Best Sri Lanka Safari: 8 Park Comparison guide

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Sri Lanka might be a small island, but it’s an island that’s absolutely packed with wildlife and wilderness, and it’s fast becoming one of the most popular destinations in the world to go on safari. 

Africa might the traditional haunt of safari-goers, but Sri Lanka can easily compete with the best that the African plains or the rainforests or rivers have to offer.

Across Sri Lanka’s many national parks, you can find everything from elephants to leopards, while whales cruise along the coastline and birds migrate in vast numbers to the forests through the year.

A Sri Lanka safari might just be the ultimate experience in the country, and to help you decide which is the best one for you, here’s our ultimate comparison guide!

Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide)

Best Sri Lanka Safari: 8 Park Comparison Guide

elephant with safari trucks in Yala National Park -best Sri Lanka Safari

Yala National Park

Yala National Park could easily be the country’s most well known national park, and of course, it’s the perfect place for a Sri Lanka safari. It’s one of the country’s largest nature reserves, as well as being the most visited, and in Yala, you can find the best of Sri Lanka’s wildlife.

The huge national park encompasses several different ecosystems, ranging from semi-arid landscapes to dense wetlands.

That means that a huge variety of wildlife can be spotted here, including elephants, sloth bears, and water buffalo, which are the main mammals that tourists are looking to see on a Sri Lanka safari.

Yala also has the highest density of leopards in the country, making this prime leopard spotting territory.

Yala National Park is located in the south-east of the country, and it’s relatively easy to get here from Colombo, or from other parts of Sri Lanka. The best time to visit the park is generally in the dry season when the roads are open and there’s no chance of flooding.

Wildlife is easier to spot too because they tend to congregate around the watering holes. The dry season runs roughly from February through to June in Yala National Park.

Our top recommended safari’s in Yala National Park:

Deer in Sri Lanka

Kumana National Park

Kumana National Park is the rebranded name for what was for many decades known simply as Yala East National Park. Kumana is technically part of the wider Yala area, however, it’s well worth making a trip here for its own sake, to see what a Sri Lanka Safari here has to offer.

The quick answer to that is that a Sri Lanka safari in Kumana National Park has a lot to offer, particularly if you are a lover of birds. This is a nature reserve that’s primarily set up for bird watching, but you can see all other kinds of wildlife here too.

It’s not as well advertised or well known as the traditional safari areas within Yala National Park, but that just makes it a quieter place to visit, with much less tourism.

While you’re less likely to see elephants or leopards in Kumana, you might find the experience more enjoyable on the whole, as the roads are almost empty and the whole park feels much rawer than its neighbors.

May to June is the best time of the year to visit if you’re bird watching, as this is when nesting season is, and you’ll see may rare species flocking here from thousands of miles away during their annual migrations to Sri Lanka. 

Our top recommended safari’s in Kumana National Park:

Elephants in Sri Lanka

Udawalawe National Park

Also found in the south of the country, Udawalawe National Park is another popular destination for a Sri Lanka safari. It’s just a few hours drive from Colombo, making this an easy national park to access, particularly if you’re short on time in the country.

Of course, that also means that Udawalawe National Park can be busy, but if you’re looking to find elephants, there are few better places than here to go on safari.

This is elephant country because the reserve is home to a large population of Sri Lankan Elephants that number up to 250, and can frequently be found at the local watering holes within the national park. 

While leopards, buffalo and sloth bear also live within the park, they are incredibly rare. If you do see one of these beautiful creatures though, it will make the experience even better.

Elephants can be seen here all through the year, but for your own comfort, it’s best to visit between May and September when there’s little rainfall in Udawalawe.

Our top recommended safari’s in Udawalawe National Park:

Deer herd seen during a Sri Lanka Safari

Horton Plains National Park

North of Udawalawe, you can find Horton Plains National Park, which is a great place to visit if you are looking to escape the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka’s lowlands. Horton Plains is located high up, at an altitude of just over 2000 meters, meaning it’s much cooler than other national parks. 

