Yala National Park

A Yala safari in Sri Lanka will be the highlight of your Sri Lanka wildlife holiday and will give you a chance to see the Big 3 of Yala – the largest leopards in Asia, magnificent herds of Asian wild elephants and the sometimes elusive but utterly loveable, Sloth Bear. Yala National Park safari tours focus on the charismatic leopard as this is the only big cat on the island, so unlike India where they have to hide from the resident tiger population in many of the National Parks, here in Yala they are the King and they are far less shy around the vehicles than in other locations. However, that does not mean that you should approach to close when visiting Yala wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka and if your driver or naturalist encourages this approach you should ask them to stop and if they don’t you should report them to the park management, as harassment of wildlife in any shape or form is unacceptable and we must all play our part to stop it.

Popular Itineraries in sri-lanka

Magical North East with the Elephant Gathering and Leopards of Yala

Although we have of course visited Sri Lanka multiple times before, it will be our first visit to Jaffna and the famous port of Trincomalee which is a whale watching hotspot in the ‘summer’ season. In August the sea conditions will be at their best on the north east coast and we can take advantage of this with both whale watching, snorkelling and diving opportunities. Jaffna will be an intoxicating mix of culture, food and history and we will also try to gain an understanding of how the north is rebuilding itself after the long conflict which causes so much devastation and suffering for the local Tamil population.

After filling up on culture, history, marine life and some coastal R&R, we focus on elephants, first with ‘the gathering’ at Minneriya where depending on recent activity we may in fact find the biggest herds at Kaudulla, Minneriya or Hurulu National Parks.  Then onward to Gal Oya with a wonderful diverse choice of activities, we will take a night time drive in the buffer forest, a morning guided walk and a boat safari hoping to catch sight of elephants as they ‘snorkel’ their way across the huge lake.  The route to our campsite at Yala for more elephants and of course the leopards, takes us via the hill country, with a train ride through tea country, treks to view the tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka, and to Ravana Falls, Little Adam’s Peak and/ or Ella Rock.

Style - Small Group
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 22
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
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Price (Excl. flights)
£3850
Sri Lanka Leopard Safari at Yala National Park

The design of all our wildlife safaris focus on longer stays in the national parks and with this one week Leopard safari at Yala national park, our approach is no different. We prefer to break up the long drive from Colombo to Yala with interesting stops en route. Not only will these stops give you a break from the car, they will also allow you to immerse yourself more fully in both the culture and scenic beauty of this amazing island. If you are travelling during the whale watching season from December to April, we definitely recommend you visit Mirissa to enjoy an ethical whale watching tour which does not chase or get to close to the animals. Otherwise, we also often choose to include a night at Galle, as there are some wonderful markets, restuarants and an early walk around town before the heat builds up is always interesting. We can also look at stops at wildlife sanctuaries like Udawalawe and Bundala.

Style - Bespoke Wildlife
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 8
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
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  • Aug
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Price (Excl. flights)
£2380
Two Sides of Yala with Uda Walawe and Central Highlands

Our first visit to Sri Lanka way back in 2002 included visit to Bundala, Uda Walawe and Yala national parks. While Yala is very much the jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka’s wildlife sanctuaries it is important to be transparent with visitors about excessive visitor numbers which have been caused by the building of a ferry/ cruise ship terminal just 1 hour away by road. Given we are writing this during the middle of the Corvid-19 pandemic, the future of the cruise industry is far from certain, but what is certain in that Wildlife Trails has its finger in the pulse of all wildlife sanctuaries in the country and has already designed this tour in such a way, as to avoid the busier areas of the park and provide our clients with the most natural and exciting wildlife safari experience possible. As well as including a short extension to Uda Walawe national park before arriving in Yala, we also take you right into the heart of the Central Highlands. Enjoy the clean mountain air, authentic bungalow accommodation and choose a walking tour which suits your abilities and interests. After your leopard safari in Yala and experiencing the beautiful eastern side of the park; with its mangrove forests and amazing bird life, you will drive west to Mirissa for your small boat whale watcing safaris looking for the largest animal in the world – Dondra Point is one of the best places to see the Blue Whale.

