The Ultimate Guide to National Parks in Sri Lanka

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Ancient Buddhist ruins, sandy beaches, misty hills are some of the reasons to visit Sri Lanka. What many folks don’t realise is that outside of Africa, there are many amazing national parks in Sri Lanka for a wildlife enthusiast. Sri Lanka wildlife safaris to see animals and marine life in its natural habitat is a great reason to visit this country.

Sri Lanka has over 20 national parks. I put together this post with other Travel experts on the 9 best Sri Lankan national Parks and Reserves to visit. I have visited Yala and Kaudulla national parks on my 10-day family holiday to Sri Lanka.

This guide gives information on some of the popular national parks like Yala and Udawalawe. And also some of the lesser known ones like Pigeon Island and Sinharaja forest reserve. This post includes travel tips on which national park to choose from, and the best time to do a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka.

Disclaimer: This helpful post contains some Affiliate links. This means that if you click on any of the links in this post (AND make a purchase) I may receive a small commission at absolutely no cost to you. As such I thank you in advance should you decide to click & buy.

Sri Lanka National Parks Map

You would note the high concentration of national parks in the North Central province. Easy to combine the Cultural Triangle itinerary with a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka. There are many options for a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka if you stay in Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa or Dambulla. Consider viewing elephants herds at Minneriya or Kaudulla or Hurulu. Wilpattu is accessible from Anuradhapura.

If you are visiting Nuwara Eliya and enjoy hiking, do add Horton Plains to your Sri Lanka itinerary. Pigeon Island is a must if Trincomalee in eastern coast of Sri Lanka is part of your trip.

Yala takes a long road drive to reach but remains the most visited national park in Sri Lanka.

9 Best National Parks & Reserves in Sri Lanka

Combine Elephant Wildlife safari in Sri Lanka with the ancient cultural sites

1. Hurulu Eco Park

Without question, one of the highlights of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is a wildlife safari. One popular safari destination is Hurulu Eco Park within the Hurulu Forest Reserve. Established in 1977, this UNESCO Reserve encompasses 62,000 acres of protected evergreen forest. Each year, tourists flock to view exotic animals in Hurulu Eco Park.

Location: The nearest major city to Hurulu eco park is Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.

Best season: The best time of year to see Hurulu’s majestic elephants is December and January. In addition, you can find monkeys, jackals, langers, spotted deer, and birds in the park. If you are lucky, you might even spot an elusive leopard!

Entry Fee: A Hurulu safari tour costs approximately $50 per person. This fee includes your entrance ticket, jeep, and safari guide. Book a jeep with an experienced guide for a Hurulu Park Safari.

Where to stay: If you are looking for the best place to stay near Hurulu Eco Park, there are several lovely resorts to choose from. Cinnamon Lodge Habarana and Water Garden Sigiriya are popular options. They offer luxurious accommodations and top notch amenities.

Wildlife sighting: Undoubtedly, the main attraction in this diverse ecosystem are large herds of elephants. Herds follow plentiful grasses migrating between Hurulu, Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks.

The ideal way to visit Hurulu Eco Park is to book a safari tour. A safari is truly one of the most exciting activities in Sri Lanka. During the tour, open-air vehicles give spectators an excellent vantage point. Choose from morning or afternoon tours lasting 3 hours in duration. During your safari, there are several considerations you should note. Remember to not smoke or feed the animals during your visit.

One downside of the Hurulu Eco Park is that vehicles must adhere to strict rules and regulations. Sri Lanka’s national parks serve an integral function. They help protect animals from poaching and habitat loss. To protect the animals, jeeps must stay on the dirt paths, which can limit animal viewing. Drone photography is also prohibited. 

As you can see, animal encounters at Hurulu Eco Park are one of the best things to do in the Cultural Triangle.

