Sri Lanka is home to some of the most beautiful and unexplored National Parks in this part of the world.
The island's isolation from the mainland, heavy rainfall from two annual monsoons and a wide range of altitudes give Sri Lanka biodiversity normally found across an entire continent.
Why visit Sri Lanka National Parks
- See the magnificent leopard roaming freely in Yala National Park
- Sightings of sloth bear are a frequent occurrence at Wilpattu
- Visit Gal Oya to watch wild elephants swimming
- Walk through Gal Oya forest with a Veddha tribal and learn about life in the forest
Our travel experts suggestion
Get off the beaten track and visit remote national parks such as Gal Oya, and Wilpattu. Camp under canvas and get up close to nature. With the arrival of luxury tents, it is now worth spending more than just a night at some of these parks. With private bathrooms and delicious food set out under the trees, visitors have unlimited safaris in the park. The lucky few will find leopards but all will find families of elephants wandering freely in the scrub.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
About Yala: Situated in the south-east, bordering the Indian Ocean, Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka. Yala is divided into five zones, zone one and five are open to the public. Depending on how many safaris drive you do you will likely spend the majority of your time in zone one where the greatest number of sightings are reported. Zone five, however, is very beautiful and still worth visiting. Yala can have a reputation for being busy due to its popularity and leopard sighting success; but you can avoid the crowds and still get a unique eco-friendly wildlife experience. Kulu Safaris makes avoiding the crowds a top priority and uses the north entrance of Yala zone one instead of Kirinda. Kulu Safaris offers a comfortable stay and excellent service. The naturalists here are some of the best available in the park. For further crowd avoidance, consider travelling outside December, which is peak time. Yala does remain the best place, worldwide, to spot leopards. Yala National Park closes for six to eight weeks each year, typically from the beginning of September onwards.
Notable inhabitants: Leopards, sloth bears, diverse bird life, sambar deer and mongoose.
Where to stay: Leopard Safaris and Noel Rodrigo's Leopard Trails offer tented camping options with jeep safaris into the park included. This unique camping experience is hands-down the best way to see Yala. Staying on the border of the park and dining under the stars is an unforgettable experience. It’s great for anyone looking to add a little adventure to their trip.
About Minneriya: Minneriya is usually visited during a tour of the cultural triangle as it's only a one to two-hour drive from Sigiriya and Dambulla. Large numbers of Asian elephants can be found here at certain times of year during their migrations between the various parks. They are most numerous from July to October, peaking in August and September when water elsewhere dries up and as many as three hundred or more come to the tank’s ever-receding shores to drink, bathe and feed on the fresh grass that grows up from the lake bed as the waters retreat – as well as to socialize and search for mates. This annual event has been popularly dubbed “The Gathering”, the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world.
Notable inhabitants: Wild elephants. You may also see spotted deer, sambur, and dozens of species of birds.
Where to stay: A visit to Minneriya can be made from the cultural triangle if staying at Ulagalla or Vil Uyana.
About Uda Walawe: If you love elephants and are wondering where to see them during your holiday in Sri Lanka, Uda Walawe National Park is where you'll find hundreds of elephants roaming free. Uda Walawe is about a third of the size of Yala and typically less crowded, located on the southern boundary of the central highlands. A visit here works well on a journey from the Tea Country to the beaches on the south coast and Galle. With herds of elephants, wild buffalo, sambar deer and leopards, Uda Walawe is a fantastic park and arguably rivals the savannah reserves of Africa. Due to its light vegetation, it is easy to spot and watch game.
Notable inhabitants: Elephants, wild buffalo, sambar deer and leopard.
Where to stay: Mahoora Tented Camp.
THE KNUCKLES MOUNTAIN RANGE
About the Knuckles: The Knuckles Mountain Range spreads across the districts of Matale and Kandy in central Sri Lanka. It is named after the appearance of its conical peaks which resemble a giant set of knuckles poking out of the ground. The Knuckles range is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular with wildlife enthusiasts and hikers. With cascading waterfalls, quaint villages, terraced rice fields and a high level of biodiversity, this region displays the best of Sri Lanka's diverse natural beauty. Spending a few days in here is extremely rewarding.
Notable inhabitants: You’re not likely to see leopards and elephants here – although they are around, the numbers are very small and the chances of a sighting are rare. The Knuckles is more about the smaller things: birdlife, lizards, butterflies, frogs, and loris.
Where to stay: Perched high up in the glorious Knuckles Mountains is Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge. Boasting one of the most scenic and serene settings on the edge of the tea country with a quiet valley below and the mountains surrounding you. Accommodation is very comfortable and of particular note, there is an excellent family lodge that can accommodate up to four, two adults and two children.
WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK
About Wilpattu: Once off-limits during the civil war, Wilpattu has been beautifully preserved, receives much less tourism than other parks and is actually Sri Lanka’s largest national park. Wilpattu is often compared to Yala given their similar size and diverse range of wildlife. However, Wilpattu is notably much greener than Yala with forests and lakes making up a large part of it. Wilpattu is located on the north-west coast of Sri Lanka, extending inland to the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura. Wilpattu is also 30kms from Puttalam and 190kms from Colombo.
Notable Inhabitants: The many lakes and sand-rimmed water basins attract a wide range of aquatic birds. Wilpattu is also a great place for spotting leopards and sloth bears.
Where to stay: Similar to Yala, Leopard Safaris and Leopard Trails offer luxury tented camping options with jeep safaris into the park included.
GAL OYA NATIONAL PARK
About Gal Oya: The picturesque Gal Oya nature reserve is Sri Lanka's most remote and least visited wilderness areas. This beautiful national park is home to a large elephant herd that can often be seen swimming across the reservoir, best viewed by boat safari. In fact, Gal Oya is the only national park on the island where you can view elephants swimming by boat. It’s a breathtaking experience.
Most people come to Gal Oya for the elephants, but there’s much more in the park. Expect a vast array of aquatic birdlife, wild boar, sambar and axis deer, among other things.
Where to stay: The Gal Oya Lodge is the definition of eco-luxury at it’s best and is the place to stay when visiting Gal Oya. The lodge overlooks the stunning surroundings of the national park and is the ideal base to enjoy an elephant boat safari, take a walk through the forest with some of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people (the Veddas), or just relax and soak up the tranquil beauty of this breathtaking part of the island.
WHEN TO GO to Sri Lanka National Parks
All year except September/October – Yala National Park.
August to October - Minneriya National Park for the Gathering.