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8 Best National Parks For Safari In Sri Lanka (2023)

Leopard-walking-through-the-forest-in-wilpattu-national-park

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Are you looking to go on a safari in Sri Lanka? You’ve come to the right place!

Sri Lanka is famous for its incredible biodiversity and spectacular landscapes. This small island nation has no fewer than 26 national parks, each one offering something unique and special.

Many of these national parks are ideal places for spotting some of the country’s iconic wildlife, such as elephants, leopards, crocodiles, sloth bears, spotted deer, and mongooses.

Sri Lanka’s national parks are important because they help to protect the diverse range of wildlife found there. They’re also really varied, from the dry savannahs of Yala to the steamy rainforests of Sinharaja.

I’ve been fortunate enough to go on several safaris in Sri Lanka, and each one was fantastic. However, my favourite one by far was in Wilpattu National Park (see below). If you ever get the chance to go there, do it – it’s an amazing place!

🤩 This is the best full-day safari tour of Wilpattu National Park

8 Best Safaris in Sri Lanka

Going on a Sri Lanka safari trip allows you to observe a stunning array of wildlife. Your park entrance fees also help to fund various conservation efforts, ensuring that these special places, habitats, and creatures are taken care of.

Here’s my pick of the best national parks for safari in Sri Lanka.

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Yala National Park

Yala National Park is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka and one of the best places to go on safari in the country.

This huge area spans more than 975 square kilometres (375 sq mi) across the southeast corner of the island. It’s the second-largest national park in the country (after Wilpattu).

Yala is home to a wide range of wildlife, including more than 215 species of birds, 44 mammal species, and 26 species of reptiles.

Yala boasts one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. So, it’s one of the best places to come if you want to see one of these majestic and elusive creatures in the wild.

Other highlights include Sri Lankan elephants, buffalo, sloth bears, crocodiles, monkeys, hummingbirds, jungle fowl, peacocks, toucans, and bee-eaters.

The best way to experience Yala is to take a Jeep safari through the wilderness. You’ll get to observe some of the country’s most iconic animals in their natural habitat.

guys-trying-to-fix-broken-jeep-in-yala-national-park
Our jeep broke mid-safari, leaving us stranded among the leopards… (We got a longer safari for free as a result though, so I wasn’t complaining!)

Depending on where you’re coming from, you can either arrange a tour that includes transport to/from Yala (usually more expensive) or make your own way there first (usually cheaper).

It takes about 6 hours to drive to Yala from Colombo.

Most Yala tour providers offer either morning, afternoon, or full-day safari trips. This full-day safari is particularly good and includes transport to/from any hotel or guesthouse in the Yala/Tissamaharama area.

However, if you have time, I highly recommend spending at least one night in the national park.

An overnight safari in Yala allows you to experience the park at all times of day and night.

It’s a really immersive experience that takes you deep into the jungle. You’ll have the opportunity to go on multiple game drives, to maximise your chances of spotting wildlife.

There are a few luxurious tented lodges in Yala. You can stay at one of these and then organise your own game drives.

Alternatively, you can book a multi-day tour that includes game drives and accommodation. This 2-day Yala safari includes a night in a gorgeous treehouse.

Going on a safari in Yala National Park is the highlight of many people’s time in Sri Lanka. However, this is also one of the most popular (and therefore one of the busiest) national parks in Sri Lanka.

Personally, I preferred the experience at Wilpattu, which receives far fewer visitors and is much quieter, although my Yala safari trip was still very good.

Best for: Spotting leopards

Location: Southeast

Best time of year for safari in Yala National Park: February–June

🤩 This is the best 1-day safari tour of Yala National Park

🤩 This is the best overnight Yala safari

Where to stay in Yala National Park (if your tour doesn’t include accommodation)

Budget: Yala Wild House (if they don’t have any availability, I’ve also stayed at Rice Rice Villas, which is a 30-minute drive away and is another great budget option)

Mid-range: Mahoora – Yala by Eco Team

Luxury/high-end: Tribe Yala OR Leopard Trails Yala

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Udawalawe National Park

Udawalawe National Park is probably the best place to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka.

It’s home to stunning landscapes full of vegetation, abundant flora and fauna, and one of the largest concentrations of elephants in the country.

