A short road trip to central Mongolia is the best way to get a taste of this amazing country if you are short on time. In case you don’t know, I was an expat living in Mongolia from 2018 to 2022 and I had so much fun exploring this unique country.

This was our first semi-long road trip in Mongolia (in 2021) and it was perfect to test our newly purchased car and our dusty road tripping skills. After our adventure, I came to the conclusion that this short road trip in central Mongolia is perfect for tourists who don’t have the time to visit each corner of the country but also residents who, like us, want to explore around.

From kilometers of sand dunes, passing through green valleys, and swimming in crystal clear lakes, this road trip to central Mongolia will give you a small taste of the diverse and awe inspiring landscape of the country.

A road trip in central Mongolia is a great opportunity to see a variety of awe inspiring landscpaes in a short time.
You will love this itinerary for a short road trip in Mongolia wher4 you will get to see the Orkhon waterfall featured in this image.

A word before we start

One thing you need to take into account for this short road trip in Mongolia is that distances are extremely long, and in order to visit a lot of different locations you will have to sacrifice the amount of time you spend in them. Five days may seem like a stretch when you see how long you have to drive on certain days. It can be exhausting but not impossible if you stick to a schedule and have a good idea of where to overnight each day.

If this is your first road trip in Mongolia, be sure to check these road trip tips to drive around Mongolia before you head out.

Day 1: Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin

Distance: 361 km
Time: 5 hours 30 mins.
Stopovers: Elsen Tasarkhai
Must do’s: Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin Museum, calligraphy museum
Where to sleep: Asa Land Resort ($$$), Tongonii Zamiin Nuuts ($$$), Hotel Ikh Khorum ($$), Silver Tree Guest House and Restaurant ($)

The first leg of this road trip is the longest with very little to see along the way until you get to Elsen Tasarkhai, also called Little Gobi. It is just one hour away from Kharkhorin and you can stay at any of the ger camps in the Khugnu Tarna National Park if you have extra time. This will be the only spot on this trip where you will see sand dunes, so if you want to experience the sandy desert but don’t have time to go to the real Gobi, stay here a little longer.

Kharkhorin is a city that is rapidly developing into a tourist hub; there are plenty of things to do and there is a great variety of accommodation options for every budget. If you have the time to explore around, rent some traditional Mongolian costumes and get your photo taken at the Erdenen Zuu Monastery. You can also visit the Gokhturk Museum, just 40 minutes north of Kharkhorin, or the Khar Balgas ruins, northwest of the city.

Erdene Zuu in the background of this image is in Kharkhorin,  a must-stop in any road trip in Mongolia.

Road trip in Central Mongolia
Day 2: Kharkhorin to Orkhon Waterfall

Distance: 101 km
Time: 3 hours 30 mins to 4 hours
Stopovers: Uurtin Tokhoi, a lookout on the main road of the park
Must do’s: Orkhon Waterfall
Where to sleep: ger camps or guest houses near the waterfall ($)

The Orkhon Valley Natural and Historical Reserve is one of the most popular summer spots in Mongolia so expect this place to be somewhat crowded, especially if they are celebrating one of the top Mongolian festivals: the Yak Festival. The jewel of the crown is Ulaan Tsutgalan, most commonly known as Orkhon waterfall, which you can enjoy from the top or the bottom, just a short hike away. There are plenty of places to stay around the area, so finding a ger camp for the night should not be too difficult. You can get a map at the entrance of the park where you can see where a lot of different areas of interest are located; for example, Tuvkhun Khiid, a beautiful Buddhist monastery in the middle of the mountains, or the Telmen rocks.

The road from Kharkhorin to Khujirt is paved but from there onwards you will have to drive on unpaved, bumpy roads. Google Maps takes you through Bat-Ulzii but that doesn’t mean that is the best road. The best route changes depending on how much it has rained so check maps.me for alternative roads or ask around.

Road trip in Central Mongolia
Day 3: Orkhon Waterfall to Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur

Distance: 303km or 385km
Time: 7h 15mins to 8h 30mins
Stopovers: Tsetserleg
Must-do’s: Enjoy the multiple sandy beaches, take photos at the volcanic rocks ovoos
Where to sleep: ger camps around the lake ($)

This is an extremely long and tiring driving day and you can break this down into two legs, overnighting in Tsetserleg. Let me give you some insight so that you can decide what suits you better.

