8 April 2020.
Peeking out above the treetops, the soaring ochre pillars of Stolby Nature Reserve – the stolby themselves – puncture the foothills of the Sayan Mountains.
After several days on the Trans Siberian Railway, there’s nothing better for the soul than a day spent rambling about in nature and the Stolby Nature Reserve provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
I arrived on a particularly chilly December day where icy winds whipped through the trees, snow was piled high around the orange-tinted rocks and the warren of trails snaking through the forest were blanketed in an enchanting layer of white and simply begged to be explored.
Although I spent far more time attempting to extricate myself from the surrounding snowdrifts than actually clambering up the enormous boulders as I had expected, it was a wonderful day spent in the wilderness. A day of getting lost in the silence of the forest, of treetop views and slow wanderings, of squirrels and tiny forest birds scouting out their next meal, of snow-dusted hair and scraped knuckles and the best sunrise I’d seen all year.
Planning your trip to Stolby Nature Reserve? Here’s everything you need to know.
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Stolby Nature Reserve sits just outside of Krasnoyarsk and, after a short bus or taxi ride, can be reached in two main ways – on foot or by cable car.
To arrive by foot, you’ll first need to take bus #50 from the city centre out of town and jump out on Sverdlovskaya Street at this bus stop. The trip costs R26 (€0.30) and normally takes around 30 minutes, but if you’re travelling during peak hour when traffic is heavy it can take up to an hour.
From here, continue 250m along the main road before veering left onto a side road that hugs a small river and weaves gradually uphill through the forest for 6km where you’ll reach the official entrance to Stolby Nature Reserve. The recommended walking time is 2 hours but at a good pace it can be completed in around 90 minutes.
About half way along you’ll pass a gate which is as far as any private vehicles can travel, and as you approach the entrance, there are a few staircases and pedestrian tracks which act as short cuts instead of following the many switchbacks in the road.
The other option is to take the K1 chairlift from Bobrovy Log, an adventure park and ski resort, which can be reached with bus #37 (R26/€0.30) from Krasnoyarsk. The speedy ride up is just 7 minutes and costs 200R/280R (€2.40/€3.30) for a one-way/return ticket. Lifts run between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday.
You’ll find a few clusters of stolby nearby the upper station, though many of the denser groups are found in the southern reaches of the reserve some 7km away which can be reached on foot.
For both these options, you could also take a taxi instead of the bus. Apps like Yandex and Maxim (similar to Uber) are widely used across Siberia and offer very reasonable rates.
I had originally planned to take the chairlift up, hike the yellow trail across the park and leave via the main entrance and forest road. However, given it was wintertime with plenty of snow on the ground, I was advised that this track receives very little foot traffic and may be difficult to follow, especially if fresh snow began to fall.
Instead, I came and went using the forest road and kept to the southern cluster of stolby where the snow on the narrow paths had been compacted to clearly mark the way.
At any other time of year, I would have happily taken the through route – beginning with the cable car and ending at the main entrance – as it allows you to see virtually the entire park and as many stolby as you can manage along the way. Either option requires a 6 to 7km hike, be it from the road or the ski lift, so it makes sense to enjoy two different trails as you go.
ESSENTIAL READING: 20 USEFUL THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TAKING THE TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY
Stolby Nature Reserve is a maze of tiny forest trails that intersect with five main colour-coded hiking routes. These link each area of the park and lead to more than 100 stolby which are often found in tight clusters amidst the forest.
Which groups of the rocky pillars you visit will largely depend on where you decide to enter the park – via cable car or along the road – and how long you actually want to spend hiking.
Stolby Nature Reserve Hiking Trails
The orange and red trails are located near the upper cable car station and are perfect for those only looking to pay a short visit to Stolby Nature Reserve. The orange trail leads you to the Takmak massif just 1km away and behind this you’ll find the red trail which weaves between a viewpoint peaking out along the edge of the plateau to the Little Wall Of China. Nearby you’ll find another congregation of pillars that includes the Bullfinch, Toad and Skylark.