You’re virtually guaranteed to see these amazing animals at Udawalawa, either drinking and playing at waterholes, or grazing on the park’s fertile grasslands.

In addition to elephants, the park is home to an array of other wildlife, including water buffaloes, spotted deer, and exotic birds.

Crocodiles are commonly spotted along the banks of the lake and rivers throughout the park. As are Sri Lankan sambar deer, which roam around freely grazing amongst the trees and shrubs.

The park also serves as a sanctuary for orphaned elephants. Sadly, many elephants are killed each year, largely due to conflicts with humans – especially farmers whose crops are eaten or destroyed by elephants.

You can visit the Uduwalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) facility inside the park, which offers a unique opportunity to see some of Sri Lanka’s orphaned baby elephants up close.

Please: do not visit the unethical Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, just west of Kandy. The welfare standards here are shocking – including chaining the animals up for tourists to photograph – it’s horrible.

Uduwalawe ETH, on the other hand, is a much more ethical place. The elephants are properly looked after, visitors are kept at a distance, and the animals are eventually released back into the wild following rehabilitation.

Best for: Elephant sightings

Location: South Central

Best time of year for safari in Udawalawe National Park: December–March & May–September.

🤩 This is the most highly-rated safari tour of Udawalawe National Park (it’s also excellent value!)

🤩 This one is more expensive but includes transport to/from lots of places (including Galle, Ahangama, Mirissa, Weligama, Ella, and Hikkaduwa)

…Or, if you’re short of time, you can even visit both Yala and Udawalawe in one (long) full-day tour

Where to stay in Udawalawe National Park

Budget: Nature House OR Green View Safari Resort OR Max Safari Villa

Mid-range: Kottawatta River Bank Resort

Luxury/high-end: Kalu’s Hideaway Udawalawe

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Minneriya National Park

Minneriya National Park, near Sigiriya, is another amazing safari destination in Sri Lanka, and another great place to see elephants.

Minneriya is most famous for its annual Great Elephant Gathering, which occurs between July and September.

During these months, elephants from various parts of the island migrate to Minneriya National Park to feed on the lush grasses and socialize with other herds.

This is the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world and is a truly spectacular sight.

You can see literally hundreds of elephants in one place, socialising, playing, washing, and drinking together. It’s an incredible experience!

As a natural phenomenon, the Great Elephant Gathering is keenly studied by conservationists and zoologists. It gives valuable insight into the behaviour of these amazing animals.

You can either witness it from ground level on a jeep safari, or from high above in a balloon.

Hot air balloon safaris offer a totally different perspective on Minneriya. You’ll get breathtaking aerial views of the elephants roaming freely through fields and forests below.

Keep an eye out for leopards and Sri Lankan sloth bears too. They also live here, although spotting these creatures is much rarer.

Even if you can’t visit between July and September, you’ll probably still see plenty of elephants and various other animals. It’s worth coming here either way.

Best for: Witnessing the Great Elephant Gathering

Location: North Central

Best time of year for safari in Minneriya National Park: July–September

Where to stay in Minneriya National Park

I’m not aware of any good places to stay in or right next to Minneriya National Park itself. (If you are, please let me know in the comments below!)

However, there are plenty of great places to stay in nearby Sigiriya, which is only a short drive away from Minneriya.

These include:

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Wilpattu National Park (my Favourite National Park in Sri Lanka)

If you’re looking for an authentic wilderness adventure, far away from most other visitors, I can highly recommend a trip to Wilpattu National Park.

Wilpattu is my absolute favourite national park in Sri Lanka. It’s the largest national park in the country, spanning an area of over 1,300 square kilometres (500 sq mi), and is one of its oldest protected areas.

Due to its size and remoteness, Wilpattu is much less crowded than many of Sri Lanka’s other national parks. I did a full-day jeep safari in Wilpattu and saw fewer than 10 other jeeps all day.

I also saw a sloth bear (very rare) and a leopard up close for several minutes. It was awesome!

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The drive into the park is also very atmospheric. You follow a dirt track for almost an hour as the forest grows denser and denser all around you. Keep your eyes peeled for animals moving through the trees.

Then, all of a sudden, you get to a series of grassy clearings and giant lakes that are teeming with wildlife.