Contributed by Jennifer from Seeking Stamps

2. Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla national park lies in the Northern Central province of Sri Lanka. If you are visiting the cultural sites at Polonnaruwa or the cave temple at Dambulla, it is easy to combine a wildlife safari at Kaudulla for elephant sighting. It encompasses an area of under 7000 hectares of evergreen forest and vast grassland. Kaudulla national park is also connected to the immensely popular Minneriya national park.

Location: The nearest city to Kaudulla national park is Polonnaruwa and Dambulla.

Best season: The best time to visit Kaudulla national park is between August to December, though it can be visited all year round.

Entry Fee: There is a morning and an afternoon jeep safari slot to visit Kaudulla national park. The jeep safari lasts about 3 hours. It costs under USD 50: inclusive of entrance fee to the park, and the safari. Book a wildlife safari to Kaudulla with hotel pick-up and drop.

Where to stay: For accommodation, you can base yourself at Polonnaruwa or at Dambulla. Dambulla Rock Arch is a popular bed and breakfast. We had based ourselves at Jetwings Vil Uyana, a luxury resort near Sigiriya to explore the Cultural Triangle in central part of Sri Lanka.

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Wildlife sighting: There is no better place for elephant watching than Kaudulla national park. Kaudulla is much smaller in size than Minneriya and also less popular. This also meant that when we visited the park on an afternoon jeep safari, it was uncrowded. There was only 1 other jeep in the area. We had fabulous and multiple sightings of elephant herds and many birds.

Other than elephants, you also get to see Sri Lankan sambar deer, peacocks, wild boars, black bears and monkeys in the park. There are a lot of birds around. What Kaudulla is really famous for is the ‘Elephant Gathering’. Between the dry season of August to October, large elephant herds gather around the water reservoir.

Contributed by Shweta from Zest In A Tote

3. Minneriya National Park

Minneriya National Park is one of the best national parks in Sri Lanka to go on a safari, to see elephants. Located in the heart of the country, this is a relatively small park, which means that the chances of seeing a lot of wildlife are quite high.  

Location: Minneriya national park is located in North Central province of Sri Lanka. The cities closest to this park are Habarana and Polonnaruwa.

Best season: One of the park’s notable events is known as “The Gathering,” which takes place during the dry season, which is usually between May and September. This natural phenomenon involves a large assembly of Asian elephants around the Minneriya Tank. It happens because the water around the park evaporates, and the only large source remaining is the tank. This is one of the best times to go on a safari here, if you want to see elephants. During this time, over 300 elephants of all sizes, including babies, gather here.

Entry Fee: The entrance fee for Minneriya National Park costs 65 US dollars. This price is usually included in the fee for the safari.

Where to stay: The best places to book a tour from is the town of Habarana, where it also recommended to stay overnight. A great hotel to stay at is Sorowwa Resort and Spa. 

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Wildlife sighting: Minneriya National Park is home to a variety of animal species that inhabit its different ecosystems. Among the most prominent residents are the Asian elephants, which roam freely across the plains. 

The best times to go for an elephant safari in Minneriya National Park is in the morning between 5:30AM-8:30 AM and in the afternoon between 3:00PM-6:00 PM, because these are the times when the animals are most active. During the late morning and the early afternoon, they hide in the shade. 

Going on a safari in Minneryia National Park is a great thing to do. Most of the travellers choose parks such as Yala or Udawalawe, so Minneryia remains crowd free. Book a Minneriya National Park safari.

Contributed by Joanna from The World In My Pocket

4. Wilpattu National Park

Located in the northwest of the country, Wilpattu National Park is Sri Lanka’s largest national park. With tons of exciting wildlife, yet often overlooked as a safari destination in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu has a lot to offer the adventurous traveller.  The sheer variety and large animal populations, low number of tourists make wildlife watching in Wilpattu National Park a great experience. 

Location: Located in the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, Wilpattu park is about 30 km west of Arunadhapura.

Best season: The best time to visit Wilpattu is from May to October, during the region’s dry season. The lack of water brings the animals out into the open as they seek water, making it much easier to spot wildlife. 