This is rocky, rugged, mountainous terrain, and it’s a unique place to go on a Sri Lanka Safari. While you can’t find larger animals such as elephants or leopards here, you can find a diverse range of deer species and plenty of birdlife.

It’s a great place for hiking too, given the cool climate and the magnificent views from the mountain tops.

You can visit waterfalls, seeing crashing rivers and even walk to the World’s End, a dramatic clifftop where the rocks literally drop away far below you. It’s cool all year round in Horton Plains National Park, however, the area gets hit hard during the monsoon seasons.

You’re best visiting in the dry, between January and March, to avoid the heavy rainfall that comes for much of the rest of the year. 

Our top recommended safari’s in Horton Plains National Park:

Lina Stock photographing elephants in Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

Kaudulla National Park

For a more traditional Sri Lanka safari, then head to Kaudulla National Park, which is located in the country’s North Central Province. The park is renowned for its elephant safaris, and you’re almost guaranteed to spot them in huge numbers in the wild here.

Kaudulla is harder to get to from Colombo than other national parks, but it’s worth the extra effort and travel time because you’ll find that are far fewer tourists here than in the south of Sri Lanka. 

The dry season runs from April through to October, but if you want to see huge herds of elephants moving through the park then head to Kaudulla towards the end of September, when the animals begin migrating through Kaudulla in search of the large water reserves that are found here. 

As well as the elephants, you can find a whole range of other animals too, from leopards and sloths to deer and boar. 

Our top recommended safari’s in Kaudulla National Park:

Elephants in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka

Minneriya National Park

Also found in North Central Province, Minneriya National Park is a great place to visit after exploring Kaudulla National Park, as they are located incredibly close to one another. 

Minneriya National Park is also known for its huge elephant herds, and in fact, the same elephants are found migrating from this national park, into Kaudulla.

If it’s the elephants your after, then head here in the dry season, between April and September, when the herds congregate around the large water reservoirs that are found within the park.

When it comes to the end of September though, they’ve usually drunk those reserves dry, and that’s when they move on into Kaudulla National Park. 

Our top recommended safari’s in Minneriya National Park:

Leopard seen on safari in Sri Lanka

Gal Oya National Park

If you’re looking for a change from the standard jeep safari while you’re in Sri Lanka, then head to Gal Oya National Park, where instead of traveling overland in search of the wildlife, you can take a cruise along the river.

Gal Oya National Park is located on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, and this is ecotourism at its best in the country. The park protects one of the largest water reservoirs in Sri Lanka, and it’s fed by a network of waterways. 

You can stay at riverside lodges, before taking to the water in local boats to experience one of the most exciting Sri Lanka safaris. As you cruise along the quiet rivers you can spot wildlife in the surrounding trees and foliage, and within the national park, you can find deer, buffalo, and even leopards.

The park is also home to a permanent population of elephants, while Bird Island is an important nesting ground for Sri Lankan birds. 

Our top recommended safari’s in Gal Oya National Park:

Whale Watching Sri Lanka safari

Whale Watching Safaris

As well as the bountiful national parks that are found on land, the country has a growing reputation for whale watching, and in the right season, along much of the coastline, you can see these beautiful marine mammals on the open ocean.

Whale Watching makes for a great Sri Lanka safari, and you can spot them along the southern and eastern coast at different points throughout the year.

Mirissa, on the south coast, is the most popular spot in Sri Lanka for whale watching, with spectacular, sandy beaches and plenty of great hotels and tourist infrastructure that makes for an all-round excellent experience.

The whales make their first appearance in November, and you can spot them right up until April.

After April, the whales begin to move along the eastern coast, as they migrate north. You can head far north to Trincomalee between June and October. You can see many different species on a whale watching Sri Lanka safari, ranging from Blue Whales and Sperm Whales to Minke Whales and Orcas. 

Our top recommended Whale Watching Safari’s:

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Best Sri Lanka Safari: 8 Park Comparison guide


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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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