The best national parks in Sri Lanka for…

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We explore the best national parks in Sri Lanka, their finest features, and when and where to see the country’s most celebrated animals

For a relatively small nation, Sri Lanka has an abundance of wildlife in its 26 national parks. Considering that the UK (which is nearly four times the size) has 15 national parks, this is a huge number for such a small nation. In addition to its parks, Sri Lanka has scores of nature reserves and sanctuaries.

There is good reason for protecting so much of its lands. Sri Lanka is home to large populations of elephants, leopards, crocodiles and primates, making it one of the finest wildlife watching destinations in South Asia.

Best national parks in Sri Lanka for elephants
Atlas & Boots The majestic Asian elephant is easily spotted in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is also one of Asia’s classic birdwatching destinations. Species include colourful kingfishers, darting bee-eaters and, of course, flamboyant Sri Lankan peacocks. There are myriad wildlife watching and safari options available to everyone from the dedicated naturalist to the interested layman.

We spent a month in the country exploring the best of Sri Lanka’s protected areas. Here are the best national parks in Sri Lanka depending on what you want to see.


Yala National Park 

Yala has one of the highest leopard densities in the world. It comprises five blocks with Block 1 alone home to an estimated 25 leopards. Yala received 350,000 visitors in 2013 and numbers continue to rise, making it Sri Lanka’s most popular national park.

Where to stay:  Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris

Best national parks in Sri Lanka for leopards is yala
Atlas & Boots Yala has one of the highest leopard densities in the world

Wilpattu National Park

This is Sri Lanka’s largest national park and second-best for leopard spotting. Visitor numbers remain low which makes for a deeply personal safari experience. However, animals are more skittish here and the dense forest makes spotting leopards much harder than in Yala.

Where to stay: Mahoora Tented Safari Camp – Wilpattu

Gal Oya, Wasgamuwa and Kaudulla National Parks

Leopards can be spotted in all of these national parks, but it is much harder than Yala. Gal Oya is pristine, unspoilt and rarely visited, while Kaudulla’s main draw are the elephants. It is even rarer to spot leopards in Wasgamuwa, but there have been sightings in recent years. You’ll need patience, persistence and time to catch a glimpse of a leopard in any of these national parks.

Where to stay: Habarana Village

Best national parks in Sri Lanka for… elephants

Udawalawe National Park

For elephant watching alone, Udawalawe is arguably better than many of the more famous east African national parks. There are over 250 permanently resident elephants in the park, dozens of whom are easy to spot thanks to the open savannah-esque grassland in the park. Udawalawe is easily the best national park in Sri Lanka for elephants.

Where to stay: Ruhunu Safari Camping

best national parks in sri lanka Udawalawe
Atlas & Boots For elephant watching, Udawalawe is better than many east African national parks

Bundala National Park

Much less visited than nearby Yala, Bundala is home to a maze of waterways and lagoons. It may not seem like the best place for elephant spotting, but there is a small but very visible population of elephants here (up to 60).

Where to stay: Cinnamon Wild Yala

Kaudulla National Park

We visited Kaudulla in early February and by this time, with the water level at its lowest, the elephants were like clockwork. Every afternoon, once the heat of the day had passed, the herds emerged from the undergrowth and made their way through the long grass to the watering hole.

Where to stay: Habarana Village

Atlas & Boots At certain times of the year, herds emerge like clockwork in Kaudulla National Park

Minneriya National Park

Minneriya is another excellent option for elephant watching. Up to 200 elephants come to feed and bathe during what is known as ‘The Gathering’, the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world. The Gathering takes place between May and September, although there is still a population of between 70 and 100 elephants during the rest of the year.

Where to stay: Habarana Village

Yala National Park

There are lots of elephants in Yala – estimates suggest around 300. However, despite their size and numbers, they can be surprisingly difficult to spot. We only spotted one elephant in Yala and that was at night-time while returning to our camp. 

Where to stay:  Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris

Best national park for… birdwatching

Bundala National Park

Bundala is the best national park in Sri Lanka for birdwatching. It provides refuge to almost 200 species of birds within its 62 sq km area, with many journeying from Siberia and India to winter here. It’s also a winter home to the greater flamingo. Up to 2,000 have been recorded within the park!

