- Winter (mid-October through early March) comes with sub-zero temperatures and limited daylight hours. Avoid this season unless you want a specific experience, such as dog sledding or ice fishing
- Spring (March-April) is a season of strong winds and unpleasant dust storms. Livestock will be weak after the long winter, limiting opportunities for horse trekking
- Summer (July and August) is the best time to travel in Mongolia, with the chance to experience the famed Naadam festival, plus outdoor activities including horse riding and trekking. Hotels may be booked out around Naadam
- Autumn (September-October) is a perfect time to experience the changing colors in the Northern Mongolia and eagle festivals in Bayan Ölgii
Travelers wanting to see Mongolia at its most photogenic should try to visit the country in mid-summer, after a period of rain brings life to the grasslands. This is also the best time for outdoor activities, including horse riding, mountain biking, boating or swimming. If you love fishing, the season to cast a line runs from mid-June to late September. The thrilling Naadam festivals occur in July – every city and town has one although dates can shift year-to-year. A few places have fixed dates for Naadam, including Ulaanbaatar (July 11-12).
Some hardy souls do visit in winter, braving the freezing temperatures to experience nomadic life in the cold months. The brown earth and dust storms of spring (especially March) tend to make this season the least desirable time to visit the country. Autumn weather can be pleasant but travelers need to be prepared with warm clothing in case of cold snaps.
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The Gobi Desert to the south and Siberia to the north provide natural borders to landlocked Mongolia. Seemingly endless wide-open and flat spaces make for subtle transitions between climatic zones. You might drive hundreds of miles and only notice slight changes in the terrain and vegetation until you arrive suddenly in a region of mountain and forest such as Lake Khvösgöl. Desert areas cover the southern part of the country and western provinces. Central, northern and eastern areas contain a varying mix of plains and grassland that come alive with summer rains.
Low Season (November-April)
From early November the daily high temperature falls below freezing and won’t rise above freezing until early March. In Ulaanbaatar, the average daily temperature is -13°F/-25°C in December. It’s always a few degrees warmer in the Gobi and colder in the northern regions. Days end early with the sun setting around 5 pm to 6 pm in winter – bring books and a deck of cards to pass the time during long nights in the countryside.
Thermal underwear and two or three layers of warm clothing are needed in the extreme part of this season. While most hotels have good heating, it’s not a bad idea to travel with a sleeping bag in case of breakdowns.
The long, clear winter nights offer excellent stargazing opportunities on the frozen steppes. A handful of ger camps remain open near Ulaanbaatar in winter and one or two will be open in Khatgal near Lake Khvösgöl.
The main holiday in this period is Tsagaan Sar (Lunar New Year), a family affair involving family meals held over the course of three days. Dumplings are eaten in large quantities and a whole boiled sheep – proudly displayed on the dinner table – is nibbled on over the course of the holiday. Travelers may be able to arrange a home visit during this holiday through a tour operator.
A handful of small festivals for tourists are available in winter. If you revel in cold climes and blue skies, try the Lake Khvösgöl Ice Festival in early March, with games, ice fishing, and ice sculptures. Another early March highlight is the South Gobi Camel Festival (usually held in the town of Bulgan), with 10,000 barking and spitting camels competing in contests including races and polo.
Wintertime activities include dog sledding tours in Terelj National Park from December to February. This is also available at Late Khvösgöl in March. The Sky Resort near Ulaanbaatar offers cross-country and downhill skiing although the extreme cold limits the amount of time skiers can spend on the slopes.
While the weather warms up in March and April, this period can be changeable, with occasional strong winds and dust storms. Landscapes tend to be bleak during this period as the snow melts to reveal a brown, grassless earth. Livestock will be weak (and many will die) making this a poor time for horse trekking.
Shoulder Season (September to mid-October & May)
September offers fair weather across most of the country (average high in Ulaanbaatar is 60°F/15.6°C) and the chance to see leaves changing in a riot of colors. While early snows can limit travel in northern areas, the cooler climes make autumn a good season to visit the southern part of the country.
The cultural highlights of this period are the eagle hunting festivals in Bayan Ölgii province when proud eagle hunters (and huntresses) parade in their best finery (think massive wool coats and fox fur hats) and compete in a variety of skills events. The festivals (held in late September or early October) include the Golden Eagle Festival near the city of Ölgii and Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival in Sagsai.
May is fine for travel with mild temperatures across the country (although ice may still cover Lake Khvösgöl). Ulaanbaatar hosts an international marathon towards this end of this month, with a variety of distances for runners of different skill levels.
High Season (June-August)
The average high temperature in Ulaanbaatar in July is a mild 62°F/16°C, with temperatures rarely exceeding 87°F/30.5°C during hot spells that only last a couple of days. This is the season when wildflowers flourish on mountainsides and livestock graze idly on the grassy plains. Travelers can experience all types of outdoor activities, including horse riding, trekking and mountain biking. Serious anglers will want to time their Mongolia visit for mid-August or early September, the prime season for taiman (a carnivorous salmonoid) fishing, although this can be done during any part of the summer.
In summer, Ulaanbaatar’s cafe patios are filled with locals and travelers reveling in the warm weather. The festival highlight in the capital is Naadam (July 11-12) when the city shuts down to watch the three manly sports of horse races, archery, and wrestling. While tickets are required for the stunning opening ceremony and wrestling events, the archery and horse races are free. Tickets for the opening ceremony are available through guesthouses, hotels and tour operators. They can be purchased from scalpers outside the stadium, but these tend to be located in the uncovered section of the stadium. Don’t miss the big party on Ulaanbaatar’s Sükhbaatar Square on the night of July 11. A night camping out at the horse race fields (40km east of UB), mingling with the jockeys and trainers, is another great way to experience the festival.
You don’t have to be in Ulaanbaatar on these dates to experience Naadam. The festival occurs nationwide in every city and town and the smaller Naadams offer a more interesting and authentic experience. The trouble can sometimes be finding one as the dates are usually not fixed or advertised. Some countryside Naadams with fixed dates include Khatgal (July 11-12) and Dalanzadgad (July 9-10). The Tourist Information Center in Ulaanbaatar can provide info and dates for countryside Naadams.
Hotels tend to get booked out in Ulaanbaatar in July, especially around Naadam, so plan accordingly. After Naadam, half of Ulaanbaatar leaves for the countryside and many locals go to Lake Khvösgöl, so be prepared for crowds, especially on the west side of the lake.
August travel is often the most pleasant, following the droughts and heat waves that usually come early in the summer. On the downside, the rainy August weather can slow travel, as roads can turn to mud pits. Naadams organized for tourists are sometimes held during this time, including the Nomadic Naadam ($36), with dates posted on their Facebook page.