Amazing National Parks in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan painted stork at Yala

The Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is amazingly diverse for such a small country. Much of its landscape, which ranges from lush hills to low grasslands, steaming jungles to powdery-sand beaches, is protected as national parks. 

Visitors flock to Sri Lanka’s national parks to witness the impressive variety of wildlife that calls this country home. The island’s beauty and abundant animal encounters make it my favourite country in Asia, and I have spent two months exploring some of Sri Lanka’s natural wonders.

If you’re planning to visit some of these wildlife havens, a little research ahead of time will help you avoid disappointments, such as visiting the wrong park for your interests or a wet-weather washout! Read on to find out what to see and do at some of Sri Lanka’s best national parks.

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Best National Parks in Sri Lanka

Important Note:

The entrance prices noted below are only part of the overall cost for a visit to most national parks in Sri Lanka. You will also need to pay for jeep or boat hire (apart from at Horton Plains), the costs of which vary from park to park and depend on how many people are in your tour group. As such, group tours will be slightly less per person than individual tours.

1. Yala

  • Landmass: 1,260sq km
  • Entrance fee: $25USD
  • Best time to visit: May-August
  • Nearest city: Tissamaharama (4 hours from Colombo)

Yala sits on Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, covering parts of the Southern and Uva Provinces. It is the country’s most popular national park, offering excellent wildlife spotting opportunities.

1. Gray langur at Yala
A cheeky langur monkey hiding in the tree!

It is also the best place in the country to spot leopards. There are thought to be around 200 in the park, representing one of the densest populations on earth. These elusive cats have become accustomed to human visitors and are often seen strolling across the paths that crisscross the park.

Even if a visit doesn’t include a leopard sighting, the other wildlife won’t disappoint. Most safari-goers will see elephants, and there are also buffaloes, wild boar, crocodiles and langur monkeys to name a few other residents. There is also a spectacular beach, which is a perfect place to take a break and relax or stretch your legs between sightings.

“Visiting Yala was a highlight of my time in Sri Lanka, and seeing wild elephants up close was such a special moment. I would recommend taking a full day tour, which allows you to venture deeper into the park away from the crowds and gives a better chance of spotting leopards.”

2. Udawalawe

  • Landmass: 308sq km
  • Entrance fee: $25USD 
  • Best time to visit: December-March 
  • Nearest city: Embilipitiya (3.5 hours from Colombo)

If elephants are top of your wildlife-spotting list, then Udawalawe is the place to visit. It’s tucked in the south of the island, halfway between the west and east coast and straddling the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.

Elephant family at Yala 1
Seeing elephants in the wild is a bucket list experience!

It is the best national park in Sri Lanka to see elephants in the wild and is home to around 600-700 of them. The distant hills to the north, denoting the start of the hill country, make a beautiful backdrop as you drive around the otherwise flat landscape of the park. The grassland and low scrub may be a little monotonous but make it easy to spot elephants on a tour.

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to head out on safari, when you are most likely to see the elephants gathering in herds of around 50 individuals. Crocodiles and many bird species are also common sights at Udawalawe. The park’s central location makes it possible to organise (long) day trips from a number of different towns in southern Sri Lanka.

3. Horton Plains

  • Landmass: 31.6sq km
  • Entrance fee: $25USD
  • Best time to visit: January-March 
  • Nearest city: Nuwara Eliya (5 hours from Colombo)

Horton Plains is synonymous with hiking and is the best national park to visit for those who love being out and about in nature. It is the only national park in Sri Lanka which you can explore on foot; all others are only accessible via hired jeep or boat.

3. Black headed stork at Yala
This is one of the best Sri Lankan national parks for bird watchers!

It sits on the southern boundary of the country’s Central Province and the edge of hill country. Horton Plains is at an elevation of 2,000m with a cool and wet climate that has enabled a unique ecosystem to flourish here, making the area feel different from anywhere else in Sri Lanka. While the park is good for bird watchers, other fauna here are hard to spot, but the natural features are breathtaking.

