World renowned for leopard sightings, visiting Yala National Park is the best place in Sri Lanka to see a diverse number of species in their natural habitat. An absolute must on any visitor’s ultimate Sri Lankan itinerary. Yala National Park will have you spotting Asian elephants, spotted deer, crocodiles and bird species galore.
To ensure you see as many animals as possible, give yourself time to take a morning and afternoon safari.
Here’s everything you need to know before visiting Yala National Park.
Yala National Park Travel Guide
About Yala National Park
The most popular park in Sri Lanka, Yala National Park at a size of 980 square kilometers is visited over 650,000 times a year. Yala consists of 5 different blocks, of which only block 4 is closed to the public to ensure the park animals and landscapes are protected from overtourism. The park runs from the inland jungle to the golden coastline of the Indian Ocean and features red earth, lakes and arid landscape vegetation. There are a total of 3 different entrances for visiting Yala National Park.
Where is Yala National Park?
Yala is situated on the Southeast corner of the island of Sri Lanka, and cradling the boundary of Uva and Southern Province. Yala National Park is about a 4 hour bus ride from Ella, or 6 hours from Galle Fort.
What kind of Animals are in Yala National Park?
Home to over 44 mammal and 215 bird species, you can expect to see large packs of Asian elephants (including babies!), sloth bears, spotted deer, peacocks, crocodiles and of course, the majestic leopard. The wildlife in the park is plentiful. The size of the park will affect how many animals you see on any given safari. To ensure you see as much wildlife as possible, take a proper safari tour arranged by your Yala National Park accommodation.
NOTE | Leopards are elusive creatures, so seeing one is not guaranteed. It’s common to see one every day for a month and then not see one for a week. I’d say you have about a 1 in 3 to 50/50 chance of spotting a leopard.
What is the Best Time to Visit Yala National Park, Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon seasons, each striking the north-east and south-west coasts at opposite times of year. The best time for visiting Yala National Park is during the driest months of May to August, but can be visited all year round due to the mild rainy season weather. Be aware that in September and October, Yala National Park closes down for maintenance.
December and January are the busiest months in Yala National Park as international and domestic tourists alike flock to the park on various holidays.
Weather in the south-east of Sri Lanka fluctuates only a couple degrees (roughly between 29 and 31 celsius), so you can visit Yala National Park any month of the year. Bring a warm sweater with you for early morning safari starts.
TIP | Check for local holidays as it’s common for shops, restaurants and attractions to close down. A list of 2021 public holidays in Sri Lanka is available here.
How many days in Yala National Park?
A one night stay, arriving around lunchtime, should be the bare minimum you spend in Yala National Park. That allows time for an afternoon safari and then a morning safari the next day before heading off either west towards Mirissa, or North towards Ella. If you have time to spend 2 nights in Yala National Park that will ensure your visit is more successful.
How to Get to Yala National Park
How to Get from Ella to Yala National Park
Take the bus from Ella bus Station bound for Wellawaya, before changing to the bus bound for Tissa, about a 4 hour journey. If you’d like to quicken your pace by taking a taxi, it will cost you upwards of $30 USD.
How to get from Mirissa to Yala National Park
Take any bus from Mirissa heading to Matara. Alternatively, you can hire a tuk tuk from Mirissa to take you the 25 minute journey. Once you’ve reached the Matara bus station, jump on the #32 ($0.50 USD) that will take you all the way to Tissa, one of the main hubs for accessing Yala National Park (a 3.5 hour drive).
If neither of those sound appealing, you can take this guided tour from Galle or Mirissa that will pick you up and drop you off from your hotel.
TIP | Make sure you have small denominations of Sri Lankan rupees available as the bus driver will not give you change until the end of your bus ride.
NOTE | Sri Lanka busses along the south coast are not air conditioned, so you are in for a sweaty, yet authentic experience
Where to Stay near Yala National Park
Yala National Park has two main hubs for accommodation outside of the gates: Tissamaharama (Tissa) and Kataragama. These two towns are where the majority of visitors to Yala National Park base themselves. If you want the ultimate safari experience and have the money to spend, book a stay inside the gates of the park at one of the luxury bungalow resorts.