One of my favourite spots is the viewing tower that overlooks one of the lakes. It’s so peaceful, beautiful, and untouched. The atmosphere is truly magical and I was utterly transfixed by the surroundings.

Witpattu offers a unique, unspoiled safari experience in one of Sri Lanka’s most pristine wildernesses. It’s definitely worth making the effort to get there.

Also, if you’re visiting Anuradhapura, it’s only about an hour’s drive away. Don’t miss it!

Best for: Unspoilt nature and fewer crowds (also leopards and sloth bears!)

Location: Northwest

Best time of year for safari in Wilpattu National Park: May–October

🤩 This is the best full-day safari tour of Wilpattu National Park

🤩 Or, for the ultimate safari experience, check out this epic 2-night camping safari in Wilpattu

Where to stay in Wilpattu National Park

Budget: Big Game – Wilpattu by Eco Team

Mid-range: Leopard Cross

Luxury/high-end: Mahoora Safari Camp OR Leopard Trails Wilpattu

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Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya National Park is a large conservation area that was established in 1954. In the centre of the park lies the biggest reservoir in Sri Lanka, Senanayake Samudraya.

As well as being an important source of water for irrigation in the dry eastern areas of the country, it’s also home to a huge amount of wildlife, including elephants, leopards, bears, monkeys, wild boar, deer, and water buffalo.

There are more than 200 elephants living here and you can see them throughout the year. Unlike the elephants in some other parks, the elephants in Gal Oya don’t need to migrate to find food and water during the dry season.

This makes it a good national park to visit year-round, although the elephants do tend to be more active between March and July.

One of the highlights of Gal Oya is that you can often see elephants swimming in the reservoir. I had no idea that these enormous land animals could swim – but they can. Apparently, they really enjoy it too!

Gal Oya is also one of the less-visited national parks in Sri Lanka, so is another great option for those looking to escape the crowds. It’s a paradise for any nature lover.

It’s also one of the only national parks where you can get out of your jeep and hike through the park on foot (accompanied by a guide).

Most wildlife tours in Sri Lanka don’t allow you to do this. But it’s a really exciting and unique experience and a great way to get up close to nature.

If you have time, the best way to fully experience this amazing national park is to stay in the Gal Oya Lodge, a beautiful eco-lodge with bungalows spread across 20 acres of private forest.

Best for: Walking safaris & observing elephants swimming

Location: Eastern Sri Lanka

Best time of year for safari in Gal Oya National Park: June–December

Where to stay in Gal Oya National Park

Budget: Charitha Rest

Mid-range: Gal Oya Lake Club

Luxury/high-end: Gal Oya Lodge OR Wild Glamping Gal Oya

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Bundala National Park

Bird lovers: this one’s for you.

Bundala National Park is one of the best places for birdwatching in Sri Lanka. It’s known for its large flocks of migratory birds who come here to escape the cold winters of Europe and northern Asia.

There are many species of birds that live here year-round too.

Flamingos are perhaps the most famous sight in Bundala, their elegant pink presence adding an extra splash of colour to the landscape. Also keep an eye out for spoonbills, which are commonly spotted and very photogenic.

Other species that live here include pelicans, painted storks, kingfishers, egrets, cormorants, coots, black-necked storks, and various ducks.

The park also has a healthy population of wild Sri Lankan elephants, crocodiles, tortoises, jackals, monkeys, wild boars, pangolins, and snakes.

If you’re lucky, you may even spot an elusive fishing cat or a (critically endangered) rusty-spotted cat.

Bundala is a very scenic place, with its stunning coastal lagoons, lush grasslands, and intricate network of waterways teeming with wildlife.

It’s also one of Sri Lanka’s quieter national parks and offers a peaceful, uncrowded natural escape.

I’ve never actually been inside this national park. But I have ridden a motorbike on the little road that runs around the edge of it, and even then I saw loads of wildlife (birds, crocodiles, monkeys, etc.)

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Best for: Birdwatching and flamingo sightings

Location: South Coast

Best time of year for safari in Bundala National Park: November–March

Where to stay near Bundala National Park

Accommodation options are very limited here. You can’t actually stay inside the national park and there aren’t many other places nearby.

