Elephant hiding in shrub at Yala National Park

Discover Yala National Park in Sri Lanka: What You Need to Know

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Wild Asian elephant in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka with text overlay Wild Asian elephant in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka with text overlay

The ultimate guide to planning a wildlife safari in Yala.

Sri Lanka possesses an extremely high degree of biodiversity and is considered one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. This is precisely why you shouldn’t skip going on a wildlife safari at one of the many national parks to try to catch a glimpse of an elusive spotted leopard or see elephants, bears, deer, monkeys, mongoose, wild boar, water buffalo, peacocks and many other beautiful species in their natural habitat.

There is no better place to observe an animal than in the wild, and I would highly recommend visiting the national parks in Yala, Udawalawe or Minneriya and Kaudulla over visiting one of the self-proclaimed elephant “orphanages” in Sri Lanka where the welfare of the animal is not always prioritized and is, for all intents and purposes, merely holding animals in captivity. Here’s what you need to know to plan a Yala safari!

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for 12 things you should know before visiting Sri Lanka!

Why should I visit Yala National Park?

Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. It is located in the south of Sri Lanka and is a popular destination for those hoping to spot a spotted leopard as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world. That being said, there’s no guarantee – it is the wild, after all! I have been on 5 or 6 separate drives over the better part of the past decade and have yet to spot a leopard.

Yala is also often criticized for the sheer volume of jeeps roaming around the park every day. It is not an “intimate” wildlife safari experience as you can see from the photo above. If you prefer a quieter safari drive in Sri Lanka you may want to consider one of the other national parks: Udawalawe, Gal Oya, Wilpattu or Minneriya and Kaudulla.

You might also enjoy: The Best Places to See Wild Elephants in Sri Lanka

The best time to visit Yala National Park

Peacock in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka

Yala is in a hot, semi-arid environment and temperatures range from 26-30 degrees Celsius (78-86 Fahrenheit) all year round, so it is possible to explore Yala throughout the seasons. Yala gets most of its rainfall from September to December and the park generally closes for the month of September and the first half of October (though due to the lower visitor numbers in recent years the park has not shut). The specific dates tend to shift each year so stay tuned to the official website.

Bee Eater in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

If you are visiting southern Sri Lanka during this time and want to go on a wildlife safari, don’t fret! Udawalawe National Park is still open when Yala is shut. Click here to read my destination guide to visiting Udawalawe National Park!

How to get to Yala National Park

Monkey in Yala National Park

I’ve been to Yala several times, and have spotted elephants, deer, monkeys, crocodiles, peacocks and more, but a grand total of zero leopards; that being said, I still recommend going on a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka. The best way to get to Yala is by car: I have previously booked a half day afternoon safari through Ajith Safari Tours and they organized hotel pick-up and drop-off at a reasonable price and had newer and cleaner jeeps than a lot of the other safari companies we bumped into in the park. You can also book a safari via your hotel at comparable prices.

Zephyr Talalla in Sri Lanka

You can either do a day trip to Yala or stay overnight. If you plan to do a day trip to Yala, your best bet is to stay in the Southern Province. The southern coast of Sri Lanka has beautiful stretches of beach and you have tons of options for places to stay. Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa and Anantara Tangalle are excellent five star properties with amazing restaurants and service. If you’re looking for something more low key, check out Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga, or Villa Talay (ex-Zephyr Talalla), a beautiful boutique 5-bedroom beachfront villa serving up the best food & cocktails.

Southern Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places in the country. Click here for more ideas for what to do in Sri Lanka’s deep south!

If you plan to stay overnight, there are a number of boutique hotels and tented safari camps. I stayed at Jetwing Yala, one of the best hotels near Yala National Park, and loved the property. The rooms are spacious, the food is delicious (they have 2 restaurants and a beautiful cocktail bar), beach access as well an incredible pool. Wait for it – the pool has a swim-up bar! So you can lounge by the pool with cocktails after your morning safari. Click here to book your stay at Jetwing Yala!

For a more unique option, try Mahoora Tented Camps to go glamping in Yala. The campsite is just a 10-minute drive away from one of the main Yala National Park entrances, so you can be one of the first people to drive into the park when it opens at 6 AM in the morning. The rooms are spacious and well decorated, as well as extremely clean. The only minor issue is that the beds are a little short for anyone over 5 foot 6 inches tall. Bathrooms are attached to the tent and the tents are equipped with fans (but no A/C). The real highlight at Mahoora is their staff – each and every person is warm, helpful and always smiling. The food they lovingly prepare is tasty and fresh – dinner by the bonfire and under the starry sky is a treat! Click here to book your stay at Mahoora Tented Camps in Yala.

Looking for some other options in the Yala area? Click here for more accommodation options in Yala.

Which Yala safari tour should I do and how much does it cost?

Monkey in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

There are several Yala safari tour options: most people opt for a half day morning or evening tour, longer 7 hour morning or afternoon tours, or a full day tour from 6 AM to 6 PM. If you’re hoping to spot a leopard, your best bet is to go on a morning tour. Per the official Yala National Park website: “Keep In mind that the best time to enter the park is when the park opens just after 6:00 am or after 4:00 pm when animals resurface after taking cover from the sun.”

