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15 BEST Safaris in Sri Lanka + 5 BEST National Parks

15 BEST Safaris in Sri Lanka + 5 BEST National Parks

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We’ve had the opportunity to explore amazing national parks all over the world, and some of the most memorable are in Sri Lanka! When people think of this small island in the Indian Ocean, they usually don’t assume that it’s full of exotic animals, lush jungles, and stunning landscapes, but it is! 

After learning how beautiful and exciting this country is, taking a safari was high on our Sri Lanka bucket list. We were able to visit 5 of the 26 national parks in Sri Lanka while traveling by tuk-tuk, and through this journey, we saw the densest Asian elephant population in the world, the elusive leopards, and the rarest animal in the country, the sloth bear! 

As you plan your Sri Lanka itinerary, visiting at least one national park is a must! This country is small, so you can easily visit a few. Each national park is different, from the types of safaris available to the animals you’ll see, so we wanted to simplify your planning. This guide to the 15 best safaris in Sri Lanka and the 5 best national parks will answer all of your questions and help make your Sri Lanka experience just as epic as ours was!

Don’t have time to read the full article? The best safaris are found in:

  1. Yala National Park on this full-day safari that includes everything (including meals) and gets you to the park right when it opens to see the most animals
  2. Udawalawe National Park on this 3-hour safari where we saw a herd of elephants minutes after arriving!
  3. Minneriya National Park on this all-inclusive private safari in the afternoon/early evening which is the best time to see the elephants around the famous watering hole

Best Place to Safari in Sri Lanka

An elephant walks away from us in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka'
An elephant walks away from us in Udawalawe National Park
Two buffelo bath in mud inside Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
Two buffalo bath in mud inside Udawalawe National Park

If you’re looking to see a wide variety of epic wildlife, Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park are our top picks! Yala is known for leopards, which is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see that stealthy jungle cat in the wild. Udawalawe has so many elephants, and it is also the most conveniently located national park so you can visit it no matter what gorgeous corner of Sri Lanka you’re exploring. 

However, if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, I recommend checking out Maduru Oya National Park. While it’s a bit further out of the way, this is the best national park to have an authentic wildlife experience. They aren’t accustomed to humans, so you have a better chance of seeing something truly unique – like when we got chased by an elephant! Minneriya National Park also has the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the whole world, so that’s another good option!

Regardless of which national park in Sri Lanka you choose to go to, you’re in for gorgeous scenery, unique wildlife, and a memorable experience!

About Tours to National Parks in Sri Lanka

Elephants as seen from a safari in Sri Lanka
So cool!

Sri Lanka is an unexpectedly wild country. This island is full of lush jungles and has a tropical climate, as it is surrounded by the Indian Ocean. This brings about an array of wildlife that I had only dreamed of seeing up close! Luckily, taking a tour of a national park makes it easy to see leopards, elephants, peacocks, water buffalo, sloth bears, crocodiles, parrots, and so many other animals in their natural habitat – it’s pretty insane!

There are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, which is an impressive amount for such a small island. This simply means it’s easy for you to visit multiple parks while you’re here.

Why take a tour to visit a National Park?

Easier – Taking a tour is by far the easiest way to do it. Many of the national parks only let you in if you’re part of a tour. This is largely due to the vast amount of wildlife that has become rather accustomed to people. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk coming face-to-face with a wild leopard or elephant! 

Safer – These parks are heavily protected by regulations to preserve the environment. We were not allowed to get out of the jeeps on any safari we went on, simply because they didn’t want people to disrupt the animal’s home, which I can totally respect!

Local guides – The most valuable asset on these tours is the local guides. Sri Lankans are some of the kindest and hardest-working people I’ve ever met, and they will go above and beyond to make sure you have an incredible experience on a safari. Typically the safari guides have been doing this for years, so they know the parks and animal behavior like the back of their hands and can point out animals that are very hard to see.

Look for options without extra fees – Many tours are priced quite low, which looks enticing! These low-priced tours will require you to pay entrance fees and sometimes pay for the entire jeep safari and lunch on top of that. One of the tours we took cost an additional $200 USD on the day of the tour, which put a bit of a damper on our experience as it was an unexpected cost. My recommendation is to book an all-inclusive tour (like this one to Yala National Park, this private safari in Minneriya National Park, or this safari tour in Udawalawe National Park), so you don’t have to worry about extra fees. We will list any additional costs with each national park safari here, but it’s always good to double-check!

15 Best Safaris in Sri Lanka

Yala National Park 

Watching a baby elephant eat from a tree up close from our jeep in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
So many wild elephants!
A baby monkey sliding down a pole in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
This monkey tried to steal my lunch!

