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10 Things to Know BEFORE Visiting Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

10 Things to Know BEFORE Visiting Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is a small country, but plentiful in wildlife and outdoor adventures! This country is 118 times smaller than Australia, but within this landmass, it has 26 national parks, meaning you’re bound to see many incredible things within each – including Minneriya National Park. 

We took this safari through Minneriya National Park in hopes of catching a glimpse of its large elephant population. I could not wait to see herds of elephants in the wild – and it did not disappoint! We saw hundreds of elephants, as well as other animals like monkeys and mongoose in their natural habitat. 

If you only have time to see one national park while visiting Sri Lanka, I’d put Minneriya high on your list! We put together this blog covering everything you need to know before visiting Minneriya National Park so you can have an epic experience, just like us!

Don’t have time to read the full article? The only way to enter Minneriya National Park (and see all the wildlife) is to book a safari. It’s easiest to visit the park on this all-inclusive safari. That way you don’t have to worry about extra fees for park entrance or anything else – you can just enjoy seeing the elephants!

1. About Minneriya National Park

A herd of wild elephants passes in front of our jeep at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
There are wild elephants everywhere!
15 elephants pass our jeep towards the river at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Passing right in front of us!

Minneriya National Park is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, especially if you’re a wildlife lover. It is situated in the Northern Central Province, just about directly in the middle of the country. This park is home to some of the most beautiful lush jungle paradise you could imagine, which also brings all sorts of exotic jungle animals! Minneriya sits right along an elephant migration route, so naturally, this is the biggest draw for visiting. 

This national park is known worldwide for having the densest Asian elephant population. As you probably know, elephants drink a lot of water, and it can be hard to find a reliable water source during the dry season from July to October. The climate at Minneriya is suitable to host elephants, spotted deer, peacocks, monkeys, and more. Elephants know of this reliable climate, and it has become a stopover and sometimes a residence for elephants as they make their way through this region. 

The Minneriya tank is a man-made lake that has become an essential water source for all of these wild animals. If you visit around sunset, you’ll see what locals call “The Gathering” as over 300 elephants congregate around the watering hole! They graze on the lush grass and take advantage of the cool water to bathe and drink. It was incredible to see such a large number of elephants in their natural habitat! 

Minneriya is also rather easy to access, as it is only 20 minutes from Sigiriya! Many tours will make a day out of visiting both, which is exactly what we did. Sigiriya and Minneriya National Park are both iconic Sri Lanka sights, making for an incredible day trip.

Minneriya was originally established as an elephant sanctuary in 1938 but became an official national park in 1997. To visit the park you have to book a safari, and honestly, I think it makes the experience worthwhile. You’ll be in an open jeep so you can see all around, our guide even let us stand up as we went bumping down the dirt road – I felt like Indiana Jones! We had a great tour guide who could spot animals from a mile away and knew just the right areas to see elephants. 

2. Where is Minneriya National Park? 

A farm on the side of tthe road on the way to Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
The drive to Minneriya is so pretty!

Minneriya National Park is located almost exactly in the middle of the country, in the north/central region. It is 185 kilometers (115 miles) from Colombo, which is about a 4-hour drive. While it is certainly doable to visit Minneriya on a day trip from Colombo, it will make for a very long day. 

We took a day trip from Kandy, which is one of the more popular options. It is 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Kandy, about a 2.5-hour drive. There are a lot of cool things to explore between Minneriya and Kandy, so many tours will make it a whole day experience and you end up seeing a lot more!

3. When is the best time to visit Minneriya National Park?

Watching a rain storm come over Minneriya reservoir Sri Lanka
We got lucky and missed the rain.

Minneriya National Park is located in the “dry region”, so its weather patterns are a little different than other places. The best time of year to visit Minneriya is from May to September, which is when you’ll find less rain and more elephants! The elephants migrate to Minneriya during the dry season to take advantage of its rich water source. 

The wet season is from October to January, and while you will likely still see some elephants, it won’t be as many and you are likely to get caught in a rainstorm. The jeeps that many safaris use are all open-air, so if it starts raining you’ll either get soaking wet or have to put the top back on and won’t be able to see any animals. 

Most jeep safaris take off in the afternoon, which will let you catch the elephants during “The Gathering” just before sunset. This is the best time of day to visit, plus it’s a little cooler than in the heat of the day!