There is a 9 km hiking trail that loops around the park via the famous World’s End and passes rivers, waterfalls and cloud forests. At World’s End, the landscape plummets dramatically down cliffs for more than 800m, marking the meeting of the lowlands and hills and offering spectacular views over the landscape.

4. Bundala

  • Landmass: 33.4sq km
  • Entrance fee: $12USD
  • Best time to visit: September-March (for migratory birds) and April-June (for turtle hatchlings)
  • Nearest city: Hambantota (3.5 hours from Colombo)

Stretching 20km along the coast in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province is the coastal wetland of Bundala National Park.

4. Crocodile at Yala
Watch out for the crafty crocs!

Encompassing five brackish lagoons, it is home to a variety of aquatic animals and is one of the country’s premier bird-watching destinations. There have been around 200 bird species spotted at Bundala, including, pelicans, storks, egrets, peacocks and flamingos.

It is also home to elephants, crocodiles and turtles. All of Sri Lanka’s five turtle species come ashore at the park to lay their eggs during the season (October-January). While the chances of spotting big mammals aren’t as high as at nearby Yala, quieter Bundala offers some relative peace away from the crowds.

5. Minneriya

  • Landmass: 88.9sq km
  • Entrance fee: $25USD
  • Best time to visit: July-October 
  • Nearest city: Habarana or Sigiriya (4 hours from Colombo)

Along with nearby Kaudulla, Minneriya is one of the most popular national parks in Sri Lanka. It sits in the heart of the island, at the southern edge of the North Central Province. The landscape is diverse despite the park’s relatively small size, featuring tropical forests, grasslands and wetlands. Mammals seen here include spotted deer, sambar, macaques and purple-faced langurs.

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The biggest attraction though is the elephants. Minneriya forms part of the elephant corridor, along which the animals migrate between Kaudulla National Park in the north and Wasgamuwa National Park in the south. Hundreds of elephants come to the Minneriya Tank, an ancient reservoir, to drink and socialise in an annual event known as ‘The Gathering’, the largest gathering of Asian elephants on the planet.

“Many of Sri Lanka’s national parks are close to important historic sites, making it easy to combine a cultural visit with some time in nature. Don’t miss Sigiriya near Minneriya, or the ancient cities of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa close to Wilpattu and Wasgamuwa respectively.”

6. Wilpattu

  • Landmass: 1,317sq km
  • Entrance fee: $25USD
  • Best time to visit: May-September
  • Nearest city: Anuradhapura (4.5 hours from Colombo)

Sri Lanka’s largest national park is located on the island’s northwest coast, stretching across parts of the North Western, North Central and Northern Provinces. It was once the country’s most popular national park, until the Civil War when the destruction of local infrastructure and poaching of wildlife forced the park to close to visitors.

6. Buffalo at Yala
The animals in Wilpattu are more shy than in other national parks.

It fully reopened in 2009 and has been gradually returning to its former glory. The variety and density of wildlife found here are second only to that in Yala and is the next best place to spot leopards in Sri Lanka. It is also well known for its population of sloth bears. Elephants, deer, mongooses and buffalo are a few of the other large mammals that call this park home.

The landscape is interesting for its numerous shallow lakes, or ‘villus’ – from which the name of the park is derived (villu-pattu means ‘Land of Lakes). The dense forest makes wildlife spotting more challenging, as does the shyness of the animals, who are less used to human visitors.

The size of the park and relatively few visitors make a trip to Wilpattu feel more adventurous and peaceful than some of Sri Lanka’s more-visited national parks.

7. Gal Oya

  • Landmass: 259sq km
  • Entrance fee: $12USD
  • Best time to visit: March-July (for elephants) and November-April (for birdwatching)
  • Nearest city: Ampara (7 hours from Colombo)

Gal Oya offers a more unusual experience for intrepid travellers. It is one of the lesser-visited national parks but those that make the journey here are well rewarded. The vast park is located in the east of the island, on the border of the Uva and Eastern Provinces. At its centre is Senanayake Samudra Lake, one of the largest in the country.