Yala National Park is possibly our favorite park in Sri Lanka, and it is certainly one of the more popular places to visit! Yala is located in the southwest corner of Sri Lanka. It is the second-largest park in the country and it borders the Indian Ocean as well as an expansive dense jungle. The park is broken up into 5 blocks, and only blocks 1 and 5 are accessible to the public for conservation efforts. 

People come to Yala to see the elusive leopard, as the park has one of the densest leopard populations in the world. The climate and protection that Yala National Park provides allow these endangered species to thrive, and while rangers don’t track the leopards individually, it is estimated that there are 100 leopards just in block 1! But you can also see a ton of other animals here, such as elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, water buffalo, land monitors lizards, and more peacocks than you can count! We took a full-day safari and saw an animal about every 10 minutes, if not more.

Because this is one of the best parks to spot leopards, it is very busy. Before the park opened there were probably 20-30 jeeps lined up at the park entrance, and as soon as the gates opened it was like the grand prix. All of the jeeps were zooming through the park, trying to beat the crowd to see the first epic animal. Eventually, the crowds thinned out, but if there is something really cool to see, there will be at least 5-10 other jeeps right there too. 

To reach Yala National Park block 1, most tours will leave from Tissamaharama, and there are a ton of great hotel options in this area. Entrance to Yala is about $45 USD per person after taxes and other fees, and you’ll need local Sri Lankan Rupees to pay in cash the day of if it’s not already included in your tour. 

1. Full-day Safari in Yala National Park

A young elephant eating and watching us as we watch in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
This elephant is pregnant!
  • Price: $99 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Tissamaharama or surrounding areas
  • Duration: 12-14 hours

A full-day safari is certainly a long day, but it gives you so much time to spot animals! The best time to see all the wildlife is early in the morning, so this tour takes off at 4-5 am depending on your hotel location. While that’s early, it’s worth it to see the sunrise over the landscape of Yala National Park! 

We love this tour because everything is included, you won’t have any additional expenses throughout your day! The tour guide picks you up from your hotel bright and early, and you get to Yala just in time for the park’s gates to open at 6 am. The next 6 hours will be spent in the jeep, driving around and spotting all sorts of wildlife. The tour guides do an excellent job of getting away from the crowds and if you find animals, they will stop and turn off the jeep so you can sit and watch for as long as you want! 

Yala closes from 12 pm until 2 pm every day, so all the jeeps head out of the park to a designated lunch spot at that time. It was nice having a break because you’re in the jeep for a long time! This tour includes breakfast and lunch, as well as water and snacks.

After lunch, you’ll hop in the jeep for another 3-4 hours, and you can usually spot some big-ticket animals in the afternoon too. Plus, we saw different animals in the afternoon than in the morning, so we thought doing the full day was worth it!

This is one of the best safari tours of Yala National Park because it includes everything and is a small group (just 4 people). The tour costs $99 USD per person, but you don’t have any extra expenses pop up throughout the day, which is nice! 

2. Leopard Safari Tour in Yala National Park

A leopard walks past a jeep in Yala National Park
A leopard walks past a jeep in Yala National Park
  • Price: $29 – $80 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: No
  • Leaves from: Tissamaharama, Kataragama, and surrounding areas
  • Duration: 4 to 14 hours

This leopard safari in Yala National Park is a great customizable tour option! The prime time to spot animals is in the golden hours, either early in the morning or shortly before the sun goes down. So if you don’t want to commit to an entire day experience, this tour has a half-day option for 4 hours, departing at 5:30 am or 2 pm. This is a great option if you’re short on time but still want to experience Yala National Park, as you’re sure to see some unique animals at dawn or dusk!

However, we loved the full-day tour because it gave us 12 hours to spot animals. When else do you get to have this experience? There is also a 7-hour tour option, which is a good balance because you can hit the morning golden hour and some of the afternoon, and get back to your hotel without having to be out for a full day. Hotel pickup and drop-off are included with all of the options.

This tour makes an effort to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds to see as many animals as possible. The “big 3” animals they strive to find are elephants, leopards, and the sloth bear (the rarest animal in the park). We were very happy that we got to see all three!

This tour includes hotel pick up, your jeep safari, and the amazing guide, but does not include entrance to the park, lunch, or breakfast. You can include meals for an additional cost, which I highly recommend if you’re taking the 7 or 12-hour tour option – that’s what we did because it’s much easier than arranging a meal on your own. The 4-hour tour is $29 USD per person, the 7-hour tour is $38 USD per person, and the full-day tour is $80 USD each for 2 people. Prices decrease per person for larger groups.