Related Read: If you’re looking to add a beach getaway to your itinerary, you’ll find lots of attractions in Mirissa, Sri Lanka.

4. How much is the entrance fee to Minneriya National Park? 

Wild elephants roam across a field at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
They like this spot a lot!

Many of the tours don’t include entrance fees to the national park, so you will need some cash on hand to pay on the day of your tour. It is around $13 USD to enter the park and can be paid in local Sri Lankan Rupees. 

Keep in mind that some of the tours don’t include the jeep safari fee in the tour price, so be sure to check with your tour operator before leaving for the day! The jeep safari costs vary on the size of the group, so you could opt for a private jeep or a shared jeep. We shared our safari with two other people and really enjoyed having someone to share the experience with. It was an additional $60 USD per person, and we could pay in cash before heading out on the safari.

While we ended up paying additional for entrance to the national park and the jeep safari fee on the day of the tour, you can choose to book more inclusive tours from the get-go, or just be prepared for a few extra expenses along the way. All in all, it was worth it as the safari was such a fun experience!

5. Where can you visit Minneriya National Park from? 

The inside of our private car as our guide drives us to Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
On our way!

Sigiriya/Dambulla

Sigiriya and Dambulla are two must-see places when traveling through Sri Lanka! Sigiriya is a small town and shares its name with the famous giant rock/ancient civilization ruins. Climbing to the top of Sigiriya Rock gives incredible sweeping views of the valley below and was one of my favorite places we visited in Sri Lanka! You can stay in Sigiriya, which is only 20 minutes from Minneriya. 

Dambulla is another quaint town, 30 minutes from Minneriya National Park and 10 minutes from Sigiriya. You can stay the night in Dambulla to make visiting Sigiriya and Minneriya easier, and you can also visit the Dambulla Caves! This is an ancient Buddhist temple inside a system of caves, dating back to the first century BC. 

Many tours include stops at both Sigiriya and Dambulla, but if you have more time to spend, I highly recommend staying here and exploring this area. 

Kandy

Kandy is the second-largest city in Sri Lanka and only 2.5 hours from Minneriya National Park. Many people visit Kandy to see the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha, the Royal Botanical Gardens, or take the iconic train ride from Kandy to Ella. But it is also the perfect launch point for a day trip from Minneriya! We went with this option and found it to be the perfect fit for our Sri Lanka itinerary. 

Most tours will leave from Kandy and include stops at Sigiriya and Dambulla, making it a full day but the best way to explore the area if you’re short on time. 

Habarana

Habarana is the closest town to Minneriya, only a 7-minute drive from the park’s entrance! The main draw of visiting Habarana is the proximity to Minneriya National Park and there are a handful of hotels you can stay at, but there isn’t quite as much to do here as Sigiriya, Dambulla, or Kandy. Many tours to Minneriya will include pickup from Habarana, so it’s definitely a convenient place to stay!

Colombo

Colombo is Sri Lanka’s central hub of activity and often travelers’ starting point. Minneriya National Park is about 4 hours from Colombo, and while it will make for a long day trip, it’s certainly doable! There are a ton of day trips out of Colombo, including this one to Minneriya National Park, and lots of unique stops along the way. As we like to say “it’s about the journey, not the destination”, right? 

While the best tours to Minneriya are based out of closer locations like those listed above, you can take this full-day tour out of Colombo if you’re short on time! It includes roundtrip transportation from Colombo, a stop at Sigiriya, and then a safari at Minneriya. This would be my pick if you only had a few days in Colombo and are keen on seeing some epic wildlife!

Related Read: If you’re staying in Colombo, be sure to see our guide to all the best tours of the city!

6. What are the best tours to Minneriya National Park?

Minneriya National Park Elephant Jeep Safari

Our guide pointing out a juvenile elephant nearby
A young elephant was checking us out.
Enjoying the sunset from our jeep at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
The park is huge!

If you’re spending a few days in the Sigiriya area, this half-day tour to Minneriya National Park is the perfect way to spend an afternoon! We appreciate that this tour focuses solely on Minneriya, so you can dive into exploring the national park, enjoy seeing wild elephants, and have a super fun safari for a few hours. Staying near Sigiriya makes visiting Minneriya convenient, so if you don’t have a full day to dedicate to a tour, this one still leaves the morning free for exploring on your own.

