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Looking Beyond Yala: Selective's choice of the best Sri Lanka's National Parks

by Nick Pulley on 25th November 2022

Image gallery

Bear in Wilpattu NP Sri Lanka
Elephant in Uda Walawe, Sri Lanka
Horton Plains, Sri Lanka
Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka

Yala holds the title of Sri Lanka’s most popular National Park for very good reasons. Its vast landscape varies from lush forest to dry grassland, and includes many wide lakes and lagoons, making it a haven for the island’s diverse wildlife. The world’s largest concentration of leopards make their home in Yala, as well as elephants, sloth bears, jackals, crocodiles, peacocks and hundreds of other species, and a longer peak season means your chances of spotting Sri Lanka’s ‘Big 3’ land animals (elephant, leopard and sloth bear) are at their highest. It also offers an extensive selection of luxury camps and lodges - unquestionably the broadest and the best in the country. So, would we recommend that everyone heads to Yala? Not quite…

Unfortunately, these accolades come at a cost: a high density of visitors, huge numbers of jeeps, and a significant daily human impact. Solitude, silence and serendipity are in short shrift. For many, this adds up to a real reduction in the enjoyment of the overall experience. However, with 26 National Parks to choose from, Sri Lanka has plenty of alternatives. We’ve put together our top picks of lesser-known parks where you can fully connect with Sri Lanka’s phenomenal natural world.

Best all-rounder…Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu may be less well-known than Yala but it is every bit as rich and varied. With a name that translates as ‘Land of Lakes’, Wilpattu’s landscape is peppered with ‘villus’: dips in the terrain that fill with rainwater, forming natural watering holes which attract animals and birds to drink at their edges. They provide dozens of focal points for watching a wide array of species from leopards and elephants to deer and water buffalo. Elsewhere, sloth bears slink through the shady forests, and it’s a haven for birdlife. Leopard Trails Tented Camps, which also have a presence at Yala, offer high-quality camping experiences right on the edge of the park; perfect for early-bird safari drives.

Best for elephants…Maduru Oya & Uda Walawe 

Minneriya National Park might have stolen the limelight when it comes to elephant sightings in Sri Lanka, thanks to the world-renowned ‘elephant gathering’, but as this phenomenon is changing it’s time to turn the focus on Sri Lanka’s other elephant hot-spots. Maduru Oya National Park, near Polonnaruwa and the Cultural Triangle, encompasses five reservoirs within its boundaries and the landscape is dominated by a long ridge of rocky mountains in the south. It’s best known for the well-established herds of elephants that roam across its arid, red earth. Head out on jeep safaris to see them and many other species, and pause at some of the atmospheric, ruined temples dotted amidst the vegetation.

Over at the southern end of the island, Uda Walawe National Park offers some great opportunities for elephant safaris and birdwatching on drives through the open landscape. The nearby Elephant Transit Home - a rehabilitation centre for orphaned elephant calves - is a great example of high quality conservation in action, and you can watch the young elephants being fed and cared for from a respectful distance. Mahoora Tented Camps offer excellent safari tent accommodation in both Maduru Oya and Uda Walawe, immersing you immediately within the sights and sounds of each location.

Best for birdlife… Horton Plains & Kumana

High in Sri Lanka’s central hills, to the south of Kandy, Horton Plains National Park is a haven of cloud forest and grassland. The area has been designated one of the country’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas and is home to several avian species only seen in Sri Lanka, including the vividly-coloured Sri Lanka blue magpie and the Sri Lanka junglefowl (the island’s national bird). Watch migrating birds of prey swoop over the treetops and catch glimpses of sambal deer wandering between the trees.

Alternatively, Kumana National Park, bordering Yala, is home to a huge variety of water birds thanks to the many lagoons and villu which cover the lowland landscape, which also often floods with seawater. It’s a beautiful place to discover the country’s south-eastern flora and fauna without having to navigate the crowds of Yala. The added bonus of having Arugam’s idyllic beaches just a few kilometres up the coast makes it a very versatile choice.

Best for hands-on conservation…Wasgamuwa National Park

Seeing Sri Lanka’s extraordinary wildlife is memorable enough, but getting up close to the conservation projects which care for the country’s vulnerable species takes it to a deeper level. Wasgamuwa’s lush green landscape is home to large herds of free-roaming elephants, and the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society works tirelessly to create and maintain a sustainable environment where elephants and people can live harmoniously. Spend time with the project in local villages, seeing first-hand how the organisation balances the needs of the wildlife with those of growing rural communities.

Best for a local perspective…Gal Oya National Park

With thousands of hectares of pine forest and open savannah surrounding Senanayake Samudraya, the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka, Gal Oya’s landscape feels especially wide and open. Mist-covered hills roll away into the horizon, turning to tones of rust and gold at sunset when silhouettes of elephants can sometimes be seen at the water’s edge. The wildlife is very much there, though it can be pretty elusive, so it's an excellent choice for anyone looking for a natural escape rather than dedicated wildlife spotting. On the park’s border, the Gal Oya Lodge is an immersive place to stay. Built to sustainable principles, and designed to blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings, the lodge brings its guests close to day-to-day life within the park through its links to local Vedda communities. 

Best for walking…Sinharaja Forest Reserve

If you’re craving time to hike and wander through Sri Lanka’s distinctive landscapes, rather than relying on safari drives, Sinharaja Forest Reserve fits the bill. Its thousands of hectares of UNESCO-listed rainforest are teeming with a rich biodiversity of animals and plants, including a huge proportion of the island’s endemic species, and it’s only navigable on foot. Keen-eyed visitors can spot everything from large mammals like leopards, elephants and deer, to colourful blue morpho and birdwing butterflies, as well as a dizzying wealth of plantlife. 

And finally… Yala National Park (but avoiding the congestion)

If Yala’s appeal is just too strong to ignore, there are ways to see it that feel less crowded. Avoiding certain zones at certain times can help you miss the main rush, and our Sri Lanka specialists will guide you in the right direction when it comes to deciding when and where in Yala to visit. Staying just outside the park can offer the chance to explore the wildlife and sights of the surrounding region too, such as the birdlife in Palatupana or the ancient shrines in Kataragama. Step a little outside the ordinary, and visit the park at unusual times of day, and the whole experience can suddenly feel much more engaging.