3. Private Safari at Yala National Park 

Watching an elephant eat from a tree from our jeep in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
They came so close!
Two adult elephants walking through the jungle in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
So cute!
  • Price: $94 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Tissamaharama, Kataragama, and surrounding areas
  • Duration: 7 hours

This private morning safari at Yala National Park is the ideal time to spot wildlife! The best part is that it’s a private tour and can accommodate up to 6 people. Many of these tours will have you share a jeep with other travelers, and while it’s always fun making friends, this private tour is a great option if you have a bigger group. Plus, you won’t have to make additional stops to pick people up in the morning.

You’ll have 7 hours to explore the park, which will give you time to see a plethora of wildlife! Your tour guide will do their best to find the unique animals, but you’ll definitely see peacocks, water buffalo, warthogs, and land monitors, as these animals are plentiful in Yala National Park. This tour also provides breakfast, water, and all entrance fees, so you can simply show up and enjoy the safari. 

We also love this tour because it starts so early, so you’ll be back to your hotel by the afternoon and can plan another activity, or take a nap! Tour prices vary depending on the size of your group. For example, it’s $94 USD per person for 2 people and $84 USD per person for 4 people.

4. All-Inclusive Private Half-Day Safari at Yala National Park 

Our view from the back of the jeep as we drive down a dirt road in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
The jeeps are super comfortable.
An elephant mother opens her ears as a warning for people not to get close to her family in Yala National Park Sri Lanka
Seeing a family of wild elephants was so cool!
  • Price: $95 – $208 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Colombo, Negombo, or towns surrounding Yala. 
  • Duration: 14 – 16 hours

Just because you’re staying a bit further away doesn’t mean you can’t experience Yala National Park! This private, full-day tour will offer transportation all the way from Colombo or Negombo, or if you’re staying closer to Yala, it’s still a good option! 

It offers the perks of a full-day tour and is private, so you can experience Yala National Park with just your group and the driver. Colombo is about 4.5 hours from Yala’s block 1, so while this will make for a very long day, it will be a great way to see Yala if you’re short on time. The tour will take off in the morning and arrive in Yala National Park to hit the afternoon safari from 2-6 pm, then make the journey back to the Colombo area. 

To break up the drive, you’ll stop at the Sithulpawwa Royal Temple, which is an ancient Buddhist monastery that sits at the top of a hill, giving sweeping views of Yala National Park below. This temple dates back to the 2nd century BC, and it’s impressive to see how beautiful the architecture is, especially when you consider its age!

This tour includes roundtrip transportation, entrance fees to Yala National Park, and your guide. It does not include meals or entrance to the Sithulpawwa Temple, so bring extra cash for both! The price of the tour depends on your pickup location and the number of people in your group. For 2 people, it is $95 USD per person from cities surrounding Yala (Tissamaharama, Kataragama, etc.), $160 USD per person from Hambantota Harbour, and $208 USD per person from Colombo or Negombo.

5. 3-Day Luxury Glamping in Yala National Park 

Beyond Escapes Glamping in Yala National Park
Photo credit: Beyond Escapes Glamping in Yala National Park
  • Price: $955 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Colombo, Negombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Polonnaruwa, and southwest beach hotels. 
  • Duration: 3 days

Why just visit Yala National Park on a day trip when you can spend 3 days here? This 3-day luxury glamping experience gives you the chance to get up close and personal with Yala as you take multiple safaris, sleep amongst the animals, and try out luxury camping! If you have room in your budget, this is a total Sri Lanka bucket-list experience!

This tour offers hotel pickup from nearly all major locations in Sri Lanka, so you can expect up to a 5-hour journey to reach the national park. Over the next three days, you will take three safaris, two in Yala National Park and one in Bundala National Park. The safaris will take off at different times every day so you can see a variety of animals. There is also a morning hike to Nimalawa with breakfast by the lake!

However, the highlight might be staying at the Leopard’s Nest. This will set the camping bar high with luxury tents (these are more like cabins) and all-inclusive meals with alcoholic beverages, campfires, and dining under the stars! It is located just outside of Yala National Park, so you will be able to get up and go into the park easily for your morning safaris. 

This tour truly is all-inclusive, as everything is taken care of for your 3-day adventure! Transportation, meals, entrance fees, safari costs, and your guides are all included. And while it is a bit of a bigger budget item, we think it’s such a unique experience that it’s totally worth it. The price is $955 USD each for 2 people and drops for larger groups.

Related Read: For more unforgettable stays, see our guide to the most romantic hotels in Sri Lanka.

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.