Where to stay: Cinnamon Wild Yala

Yala National Park

There are over 200 species of birds in Yala including terns, curlews and pintails escaping the northern winter. Permanent residents include jungle fowl, hornbills, orioles and peacocks.

Where to stay: Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris

best national parks in sri lanka
Atlas & Boots My favourite Sri Lankan bird, the bright and busy little green bee-eater

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

The last major undisturbed region in Sri Lanka is home to over 160 species of bird including 20 of Sri Lanka’s 26 endemic species. The elusive species of red-faced malkoha, green-billed coucal and Sri Lanka blue magpie can all be observed here.

Where to stay: The Rainforest Ecolodge

Kumana National Park

Kumana National Park includes the Kumana bird reserve where around 150 species are present. There have been sightings of Sri Lanka’s very rare black-necked stork, as well as the more common Malabar pied hornbill, green bee-eater, blade-headed oriole, Sri Lankan peacock and painted stork. Watchtowers provide ideal viewpoints for birdwatchers. May to June is nesting season. 

Where to stay: Mahoora Tented Safari Camp – Kumana

best national parks in sri lanka peacock
Atlas & Boots We saw scores of the magnificent Sri Lankan peacock

Knuckles Mountain Range

One of the less-explored hiking destinations of Sri Lanka is home to wild montane forest and excellent birdwatching. Jungle fowl, yellow-eared bulbul, blue magpies, scarlet minivets, dull-blue flycatchers and changeable hawkeagles all inhabit the misty hills.

Where to stay: Mahoora Tented Safari Camp – Knuckles

Sri Lanka’s major national parks and reserves

In total, the protected areas cover almost 15% of Sri Lanka’s land area and encompass an extensive variety of terrain. The map and table below detail Sri Lanka’s major national parks and reserves along with their location and standout features.

ParkFeaturesBest time to visit
Adam’s Bridge National ParkMarine life including dolphin, dugong and turtle; migratory birds as well as the brown noddy. May-Aug
Bundala National ParkMigratory birds, wetland park, coastal lagoon, some elephants.Year round
Gal Oya National ParkGrasslands, evergreen forest, reservoir (tank), elephants, sloth bears, leopards, water buffalo and deer.Dec-Sep
Horton Plains National ParkUNESCO World Heritage Site, hiking, montane forest and World’s End cliff drop.Dec-Mar
Kaudulla National ParkReservoir (tank), scrub jungle, elephants, deer, monkeys, sloth bear, leopards and waterfowl.Aug-Mar
Knuckles Mountain RangeUNESCO World Heritage Site, hiking, traditional villages, caves, waterfalls and evergreen and riverine forests.Dec-May
Kumana National ParkGrassland, jungle, lagoons and mangrove forests.May-Sep
Lunugamvehera National ParkGrassland, reservoir (tank), water buffalo and elephants.May-Sep
Minneriya National ParkReservoir (tank), elephants, deer, monkey and waterfowl.May-Sep
Pigeon Island National ParkSnorkelling, coral reef, blacktip reef shark, sea turtles. May-Oct
Peak Wilderness SanctuaryUNESCO World Heritage Site, Adam’s Peak pilgrimage and hiking.Dec-May
Sinharaja Forest ReserveRainforest, UNESCO World Heritage Site, sambar and barking deer, leopards, monkeys and birdwatching.Aug-Sep / Jan-Mar
Udawalawe National ParkOpen grassland, elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo and wild boar.Year round
Wasgamuwa National ParkEvergreen forest, hilly ridges, grassy plains, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and purple-faced langur and toque macaque monkeys.Jun-Sep
Wilpattu National ParkDry woodland, leopards, sloth bears, deer and crocodiles.Jan-Mar
Yala National ParkElephants, sloth bears, leopards, water buffalo, spotted deer, reservoirs (tanks) and tropical thornforest.Nov-Jul

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Lonely Planet Sri Lanka is a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, ideal for those who want to both explore the top sights and take the road less travelled.

Lead image: Atlas & Boots

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