Entry Fee: Entrance fees are slightly convoluted. They include the following:

  • Entrance fee: $15 USD per person 
  • Service charge: $8 USD per group
  • Jeep charge: 250 LKR per jeep 
  • Tax: 15% VAT added to the total
  • Do note that it is impossible to visit Wilpattu independently. So you must hire a jeep and driver to visit the park. In addition to the above charges, this should cost around $70 USD for a full day and $35 USD for a half-day jeep safari. 

Where to stay: For a visit to Wilpattu National Park, most people base themselves in Anuradhapura. It’s an easy day trip and visitors are not allowed to stay inside the park. In Anuradhapura, Ceylonima Homestay is the best budget option in town. If you’re looking for something in the mid-range area, Aryana Boutique Hotel is a great option.

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Wildlife sighting: Wilpattu National Park is home to some of the most sought-after wildlife in Sri Lanka. The park has approximately 30 species of mammals, including the Sri Lankan leopard, sloth bear, spotted deer, water buffalo, sambar and mongoose. The leopard sightings are some of the best in the country. Wilpattu has a high leopard population density, but very low traffic. 

It’s also relatively easy to see crocodiles. If you’re into birding, take note: it’s one of the best places in the country for bird-watching. 

Contributed by Dotti from Travel Oasis

Book a full-day trip to Wilpattu from Colombo or Anuradhapura, or just the wildlife safari:

Sri Lanka National Park on the East Coast

5. Pigeon Island National Park

Pigeon Island is a national park on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. It is best known as a place to do a day trip for snorkeling with reef sharks and turtles, and has some of the best reefs in Sri Lanka. The national park is made up of two islands, known as large pigeon island and small pigeon island.

Location: The island is located just 1 km off the coastal town of Nilaveli in Eastern province of Sri Lanka.

Best season: The best time to visit Pigeon Island is between May and October because the weather is normally warm and dry. The ocean is calmer during this time, making it easier to snorkel. During the months of October to March, the island does experience some rain.  

Entry Fee: Entrance fees for the marine park are around USD 25, but on top of that you’ll pay for your tour to the island. These prices will vary depending on how you book, and which company you use.

Where to stay: For accommodation, it’s best to stay at one of the nearby coastal towns such as Trincomalee or Nilaveli. Both are beautiful, quiet seaside destinations where you can hop on a boat tour to Pigeon Island. Tours over to the island can be easily booked through your hotel. I recommend Trinco Blu by Cinnamon in Trincomalee. 

Wildlife sighting: There is a guide rope that goes around the snorkelling area in a large circle, which you should stick to when out in the ocean. Despite this path being in place, it doesn’t feel crowded. Just don’t enter at the exact same time as other snorkelers, so you can have some space.

Once snorkeling you’ll see plenty of fish. But the two big things to spot are turtles and black tip reef sharks. The sharks are harmless and can be elusive, but you’ll have the most luck spotting them by picking a deeper spot and watching patiently. 

Turtles are the other highlights and while they’re not guaranteed, they are around if you pay careful attention. I almost didn’t spot a giant sea turtle because it was coming from behind while I was focused in a different direction. The turtle was massive.

I’d strongly recommend packing an underwater camera in your Sri Lanka packing list if visiting this spot. A GoPro works well and is lightweight. Just make sure you have something to attach it to you, like a wrist or head strap, as you’ll need to put your flippers on in the water. 

You should also be aware that the beach is stony just before you enter the water. It’s too early to put your flippers on at this part, so take it easy when entering and exiting.

The island is a bit out of the way to get to, as most of the main attractions are in the west and central parts of the country. It’s a lot quieter on the east coast.  

Contributed by Lexi from Stylish Packing Lists

Book a snorkeling or diving trip from Trincomalee:

Combine Nuwara Eliya with Horton Plains in the central highlands

6. Horton Plains National Park

At the elevation of about 2200 metres, Horton Plains is the highest national park in Sri Lanka, and this location in the central highlands means it feels quite different from many of the others – cool and misty, for starters. 

