Hiking is to Kyrgyzstan what skiing is to the Alps. It’s gotta be done and there are very few places in the world that do it better. Miles of rolling hills, pine tree lined valleys leading to snow capped peaks, a smattering of wild horses, a yurt camp or two, oh and you get it all to yourself! Kyrgyzstan is still an undiscovered gem and the untouched nature there is simply breath-taking. There’s plenty of options for hiking but one of the most tried and tested ones offering some of the most incredible views in the country is the hike from Karakol to Ala Kul lake and onwards to the hot springs of Altyn Arashan.
We did the hike to Ala Kul Lake without a guide and without a tent or sleeping bag in late August. We took the route from the park entrance outside of Karakol, past Ala Kul lake to Altyn Arashan village and then back to the road to Karakol over three days and two nights.
The Ala Kul Lake trek is challenging but so beautiful and can be completed by most people with an average fitness level. Many people choose to carry their own camping gear which can make the climb really difficult. If you already have camping gear you can save some money by taking it with you but in my opinion it’s not worth renting gear and carrying it all up as there are multiple camps along the way during the peak season.
Looking for more inspiration? Read about our 20 favourite experiences in Kyrgyzstan!
Basic facts about the Ala Kul Trek
Distance: 45 km
Time: 3 days/2 nights
Maximum Altitude: 3900 m
Best time to do it: June-September
Before you begin the trek
Head to the Destination Karakol office to check the route, ask about the upcoming weather and buy a map if you need. These guys can also answer all your questions about the region.
If you feel more comfortable booking ahead (advisable in peak season) Destination Karakol can call the camps/guesthouses and book you a bed. Or you can book a couple of the yurt camps and guest houses here.
Download Maps.me or 2GIS both these apps have good tracking along the route and will help you when the trail gets unclear.
Stock up on snacks. The yurt camps provide dinner and breakfast if you want but there is nothing in between for lunch stops. There are lots of spots to fill up water along the river so bring a reusable drink bottle. The water is probably safe to drink but we used our SteriPen (UV filter) just to be safe.
Do You Need a Guide for the Ala-Kul Trek?
We did the Ala Kul hike without a guide and found the trail easy enough to follow with a bit of help from maps.me if the path wasn’t clear. The weather in the mountains can be really unpredictable and there is often snow, even through summer so if you aren’t a confident hiker you might want a guide with you.
If you are travelling alone I would recommend spending a day or two in Karakol before the hike to try and meet some other travellers to do the hike with (the route is pretty popular so it shouldn’t be too hard.)
What to Pack for the Ala- Kul Trek
Warm clothing. Its a hike in the mountains so of course it gets cold at night and there are chilling winds at the top of the 3900m pass. Make sure you take several layers and a warm outer shell such as a down jacket. Merino wool is also our best friend for hiking, we have Icebreaker hoodies which are lightweight and super warm.
Rain jacket. Even a beautiful sunny day can turn to rain (or even snow) in the mountains so make sure you have a waterproof layer, for you and your bag! Grab a backpack rain cover here.
Swim wear. Sounds weird for the mountains but remember that the trek ends at Altyn Arashan which is home to natural hot springs and a soak in one of the baths after the second day of the trek is very much needed!
Camera. The views are utterly spectacular and you won’t want to miss the photo opportunities around every corner.
Getting to the Ala-Kul Trek Starting Point
To begin the Ala-Kul lake trek take the marshrutka #101 (10 som) to the last stop which is also the entrance to the park. If you want to cut an hour off your trek you can also take a taxi along the first part of the valley. Destination Karakol can organise this for you, it costs 800 som per car.
The entrance fee to the park costs 250 som per person and 100 som per tent.
The Ala-Kul Trek Route
Day One: Park Entrance to Camp Two (5.5 hours plus stops and marshrutka)
From the entrance to the park the trek takes you on an easy four hour stroll along an idyllic valley. Occasionally passing locals on horseback, herds of cows and lazy rivers this is an easy and pleasant introduction to trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
After four hours you’ll come to a signpost by the river. This is a popular place to stop for lunch and there is also a camp here if you’re feeling like extending the trek or the weather has turned. We decided to continue up hill for an hour to the second camp in order to have some of the uphill done on the first day.
Note: excellent decision, day two is freaking tough!
An hour and a half of uphill climb and a bit of rock scrambling brings you to a well equipped camp with yurts, tents and spots for camping.
Yurt: 1000som per person (including sleeping bag)
Tent: 800som per person (including sleeping bag)
Dinner and Breakfast: 500 som
Day Two: Camp Two to Altyn Arashan via Ala-Kul lake (7 hours plus stops)
This day was probably one of the hardest treks we’ve ever done. Max was also feeling sick so really struggled to get himself to the top of the pass.
From the camp to Ala-Kul lake takes about 2 hours of very steep up hill. The views along the way are absolutely amazing but the altitude starts to take it’s toll so you’ll need to stop for breathers often. The first views of the lake are a good spot to stop and take some pictures and grab a snack before attempting the pass.
From the lake up to the pass is another 1.5 hours and is very difficult. Make sure you stay on the path around the lake until you can see the top of the pass. There is a near vertical path off the left at one point which isn’t the right way and looks pretty dangerous.
Once at the top of the pass there are two ways down the other side. If go straight over there is a steep gravel path which is the easier of the two options. If you continue along the ridge to the highest point you can also get down there but from the conversations we had it sounded like this was harder.
The scramble down the gravel path takes about 15-20 minutes and was far more fun than the terrifying descent I’d pictured. At the bottom of the pass are two more yurt camps which you can stay at if the pass took longer than anticipated or you feel you can’t go further.
We probably should have stopped here but the weather looked like it would hold out and we had dreams of the hot springs promised in Altyn Arashan. So we began the three hour walk down the valley. This is fairly easy going, you’ll need to cross the river at one point but there are rocks to step across.
At the end of the valley you’ll see the welcome sight of the guesthouses and yurt camps at Altyn Arashan, most of them have hot springs for use. We stayed at the comfortable and homely ELZA Guesthouse which had dorm rooms and space for tents. They also provided dinner and breakfast. It’s not possible to book here online but you can book at Eco Yurt Camp Arashan if you prefer.
Dorm bed: 300 som per person
Dinner: 200 som
Breakfast: 150 som
Hot spring: 200 som per person
If you want to book something in advance in Altyn Arashan, click here.
Day Three: Altyn Arashan to Karakol
If you want to cut your hike to just two days then it’s possible to arrange a 4WD taxi back to Karakol from Altyn Arashan. They usually leave early in the morning but if you’re a group and want to get back at the end of day I’m sure it can be arranged. The ride costs 1000 som per person and is a bumpy journey!
The last day of hiking is really beautiful and very easy going compared to the day before. It’s 15km or about three hours down to the main road where you can take marshrutka #350 (30 som) back to Karakol. If you’re with a group a taxi can be negotiated for about 200-300 som per car.
Where to stay in Karakol
We stayed at the basic but incredibly friendly Guest House on Derbisheva. The owner doesn’t speak much English but is really welcoming and you have your own double room with private bathroom.
If you’re looking for something more social try the dorm rooms at Karakol based Hostel.
As a splash out Hillside Karakol Boutique Hotel is really comfortable, clean and new.