Tissa + Karinda
Located close to the ocean at the southwest corner of Yala National Park, you will find the hub of Tissa and the adjacent village of Karinda. Here, there are plenty of safari camps to suit your budget, (ranging from $13 – 250 USD).
This is the main stop for most tourists along their Sri Lanka route with close proximity to block 1 and 2 along the coast. The main entrance is at Palatupana, a 21km drive from the centre of Tissamaharama, due east.
Here are a couple suggestions on where to stay in Tissamaharama or Karinda:
CINNAMON WILD YALA | Located 5 minutes from the Palatupana entrance this luxury resort comes complete with individual chalets dotting the jungle right at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Spa, restaurant and daily excursions are all available on site. Prices and Availability here.
A little less known than Tissa, Kataragama is located at the west side of the Yala National Park. Here you will find a smaller selection of safari camps to choose from, ranging from $12 – 170 USD, with access to the park through the Katagamuwa entrance, a 12km drive from the city centre of Kataragama.
Kataragama can also access the entrance gate at Galge, a 19km drive north of the town, with access to block 3 and 5. Animals in this area of the park are much more wary of vehicles, making sightings here hit and miss.
TIP | This side of the park offers less elephant sightings, but will give you a greater chance of seeing a leopard. I managed to see a mother and her two cubs at the end of my outing, which was a real shock, given that I hadn’t seen much wildlife other than a crocodile and some really cool birds. You will not always have my luck though, as leopards are evasive mammal.
Here is a collection of accommodation options in Kataragama, Yala National Park:
BIG GAME CAMP YALA | A glamping accommodation just outside of Yala’s Katagamuwa Gate, Big Game Camp Yala offers enclosed tents with comfy beds, flush toilets and running hot water showers. They offer an evening bonfire experience with beverage and 3 course meal. Prices and Availability here.
Yala National Park Safaris
There are two different times of day that safari groups are allowed visiting Yala National Park, 6am and 2pm. Safari tours usually last 3-4 hours, and can access the park through one of the three park entrances: Palatupana (out of Tissa), Katagamuwa and Galge (out of Kataragama). Taking an organized safari tour can ensure you see as many animals in the park as possible. And having a park guide aboard your jeep to teach you about animal life and habits is absolutely invaluable.
BOOK | For inclusive Yala National Park safari options, take a peek at this comprehensive list.
Yala National Park Entrance Fee + Safari Costs
Yala National Park entrance fee is approximately 3,700 LKR, but this number can fluctuate based on what block you’d like to visit and if you are doing a half day or full day safari.
Organized safari tours of Yala National Park arranged by your hotel can cost anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 LKR, while larger outfits like Viator (great for solo travelers!) can charge from $40 – 75 USD depending on the length of your safari.
Driving with your Own Car in Yala National Park
Personal cars are allowed into Yala National Park, but only SUV type vehicles that come equipped with 4 wheel drive. You will need to hire a tracker to be permitted into Yala National Park, which can be done at the park gate. Personal motorcycles or smaller cars are not able to enter the park due to safety issues (potholes and elephants!).
Yala National Park versus Udawalawe National Park
If you don’t have an abundance of time to spend adventuring in all of the national parks of Sri Lanka, it can be hard to choose which one to spend your valuable time in.
It’s pretty simple, Yala National Park is known for leopard sightings, drier landscapes and Indian Ocean views, while Udawalawe is known for large herds of asian elephants, is smaller and has a lusher landscape. You choose!
Don’t visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Made popular by large travel influencers flocking to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage to get a photo with elephants, it can be tempting to add this to your must dos in Sri Lanka. Just don’t. Since the media hype surrounding this place a few years back, the orphanage has started to withhold rereleasing elephants into the wild, and keeping them on site for the amusement of tourists instead.
As a strong advocate for ethical animal treatment, I suggest you forgo on the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and opt for a more authentic national park experience where you can watch elephants in their natural habitat.
MORE ESSENTIAL GUIDES FOR SRI LANKA
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MIRISSA | A small surf town located 15 minutes away from Weligama, offers golden beaches, surfing, serene spas, and healthy food.
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