Ultimate guide to visiting Yala National Park in Sri Lanka

Yala Beach Drone Shot

Visiting Yala National Park is a bit like stepping into a nature documentary. It’s a must-visit destination for anyone who loves wildlife. 

Tucked away in the southeast of Sri Lanka, Yala National Park is a place where leopards prowl, elephants roam free and over 200 species of bird reside. 

But Yala isn’t just about spotting wildlife. Its raw, natural beauty comprises vast forests and grasslands, breathtaking beaches and ancient temples. 

In my guide to visiting Yala National Park, I share everything you need to know before visiting. Getting there, the best time to visit, where to stay, and pinpointing the must-dos – I’ve got the lowdown for you.

Plus, I’ll share a few tips to help you make the most of your visit. 

If you prefer video to a blog post then you can watch my vlog of visiting Yala National Park here:

This post contains affiliate links.

Author Bio: Jessie Moore

Jessie Moore is a luxury travel expert with years of experience travelling the world to find the best destinations, hotels and adventures.

How to get to Yala National Park

Getting to Yala National Park is part of the adventure. On our drive into the park, we saw a huge elephant on the side of the road, which was a great introduction to our visit!

Whether you’re coming from the buzzing capital city of Colombo or the serene highlands of Nuwara Eliya, you’ve got a few options to consider.

Here’s how you can make your way to this wildlife haven:

From Colombo to Yala

By bus: You can catch a bus from Colombo to Tissamaharama, the town closest to Yala National Park. The journey takes about 6-7 hours, depending on traffic.

Once in Tissamaharama, you can easily find local buses or tuk-tuks to take you to the park entrance. It’s a budget-friendly option and gives you a real taste of local life.

View in Yala National Park

By car: Hiring a car with a driver is another popular option. It’s more comfortable than the bus and offers the flexibility to stop along the way.

The drive from Colombo to Yala takes about 4-5 hours. This is a great choice if you’re looking to combine comfort with the convenience of getting to Yala on your own schedule.

If you’d like the details of our driver, please feel free to DM me on Instagram and I’ll send over his details – he was brilliant!

By train: There’s no direct train to Yala, but you can take a train to Matara and then catch a bus or taxi to Tissamaharama.

The train journey offers gorgeous views, especially as you travel along the coast.

From Nuwara Eliya or Ella to Yala

By bus: There isn’t a direct bus from Nuwara Eliya to Yala, so you’ll need to make a transfer.

First, take a bus to Ella or Badulla, and from there, catch another bus to Tissamaharama.

It’s a bit of a journey, with the total travel time being around 6-8 hours, but it’s an opportunity to see more of the country’s beautiful landscapes.

By car: Driving from Nuwara Eliya to Yala with a hired car and driver is arguably the most comfortable option, and is what I personally did.

The journey takes about 4-5 hours and takes you through some breathtaking highland scenery before descending to the plains.

This option allows for flexibility in your itinerary and the chance to stop at interesting spots along the way.

By train and bus or car: You can take a train from Nanu Oya (near Nuwara Eliya) to Ella and then catch a bus or drive from Ella to Tissamaharama.

This combo was actually my intended plan, as I really wanted to experience the train.

However, I didn’t book tickets in advance so we couldn’t get on the train – don’t make the same mistake as me!

Organised day trips from Ella: You can also book an organised day trip or transfer from Ella. Some of the best options are as follows:

How many days to spend in Yala National Park

For the best experience at Yala National Park, I personally recommend dedicating around three days to your visit.

Not only does it allow you to completely disconnect from the hustle and bustle, it also enhances your chances of witnessing those once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings (i.e. those elusive leopards!).

Plus, three days gives you time to explore beyond a safari. You can explore the park on a bush walk, visit Sithulpawwa Temple, take your time with photography or spend an afternoon at the beach.

Where to stay in Yala National Park 

When visiting Yala National Park, finding the right place to stay is crucial for enhancing your experience.

I can wholeheartedly recommend a stay at the recently opened Hilton Yala Resort. We enjoyed a truly unforgettable stay here.

Private Pool at Hilton Yala

Nestled on the edge of the park, this luxurious resort offers the perfect blend of comfort, elegance, and proximity to nature, making it an ideal base for your wildlife adventures.

One of the highlights of staying at Hilton Yala Resort is the convenience it offers for organising all your activities. The amazing staff take care of everything for you.

Aerial Hilton Yala

The hotel can arrange guided tours of the park, whether a private jeep safari or a bush walk at dusk, as well as sunrise visits to Sithulpawwa Temple.

Other amazing hotels which have come highly recommended by friends and our driver are:

You can read my full review of Hilton Yala Resort here or discover more of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

Best time of year to visit Yala National Park

The best time to visit Yala National Park largely depends on what you’re hoping to see and do. But generally, the period between February and June is considered ideal.