7. Peacock at Yala
Ever seen a peacock in the wild?

What makes this Sri Lanka national park unique is that tours are usually conducted by boat, offering a new and adventurous perspective. On a boat tour you can expect to see crocodiles and turtles, and perhaps even swimming elephants. The surrounding ancient forests are alive with butterflies, monkeys and exotic birds that you can spot on a guided walk.

8. Kumana

  • Landmass: 356.6sq km
  • Entrance fee: $12USD
  • Best time to visit: February-July
  • Nearest city: Arugam Bay (7 hours from Colombo)

Kumana National Park in the Eastern Province borders the more well-known Yala, and is sometimes still referred to by its former name, Yala East National Park.

8. Jeep safari vehicle
You don’t have to go to Africa to enjoy a wildlife safari!

During the Civil War, the area was used as a hideout by the Tamil Tigers militant organisation and the park suffered damage, but has since recovered. Wildlife is not as abundant as in neighbouring Yala, but Kumana also sees a fraction of the visitors, meaning that the experience will be much quieter.

The park also includes Kumana Bird Sanctuary, which is one of Sri Lanka’s most important breeding and nesting grounds and a great place for bird lovers who can spot dozens of species on one trip, including hornbills, ibis and storks. Leopards and sloth bears also live in the park but are both elusive. You are more likely to spot some of the park’s elephants and crocodiles.

Kumana also offers something of historic and cultural interest as the park houses ancient monastic ruins. There are meditation caves featuring inscriptions and a 9th-century reclining Buddha.

9. Wasgamuwa

  • Landmass: 393sq km
  • Entrance fee: $12USD
  • Best time to visit: November-May
  • Nearest city: Polonnaruwa (5 hours from Colombo)

In the centre of the island, sitting astride the boundary of the Central and North Central Provinces, Wasgamuwa National Park is home to many of Sri Lanka’s large mammals. It is one of the best parks in terms of its variety of wildlife, home to around 150 elephants, sambar, deer, wild boar and buffalo, plus 150 species of bird. There are also rarely-spotted leopards and sloth bears.

9. Buffalo with stork at Yala
Hitchin’ a ride.

On the edge of hill country, the landscape here is as diverse as its inhabitants. The elevation varies across the park from 500m to 76m and forests, rivers and open plains can all be found at Wasgamuwa. The park remains mostly unexplored and retains an unspoilt beauty. The park stands apart for its volunteer programme that allows participants to work alongside scientists, educators and community partners to help with conservation efforts.

National Parks in Sri Lanka: FAQs 

How many national parks are there in Sri Lanka?

There are a total of 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, including two marine parks, one at Hikkaduwa and one at Nilaveli (Pigeon Island). National Parks cover almost 9% of the landmass of Sri Lanka.

What is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka?

Yala is the most popular national park in Sri Lanka and is one of the best parks to spot big mammals in the whole of Asia!

Which is the largest national park in Sri Lanka?

Wilpattu is the biggest national park on the island and was once the most visited before its closure due to the Civil War.

When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is a year-round destination thanks to its dual monsoon seasons. The southwest monsoon brings the wet season to the south coast, west and hill country from May to September. During this period the east enjoys dry sunny days. The northeast monsoon soaks the east coast from November to March, which are the best months for visiting the south and hill country.

Sri Lanka’s national parks cover a wide range of habitats and are home to diverse flora and fauna, as well as some stunning landscapes. The sheer variety of wildlife that can be seen on the island is astounding. Animal lovers are certain not to be disappointed, whether you’re a birdwatcher, elephant enthusiast or have a soft spot for monkeys. 

Active travellers can enjoy hiking or boat rides to get up close to nature from a different perspective, and there are also plenty of relatively quiet parks perfect for a peaceful safari experience.

Which of Sri Lanka’s national parks is at the top of your list?

Lisa Barham author pic
Lisa Barham

Having always dreamt of travelling the world, Lisa finally decided to follow that dream in her mid-thirties when she left her nine-to-five in London for life on the road. After trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and learning to surf in Sri Lanka, she headed for wondrous Southeast Asia, where she can currently be found solo backpacking, navigating through life and unfamiliar streets.

Follow her on: Instagram

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