Sri Lanka has no fewer than 16 national parks stretching from north to south across the Indian Ocean island. Together, they take up an incredible 13% of the Sri Lankan landmass, before the inclusion of the country’s reserves and sanctuaries. Sri Lanka’s national parks manage to take in the huge diversity of landscapes and wildlife that the country has become known for. From elephant on the plains, to leopard in dense coastal forest, Sri Lanka has it all! But which of these 16 are the best national parks in Sri Lanka?
Here we pick our favourites!
1. Yala – the best of the best national parks in Sri Lanka
If you have time to visit just one of Sri Lanka’s national parks, it has to be Yala. The second largest national park in the country at almost 400 square miles in area, Yala occupies a huge expanse of land on the southeast coast, and encompasses Ruhunu and Kumana or Yala East National Parks. While offering visitors the chance to catch sight of one of the widest ranges of native animal species of any of the country’s national parks, it is the leopard and elephant populations that make Yala a must. The park has one of the highest densities of leopard anywhere in the world, though evocative species such as buffalo, sloth bears, and civet cats are also resident here. And if that isn’t enough, the combination of oceanic coastline, fresh water, scrub and woodland means 220 birds call the park home.
Situated in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, Minneriya National Park covers an area of land that shifts between dappled woodland, grassy plains and the waters of an ancient reservoir. What makes Minneriya one of the best national parks in Sri Lanka is the annual ‘Gathering’ of entirely wild Asian elephants that takes place in September and October of each year. During this time it’s common to see herds of up to 400 individual animals moving over the dried up lakebed and through the reflective shallows. What’s more, Minneriya is just a half hour drive from Kaudulla National Park, making it easy to combine a visit to both. One of the newest national parks in the country, designated as such in 2002, Kaudulla has an intriguing array of animals including elephant, axis deer, and if you’re very lucky, grey slender loris.
Another of the best national parks in Sri Lanka located in North Central Province, Wasgamuwa bears some resemblance to Minneriya and Kaudulla. Each and every one of the country’s big game species, including leopard and sloth bear are recorded within the park’s boundaries, although the stars of the show here are undoubtedly the family herds of elephant that seek out the cooling mud – there are around 150 individuals in the park. Water buffalo and purple-faced langar monkeys are also regularly sighted, alongside 143 bird species that include the painted stork and rare Sri Lankan frogmouth.
4. Horton Plains
Although visitors aren’t likely to find any elephant or leopard on their visit to Horton Plains, that doesn’t mean this area of central highlands and cloud forest isn’t one of the best national parks in Sri Lanka. That’s because in addition to some very friendly sambar deer at the park entrance, and noisy troops of monkey just about everywhere, Horton Plains National Park offers some fantastic opportunities for delving into the highlands on foot. On of the most popular shorter walks is to World’s End, a sheer cliff edge falling some 1,200 m with panoramas that stretch for mile after mile. Another is the short trail to the elegant cascades of water at Baker’s Falls.
Lying immediately south of the island’s central mountains around the expansive Udawalawe reservoir, which was created by a damming project in the 1970s, this national park blends landscapes of marshes, forest, and grassy plains. It’s a place where sightings of a foraging elephant are pretty much a guaranteed at any time of year. Its riverine nature also means it’s a popular spot for fish eating species including mugger crocodiles, rare fishing cats, and the grey-headed fish eagle.
Situated on the island’s northwest coast less than 120 miles north of Colombo, Wilpattu National Park is the country’s largest national park, and undoubtedly one of the best national parks in Sri Lanka too. Formed around a series of natural lakes, or willus, its name means Land of Lakes, and is another popular place to capture images of the Sri Lankan leopard and other big game species for prosperity (and bragging rights on social media). A true wilderness, visitors are only permitted to explore around a quarter of the park’s overall territory. And while the species list is similar to that of Yala National Park in the south, the animals here are much more wary of vehicles, making sightings all the more special.
Although Somawathiya is not as well-known outside of Sri Lanka as many of the other national parks that have made our list, this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring! For one thing, the park has a sizable population of elephant, as well as several smaller cat species. Located on the flood plains of Sri Lanka’s longest river – the Mahaweli Ganga – it is also a popular roosting site for a plethora of colourful birds, from hornbills to kingfishers. But in addition to its animal attractions, Somawathiya also boasts a cultural attraction, Somawathiya Chaitya, a stupa said to house a relic of the tooth of Buddha that is reputed to have been first constructed in around 200 BC.
One of Sri Lanka’s newest national parks, Ussangoda lies on the island’s southern coast between Galle and Yala National Park. Also bordering Kalametiya Wildlife Sanctuary, the park is known for its rich red soils, and its beaches are an important nesting site for turtles. Offering spectacular ocean vistas, nearby you’ll also find a number of important archaeological and historical sights, with Ussangoda believed to be the place where Ravana, the legendary ancient king of Lanka, made landful on his peacock chariot.