Together with Song Kol, Karakol is Kyrgyzstan’s best-known hiking destination. Is it also the best hiking destination? Let’s review.
It is beautiful. If you haven’t done a lot of trekking, you will love this. If, on the other hand, you have done a lot of trekking, you might find the scenery is the classic alpine beauty you have probably already experienced in many other areas of the world, with the exception of the more extreme 10-day hike to Inylchek glacier.
Compared to the wild scenery in areas like the Alay region or Naryn region, Karakol is a bit more sedate.
If you are looking for solitude, the Karakol area is not the place to be. The Naryn region is probably the most interesting place to be at the moment for people looking to go off the beaten track.
If, on the other hand, you prefer some company on the trail, Karakol is the best place to be in Kyrgyzstan. Having said this, we recommend the Jyrgalan area over the Alakul trek, which is perhaps too crowded even for the socialite hiker.
Karakol is not the best place for yurtstays, at least in summer. Yurts are busier and they are set up foremost for hosting tourists, not for tending to livestock.
If you are a semi-independent (meaning, you might want some advice, a predefined trail or some trekking gear) hiker looking for the easiest place to get started with the cheapest deals, Karakol is it.
Transport to trailheads at Jyrgalan, Ak-Suu and Jeti-Oguz is quick and cheap, and Karakol has a lot of people who can rent out gear and give you trekking advice and help you with organising. If you prefer to not carry a tent, base camps and yurtstays are available along the way at every step.
Treks and trek reports
Routes, maps and access
Not all of the routes discussed below are on the Karakol trekking map, but quite a few of them are. Where we have found gpx tracks of the treks, we linked them.
For access to the trailheads by public transport, see transport in Karakol.
Altyn Arashan, Jeti Oguz and beyond
The Karakol Valley National Park, located at the southern edge of the town, offers a great number of hikes, although for the best scenery you will have to walk longer than a single day. The entry ticket to the reserve costs 250 som and it is possible to camp freely, like everywhere else in Kyrgyzstan.
The Karakol Tourist Information Center at 130 Abdrahmanov Street sells detailed trail maps.
The trek to lake Alakul at 3560 meters altitude is the most popular trek in Kyrgyzstan. The 45 km circular trek from Karakol usually takes three days, however, it is also possible to go to Ala Kul and back in a single day by driving to the base camp under Alakul.
The full Alakul trek can be done without a tent since yurt camps are available along the way, but it is recommended to book a bed in advance if you are traveling in high season. The Destination Karakol office at 22 Gagarin Street can book the camps for you.
Altyn Arashan has a collection of outdoor hot springs to relax after your hike. You can use it as a base camp to explore the valleys around for a number of days, returning to your tent and the hot springs in the evening.
The hike to Alakul is pretty, but it does get a bit too busy in summer for most trekkers to call it enjoyable, and it might be too tough for hikers who enjoy socializing.
The Alakul base camp also gives you a place to stay for a one-day trek to Peak Karakol.
- Altyn Arashan via Kok-Jar – 1 day – gpx
- Ak Suu arboretum – 1 day – gpx
- Alakul: 3 days – gpx
- Peak Karakol 2-3 days: trek report – gpx
- Barskoon – Juku – 4 days – gpx
- Ak Suu highlights – 5 days – gpx
- Archa-Tor trek: 3-7 days – trek report – gpx (last bit)
The trek across Archa-Tor to Alakul can be started from Jeti Oguz, Kyzyl-Suu, or if you want a longer trek, from Barskoon.
The 10-day hike to Inylchek glacier is much more spectacular than the more sedate, classically alpine scenery around Karakol, but inexperienced trekkers should definitely take a guide here. Bonus is the extra cost/excitement of being helicoptered out from Khan Tengri Base Camp.
Jyrgalan has seen a surge in interest ever since USAID got American bloggers to promote the area. The main village is located about 1 hour drive from Karakol. A quick Ecosia search will bring up a bunch of ultimate guides to trekking in Jyrgalan, where you can find awesome inspiration and epic pictures (this one is unpaid).
Setting aside the blogger hyperbole, Jyrgalan does have good hikes.
Similar to Altyn Arashan, this should not be your first port of call if you are interested in true wilderness, but Jyrgalan is better than Altyn Arashan as a base for inexperienced trekkers, since there are more well-documented treks you can go for.
- Kok-Bel waterfall – 1 day – gpx
- Turnaly-Kol panorama – 1 day – gpx
- Eki-Chat yurt camp – 1 day – gpx
- Robbers’ canyon – 1 day – gpx
- Chunkur-Tor – 1 day – gpx
- Ailampa lakes – 3 days – gpx
- Boz-Uchuk lakes – 3 days – gpx
- Keskenkiya loop – 4 days – gpx
- Echkili-Tash – 5 days – gpx
- Ak-Suu transverse – 7 days – gpx
The destination Jyrgalan company has more info on the treks, rents out gear and can advise you.
Jyrgalan is very good for freeriding, with winter yurt camps set up that move as the temperature and snowfall changes from place to place.
Preparations and practical tips
On a related note, winter is a great time to come to Karakol. There are a lot of opportunities for free-riding, snowshoeing, winter horse riding, sledding, … All without the noise of summer.
Read more at skiing in Karakol.
Climbers can attempt summiting a number of peaks with Altyn Arashan as the base camp, including Peak Karakol (5281 m), Peak Prjevalsky (4271 m), Peak Palatka (4730 m), and Peak Ala-Kul Kyry (4300 m).
The big ones in the area are Khan Tengri (7010 m) and Jengish Chokusu (7439 m).
Many hostels rent basic hiking and camping equipment, although the quality varies greatly so check the gear before you set out for a trek, especially if weather conditions are unstable. Extreme Tour (154 Karasaev Street), Ecotrek (116 Abdrahmanova Street), Yak Tours, Destination Karakol, Visit Karakol and Karakol CBT are some of the best-known options.
In Jyrgalan, Destination Jyrgalan offers gear rental.