Style - Bespoke Wildlife
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 15
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
  • Feb
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Price (Excl. flights)
£3560
Wilpattu Leopard and the Dolphins of Kalpitiya

Compared to the very popular Yala national park, Wilpattu will always be the ‘path less travelled’ and here it is more about the quality of your wildlife encounters, rather than the number. Accommodation near the park remains largely a choice of mobile tented camps on private land, but there is also now a slightly more traditionally built option (the Kulu bungalow is available as an upgrade). The real pay-off is the escape from the crowds and that more intimate connection with nature and wildlife. Kalpitiya became famous for Sperm Whale sightings, but between December and April it is also an incredible location for the resident spinner dolphins. You can have that perfect combination of a relaxed beach stay with marine wildlife tours that are not overly commerical and can often deliver amazing wildlife encounters.

Style - Bespoke Wildlife
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 9
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
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Price (Excl. flights)
£1880
Yala and Wilpattu Combined Leopard Safari

Beginning with a night in Kalpitiya, and ending with stay in Tangalle can give you that perfect combination of a relaxed beach stay with marine wildlife tours that are not overly commerical and can often deliver amazing wildlife encounters. In between you have safaris at Wilpattu, which will always be the ‘path less travelled’, and here it is more about the quality of your wildlife encounter, rather than the number of sightings (versus the very popular (and prolific) Yala national park). The real pay-off is the escape from the crowds and that more intimate connection with nature and wildlife. En route there is time for cultural diversions, with the Dambulla cave temples and Sigirya Rock fortress, and further off the beaten track safaris by boat at Gal Oya hoping photograph to ‘snorkelling’ elephants, before the highlights that only Yala can bring.

Style - Bespoke Wildlife
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 18
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
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Price (Excl. flights)
£4140
Yala National Park Photography Tour

Sri Lanka leopard safaris in Yala national park remain one of the best big cat experiences found in Asia. On an island where they are the top predator bar none, they are much more diurnal in behaviour than in India’s wildlife sanctuaries, which thus provides much better opportunities for our wildlife photography holidays to Sri Lanka.  We have been travelling to Yala since 2002 and the safari camp we have hand picked has been chosen because it allows us to access the park from other gates and not have to queue at the main entrance gate which serves the larger hotels. Although we are likely to experience a Yala national park from decades ago, when there were only 10 to 12 jeeps driving around the 5 different zones. Each traveller will have access to a window seat and plenty of space for their camera equipment in a vehicle adapted for wildlife photographers. Ten jeep safaris in Yala will allow us to experience the entire park and focus on leopards, wild elephants and sloth bears.

Yala National Park consists of dry-mixed evergreen forests and scrublands along with open grasslands, water holes, brackish water lagoons and riverine forests. This park’s diverse habitat supports large numbers of mammals, such as spotted, barking and mouse deer, sambar, wild boar, water buffalo and the endangered sloth bear. This is also one of the best places in the country to see wild elephant and the rare leopard. Large water holes and lagoons support the high density of endangered crocodiles. You can also see large flocks of migratory and resident birds—142 species of birds have been recorded in the park. Of particular note is the rare black-necked stork, the largest bird in the country.

Please note, that this tour can easily be extended on a private basis to visit other wildlife sanctuaries or cultural locations of personal interest.

Style - Small Group Photographer
Duration (Excl. Flights) - 9
Activity Level
When to Go
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
Price (Excl. flights)
£2650

When is the best time of year to visit Yala National Park?

When we are contacted by wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife photographers about organising a Sri Lanka safari, one National Park is always on the ‘must visit list’. Yala National Park is world-famous for leopard sightings and any Sri Lanka wildlife holiday must include several days of safaris in this beautiful wildlife sanctuary on the east coast. However, not many people are aware that Yala National Park is closed for the whole month of September and the first 2 weeks of October and even fewer are aware of the reason why. So to understand this we first need to look at the Sri Lanka weather over the course of a year.

Yala’s Weather

When people hear that Sri Lanka is affected by two different monsoons and these both affect different parts of the country, planning a Sri Lanka safari suddenly appears more complicated; but actually if you focus your mind on when is the best time to visit Yala National Park or any other wildlife sanctuary you are interested in, you will soon come up with the answers. In Sri Lanka, January to March is the relatively dry season, when most of the country sees plenty of sunshine and you are only likely to experience the odd heavy shower during the day and evening. This is also a very popular time for foreign tourists to visit Sri Lanka, so expect the most famous parks in Sri Lanka to be busy.