Udawalawe National Park 

A male elephant near our jeep inside Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
So cute!
Bailey looks out of a jeep in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
On the lookout for elephants!

Udawalawe National Park is the third most-visited park in Sri Lanka. It is only 157 kilometers (98 miles) from Colombo and 133 kilometers (82 miles) from Galle, making it one of the most accessible parks in the country, and it is a fantastic place to see wild elephants!

It is located in the south-central region and was established as a sanctuary for animals that were displaced from building the Udawalawe Reservoir. The reservoir now lies within the bounds of the national park and is the reason that all the elephants flock here!

Udawalawe is one of the smaller national parks, so all of the wildlife that you might see is condensed into a smaller area, making it pretty much guaranteed you’ll see some unique wildlife. We saw so many wild elephants here it almost became normal! Since it is the third most visited park, and one of the smallest, it can certainly get crowded. Regardless, we thought visiting Udawalawe was completely worth it!

Along with wild elephants, you can potentially see leopards and sloth bears, although these are both pretty rare! More plentiful, however, are deer, wild boar, water buffalo, crocodiles, snakes, and tons of species of birds. You can also visit the Elephant Transit Home, which is an elephant orphanage for baby elephants that have been abandoned by their mothers. There is little human interaction so they can eventually be integrated back into the wild, but it’s so cool to see baby elephants here!

Entrance to Udawalawe National Park is $45 USD per person including all fees and taxes, and it gets cheaper the more people that are in your group. You can also stay the night in Udawalawe for an additional $50 USD per person. 

6. Udawalawe National Park (Entrance and Safari Included)

Large male elephant in Udawalawe National Park
  • Price: $60 – $80 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Main entrance of Udawalawe National Park
  • Duration: 3 hours

This 3-hour tour of Udawalawe National Park is a fantastic way to see elephants! This tour has the option to book a jeep safari and entrance tickets or just the ticket only. We strongly suggest you book the safari with the entrance tickets because it ends up saving you money and avoids the hassle of trying to secure a safari once you arrive at the park. 

Without reserving the safari in advance, there is a potential that no guides will be available when you arrive at the park. So take the guesswork out of it, and simply book your tour ahead of time! This tour can be booked from 6-9 am or 3-6 pm. The peak time to see animals is at dawn or dusk, so either option should be good for spotting wildlife! We took the morning safari because people say you can see a bit more activity then, and there certainly wasn’t a shortage of wildlife at that time!

Over the three hours, you’ll drive all over Udawalawe and spot all sorts of elephants, birds, crocodiles, lizards, and more. We saw a herd of elephants within minutes of entering the park – it was truly an incredible experience!

Keep in mind that this tour does not include transportation, so you will need to arrange transportation to the main entrance of Udawalawe National Park to meet the tour. Price varies by group size, and it’s $80 USD per person for 2 people and cheapest at $60 USD each for 6 people.

7. Udawalawe National Park Safari with Transfers from Colombo 

Large male elephant inside Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
A large male elephant!
A buffalo inside Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
A buffalo!
  • Price: $150 – $175 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Colombo
  • Duration: 12 – 14 hours

This full-day tour is perfect if you’re short on time but dying to see some wildlife! Departing from Colombo, you can get to Udawalawe National Park in 4 hours. This will leave time to visit the Elephant Transit Home and take a 3-hour safari before driving back to the city. If you’re only in Sri Lanka for a few days, Udawalawe is the closest national park to Colombo, so it’s the best way to take a safari while staying in the city!

The driver will pick you up from your Colombo-based hotel at 6 am and transport you to Udawalawe. Luckily, this is a gorgeous route, so you can catch amazing views the whole way! Once you reach the town of Udawalawe, you can visit the Elephant Transit Home, which is the elephant orphanage. It is a unique opportunity to see so many baby elephants in one place – we really enjoyed this part.

Afterward, we went to Udawalawe National Park and met up with our safari driver, who took us on a 3-hour excursion through the park. We thought 3 hours was a good amount of time to see the park, and all the animals, and have a fun afternoon exploring. The jeeps are designed with the top open so you can stand up as you drive down the bumpy dirt road in the park, it almost feels like a Jurassic Park movie! The tour ends by transporting you back to Colombo. 

The tour costs $175 USD per person for 2 to 4 people and $150 USD each for 5 to 15 people. This price includes the jeep safari and transportation from Colombo. However, for us it didn’t include entrance to the elephant orphanage, entrance to Udawalawe, or meals, so bring cash and snacks! 