Budget: Lagoon Inn

Luxury/high-end: Shangri-La Hambantota (in nearby Hambantota)

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Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Sinharaja Forest Reserve is Sri Lanka’s only remaining tropical rainforest. It’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 due to its incredible biodiversity and huge numbers of endemic species.

Picture a dense, steamy rainforest that’s filled with exotic plants and animals, waterfalls, orchids, and giant liana vines snaking down from the thick trees. Imagine the sights, smells, and sounds.

That’s what Sinharajah is like.

It’s a really ancient forest and has been there since the Jurassic period, more than 150 million years ago!

At only 8,864 hectares (89 km²), Sinharaja Forest Reserve isn’t particularly big. However, it’s one of the densest rainforests in Asia, with roughly 240,000 plants per hectare.

Sinharaja is home to hundreds of different species of trees, plants, and animals, including mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians.

Many rare and endangered species live here, such as leopards, purple-faced langurs, flying squirrels, grizzled giant squirrels, and Sri Lanka hanging parrots.

There are no roads through Sinharaja, the only way in is on foot. And you need to be accompanied by a guide at all times. So, the best way to explore this amazing jungle is on a guided nature walk.

Your guide will teach you about the rainforest and its inhabitants. Common sightings include chameleons, tree frogs, hump-snout lizards, monkeys, parrots, green pit vipers, hump-nosed vipers, Indian pythons, and tarantulas.

Sinharajah is an amazing destination for anyone who wants to experience a true rainforest safari in Sri Lanka.

Best for: Rainforest adventures

Location: Southwest

Best time of year for safari in Sinharaja Forest Reserve: August–April (avoid May–July, when this area experiences the heavy southwest monsoon)

Where to stay near Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Budget: Sinharaja Vini Villa

Mid-range: Dolagawa

Luxury/high-end: Boulder Garden

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Kumana National Park

Kumana National Park is a stunning and diverse place on the wild southeast coast of Sri Lanka.

If you’re heading to Arugam Bay for a spot of surfing, this is the national park for you!

Spanning over 350 square kilometres (135 sq mi), Kumana contains a wide range of habitats including mangrove swamps, lagoons, scrublands, grasslands, and woodlands.

It’s home to loads of wildlife, such as elephants, crocodiles, and buffalo. You’ll also find large numbers of migratory birds here (from August–April), and resident species like painted storks, spoonbills, and pelicans year-round.

The park’s vast wetlands, including the picturesque Kumana Villu and numerous lagoons, provide an ideal habitat for both water and land birds.

The park is also home to several species of raptors, including white-bellied sea eagles and crested serpent eagles.

Kumana is one of the most remote national parks in Sri Lanka. It used to be known as Yala East National Park because it shares a border with the eastern boundaries of Yala NP.

However, you can’t access it from the Yala side. To get to the park entrance, it’s an hour’s drive south of Arugam Bay (which is quite remote itself).

South of the village of Panama, the paved road ends and you need to take a long and bumpy dirt track full of giant potholes for the final 15 kilometres.

kumana-national-park-with-elephant-in-the-distance-by-a-lake

I drove this in a rented tuk-tuk and it was slow going, but really amazing. On the way to the park entrance, I saw so many different animals, including elephants, buffalo, and toucans.

It felt like a self-drive safari just to get to the park. So fun! And also free, other than the cost of hiring the tuk-tuk.

Also, the advantage of driving yourself is that you can also visit Okanda Beach. This is located close to the entrance of Kumana National Park and is one of the most incredible wild beaches I’ve ever seen.

okanda-beach-next-to-kumana-national-park

However, if you don’t have your own wheels, you can easily book a safari trip to Kumana that includes transport from Arugam Bay.

Best for: Birdwatching and getting away from other tourists

Location: Southeast

Best time of year for safari in Kumana National Park: May–September

Where to stay in/near Kumana National Park

Budget: Little Lagoon (Arugam Bay)

Mid-range: Surf Gangs (Arugam Bay) (this place is awesome!)

Luxury/high-end: Explorer by Eco Team – Kumana (inside Kumana NP)

Other National Parks for Safari Trips in Sri Lanka

The 8 parks mentioned above are the best-known national parks for safari trips in Sri Lanka.