By April the heat is starting to build in Sri Lanka and exactly as with India and tiger safaris there, this is a great month to see leopards in Sri Lanka. We then enter the southwest monsoon in May and June, but just as the name suggests this affects that part of the island. So you may well get the odd heavy rain shower in Wilpattu National Park but Yala National Park will stay relatively dry and again, this is an excellent time to see leopards in Sri Lanka.

The heat returns in what is known as the inter-monsoon period which roughly covers the months of July to September. Due to the lack of water and the park not looking its best, Yala is normally closed in September and the first 2 weeks of October – so by definition, this is not a good time to see leopards! Although the park soon re-opens as the northeast monsoon starts to build and provides life, providing rain to many of Sri Lanka’s National Parks.

Best time of year for a Yala leopard safari

It is one thing to look at general weather patterns in Sri Lanka when planning your leopard safari to Yala National Park, but you need to take your research to a whole new level if you want to experience the best possible big cat safari in Sri Lanka. Let’s assume that you are in the enviable position to choose to travel to Sri Lanka whenever you want. We have already discussed the best time of year, but we now need to think about the best time of the week to visit Yala and how major festivals and weekends harm the leopard viewing experience in Yala. Sadly until the park authorities in Sri Lanka introduce sensible vehicle limits in each zone (I hope this blog is now old and this has happened!); you are going to see significant increases in personal vehicles and local jeeps on the weekends and during national holidays. You simply must try to avoid visiting Yala on the weekends and during festivals and you will have made one of the most important decisions to ensure you have an enjoyable leopard safari in Sri Lanka.

Best time of day to photograph leopards in Yala National Park?

In this respect, we can say that the leopard safari experience in Sri Lanka is no different from India or Africa. Although the leopards in Sri Lanka are the dominant big cat, they exhibit more diurnal behaviour compared to some of the leopards found in India’s National Parks. Nevertheless, if you want great light for photography and to catch a leopard returning for a ‘night patrol’ or about to start one, then first thing in the morning and the last hour of the afternoon leopard safari are the optimum times. Enter the park with optimism and a joyful heart and you never know what luck you will have.

What wildlife can I see in Yala National Park?

Before we even start discussing the amazing animals you can see on your private tailor-made Yala National Park safari tour, we should think about the stunning landscape where these animals roam. Weathered rocks shaped like elephants rise from stunning green forests and as you photograph leopards in Yala, you will sometimes hear the crashing waves of the Indian ocean – simply spectacular. Wild Buffalo and Wild Elephants are plentiful and easy to see and if you have had recent rains expect to see a sudden increase in Sloth Bears, as it is then much easier for them to dig the ground for termites and ants, which are their favourite food. The male leopards in particular are very bold as they are the top predator and can walk around in daylight with nothing to fear. A Sri Lanka leopard safari in Yala National Park is the pinnacle of your wildlife holiday and you should spend a minimum of 3 to 4 days here to understand and enjoy the different zones. Don’t be a day-tripper in Yala, that is unsustainable and encourages bad practices by guides and visitors alike.

Yala camping hotels and Yala wildlife lodges to stay in

We should first clarify at the very start, that no one is allowed to camp inside the Yala National Park, so all camping safaris these days are located outside of the park.  

There have always been several good quality hotels and wildlife lodges to stay in when visiting Yala for various budgets and one of the important things you need to consider is how far the particular property is away from the entrance gate of Yala and whether that will impact your leopard safari. In addition, over the last 10 years, we have seen the emergence of the African style tented camp option available at Yala and when these camps first started they were a great option for your Sri Lanka safari, as often they were located in the National Park themselves, allowing visitors to have an authentic bush type experience. However, this was banned a few years ago and now all tented camps at both Yala and other parks such as Wilpattu and Uda Walawe can only be located in the buffer areas outside of the core area of the park. This still provides a more intimate leopard safari at Yala and allows clients staying there quick access to the park’s entrance gates and a feeling of wilderness at the private campsite. If you would like to experience this private camp leopard safari at Yala then check out our Sri Lanka safari visiting Wilpattu and Yala National Parks. Wildlife Trails travel consultants have personally stayed at all these camps and the very best Yala wildlife lodges, so can help you plan on a ‘day by day’ basis to maximise your Yala leopard safari and avoid the crowds.

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