Elephant in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

There are four entrances to the park, with blocks 1 and 2 being the most popular. For those who are looking for slightly less crowded game drives you can opt to head to blocks 3 or 5 instead.

A safari costs anywhere from about US$50 to $110 per person, depending on which tour option you go with and how many people are on the tour, which is why you should aim to fill the jeep with 4-6 people so that each person pays a significantly lower price. If you are staying at a place like Mahoora Tented Camp in Yala you won’t need to worry about the safari costs as twice-daily drives are included in your room rate.

Tips are discretionary. We generally tip guides and spotters US$10 or 1500-2000 LKR each. If you are visiting Sri Lanka in 2022 or 2023 you may want to bear in mind that the Sri Lankan Rupee was massively devalued, and consider adjusting your tip upwards accordingly. A few dollars or Euros may not make a huge dent in your holiday budget, but could make a big difference to professionals in the tourism industry.

What to expect from a wildlife safari in Yala National Park

Elephant in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

Once you get to the park, you’ll be driven to the ticket office where your driver will need to queue up and pick up everyone’s tickets. The ticket office is often busy so you might find yourself sitting and waiting in the jeep for 15-30 minutes.

Yala National Park queue of jeeps

This is also where you will pick up your local spotter, who is tasked with keeping an eye out for all types of animals – birds, reptiles, mongoose, elephants and even crocodiles.

Yala National Park Sri Lanka peacock

Our spotter was very skilled and on many occasions pointed out animals we had completely missed – an eagle perched high up on a tree, a baby elephant peeking out from behind the bushes, and even a massive crocodile laying motionless at the bottom of a lake.

Crocodiles in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

The drive through the massive park can be bumpy and rough, and roads can be fairly narrow with trees and lots of vegetation on either side of the path – if you have been on safaris in areas with wide open plains like in South Africa then this may feel a little different. Because the paths are relatively narrow, there can also often be severe “traffic” in the park, especially if an animal has been spotted. There’s no doubt about it – Yala National Park is probably the most crowded and popular national park in Sri Lanka, which means it is not uncommon to spot dozens upon dozens of jeeps in the same area at any given time.

Jeeps in Yala National Park

On our first safari, another safari company’s jeep got too close to a massive elephant with tusks and it was absolutely terrifying: the elephant inserted its tusks through the open sides of the jeep and pulled out a handbag and bottled water before proceeding to stomp on it excitedly. The young mother was hanging out of the other side of the jeep and holding onto her baby. Fortunately the elephant lost interest and the jeep drove off, relatively unscathed. These types of incidents are only becoming more and more prevalent, as people continue to harass the animals. This is an example of why it is extremely important to go with a company that abides by park regulations and keeps a safe distance away from the animals.

Explore other ethical elephant orphanages, sanctuaries and national parks around the world here!

It’s worthwhile to take the time to read this from the official Yala National Park website:

“The rule of the thumb in visiting a national park is that you must simply blend in and try to be invisible. While you just can’t hide from them, there’s a lot you can do to make sure that the animals can simply ignore you. Each animal has its own personality and the slightest thing can destroy their peace.

When you understand their habitat, lifestyle and behavior, you can become a good visitor. Just as much as an irritating and selfish neighbor can drive us wild, destroy our peace and turn us into angry human beings, the slightest thing can upset the equilibrium of animals and that may happen quite unwittingly on your part. This is why educating ourselves is to prepare ourselves for the journey.

Avoid any kind of interaction, verbal or through gestures. Did you know even the noise of vehicles seem to affect the feeding habits and personality of elephants, for example? Animals sense who you really are. Be patient and respectful and they will roam freely. Predators can feel mostly under pressure because of photographers, which has huge impact on their hunting, feeding and reproductive habits. Be a spy and never force a photo op on them. Chasing an animal in your vehicle puts them under tremendous pressure and think of having to experience that visitor after visitor, day after day.”

Don’t encourage your driver to chase or corner wild animals! Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri lanka!

What to bring on a leopard safari in Yala National Park

Yala National Park Sri Lanka deer

Yala is a paradise for wildlife photography. Bring a camera and zoom lens (300 mm and above is ideal) if you have one, or snap away with your phone. Just make sure you turn the flash off!

Bottled water and a snack. Remember to take all your trash with you.

You shouldn’t need sunscreen as most jeeps are covered at all times and you’re not allowed to step outside the vehicle while you’re in the park (except for a brief pit stop at the beach).

A hair tie, scarf or cap as the drive can get quite dusty. At the end of a 5 hour safari my hair felt like it had a desert-full of sand and dust in it.

To my fellow small bladder buddies, you should know that there aren’t really any opportunities for bathroom breaks. You have been warned.

Mongoose in Yala National Park Sri Lanka

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Don’t miss these guides:

Have you been to Yala National Park or Sri Lanka? What did you think? Share your experience with me in the comments section below!

