Surrounded by mountains and giant Tien Shan firs, Big Almaty Lake is a scenic place. It’s worth a drive, and it looks like in the pictures. You can definitely enjoy the atmosphere up here, as long as you remember a few basic pointers left out of most travel guides.
Sometimes, the lake is free to visit, at other times, access is restricted and entrance fees are raised. Please let us know your BAL experience on the forum to keep everyone up to date.
For now, Big Almaty Lake is free to visit and easy to access.
When to go
Avoid weekends at all cost. The proximity of Big Almaty Lake to the city and the perfectly maintained road towards the lake mean it has become a very popular place for locals to pick-nick and show off their cars. Summers are busiest. The best time to visit are May – June, when the road is clear but the lake is still a frozen beauty and the mountain freshness is incomparable, and September – October, when glacier melts turn the water a dazzling turquoise.
What not to do
Border guards take their job seriously here. You cannot approach the lake, only see it from the road. You cannot camp near the lake. In any case, take your passport with you, as a passport check is likely.
Should I hike here?
Hiking up to the lake is pretty boring, as you are following the road for the longest time, and the scenery is average. It’s also really far away, to make it back in 1 day (you cannot camp at the top) is tough. We don’t advise it.
From the lake, there are some great hikes to be made to different peaks and glaciers. You now need several permits for these, which can be obtained at the Migration Police (OVIR). We have no experience getting the permits. There are other wonderful hikes to be made in the Ili-Alatau near Almaty without permits. See hiking around Almaty for suggestions and directions, or contact Asya and Alexey to talk about a guided hike.
A simple half-day hike that is a good idea, is the walk up to Big Almaty Peak. From the observatory, follow the mountain trail on your right hand side to the north that leads to the peak (gpx trail). You can camp nearby or continue in a westerly direction. As long as you do not get too close to the border with Kyrgyzstan.
If you do want to get to the lake under your own steam, cycling is an option if you are fit (1400 m elevation over 16 km). It’s a beautiful ride up, the tarmac is perfect, and it’s 30 km downhill if you make it to the top.
The astronomical observatory on Big Almaty Lake is a place of scientific inquiry, and as funding has increased over the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, old projects have been resumed. This means you can no longer sleep or watch the stars at the observatory, but it should be possible to visit if the guards are not in a bad mood.
A smaller, but very charming, observatory is the Kamenskoe Plato Observatory closer to the city (Gmaps). Their telescopes are antiques and more for show-and-tell, but the place is full of history (the invention of astrobotany by Gavriil Tikhov, to name but one thing) and it’s a quirky Almaty destination that’s rarely visited by tourists. If you’re interested, we can inquire about the possibility of them providing a tour.
On the corner of Al-Farabi and Navoi streets, next to the President’s Park is the bus stop (Gmaps) for bus 28 that drives every 30 minutes all the way up Dulati street (also called Almarasan). Last stop is just beyond the entrance to the park. Taxis ply the same routes, expect to pay around 5-10 times more per seat. If you drive yourself, you will need to pay a 200 tenge entry fee per person at the entrance to the park.
From the entrance to the park, you will need to hitch a ride if you want to get up to the lake. Not so easy if you are going outside of the peak times. A taxi up to the lake will be upwards of 2000 tenge.
Alternatively, you can join a day tour which takes in a few other sights and allows some hiking around the area.