In the other direction, the yellow trail veers right from the cable car station and leads you 7km south across the park towards the main park entrance. This section of the park is densely packed with stolby and perfect for those looking to spend a full day exploring. About halfway along you’ll encounter a string of pillars like Sinner and Moth, and later Firstborn and Forerunner before joining the blue and purple circuits.
The blue trail is among the most popular as it takes in some of the most impressive stolby as well as a handful that are easy to climb and offer up sweeping view across the forested landscapes. You’ll find plenty of tiny paths here, crisscrossing the main trails and darting in between the stolby which can keep you occupied for hours.
This was the loop where I spent most of my time and where you’ll find pillars such as Elephant, the iconic Feathers, Grandmother and Grandfather, and the enormous First, Third and Fourth Pillars.
From here, the purple trail traces the curves of the Stolby and Babsky Creeks south toward a distant group of stolby including Mana Wall, Dove and Tank. Another string of pillars run parallel which can be combined to create a full circuit that will bring you back to Elephant.
On paper, this may all sound a little confusing, but the major trails are reasonably well signposted (though in Russian only) and you’ll find a large park map near the main entrance which outlines the primary walking routes.
Thankfully, maps.me also has a comprehensive listing of the stolby in the area with many named in English which makes it easy to see just how far they are apart. You’ll find many of the stolby and their translations listed here.
Where I Hiked
I began my visit from the Sverdlovskaya Street side where I jumped off the bus to find a fiery sky streaked in fuschia and vermillion amidst the brightening blue of dawn.
Hiking along the forest road, a monochrome of ashen trees and fallen snow, squirrels darted through the undergrowth and birds twittered in a flurry around their man-made feeding stations.
Onwards up the road, the large entryway to Stolby Nature Reserve loomed ahead, a polished wooden stairway and boardwalk guiding the way over the snowy ground towards the first stolb of the day, Elephant, an enormous knobbly pillar that towered above the path.
Just behind it was First Pillar and a short way beyond I stumbled upon Grandmother, Grandfather and Great Grandfather which offered my first chance to climb the mighty boulders and enjoy the view across the treetops.
Pivoting right, I followed the blue trail towards Lion’s Gate and Feathers, one of the reserve’s most famous rock formations, before turning onto the yellow track for a look at Firstborn and Forerunner which sit side by side on the narrow cross park trail and provide an easy vantage point from which to peak out through the trees.
I had considered continuing along the yellow trail toward the cable car, however by this point the snow was falling thick and fast and the wind was whistling ferociously through the trees.
Instead, I backtracked to the impressive Third and Fourth Pillars which were heavily dusted in snow before making my way back to the park entrance for a much-needed hot chocolate and a break in the delightfully warm Visitor’s Centre.
On such short wintery day, early afternoon marked the time to head back down the forest road before darkness fell. With better conditions and more hours of day light to play with, I would have happily added the purple trail to my itinerary.
Like the rest of Russia, visiting Stolby Nature Reserve in summer or winter will offer up two very different experiences.
Summer welcomes plenty of visitors with its lush, green forests, long days and daytime temperatures that creep into the low 20s. Frequent rainfall means trails are often muddy and that a weatherproof jacket is essential.
In winter you’ll be greeted by snow-covered trees, meandering white trails and very few hikers to share the area with. At this time of year, the presence of ice and snow can also either help or seriously hinder your attempts to climb the stolby.
Occasionally, large compacted piles of the stuff can provide some leverage to help you scramble up, but getting down is often the tricky part though and, if you’re as clumsy as me in the snow, may see you skidding down an icy rock face and flailing ungracefully into a thigh-deep mound of snow.
Unsurprisingly given we’re in Siberia, it can also get terribly cold during winter with daytime temperature dropping into the negative teens. Its high elevation also makes it several degrees colder than Krasnoyarsk with potentially brutal gusts adding to the windchill factor. Layering up with warm clothing and wind and waterproof outer layers will be key.
You can read my full winter packing list for Russia here.
Take Food And Water
I’d recommend bringing plenty of water and a packed lunch or enough snacks to last you the day.
At the top of the cable car you’ll find a large cafe and near the main park entrance on the opposite side you’ll find a coffee cart and a snack bar, however, these are often closed during winter.