During these months, the dry weather reduces the foliage and water levels in the park, making wildlife, especially leopards, more visible as they come out to the park’s waterholes to drink.

This is arguably the best time to see leopards, as the sparse vegetation makes these elusive creatures easier to spot.

Yala experiences a monsoon season from September to December, which can lead to parts of the park being closed due to flooding.

While the monsoon brings lush greenery and a rejuvenation of the park’s flora, it can make wildlife viewing more challenging.

Sunset Yala Birds

For birdwatchers, the migratory bird season from November to April offers a fantastic opportunity to see a variety of bird species.

I personally visited in January and while it was a good time to visit, parts of the park were still closed due to flooding from the end of the monsoon season.

Sadly we also didn’t get to see any leopards, but we did see plenty of other wildlife, including elephants, crocodiles and water buffalo.

What to wear when visiting Yala National Park

I’d recommend opting for lightweight, breathable clothing in neutral colours so that you blend in with the natural environment. 

Long sleeves, trousers and a hat can help protect against the sun and those pesky mosquitoes. 

If you’re embarking on a bush walk then you’ll definitely need some comfortable, closed-toe shoes for walking on dusty, uneven terrain. 

I’d also suggest bringing a scarf or cover-up that you can use to cover your mouth and nose for when the jeeps throw up lots of dust. 

Want up to 25% off hotels?

Subscribe to my newsletter and get immediate access to my guide on how to save money on flights and hotels. Our weekly emails are filled with adventure inspiration, insider travel tips and exclusive discounts.

Things to do in Yala National Park

While going on safari is the obvious attraction of visiting, there are a handful of fun things to do in Yala National Park:

1. Safari tour

A safari tour is the highlight of any visit to Yala. With the chance to see leopards, elephants, crocodiles, and a myriad of other wildlife in their natural habitat.

Yala Elephant

Jeep Safari in Yala National Park

I’d recommend opting for a morning or late afternoon safari for the best wildlife viewing opportunities.

The park’s experienced guides can navigate the terrain and help spot the park’s inhabitants.

2. Bush walk

For those who want to stretch their legs and enjoy the park from a different perspective, a guided bush walk is a fantastic option.

It’s a chance to get up close with the smaller wonders of Yala, from its diverse plant life to the insects and birds that call it home. 

Water Buffalo in Water

Crocodile Bush Walk

I have to admit, I did feel very nervous walking alongside where crocodiles were swimming and water buffalo were hanging out.

But our guide very much made us feel at ease and it was wonderful to explore the park from a different perspective.

3. Bird watching

With over 200 bird species, including migratory birds and endemic species, Yala is a bird watcher’s paradise.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned birder or a casual observer, the park’s feathered inhabitants are sure to captivate. Whether it’s the flamboyant peacock or the elusive jungle fowl.

Early morning is the best time for bird watching, as this is when many birds are most active.

4. Sithulpawwa Temple

Nestled within the park is the ancient Sithulpawwa Temple, a significant Buddhist monastery dating back over 2,000 years.

It offers a peaceful retreat and a glimpse into Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage.

Sithulpawwa at Sunrise

The temple is not only a spiritual site, but also provides epic views of the surrounding countryside.

We visited at sunrise and I’d definitely recommend doing the same – trust me, the 5am start was worth it!

Visiting so early meant we largely had the temple to ourselves, with not a single tourist in sight. It was incredibly peaceful and the views were just jaw-dropping.

Plus, you drive through the park to get to the temple, so you essentially get another safari as part of the experience!

5. Beach visit

The coastline that borders Yala National Park is breathtakingly beautiful and relatively untouched.

A visit to the beach offers a tranquil contrast to the rugged wilderness of the park.

Sunset on Beach at Yala

Swimming is not advisable due to strong currents and the presence of wildlife.  But the beaches near Yala provide stunning settings for a leisurely walk, a picnic, or simply to relax and enjoy the sunset.

If you have any tips for visiting Yala National Park then please do let me know in the comments! Or watch my experience of visiting over on YouTube.

For more Sri Lanka content, you may also like: 

Want up to 25% off hotels?

Subscribe to my newsletter and get immediate access to my guide on how to save money on flights and hotels. Our weekly emails are filled with adventure inspiration, insider travel tips and exclusive discounts.

Jessie Moore
Jessie Moore

Jessie is a luxury travel expert with years of experience travelling the world to find the best destinations, hotels and adventures.

Find me on: Web | Instagram


Want up to 25% off hotels?

Subscribe to my newsletter and get immediate access to my guide on how to save money on flights and hotels. Our weekly emails are filled with adventure inspiration, insider travel tips and exclusive discounts.