The drive from the Orkhon Waterfall to Tsetserleg varies depending on whether you take the road east (128 km) or you go back to Karkhorin and take the paved road (210 km). That alone can take from 4 to 5 and a half hours. Tsetserleg, capital of Arkhangai province, provides a comfortable stopover with all the niceties a city can offer – including a nice meal – but this means that your stopover may be extended for at the very least 30 mins. Since the drive is super long, you will probably want to make more stops to rest.

The road from Tsetserleg to Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake is THE WORST. There are large road sections that are not paved at all and although the lake is just 175km away from Tsetserleg, it takes over 3 hours in good weather conditions to get there. If you change your mind about doing the whole drive in one day, Chuluut Valley Canyon is another nice area to overnight since there is a newish rest area with a decent restaurant and a ger camp. This is only a little over an hour away from Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake.

Having said that, I have never stayed in Tsetserleg for two reasons: we have a large dog that is not allowed in any places we know, and we prefer to push through all the crappy roads at once and sleep by the beautiful lake. If you decide to be like us, you have to be mentally prepared for a strenuous journey that can take up to 10 hours, especially if you are the driver. If, on the other hand, you decide to stop in Tsetserleg, you can enjoy a walk around town, hike up to Galdan Zuu temple complex or go to the Arkhangai museum.

If you arrive at Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake for sunset, head to the big ovoos made of volcanic rock for some photos.

Road trip in Central Mongolia
Day 4: Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur to Tsenkher Hot Springs

Distance: 203.5 km – 175 km back to Tsetserleg plus 28.5 km to the hot springs area
Time: 4 hours 15 mins (the unpaved road from Tsetserleg to the hot springs takes one whole hour)
Stopovers: Chuluut valley canyon
Must do’s: hike up the volcano, take a dip in a natural hot tub
Where to sleep: several ger resorts in the area ($, $$)

If you did the long drive the previous day, it is only fair to have a rather late start and enjoy the lake.

Once it is time to go, allocate some time to hike to the Khorgoo volcano on the way out of the lake. Take the car as far up as you can on the road and hike the rest of the way. It’s an easy hike and it doesn’t take longer than an hour.

You have to drive back to Tsetserleg on the same road, but since the destination is much closer, you can take it easy. Stop over at Chuluut Valley Canyon if you didn’t the previous day, it is a beautiful area where you can spot eagles and hawks very easily. Once you are in Tsetserleg, you will have to take an unpaved road for 28.5 km which will take around one hour. You will be basically driving through hills that have tire marks from previous cars and there will be at least one big river crossing that you need to be aware of.

Once you arrive at your destination, take a dip at the hot pools! Each resort in the area has its own pools that they fill out with water from the natural water spring – all through a basic piping system. I have only stayed in Duut resort, which I can vouch for, the pools are great, you can rent your own pool so that you don’t need to share with others, food is nice and so are the gers. This place is popular, so if you would like to stay here make sure you make a reservation through their website.

Road trip in Central Mongolia
Day 5: Tsenkher Hot Srings to Ulaanbaatar

Distance: 481 km – 28.5 km back to Tsetserleg plus 481 km to Ulaanbaatar
Time: 8 hours (the unpaved road from Tsetserleg to the hot springs takes one whole hour)
Stopovers: Kharkhorin, Elsen Tasarkhai
Must do’s: anything that you didn’t do on day 1
Where to sleep: refer to day 1

This is another big driving day that you can break up into 2 days if you are self driving and not up for the task. You will be driving on the same road that you took on previous days, so there are no stopovers that you would not have seen on the first day of your road trip in Central Mongolia. Two good spots where you can overnight if you don’t want to do the whole drive in a day are Kharkhorin or Khugnu Tarna National Park, already mentioned on day 1.


Final recommendations

This is a very intense yet rewarding short road trip around Central Mongolia because of all the variety of landscapes you get to see. It is a great budget-friendly option if you won’t stay very long in the country or don’t want to venture too far away. I did this exact itinerary with my husband, except we added one extra day at Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur (day 3). If you want to maximise your time, I recommend the following:

  1. Have a driving partner and share driving time or hire a driver
  2. Plan before you go where you are going to sleep. For proper accommodation, you can communicate via email or Facebook Messenger or have someone from Mongolia call the hosts for you.
  3. Do not camp in a tent, setting up camp will only chew up your time.
  4. Add an extra day in Kharkhorin or Tsetserleg.

I will be happy to answer any of your questions in the comments below.

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One Comment

  1. My daughter and I did an 8-day private photography tour of Mongolia. Such a unique destination. I was glad we had a driver for the trip because I have no idea how he knew where he was going when driving through much of Mongolia, especially in the Gobi Desert.

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