Location: Horton Plains is located about 20 kilometres south of Nuwara Eliya and 20 kilometres west of Haputale.

Best season: The weather is usually slightly better from January to March and the crowds are a bit thinner too, but you can visit any time of the year to explore the stunning landscapes.

Entry Fee: Entry for an adult foreigner is US$25 in tourist season (and US$20 in the off-peak season).

Where to stay: Because of the early start, it’s worth staying nearby in the highlands, with Nuwara Eliya offering the most options for visitors (and a fascinating destination in itself), although there are also ecolodges around the park. Many of the accommodation providers also provide jeep tours, which is the best way to visit Horton Plains National Park, offering a bit more flexibility than a bus tour.

Wildlife sighting: The elevation also means there’s a unique ecosystem that’s been described as “a super biodiversity hotspot”. The Sri Lankan leopard is one of the most famous residents but also one of the most elusive. You’re much more likely to see a large range of birds and lizards amongst the colourful flowers. Rivers rush down from the peaks through the dense forests and woodlands.

One of the highlights is a spot called ‘The World’s End‘, which is a viewpoint about halfway along a nine-kilometre circular walking trail. From here, you can look down across the green highlands all the way to the ocean – although clouds usually roll in during the morning so most people try to start the hike around dawn. Another popular area is Baker’s Falls, a beautiful waterfall complex that cascades over about 20 metres.

Contributed by Michael from Time Travel Turtle

Browse through these tour options to Horton Plains:

Sri Lanka National Parks in the southern areas

7. Sinharaja Forest Reserve 

If you’re looking for an off-beat destination, Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a great option for a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka! Located in southwest Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is the last tropical rainforest on the island and has been named a UNESCO world heritage site since 1978 due to its exceptional biodiversity. 

Location: It’s about two and a half hours from Galle and Matara.

Best season: Sinharaja national park is a rainforest. So even if you visit during the dry season (January until March) you can still expect some rainfall. That having said, the dry season is the best time to visit. Alternatively, April and August to October are still okay, just expect a bit more rain. And if you’re not bothered by rain at all, you can visit year-round.

Entry Fee: It’s mandatory to take a guide when you want to enter the park, the fee plus the costs of a guide are around 1750 LKR. (about USD 5.5)

Where to stay: The best way to experience this world heritage site is by staying in nearby Deniyaya. Though if you’re short on time, you can also visit Sinharaja as a day trip from Galle or Matara. 

Wildlife sighting: The park can only be entered on foot. On your hike, you will be rewarded with a unique biosphere of endemic trees, plants, flowers, and animal species. From birds and reptiles to amphibians and arachnids (be aware of creepy spiders and scorpions). It’s also home to jaguars and elephants though the chances of spotting those on your hikes are slim. You are more likely to run into monkeys and giant squirrels. 

Lastly, make sure you bring a rain jacket. Wear proper shoes, long pants, and high socks, because leeches are also one of the park’s common inhabitants. 

However, despite the leeches, being harder to reach, pricier, and lacking large mammals to spot, Sinharaja is a park that should not be missed. Its unique forest and small number of daily visitors will make it the highlight of your trip. You can book an all-inclusive Sinharaja Rainforest Trek.

Contributed by Lara from The Best Travel Gifts

8. Udawalawe National Park

If you’re visiting a safari in Sri Lanka, you want to see elephants. If that’s the case, Udawalawe National Park will provide the best safari experience you’re looking for.

Location: Located in southern Sri Lanka, Udawalawe National Park is easily accessible from nearby towns like Ella and Welligama.

Best season: Udawalawe can be visited year-round, but the best time is during the dry season from December to March. It’s easier to spot elephants and other wildlife around reservoirs during this period.

Entry Fee: Visiting Udawalawe National Park costs an entrance fee of $29 per person, which includes a 15% VAT. Additionally, there’s a $14 fee per car, making it an affordable adventure into the wild.