This private tour can fit up to 5 people, making it a perfect family activity! Your tour guide will pick you up from your hotel in Sigiriya, Dambulla, or Habarana and hit Minneriya National Park. You’ll spend 4 hours driving around the park in a 4×4 jeep with the top down, which is almost the most thrilling part of the tour! This lets you stand up and get an unobstructed view of the animals. 

I was impressed by how well our tour guide could spot animals hidden in the bushes and trees. We saw monkeys, lemurs, a snake, a mongoose, and of course – elephants! This tour is unique because it has a 50% refund policy if you don’t see any elephants, which is always a possibility, especially if you’re visiting in the wet season. 

This tour also has the option to visit Kaudulla National Park or Hurulu Eco Park instead of Minneriya, as the elephants often migrate to these parks depending on the weather. Visiting Minneriya on this tour is $33 USD each for a group of 2, and the price per person decreases for larger groups. It includes transportation, hotel pick up, and your guide, but you will have to pay $13 USD to enter the national park. 

Minneriya National Park Private Jeep Safari 

The jeep you ride in when doing a tour of Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Your private ride
A herd of elephants cross a river at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Elephants taking an evening stroll

One of the main reasons we love booking tours through Viator is that it makes a day of adventure seamless, and this tour is no exception! This private 4-hour tour is a great way to see Minneriya National Park in just a few hours. It is ideal for those on a tight timeline with the sole focus of seeing Minneriya’s huge elephant population!

This private tour will pick you up from your hotel in Habarana, Sigiriya, Dambulla, or Polonnaruwa. You’ll spend three hours driving through Minneriya National Park, searching for animals in the dense jungle, and eventually come to the large open plains where “The Gathering” takes place. To catch the most elephants gathering at the watering hole, I recommend booking an afternoon tour!

This private half-day tour includes your jeep safari and local guide but does not include entrance fees. It is $100 USD for a group of 2, which is the maximum size you can book.

Related Read: If you’re planning a special trip for 2, you might want to know more about the most romantic hotels in Sri Lanka.

All-Inclusive Private Safari in Minneriya National Park

Elephants coming within 200 feet of our jeep in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
So many babies!

We love this private safari of Minneriya National Park because it is all-inclusive, so you won’t have any surprise expenses throughout your day! Many of the tours don’t include entrance fees or will vary in price for the jeep safari, so having all payments taken care of ahead of time simply makes your safari stress-free and fun – which is exactly what a safari should be!

This private tour can accommodate groups of up to 6 and includes pickup from your hotel in Sigiriya, Dambulla, or Habarana. You’ll hop aboard a 4-wheel drive jeep and head into the park to spend the next few hours in search of wildlife! The local guide is not only your driver, but also an experienced tracker and is great at finding unique birds, reptiles, and mammals that live in the national park.  

Since this tour takes off in the afternoon, you’ll hit “The Gathering” spot just in time to see multiple herds of elephants as they snack on grass and play in the water! Even though there are often other jeeps around, the guides are good about turning off the engines so you can sit in the quiet and just watch these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. It’s pretty incredible! 

This is my top pick for a half-day safari to Minneriya National Park! You don’t have to worry about anything other than watching the wildlife. This tour includes all entrance fees and additional expenses, a fresh fruit snack, water, transportation from your hotel, and the jeep safari! Prices vary depending on your pick-up location, but it starts at $97 USD per person. 

Minneriya National Park Half-Day Safari 

Two other members of our tour laughing at a joke our guide made in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Our guide was making everyone laugh.

This half-day Minneriya National Park safari is another great way to see tons of Asian elephants in the wild! We like this tour because it is private, so just your group and local guide.

You’ll spend 4 hours driving around the national park in a 4×4 jeep, led by your local guide/expert animal tracker! This is a great chance to see elephants, buffalo, monkeys, and a wide variety of birds.

There are departure times roughly every hour or so, making this one of the most flexible tours available. Taking an afternoon tour is the best time to see elephants at the water, but you should be able to see them during the morning tours as well. We were very impressed by how close the drivers could get to the elephants, and they didn’t seem to mind, so we just sat and watched them for a while – it was certainly a memorable experience! 

This tour includes hotel pickup from surrounding areas but does not include entrance to the park or lunch, so bring extra cash and snacks. The price of the tour varies on the number of people you have. With 2 people, it’s $72 USD or with 6 people, it is $150 USD for the group (plus park entrance fees). 

Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Minneriya National Park Private Tour from Kandy 

The path leading to Sigiriya rock Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock is huge!
A large sleeping golden Buddah in the Dambulla Caves Sri Lanka
The cave temple of Dambulla

If you’re staying in Kandy, you can spend a full day exploring Minneriya National Park, Sigiriya, and Dambulla with this full-day tour! Minneriya is 2.5 hours from Kandy, but making stops at these iconic locations along the way breaks up the drive and lets you see some of the best sights of Sri Lanka all in one day. 

This private tour will pick you up from your hotel in Kandy and head north towards Dambulla. You’ll make a few short stops along the way but quickly reach Dambulla Cave Temple. You’ll have to climb 300 steps to reach this Buddhist temple that dates back hundreds of years, but once you do you’ll be in awe of the ornate Buddha statues and intricate cave paintings. This is the most impressive temple we visited in Sri Lanka, and it’s even more amazing to realize that the caves were carved by hand!

You will have to pay to enter the Dambulla Cave Temple, which is about $5 USD per person, and you must cover your knees and shoulders. We wore a t-shirt and tied a sarong on to enter without any issues. You can rent a sarong at the top, so don’t fall for scammers telling you to purchase one on the way up! You’ll have an hour to explore here before heading to Sigiriya. 

Sigiriya Rock is about 30 minutes down the road, and you will have to pay $30 USD to enter – but it’s worth it! Visiting Sigiriya was one of my favorite parts of Sri Lanka, as the rock itself is incredibly large, and it’s mind-blowing that there are ancient ruins built on top! You can climb 180 meters (590 feet) up to the top of the rock to see the ruined palace and unbelievable views of the valley below. It’s a bit of a workout and often pretty hot here, so be sure to bring water! 

After a few hours at Sigiriya, you’ll stop for lunch (at your own expense) before heading to Minneriya! You’ll embark on a 3-hour safari, searching out elephants and all sorts of other animals. It is the cherry on top of a jam-packed day of sightseeing!

I love that this tour includes so many other iconic Sri Lankan sights, so it really makes the most out of your day. Your guide and transportation are included in the tour price of $40 USD per person, but you do have quite a few extra expenses because of the entrance fees and lunch.

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Lowest price guarantee – If you happen to find the same tour at a lower price elsewhere, Viator will refund you the price difference.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here! Or, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

7. Do you need to book a tour in advance? 

If you’re visiting during the dry season (May to September), I highly recommend booking a tour in advance! This is the best time to see elephants in Minneriya National Park, so tours are likely to fill up quicker. Even if it isn’t peak dry season, you’ll likely still see elephants, and hopefully catch fewer tourists! I would book a tour at least a few days in advance to ensure your spot during the rest of the year. 

8. What wildlife can you see in Minneriya National Park? 

A group of lemurs siting in a tree at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
We got lucky and saw some lemurs!
Elephants walking towards a river in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Wild elephants graze here every day.

Obviously, elephants are the main attraction in Minneriya National Park! Getting the chance to see nearly 300 elephants at one time is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you have to take advantage of while in Sri Lanka. Minneriya also has over 150 species of birds, so if you are big into bird watching, this is a great place to do it!

We saw a lot of mongoose, peacocks, and water buffalo during our safari, as well as monkeys, lemurs, and land monitors (a dinosaur-looking reptile). It is rare to spot a leopard (although they are there!) but if you truly want to see one of these spotted beauties you’ll have to head to Yala National Park in the south. 

There is a ton of wildlife in the national park and what makes a safari in Minneriya so unique is that you can explore their natural habitat. When the guides turn off the jeep, you can sit quietly and see them roaming around, eating, and simply existing – it’s pretty remarkable!

9. What should I bring when visiting Minneriya National Park?

Elephants eating at a bush in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
They loved this bush.
Another member of our tour ducks ass wee drive our jeep under a low hanging branch in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Watch your head!

Sun protection

Be prepared to be outside most of the day when visiting Minneriya National Park. When you go on a safari, the tops of the jeeps are off so you can stand and see the animals better, but that also means you’ll be exposed to the sun for hours! It gets pretty hot and humid in this part of Sri Lanka, so you’ll want to wear sunscreen, a hat, or clothes to protect yourself from the sun. 

Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty

While you aren’t allowed to get out of the jeep, as the national park is a protected area, you will still get dirty! There is a lot of dust and dirt that gets kicked up during the safari, and it’s pretty warm so I got sweaty! Don’t wear your best white shirt, but wear something comfortable that can easily be washed. It doesn’t matter if you wear sandals or closed-toe shoes since you’ll be in the jeep the whole time. 

If you’re taking a tour that stops at the Dambulla Cave Temple or Sigiriya Rock, you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of walking at both of these places!

Water/snacks

Be sure to bring plenty of water because it’s warm and dusty in Minneriya National Park! I always like to pack a few snacks too, as even half-day tours can last 4-5 hours and don’t always have lunch or snacks included. 

Extra money

Even though you pay for your tour in advance, you’ll likely have extra expenses throughout the day unless you book an all-inclusive option like this tour. Double check with your tour operator and be sure to bring enough cash on the day of the tour. We ended up having to swing by an ATM because we didn’t have enough, so try and think ahead if possible!

10. Is visiting Minneriya National Park worth it? 

Our guide driving our jeep quickly down a road to find animals in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Racing down the trail to find animals!

Yes, visiting Minneriya National Park is completely worth it! The park itself is beautiful, but the real appeal is seeing so many elephants! I knew we’d likely see a lot of these majestic gray creatures, but I was blown away by the number that we actually got to see. We were able to turn off the jeep and sit and watch them for a long time, so it was a really special experience. 

I especially liked visiting Minneriya National Park because it was less crowded than other popular parks, such as Udawalawe or Yala National Parks. It allowed us to observe the elephants, birds, and other animals in a relaxed way and simply enjoy Sri Lanka’s natural beauty. 

Getting Around Sri Lanka

tuk tuk parked at the beach in mirissa sri lanka
We rented a tuk-tuk for our entire trip around Sri Lanka.
Watching sunsets in Sri Lanka from our tuk tuk
Tuk-tuk is a great way to get around Sri Lanka.

To visit all of the best places in Sri Lanka, you’re going to need a mode of transport. You have a few choices when it comes to getting around Sri Lanka:

Rent a Tuk-tuk

Easily the most popular (and most fun) way to travel around Sri Lanka. We actually rented a tuk-tuk on our trip and absolutely loved it! Tuk-tuks are easy to drive, cheap to rent, and the freedom that comes with your own wheels is unmatched.

If you do decide to rent a tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka, be sure to go with a reputable company that provides quality tuk-tuks, such as Tuktuk Rental (who we rented from.) These guys not only offer an amazing service, but their tuk-tuks are actually rented from local families, providing income for the local community.

If you decide to rent from Tuktuk Rental, be sure to use the coupon code ‘DEST‘ for 5% off!

For more info, read our blog: The Truth about Renting a Tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka.

Hire a Driver

If you’re only planning on going to a couple of destinations, then a private driver is not a bad idea. In the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, your driver can take you to your next destination. All you have to do is sit back and relax!

You can hire highly-rated drivers in advance to pick you up right from the airport when you arrive in Sri Lanka. This driver will take you to your hotel in Mirissa, Galle, Bentota, or Unawatuna. Whereas this driver will take you to Kandy.

Of course, every time you want to change destinations you will have to arrange for another driver (unless you book this driver who will drive you around for an entire week). Car transfer can easily be organized through your hotel.

Take Public Transport

This is a choice I only recommend for those on a very tight budget and with plenty of time. Public transport is everywhere in Sri Lanka in the form of public buses and trains. It is also very cheap, costing less than a couple of dollars per journey.

However, it isn’t the most comfortable way to travel. The buses don’t have air conditioning and neither do many train services. They can also be slow-moving, stopping every couple of minutes to pick up more passengers.

With that said, public transport is popular with budget backpackers, and it is mostly safe. This is one way to travel for those who want to get around as the locals do!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel eating roti in Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Thanks for reading!

I hope you enjoy your time at Minneriya National Park just as much as we did! Getting to see the wildlife, especially the elephants, is an amazing experience.

As you’re planning your trip, be sure to check out more of our Sri Lanka blogs for more info and tips about traveling around this beautiful country. And, if you’ve got more travel plans in the future, we’ve written guides to destinations all over the world. Take a look at one of the blogs below to get started.

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