8. Udawalawe National Park Safari trip from Galle/Mirissa/Ella 

An elephant walks away from safari jeeps in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
The elephants sometimes try to avoid the jeeps!
  • Price: $190 – $200 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Galle, Mirissa, or Ella
  • Duration: 10 – 12 hours

Galle, Mirissa, and Ella are some of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka. Udawalawe National Park just so happens to be right in the middle of all of these towns, and can be reached in about 2-3 hours from each of them! While we really enjoyed staying for a few nights in Udawalawe town, this tour makes it easy to tag a Udawalawe National Park tour onto your itinerary no matter where you’re staying.

This private tour starts with an early morning pick-up from your hotel in any of these three major cities. Then you get to take a 4-hour safari through the park, spotting exotic plant life and animals, including elephants, crocodiles, and a huge variety of birds. You can choose to add in a stop at the elephant orphanage as well, just let your tour provider know before you leave for the day so they can schedule accordingly (and find out how much cash to bring to pay the entrance fee). This tour doesn’t include lunch, but there will be a break where you can stop and eat throughout the day. 

This is a well-organized tour, with friendly guides who are a wealth of information about the animals you’ll be seeing! For 2 people, you can book this tour from Galle for $200 USD per person, from Mirissa for $190 USD per person, or from Ella for $200 USD per person. Prices decrease for larger groups. It is a private tour, so you have the freedom to move at your own pace and tailor your experience!

Related Read: If you’re staying in Ella, consider taking a day trip to Haputale, a beautiful small town located nearby!

9. Udawalawe National Park 4-Hour Safari Tour 

Jeeps get close to an elephant inside Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
This was the largest elephant we saw!
  • Price: $77 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Udawalawe Town or the main entrance of Udawalawe National Park 
  • Duration: 4 hours

Spend a morning or afternoon exploring Udawalawe National Park on this 4-hour safari tour! We love how convenient this tour makes visiting Udawalawe, as it includes all entrance and safari fees, picks you up from your hotel, and provides snacks. And while full-day tours are great, sometimes a half-day tour is nice so you have time for other activities throughout your day.

You can choose to take a morning or afternoon tour. The morning tours get to the park by 6 am, when it opens, so you can spend 4 hours racing around to see elephants and other animals. This is definitely the most popular time to go, so be prepared to see lots of jeeps out here as well. The afternoon tour reaches the park by 2 pm, so you have a full 4 hours to explore before it closes at 6 pm. Both times are ideal for seeing wildlife, as they are most active during the “golden hours.”

This is a private tour and can accommodate up to 6 travelers, so it’s the perfect family activity or if you’re traveling with a group of friends. You can book this tour for $77 USD per person for 2 people, and the price decreases for larger groups. 

Minneriya National Park 

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

Minneriya National Park is another epic location to spot wild elephants! It actually might even be better than Udawalawe because it’s far less crowded. Minneriya National Park is located in the north-central region of Sri Lanka and is in the “dry zone”. Most people will visit Minneriya from Kandy, which is 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a 2.5-hour drive. It is also often paired with a trip to Sigiriya, which is 16 kilometers (10 miles), and a quick 20-minute drive to Minneriya.

Minneriya National Park is home to the densest Asian elephant population in the entire world! The park isn’t huge compared to others, so you can see a lot of animals concentrated in one region. The Minneriya Tank is a giant man-made lake that dates back to the 3rd century BC and has become an essential source of water for animals living in the dry region. Elephants flock here in the afternoon so reliably that people refer to this as “The Gathering” because all sorts of wildlife hang out around the watering hole. 

If you’re lucky, you might see as many as 300 elephants at one time! We loved Minneriya National Park because it felt much more laid back than the others we’d visited. I think there were only 5 other jeeps in the park when we visited, which is a drastic change from Udawalawe and Yala! We saw elephants, lemurs, mongoose, monkeys, peacocks, and a snake. There are also 150 species of birds in this park and leopards, although it’s pretty rare to find them!

Entrance fees to enter Minneriya National Park are around $45 USD, although it’s usually lumped together with the jeep safari tour prices, so it can vary depending on which tour you book.

When we visited, it was $60 USD per person for entrance to the park and the jeep safari. This was the price of sharing a jeep with two other travelers. If you want a private jeep, it is more expensive. The prices tend to fluctuate. If the tour doesn’t include admission fees, I’d double-check with your tour operator before the day of your tour so you’re well prepared. 

10. All-Inclusive Private Safari in Minneriya National Park

Enjoying the sunset from our jeep at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Off the beaten path
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!
  • Price: $97 – $121 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Kandalama, Habarana, Dambulla, and Sigiriya
  • Duration: 4 hours 

We love the sound of an all-inclusive private tour! This private safari in Minneriya National Park includes entrance fees to the park, the jeep safari, transportation from your hotel, and a snack along the way, so you truly don’t have to worry about any of the details of this excursion. We know from experience how stressful it is to realize you don’t have enough cash with you during a day trip, so all-inclusive is the way to go when you can!