Where to stay: While many visitors opt for day tours from nearby towns (Ella and Welligama), staying within the park’s vicinity can make your visit more comfortable. Consider accommodations like Jungle Paradise or Mango Treehouse for a unique and immersive stay.

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Wildlife sighting: Udawalawe is renowned for its impressive elephant population. With approximately 600 elephants roaming freely within the park’s boundaries, it’s guaranteed you’ll encounter these majestic creatures during your visit. Apart from elephants, the park is home to buffaloes, crocodiles, and bird species. There are a few leopards in Udawalawe, so do not expect to see them on your visit. You might see them, but keep your expectations low.

Book an early morning or late afternoon safari tour when animals are most active to make the most of your visit. Also, respect the park’s rules, such as maintaining silence during the safari, to ensure minimal disturbance to the wildlife.

Witness elephants in their natural habitat and experience the untamed beauty of Sri Lanka’s wilderness at Udawalawe National Park. You’ll leave the park with so much awe and appreciation of nature’s harmony.

Contributed by Gladis from Happiness On The Way

Book a safari to Udawalawe National Park:

9. Yala National Park

Located in the southeast of Sri Lanka, Yala National Park is found between two provinces, Hambantota and Monaragala. Yala is Sri Lanka’s most visited national park for a wildlife safari. The park is vast and borders Indian Ocean on one side.

Location: The closest town to Yala is Tissamaharama and this is the official gateway to this National Park.  While it’s possible to drive your own vehicle into the park most visitors come here on a safari jeep and Tissamaharama is where most Yala National Park safaris depart from. 

Best season: The peak season to visit Yala is between February and March. This is the dry season, when water levels are low and it’s easier to spot animals.

Entry Fee: Entrance fees for the park are around US$28 for foreign visitors and there’s also the fee for a jeep to take you in as well.  A private jeep for a full day, including the entrance fees (which include a morning and an afternoon drive with a picnic lunch inside the park) costs around US$70 per person.

Where to stay: You’ll need to stay locally, as safaris enter the park before dawn and most visitors stay in Tissimaharama. There are also lodges inside the National Park, but the Wild Coast Tented Lodge is one of the most luxurious places to stay to visit Yala.

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Wildlife sighting: Although there are more than 200 species of birds here and 40 mammal species Yala National Park is most well known for leopards. The leopard density here is the highest in the world, but remember, these are elusive animals. Yala is also home to 40 other mammals. What you are likely to spot are Sri Lankan elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, wild peacocks, and monitor lizards.

Yala is the most popular of Sri Lanka’s National Park. While there are limits placed on the number of jeeps that can enter the park, there is still quite a lot of traffic. So keep that in mind while considering it for a Sri Lankan safari.

Contributed by Sarah from A Social Nomad

Book a safari to Yala National Park:

Best Time for a Safari in Sri Lanka

You have to avoid the monsoon season to go on a Sri Lanka wildlife safari. The south west areas in Sri Lanka get south-western monsoons between May and September. So the best time to visit these areas is during the dry season: November to April. Sri Lanka’s east coast is influenced by the north-eastern monsoon between October to January. The best season to visit the east coast of Sri Lanka is between April to September. 

Also consider the time for taking the safari, if possible. Usually, the afternoon safaris are less crowded than the morning ones.

Make sure you follow some common norms during a jeep safari at a national park. Do not make loud noises and disturb the animals and birds there. Give space to wildlife and don’t get too close to them.  

Safaris are hot and dusty, so wear durable clothing, sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. 

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka?

Do check this post on Beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka

And here is a 10-day itinerary for Sri Lanka Highlights

Make sure you spend time visiting the sites at the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka


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Author: Shweta Singhal

Hi! I am Shweta, the zest behind this blog . I play several roles – parent to a 6-year old, adventure enthusiast, travel blogger, generally open to trying out new things in life. Besides travel, I love books and theatre and art. I would love to hear from you; do drop a comment. Join me on Instagram / Twitter @zestinatote.

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