Chiseled out of the steppe clay by an eponymous white river, Charyn Canyon is Kazakhstan’s supreme rift. After crossing the endless, wide-open plains outside of Almaty, the canyon comes as a surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, the landscape gets a third dimension.
For a million years, wind and water sculpted Charyn’s red sandstone to form today’s fantastical shapes and shadows. Come here if you are not easily awed.
Besides sightseeing and photography, the Charyn area offers opportunities for walking, and rafting, as well as off-road jeep touring, and simply enjoying beautiful nature.
Take your time
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 a short time.
We advise you to make it a 2-day visit to ensure you get the full experience: see at least 3 canyons, experience sunset & sunrise and camp under a starry night sky. You will not regret it.
Better yet, make Charyn Canyon part of a larger loop around Almaty Region, taking in Kolsai Lakes and Altyn Emel NP starting from Almaty. Add in less-visited Assy Plateau and Turgen Gorge for a great experience.
Create your tailor-made tour.
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 oldest, darkest layers at the bottom of the canyons are volcanic lava rocks, on top of which debris slowly accumulated to form natural sculptures.
Once upon a time, a vast forest of Sogdian ash trees covered the whole area. The forest did not survive the change to a drier climate, and now only relic populations of the prehistoric, thick-as-baobab Sogdian ashes are left.
Lizards, snakes, steppe hares, foxes and especially groundhogs thrive here. There is also a renegade camel that calls Charyn home. The Charyn river is also home to an endemic fish called the naked osman.
When to go
The Kazakh steppe is freezing cold in the winter, and sizzling hot in summer. Charyn Canyon is not an exception (-30° Celsius in the depths of winter to +40° on the hottest of summer days). You can visit year-round, but dress very warm from October to April, and protect yourself from the sun (and hydrate!) between May and September.
Usually, when people say Charyn, they mean the Valley of Castles. That is just one sight, though; Charyn is a lot bigger than the Valley of Castles. Tour guides with more than a decade experience still discover nooks of Charyn they never saw before.
We present you with 4 canyons, but know that this too is not an exhaustive overview.
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 small lodge hosts those who enjoy 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; you are allowed to make a camp fire. This canyon is loved by children, who enjoy clambering 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.
Also called the Yellow or Moon canyon, this one is our favourite. You can walk down and feel the walls closing in, and there is a perfect picknick spot by the river. Like Temirlik, this is another really cozy canyon.
There is more nature here too: hardy plants in bright steppe colours that add to the drama.
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.
Hiking & rafting
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. There are no hiking trails so be prepared to improvise.
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.
A few companies offer rafting on the Charyn river. We haven’t done it yet so cannot recommend any routes or companies yet.
Charyn Canyon tours
We don’t recommend day tours to Charyn Canyon anymore; it is not the kind of tourism we want to be a part of. We do include Charyn as part of longer tours combined with other highlights of Almaty region:
- 2-day Issyk & Bartogay lakes en route to Charyn canyon
- 3-day tour to Charyn, Kolsai Lakes and Sunken forest
- 5-day Scheduled Golden ring of Zhetisu
- 7-day RING tour of Almaty region
- 9-day Almaty +: deserts to glaciers
Or you can write to us with your ideas for a tailor-made adventure.
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 great 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).