over the length of 6 km, Bestamak repeatedly changes its look. Wide U-shaped valleys alternate with narrow passages. The color in the rocks gradually changes from pink to orange as you walk down the dry riverbed.
Red Canyon is located between the Charyn and Chilik rivers. Like Temirlik, it’s bright red from the iron ore it contains. Formed by volcanic activity, you can find fossil volcanic ash, basalt and solidified lava flows here. If you plan to do the 5 canyons, do this one first: it’s on the way to Temirlik, and it’s the least impressive in terms of size and shape.
Continue the trip
This is where travel masters separate themselves from the pack. Visiting 3 to 5 canyons will take 2 days, if you take the same road back to Almaty. If you take an extra day, you can add on the Bartogai reservoir and the amazing Assy Plateau. Great place to camp, hunt for petroglyphs, drink kymys and chat to shepherds.
Hiking & rafting
A few companies offer rafting on the Charyn river. We haven’t done it yet so cannot recommend any routes or companies yet.
Want to go hiking beyond the little walks in the canyons we mentioned? Great idea. Here is a GPS route you can take inspiration from. You will have to organise transport to the start and finish. Here is another.
Note that the gorge gets extremely hot in high summer. Go long-distance hiking in the mountains during summer, and leave the canyon for the shoulder months.
Charyn Canyon tours
Prices revolve around 65 – 150 USD for a day trip with English speaking guide, private transport & lunch box.
Budget tours with local guides for 1 or 2 days with tent or guest house accommodation.
Multi day tour to Five canyons of Zhetisu including Charyn.
If you have your own transport
You do not need a 4WD for the Valley of Castles, but all other canyons are best visited with a 4WD. There is a small entrance fee at the entrance of the Valley of Castles. Other canyons are free and usually deserted. Locations are marked on Openstreetmap. Also search OSM for viewpoints and camp spots in the area. These can be tricky to find without a local, even with GPS, but are well worth searching out for amazing views and secluded camping.
To reach Charyn’s Sogdian Ash forest, turn left towards Zhonzy and Zharkent a few kilometers past the town of Kokpek (it’s before you reach the canyon).
There is also an option to hire “Travel taxi” from a local tour guides cooperative. You hire a car with a driver who will get you to a Charyn Canyon & back and stay with you for 2 days. Price for 6 people for 2 days – 290 euros. (48 Euro per person), 1 day – 180 euros (30 Euro per person). Keep in mind that accommodation, entrance fees, food, camping gear has to be arranged by you.
Geology, biology and history
The history of Charyn canyon stretches back 12 million years, when the river started slowly eroding the stone around it. The multi-coloured geology that you can see now is the result of different stages of sediment deposition. Dark rocks at the bottom are volcanic lava rocks. On top of those, the red cliffs of the Valley of Castles came from debris flows. The plains around Charyn are covered with grey gravel and dust which were transported there by the strong winds in the area.
Downstream of the Valley of Castles is a leftover of a vast prehistoric forest of Sogdian Ash. The Sogdian Ash is a rare, endangered tree and Charyn is one of two places where it still grows in large numbers. The area is specially protected and act as a kind of oasis in the harsh environment for wildlife such as lizards, snakes, groundhogs, steppe hares and foxes.
The Charyn river is also home to a fish endemic to the region called the naked osman.