This is an evening safari because, unlike the other national parks we’ve talked about, the evening is the best time to see elephants at Minneriya! The driver will pick you up from your hotel at 2 pm, and you’ll be in the park by 2:30 pm, driving through the jungle and seeing monkeys, peacocks, deer, and more. The jungle will open up to a sprawling open grassland area, where you’ll find the Minneriya Tank and undoubtedly see elephants! 

Our tour guide got as close as possible (while still keeping a respectful distance) and then turned off the jeep so we could simply sit and watch the elephants. We probably sat there for 30 minutes as they grazed, played in the water, and meandered around. It was so quiet and peaceful here, that it was a remarkable experience. Then, we drove up the road a little further, and found even more!

I could have stayed here all night, except the park closes at 6 pm so we had to get going. I appreciated how we were able to see a lot of animals in just a few hours, so it wasn’t nearly as exhausting as other full-day safaris we have been on!

If you want to see elephants in their natural habitat and take a thrilling jeep safari ride through a gorgeous national park, this is the way to do it! For 2 people, prices range from $97 USD to $121 USD per person depending on where you get picked up. The tour price decreases for larger groups.

11. Minneriya National Park Half-Day Safari

The jeep you ride in when doing a tour of Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
The jeeps are really comfortable.
Elephants eating at a bush in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
You will see so many wild elephants.
  • Price: $76 – $125 USD depending on group size
  • Entrance ticket included: No
  • Leaves from: Habarana or Minneriya
  • Duration: 4 – 5 hours

This half-day tour to Minneriya National Park is ideal if you’re traveling as a group. You can choose morning or afternoon departure, as it has very flexible start times. It will pick you up from your hotel in Habarana or Minneriya and transport you to the national park for a 4-hour safari. You’ll get to see herds of elephants, and maybe even crocodiles, buffalo, birds, deer, and monkeys!

This is a good group tour option, as the price gets lower the more people you have, up to 5. The safari is $125 USD for 5 people, so about $25 USD per person, or $76 USD for 2 people, so about $36 USD per person. I don’t recommend booking this tour if you’re a solo traveler, as it’s equipped for a group tour. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include admission to the national park, so you’ll have to pay approximately $45 USD on top of your per-person tour price.

This all gets a little tricky, so be sure to confirm prices with your tour operator before you depart so you can bring the correct amount of cash! But, if you are traveling as a group, this is a great way to see some epic Sri Lankan wildlife at a better tour price!

12. Day Tour to Sigiriya, Dambulla, & Minneriya National Park 

The path leading to Sigiriya rock Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock
A herd of wild elephants passes in front of our jeep at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka
Wild elephants everywhere!
  • Price: $118 USD for a group of 3
  • Entrance ticket included: No
  • Leaves from: Colombo, Negombo, and Kandy
  • Duration: 12 – 14 hours

Minneriya National Park is conveniently close to two other iconic Sri Lanka locations: Sigiriya and Dambulla. Many tours include stops at these two locations in addition to Minneriya National Park, so if you’re looking for a full-day experience, we’ve got you covered! This full-day tour will take you to all three epic locations in one long, but memorable day trip. 

Sigiriya Rock is an impressive monolith that doubles as an ancient ruins site. Climbing to the top of Sigiriya is one of my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka! The rock is 180 meters (600 feet) tall and there are over 1,000 stairs that lead to the top. From the top, you get the most breathtaking views of the valley below and can also check out the ruins of the Sky Palace that once stood at the top of the rock – it’s pretty mind-blowing!

Dambulla is home to the Dambulla Cave Temples, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and just as impressively old and beautiful as Sigiriya! The caves are all hand-carved, and when you see them you will be blown away because they are so vast. Inside you’ll find 153 Buddha statues, (some of them are huge), along with ancient rock paintings that date back to the first century BC. There are another 300 steps to reach this cave temple, but it’s worth the climb, trust me!

Finally, after your two epic stops, you’ll head to Minneriya for an afternoon safari. This feels like a relaxing activity after climbing so many stairs, but it’s still super fun riding around in the jeep and spotting animals. The safari will last for about 3 hours, which is the perfect amount of time to explore the park and take in the elephant-filled sights. 

