Sri Lanka boasts an array of national parks that are home to a plethora of wildlife and endemic fauna and flora, catering to a multitude of interests. From hiking trails to safaris and bicycle tours, traveling through the country to making home base in one beautiful spot, there are plenty of opportunities to add a national park to your itinerary.
On the advice of a few locals, we switched our itinerary from Yala National Park and headed inland to Udawalawe. While Udawalawe National Park is smaller in size, it’s often slightly quieter than its southern counterpart. Rising in a tented lodge before daybreak to a brisk, still morning, we joined a small convoy of three Jeeps heading from the reception at 05:30 am. Bundled in jumpers, we waited for the park to open as the sky turned a hazy shade of purple over the grasslands. Our 4×4 was one of about 8 or 12 vehicles entering the park for the morning slot, and the convoy soon broke up as all headed in separate directions.
Within 3 minutes, our driver turned the engine off and pointed towards the bushes, where a bull elephant was emerging. He informed us that males often travel alone outside of the mating season, while females and their offspring travel in packs — the park was rich with sightings of both. Furthermore, we saw jackals, monkeys, crocodiles, deer, wild boar flanked by piglets, an abundance of birds, and water buffalo grazing by a lake; it was magical to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, and I highly recommend making the most of what the national parks have to offer.
The decision on which national park you choose to visit should be based on the mammals/wildlife you’d like to see, the route you’re planning on taking through Sri Lanka, and your preference on the type of experience you’re seeking. With over 20 national parks to choose from, here’s a list of six National Parks suitable for different types of travelers.
Yala National Park
Sitting on a beautiful stretch of the Indian Ocean coastline in the southeast of Sri Lanka, Yala National Park is perfectly placed for exploring the South Coast. Famed for its exceptional surf, beautiful beaches, and chilled-out vibe, many hotels offer a safari package with pick-up from your accommodation. Alternatively, you can opt to stay in one of the stunning hotels and camps available in Yala National Park for a fully immersive experience.
Due to its proximity to the South Coast, Yala is generally pretty busy. While it provides excellent odds for sightings of leopards and elephants, you should expect to see other Jeeps regularly throughout your safari.
Udawalawe National Park
Nestled at the Southern foot of Hill Country, framed by impressive highlands on the northern border, Udawalawe is home to around 500 wild elephants.. Its proximity to Hill Country means it is perfectly placed for visiting Ella, Nuwara Eliya, and the rest of Sri Lanka’s spectacular Hill Country.
Wilpattu National Park
Boasting scrublands, wetlands, and thick jungle, Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s largest (and one of the oldest) national parks, and, being somewhat off the beaten tourist track, it feels like you have the whole park to yourself. Great for sightings of the elusive Sloth Bear, Wilpattu boasts a decent number of leopards and elephants. Located close to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Wilpattu is well positioned for exploring the North of Sri Lanka, and offers a fantastic base from which to explore Sigiriya Rock and the surrounding area.
Gal Oya Valley National Park
Nestled to the East of Hill Country, Gal Oya is one of the lesser-visited national parks but is well placed for exploring the surrounding attractions. Brimming with wildlife, the pristine parkland of Gal Oya remains unspoiled by tourism. Choose from a Jeep or boat safari, or opt to tour the park by foot or bicycle. Gal Oya is home to one of the last remaining tribes of Sri Lanka, and offers the opportunity to see elephants swimming between islands – making a great escape for intrepid travelers, and providing an excellent option if you’re on a quest to avoid the masses.
Knuckles National Park
Shrouded in low hanging mist, the Knuckles Mountain Range is a protected reserve set within the high Districts of Male and Kandy. The lush green mountain range, home to magnificent waterfalls and caves, ever-changing ecosystems, and an abundance of fauna and flora, serves up a myriad of adventure experiences. It’s one of the most beautiful places to hike while in Sri Lanka.
Whale Watching on the South Coast
Although it’s not a national park, if it’s aquatic mammals you’re looking for, head out to sea to spot sperm whales and dolphins. With plenty of boat tours leaving from Mirissa, Hikkaduwa, or the fortified city of Galle, sightings of dolphins and sperm whales are exceptionally common between December and March, so this is a great excursion to add to your itinerary during those months.
What’s your favorite national park in Sri Lanka? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!