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35 Comments

  1. We are yet to visit Srilanka and we are looking for best recommendations. Yala National Park looks amazing to explore the wildlife. Thanks for your tips we wish we spot a leopard 😉

    1. Thanks for checking this out! I have other Sri Lanka guides and tips to help you plan your trip – I hope you make it to beautiful Ceylon soon!

  2. Wow, I’d really love to visit this place! Sri Lanka has been on my travel bucket list for quite a while! Need to find the right time to go!

  3. Sri Lanka’s been on my travel hit list for some time so I’m hoping to tick it off within the next year or two. Definitely bookmarking your great guide as I love visiting national parks and have a bit of a soft spot for elephants ?

  4. Yala is such a great place. I was lucky enough to spot a leopard who was passing the road just in front of our jeep. I also saw a similar experience with a jeep coming to close to one of the elephants. They were lucky it was just a toddler but he did break off one of the side mirrors and then started to play with it

  5. I’m hoping to visit Sri Lanka next year so found your post helpful. Yala national park looks amazing! It’s a shame you didn’t see a leapord but I suppose it’s an excuse to go back!

  6. This came at the right time! I’m
    Visiting in December and was wondering about the leopards. Since I’m seeing elephants in Bali and have a short stay in Sri Lanka, I wanted to hopefully see a leopard.

  7. How come the companies that do not abide by the park regulations are still able to enter the park? I remember watching Discover Channel a few months ago when they talked about how scary elephants can be when they’re aggravated, especially when their young’ns are close by. That company’s lucky their customers were unharmed! But AW the baby elephant in the bushes <3 This looks like an awesome experience and it's not even that expensive- definitely on my list when I visit Sri Lanka one day!

    1. I really hope you make it to Sri Lanka one day Ivy! I think the issue is mainly that the park is SO big therefore not every single area can be patrolled and regulated at every moment, so unless the park authorities receive complaints it’s difficult for them to know about infringements.

  8. I am heading to Sri Lanka i nFeb! I am so excited – I definitely want to do a Safari as I just love animals! Thanks for all the tips about what to take, tip and going with a company who abides by regulations! I am going to check out the company you went with! xx

  9. Sri Lanka has been high on my wishlist. It’s strange how I have not yet got a chance to visit the country even though I am Indian. Hope to go there sometime. Thing is, I generally visit India only once a year in December..which places would you suggest visiting at that time?

  10. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka yet but I’ll definitely have to check this place out when I’m there. Go on a safari has been on my bucket list for sooooo long now hehe. Love your photos too!!!

  11. Oh, my goodness: what an amazing experience! I’ve always wanted to go on Safari but still not made it. It must have been incredible to see animals from so up close and I love the shot of the peacock!

  12. I have never done a safari and I had no idea that you can do them in Sri Lanka too. The Yala National Park looks amazing and it doesn’t seem that expensive either. I agree with the National Park’s warning, we should blend in and not disturb the animals. We are just visitors in their home.

    1. Exactly, Joanna! I think it can be really stressful for animals when there are tons of trucks following them full of people trying to snap a pic. The park is really well run, let me know if you ever make it!

  13. Wow this sounds like a great experience. I can’t imagine being that mom with the baby. You are right it is so important to research the company so that you will be safe. You are literally putting your life in their hands!

    1. Exactly! There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t get too close to the animals – THEIR well-being & YOUR well-being.

  14. Looks like an amazing experience! I’m always really wary of animal abuse at some of the more “touristy” parks in South Asia where you can ride elephants, etc but this seems like a much better alternative. Bookmarking for a Kerala – Tamil Nadu – Sri Lanka trip I’ve had in the back of my head since forever 🙂

    1. Hey Erica! My thoughts exactly! There have been too many cases of animal abuse towards animals held in captivity. This is a national park so it’s not a “zoo” or “animal park” – the animals here are all wild! Hope you get to make it one day soon!

  15. This is a wonderful guide! Super informative. I missed Sri Lanka when I went venturing to Southeast Asia and I really regret it. I’d love to do something like this. What was the favorite thing that you saw when visiting the park?

    1. I absolutely loved seeing elephants in the wild! If you go in the morning you have a better chance of seeing a leopard, but I was there to see wild elephants 🙂 Let me know if you make it over to Sri Lanka!

  16. I have only been to Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka which I thought was pretty spectacular. Love the elephants roaming freely even if one of them chased us. Lol. I’ve heard so much about Yala and if I do go, I definitely would love to see a leopard. I’d trade sleeping time to seeing a leopard and take the morning tour. :p

    1. I’ve heard great things about Minneriya as well! It’s super close to Sigiriya so it’s a great place to go if you’re visiting the area. I definitely want to do another safari there but stay the night before so that we can go early in the morning.

  17. I soooo want to visit here! I never considered Sri Lanka as a place to visit, but your post has made me want to go to see some wildlife! I love how detailed your guide is and very organized. Thanks for this!

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