We love this tour because it takes you to some unique places, along with Minneriya National Park, and can accommodate travelers from all over. However, we don’t love how many extra fees are tacked on, so just be aware of it and bring enough money! You will need to pay for entrance to Minneriya National Park and the jeep safari (roughly $60 USD per person), entrance to Sigiriya ($30 USD per person), entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temple ($5 USD per person), and lunch.

The price for this tour is $118 USD for a group of up to 3 people. You’re essentially paying for the guide to drive you around and plan your itinerary, which is still a huge help to your day. I think this tour is worth it because it would be much more complicated to arrange on your own.

Related Read: Climbing Pidurangala Rock is more challenging than Sigiriya Rock, but the views are worth it!

Kaudulla National Park

Bailey look out of our jeep inside Kaudulla National Park
Bailey looking out of our jeep inside Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla National Park is Minneriya’s neighbor in the north-central region of Sri Lanka, so it shares a lot of the same characteristics. It is slightly smaller than Minneriya National Park. Kaudulla is 206 kilometers (128 miles) from Colombo and 121 kilometers (75 miles) from Kandy. You can also reach Kaudulla from Sigiriya and Dambulla in about 45-50 minutes. Its dry plains and dense jungle are home to a plethora of animals, such as elephants, leopards, sloth bears, deer, and even an albino axis deer! 

Kaudulla was part of the numerous irrigation tanks that were constructed around 300 AD when the Minneriya Tank was built. However, the Kaudulla Tank was abandoned and wasn’t completed until 1959! Today, the man-made lake has the same benefits as the Minneriya Tank and is an essential source of water for elephants as they migrate through the dry region. Around dawn and dusk, you can see “The Gathering” as hundreds of elephants (and other animals) congregate around the watering hole to take advantage of this rare water source in the dry zone.

If there aren’t many elephants in Minneriya National Park, they have moved to Kaudulla National Park, so tours often switch between the parks to ensure elephant sightings. One thing that we love about Kaudulla, is that it’s far less touristy than Yala, Udawalawe, or even Minneriya! But you can still see a ton of wildlife here, so it’s a fantastic way to have a relaxed day exploring Sri Lanka’s gorgeous outdoors. You can see epic wildlife all year round, but the best time of year to see elephants is the end of September and into October, as they are migrating at this time.

Entrance fees to Kuadulla are $45 USD, including all taxes and fees. However, most tours to Kauadulla include these entrance fees. Even if the tour has the option to pay entrance fees separately, I recommend booking the all-inclusive option so you don’t have to hassle with conversion rates or having enough cash on the day of your tour. 

13. Kaudulla National Park Shared Safari

People photograph an elephant in Kaudulla National Park
People photograph an elephant in Kaudulla National Park.
  • Price: $91 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Main entrance gates at Kaudulla National Park
  • Duration: 3 hours

Spend a morning or afternoon traversing the gorgeous Kaudulla National Park with this 3-hour jeep safari! This is a shared safari (up to 6 people), which we honestly prefer because it’s fun to share the experience with other travelers and it keeps the cost down. The tour will meet you at the main entrance gates of Kaudulla National Park, so you will need to arrange transportation here. 

You’ll likely see an array of birds, as this is a popular bird area, as well as deer, water buffalo, mongoose, and elephants – of course! I suggest booking an afternoon safari if your schedule allows it, as you’re more likely to see elephants at that time. But, with the large amount of elephants in this region, you have really good odds of seeing a few any time you visit. 

Morning tours depart at 6 am and afternoon safaris take off at 3 pm. When booking this tour, there is an option to book the jeep safari with entrance tickets, which is what we recommend! If you just book the safari, excluding entrance fees, you will have to pay that upon arrival, and the rates always seem to change, plus you’ll have to deal with cash and currency conversion rates – it’s just way easier to have it included in your tour.

The tour price varies depending on the size of your group. The price for 2 people is $91 USD per person for a safari with entrance tickets included and $33 USD per person for a safari without entrance tickets. Booking this half-day tour leaves time to check out the other notable attractions in the area, like Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Cave Temple, so make a day out of it all! 

14. Kaudulla National Park Safari | Jeep with Tickets 

Watching an elephant in Kaudulla National Park
Watching an elephant in Kaudulla National Park
Bailey poses for a photo with an elephant in the background on Safari
So cool!
  • Price: $79 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Main entrance gates at Kaudulla National Park
  • Duration: 3 hours

Here we have another epic safari through Kaudulla National Park, and this one takes off at 2:30 pm so you’ll arrive at the perfect time of day! The elephants gather around the Kaudulla Tank in the evening, so an afternoon tour is the best time to go. Around dusk, you’ll see “The Gathering,” where hundreds of elephants and other animals will join around the tank to take advantage of the water source. It’s certainly an incredible sight!