However, there are several other national parks in Sri Lanka where you can go on safari. For example:

  • Wasgamuwa National Park – (Central Sri Lanka, wild and remote, large numbers of elephants, birds, monkeys, and crocodiles)
  • Kaudulla National Park – (close to Minneriya, great for spotting elephants, deer, pelicans, and other birds)
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Choosing the Right Accommodation for a Sri Lanka Safari Tour

Of all the parks in Sri Lanka, Yala National Park has the largest number of accommodation options available.

Here you can choose from a wide range of places to stay, from simple guesthouses and budget bungalows to high-end hotels and luxurious tented camps.

Yala, Wilpattu, and Gal Oya each have camping and glamping sites inside the parks themselves. These offer a unique and immersive nature experience.

For the other parks, you’ll probably need to stay somewhere nearby. Most safari tours include transport to/from the park, but it’s important to double-check what’s included when booking.

Some lodges have facilities such as on-site restaurants, hot water showers, and pools. Some even include game drives in their packages too.

Wherever you decide to stay for your Sri Lankan safari adventure, check its proximity to the relevant national park(s), as well as the amenities on offer.

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FAQs About Going on Safari & Wildlife Tours in Sri Lanka

Here are some frequently asked questions about the best Sri Lanka safari tours.

Does Sri Lanka have safari?

Yes, there are many places in Sri Lanka where you can go on safari. The country has 26 national parks, and most of these offer thrilling and up-close experiences with an amazing range of wildlife.

How much is safari in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankan safari tours vary in cost depending on the length and type of safari you are looking for, and where you want to do it.

All-inclusive safari excursions that include transport, meals, and a professional guide cost anywhere from $50 USD to $400 USD per person.

What do you see on safari in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has an abundance of wildlife and nature that you can see while on safari.

You can spot elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, deer, jackals, wild boar, monkeys, and (if you’re lucky) leopards and sloth bears, as well as a huge range of birds and other creatures.

Is Yala safari good?

Yala National Park is home to the highest density of leopards in the world and is one of the best places on Earth to spot these incredible animals. The park is well-maintained and has excellent facilities.

That said, it can also get quite crowded which, for me, is the biggest downside to going on safari in Yala. Personally, I much preferred my safari in Wilpattu.

Can you see tigers in Sri Lanka?

No, there are no tigers in Sri Lanka. However, there are plenty of leopards.

How likely are you to see a leopard in Yala?

Yala National Park is known for its Sri Lankan leopard population. Your chances of seeing a leopard are higher in Yala than virtually anywhere else in the world.

However, leopard sightings aren’t guaranteed. They are generally quite shy and elusive animals. Even if you do visit Yala, there is no guarantee that you will be able to spot one.

What should I wear for my Sri Lanka safari?

It’s a good idea to wear lightweight, breathable clothing that offers protection from the sun while on wildlife tours in Sri Lanka.

Bring a hat and sunglasses, and don’t forget to pack plenty of water and mosquito repellent.

What’s the best time of year to go on safari in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka’s tropical climate and long dry seasons make it an ideal destination for safaris all year round.

However, different parts of Sri Lanka experience very different weather throughout the year.

See the sections above for more info on the best time of year to visit each national park.

Morning or evening safari?

The received wisdom is that morning safaris are the best time for spotting wildlife in Sri Lanka. Early mornings have the advantage of cooler temperatures that allow animals to move around more freely. It also allows for better visibility.

However, I’ve done several safaris in Sri Lanka – both in the morning and afternoon. The two times I saw a leopard, and the only time I saw a sloth bear, were all in the late afternoon.

Draw from that what you will!

buffalo-on-the-road-during-a-safari-in-sri-lanka

🤩 This is my favourite Sri Lanka safari tour

Final Thoughts on Sri Lanka Safari Trips

Going on safari in Sri Lanka is an unforgettable experience.

The country is full of breathtaking national parks, each one offering unique opportunities to experience the diverse wildlife and natural beauty that Sri Lanka is known for.

My personal favourite is Wilpattu, and I’d highly recommend making the journey up there if you can.

Of course, with wild animals, no sightings are guaranteed. Part of the thrill of going on safari is not knowing what you might be about to see!

I hope this post has helped you decide which national park to pick for your Sri Lankan safari. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time whichever one you choose.

Which park is your favourite? I’d love to hear below!

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