Consider the hours of daylight
In summer you’ll be blessed with long days and plenty of daylight hours with which to explore, but in winter darkness falls quickly and the early evenings can certainly sneak up on you if you’re not prepared.
Thankfully, it’s easy to take a short walk and hop between a few stolby in just a couple of hours, but the trip to and from the park entrance can take up far more time.
Unless you’re planning to take the cable car up and stick closely to the stolby on this ridgeline, it’s a good idea to factor in at least 2 hours of hiking each way to actually reach the stolby – from both the main road and the cable car – as well as time to actually explore the area.
For winter visits, you may have as little as 7 hours of daylight, so be sure to arrive early enough to make the most of your day. I started hiking from the main road at around 9 a.m., just in time for a killer sunrise, and spent around 3.5 hours wandering between the stolby. Without snow hampering your progress, you could feasibly cover a lot more ground than I did in the same amount of time.
Use Maps.Me For Navigation
There are five main colour-coded trails crisscrossing Stolby National Park which are all clearly signposted though only in Russian. There’s also a number of other smaller trails that spread out through the forest like a spiders web and often aren’t labelled at all.
Maps.me has an extensive list of stolby marked and shows all the main trails as well as many of the tiny ones making navigation easy, whichever part of the park you choose to visit.
Don’t Forget To Climb A Few Stolby
Climbing the enormous pillars is certainly where you’ll find the best views of the area and the main motivation for many visitors to Stolby Nature Reserve, but I actually found it much more of a challenge than I was expecting.
Some boulders, like Frontrunner, are particularly easy to get to the top of, whereas others will require some rock climbing skills that I’m sure would be made easier in summer than in winter. Taking off my insulated mittens to gain any kind of purchase on the rocks was never pleasant, while navigating sheets of ice, incredibly steep rock faces, deep snowdrifts made getting down an adventure in its own right.
Either way, provided you don’t do anything stupid it’s not particularly dangerous, but be sure to go slowly, know your limits and keep an eye out for snow-covered rocks parading as piles of snow.
Dress Warmly, At Any Time Of Year
Stolby Nature Reserve sits on a mountain plateau and, with the help of persistent winds, temperatures up here tend to be several degrees cooler than down in Krasnoyarsk.
In summer, daytime temperatures remain mild, while in winter they can drop well below zero and that doesn’t account for the icy windchill.
Trails can also get incredibly muddy in the face of summer rainfall and melting snow in spring and autumn. Waterproof hiking boots are a good idea in summer, while insulated winter boots will keep your toes toasty during winter.
Krasnoyarsk is a rapidly growing city in Siberia and you’ll find accommodation here to suit every budget.
Hovel Hostel | This brightly coloured hostel has an excellent location just a couple of blocks from the central grid where you’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes and bus stops for both Stolby Nature Reserve and the train station. It’s a cosy and simple space with large lockers for guests and a curtain, light and power socket for each bed. There’s a large lounge area and kitchen too and a decent breakfast is included. The manager is also very knowledgable about Stolby Nature Reserve and will happily provide you with up to date suggestions for your visit. Check rates and reviews here.
InWood Hostel | Another colourful option for budget travellers, InWood is set a short way from the centre close to the Yenisei River. The hostel has a modern design with a well-equipped kitchen, comfortable beds and breakfast included. Check rates and reviews here.
Dom Hotels | Krasnoyarsk is home to a trio of Dom Hotels which are among the best-rated accommodation options in the city. All are located in the centre and each has a unique style catering to different types of travellers.
NEO is the trendy, 3-starred offering with colour-blocked walls and spacious rooms. Check rates and reviews here.
Classic is a modern 4-star hotel with an English-style pub and restaurant on site and an optional buffet breakfast. Check rates and reviews here.
Apart offers bright, spacious self-contained apartments which are perfect for families, those visiting for longer periods or anyone who prefers to cook their own meals. Check rates and reviews here.
Hotel PoliArt | A cosy and quaint hotel set just off Lenin Street, PoliArt is a favourite in Krasnoyarsk and offers a decent buffet breakfast. It’s also just around the corner from the bus stop for Stolby Nature Reserve. Check rates and reviews here.