This private tour stands out amongst the rest because of the amazing tour guides. They are very communicative and organized (which isn’t always the case on tours), and made the whole experience more enjoyable. While it’s amazing to see the elephants, we learned a ton from our guide. As we sat and watched the elephants, he explained which were males or females, could tell us how old the babies were, and about their behaviors and lifestyle. So it made the experience even more amazing!

This tour includes pickup from the entrance gate (or if your hotel is within 5 kilometers/3 miles of the entrance), your entrance ticket, and your amazing guide as you drive around Kaudulla National Park for 3 hours! The tour price varies depending on your group size. For 2 people, the price is $79 USD per person, which is a great deal for having tickets to the park included!

Maduru Oya National Park

Herd of elephants in Maduru Oya National Park
Herd of elephants in Maduru Oya National Park

While some of these national parks are busy, Maduru Oya National Park is quite different! Due to its location on the eastern side of Sri Lanka and the far side of the Knuckles Mountain Range, Maduru Oya isn’t visited nearly as much as other parks, simply because it takes more effort to get here. Maduru Oya is 268 kilometers (167 miles) from Colombo (almost a 6-hour drive), 108 kilometers (67 miles) from Sigiriya (about 2.5 hours driving), or 151 kilometers (94 miles) from Kandy (almost 4 hours driving). So unless you have your own transportation, like renting a tuk-tuk, it’s not the easiest travel destination! 

This is what makes Maduru Oya National Park so special though! The wildlife here isn’t nearly as accustomed to humans, so you get an authentic wildlife experience (emphasis on the “wild”). This park doesn’t require a safari to visit, as most do, and there is even a highway (B502) that goes through the middle of the park so you can simply drive through it without having to pay entrance fees. To go further into the park (not just driving on the highway) an entrance fee of about $10 USD will be required. 

We had the shocking experience of driving through Maduru Oya National Park at dusk and saw so many wild elephants, and we even got charged by one! While it was a bit terrifying in the moment, we frequently think back to that encounter and laugh about how crazy it was!

Maduru Oya National Park is home to wild elephants, leopards, sloth bears, deer, pangolins, boar, buffalo, and tons of species of birds and reptiles. Because these animals don’t see people as often, you get the most authentic wildlife experience. Be sure to be respectful of their environment, give them adequate space, and keep yourself safe when getting this close to wild animals.

15. Afternoon Safari to Maduru Oya National Park

An elephant walks through a feild in Maduru Oya National Park in Sri Lanka
An elephant walks through a field in Maduru Oya National Park in Sri Lanka
  • Price: $100 USD per person
  • Entrance ticket included: Yes
  • Leaves from: Maha Oya
  • Duration: 5 hours

While you can explore Maduru Oya National Park on your own, taking a guided tour has some major advantages. We like this guided safari of Maduru Oya because it includes entrance fees to the park, transportation, and a guide that can give lots of information as you tour. 

The roads in Maduru Oya National Park are not nearly as well maintained as other parks, as this one doesn’t have the tourism industry that fuels the others. So having a guide is helpful as the roads are rather bumpy and you’ll want a sturdier 4×4 vehicle. Since this park has more wild and untamed animals, having a guide provides a level of comfort because they are familiar with the animal patterns and behaviors. 

While it isn’t unsafe to visit on your own, if you are at all wary about being in the animal’s territories, taking a tour negates all fears! You also can learn much more about the animals with a guide, which makes the experience all the more meaningful.

This tour is 5 hours and will pick you up from your hotel in Maha Oya, the closest town to the park. It takes off at 2 pm, as the afternoon/evening is the best time to see all the wildlife! This private tour is a fantastic way to dive into the beautiful landscape of Maduru Oya and is my top choice for getting off the beaten path when exploring Sri Lanka’s national parks. The price varies based on group size and is $100 USD per person for 2 people.

Related Read: After your safari, escape to the beachy paradise of Canggu, Bali, or see the jungles and waterfalls in Ubud, Bali!

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!

bailey looks at en elephant in Maduru Oya National Park, Sri Lanka
Thanks for reading!

Visiting at least one of the national parks and taking a safari to see wildlife should absolutely be on your Sri Lanka bucket list. Hopefully, our experiences have helped you pick the parks and the safaris that are just right for you!

If this guide was useful, be sure to check out more of our blogs about Sri Lanka as you plan your travels. Get started by reading one of the related blogs below:

Lipton’s Seat, Sri Lanka – Know Before You Go!

10 BEST Beaches in Sri Lanka – ULTIMATE Sri Lanka Beach Holiday Guide

17 Awesome Things to do in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka