Charyn Canyon is located at the territory of the Charyn National Park which was established in 2004 and focuses in the surroundings of the Charyn river (Sharyn). Over millions of years, the fast-running river has slowly created a truly spectacular 150 m to 300 m deep canyon, the deepest point being where the canyon crosses the Toraigyr Mountains. Time has exposed some mysterious and colorful rock formations with mostly reddish colors.
There are at least three canyon has sections that are commonly known as the Valley of Castles (or the red canyon), the Dragon Gorge and the Witch’s Gorge. The most famous and easiest to access is the Valley of Castles and by hear it is also the most impressive, we have not visited the other ones. Valley of the Castle’s length is about 2 km and a width varying around 20-80 m and about 100 m deep. The canyon is a whole chain of stone cliffs with bizarre shapes, sometimes reminiscent of an ancient hillforts or big sized sandcastles. Perhaps the most picturesque and colorful part of the path is where the canyon adjoins the Charyn River which you can reach by walking about two kilometers on a path between the red-black rocks of the Valley of Castles or if you are feeling like not walking you can also hop on an old Soviet minibus to make it easier as walking it back upwards can be exhausting if the weather is hot as there is mostly no wind at all in the canyon. The Charyn river flows for about 400 kilometers and originates from the highlands of the Ketmen ridge flowing towards the lower reaches of Ili. Its turbulent stream can easily carry away a person, so strongly not recommended to try swimming here. Further North the valley gets less deep and a great ancient forest of Sogdian ash trees grows next to the river meandering inside the valley.
The best time to visit the Charyn Canyon is spring and the first months of summer as during the summer time it usually gets too hot here. The beginning of autumn is another great time to visit the canyon and admire its reddish-yellow colors but during the spring time the plants are more beautiful with flowers and green colors compared to the yellowish colors of the later summer or beginning of autumn.
HOW TO GET TO Charyn Canyon (valley of castles)
Take the main road East from Almaty, after the midpoint you will pass a small town of Shelek after the Kapshagay reservoir has disappeared from your left side horizon. After around 190 km East from Almaty, turn left towards East – Northeast on to a signposted road saying Charyn. You will reach the canyon after a further 9 km and having passed a checkpoint at which a small fee is taken against your entry into the Charyn National Nature Park. Almaty-based tour operators offer lengthy day trips to the canyon, sometimes combining it with the Kolsai lakes and Kaindy Lake.
There is also a location from where the canyon can well be seen from above next to a bridge crossing it if you continue somewhat further along the path not entering the stairs leading down. If you continue the road A-351 South from the point where the road starts to Valley of Castles and drive for about 13 km there is a view point with a parking space to observe the Charyn river in its canyon from above. There the canyon is also more deep.
Lunnyy canyon which also joins the river Charyn from the East side is a popular place for camping with tents and has less tourists but we have no information of any proper road leading there but if you are willing to hike and want to see the off the beaten path places this is the one to go to. A local driver with instructions on the location (Google map) and a 4×4 car will take you there for sure though. It can most likely be accessed somewhat more South from the point of view location along the A-351 road.
If you continue further East towards the border of China olong the road R-24 you will cross the Tamerlik gorge which also joins the Charyn river further North. This gorge offers also green meadows and green groves to explore with rare wildlife such as black storks and and other birds. In order to reach the Sogdian ash groves you need to drive either back Northwest from the Valley of castles and join the road A-352 going Northeast all together for about 80 km or take the shortcut going straight North-Northeast from the Valley of castles but the latter one requires a suitable car. You can see the grove area starting when the A-352 bridge crosses it.
You can also access the Charyn national park from Issyk Kul area from Kyrgyzstan but the road on the Kyrgyz side is in very bad shape and therefore slow to drive. The road in the Karkara valley in the Kazakh side is in a lot better condition and the high Karkara area is a beutiful place with very high mountains on it’s South and South-East side and beautiful red poppy fields if you happen to cross the valley in the late spring.