yala national park safari

How to Take a Yala National Park Safari

Taking a Yala National Park Safari is the reason that we went back to Sri Lanka for our second month long trip.  We’d been here a few years back, and had a glorious, if very, very wet month, and didn’t get to Yala (there was a lot of flooding) so we made it this year.  Yala National Park is the most popular National Park in Sri Lanka, primarily because it’s the number one place to see leopards in Sri Lanka.  But there’s a lot more wildlife here in Yala than just leopards, as we came to find out.  Here’s our guide to taking a Yala National Park Safari, which we’ve now planned twice!


Where is Yala National Park?

Yala National Park is in the south-east of Sri Lanka, adjoining the stunning Indian Ocean.  The National Park is one of 26 National Parks in the country, which cover a total of 5,734 square kilometers (2,214 square miles).  The park straddles two of Sri Lanka’s provinces, Hambantota and Monaragala.

Yala is the second largest National Park in Sri Lanka, after Wilpattu National Park.  Yala is about 6 hours’ travel or 260 kilometers (161 miles) from Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo.  We traveled from Galle to Yala National Park, that journey is 190 kilometers (118 miles) and it took about 3 hours using the Expressway to drive to Yala from Galle.


Elephant Yala National Park

Full Day Private Yala Safari

This is a superb way to see Yala National Park, a full-day safari in your own private safari jeep, with lunch and a driver provided

How to Get to Yala National Park

If you search for Yala on a map it’s quite hard to figure out exactly where you have to get to to take a Yala National Park Safari.  Let’s make it really simple. 

The absolute easiest way to get to Yala National Park is to take a tour.  You can do this from Colombo, you can take a Yala National Park Safari from Ella, you can take a safari in Yala from Galle or you can take a safari in Yala from Tissamaharama. These are long days, but it’s a truly fabulous experience, and the transport is also comfortable. Here are the best tours to Yala

This tour from Ella includes a safari in Yala and Udawalawe too + lunch

If you’re staying in Tissamaharama, then this full-day private safari gets superb reviews.

You can visit Yala from Galle and also combine a safari to Udawalawe too

We chose to travel from Galle to Tissamaharama and stay in the town for two nights.  We stayed at the fabulous value Nehansa Resort and arranged our National Park Safari via our accommodation.  I wouldn’t say it was a resort as such, but we had a great room, the food was excellent, and it seemed like there were several members of staff all on hand at the same time.  The tour they arranged for us was excellent.

Our guide on how to go from Galle to Yalla National Park is here.

Yala National Park Safari Jeep

We planned to stay in Tissamaharama until we’d spent at least one full day in Yala, possibly longer if we didn’t see a leopard on that day.

While there are several entrances to the park, the entrance most used is via the town of Tissamaharama.  It’s about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Tissamaharama to the entrance of Yala and all Yala National Park Safari tours will pick you up from your hotel and take you into the park.  The further away you stay from the park, the earlier your pick-up.

To get to Yala National Park you need to transfer to Tissamaharama. 

Galle to Yala

You can take the slow local bus along the coast from Galle to Yala, but it will take you about 5 hours. We traveled from Galle to Tissamaharama and it took 3 hours in a taxi, that we booked through the PickMe app. You can make good use of your time in Sri Lanka and combine a visit from Galle to Yala and Udawalawe in a full day tour.

Ella to Yala

We left Tissamaharama and traveled to Ella.  There are currently no direct buses for this route, so rather than spend the entire day on several buses we took a taxi from Tissamaharama to Ella.  You can use the PickMe app in Sri Lanka to get an idea as to how much a taxi or a tuk-tuk should be. Alternatively, you can maximize your time and take a Yala Safar from Ella and return back to Ella

Mirissa to Yala

You can take a bus from Mirissa via Matara to Tissamaharama.  It takes about 3.5 hours.  A bus still costs around 350 LKR. 

Animals to see in Yala National Park

Yala National Park covers a variety of different landscapes – there’s jungle here, grasslands, lagoons, coastline, lagoons and lakes. 

Sunrise on a Yala National Park Safari

This means it provides a habitat for a variety of different mammals and birds.  There are 44 species of mammals and 215 species of birds that call Yala home, plus 46 species of reptiles.

Knob Billed Duck Sri Lanka

Just because the animals live here doesn’t mean that you’ll see them though, although it’s pretty safe to say that you’ll see peacocks, water buffalo, spotted deer, and monkeys.  You’re also highly likely to see elephants at Yala. 

Elephant drinking at Yala

Leopards, the animal that Yala is famous for are more elusive,

Leopards in Yala National Park

Usually the most asked question is “How many Leopards are in Yala National Park?”  The answer, of course, is mostly irrelevant.  As the answer that you’re interested in is if you’ll see a leopard in Yala National Park.

So here’s the situation on Yala National Park leopards.  Yala has the biggest concentration of leopards in Sri Lanka.  Yala isn’t fenced.  So they may or may not be there.  There are usually around 55 leopards in and around the park area.  However, leopards are elusive.  They’re most likely to appear at the beginning or the end of the day.  Leopards are both solitary and territorial, so you’re not going to see a big pack of leopards, but they usually go back to the same places.  That’s why the safari guides and drivers will gravitate to the same places to spot leopards.

Elephants in Yala National Park

The elephant herd of Yala National Park numbers between 300 and 350 animals.  However, while this seems like a large number Yala is also a large park.  Depending on the time of year you may or may not see elephants.  We saw several, all individuals, no herds.  And all in different places in Yala.

Elephant at Yala National Park

Other Animals in Yala National Park

It feels a little mean to group all the other animals – the 44 species of mammals into “other animals” in Yala National Park.  You’ll see deer here, and crocodiles, water buffaloes for sure. 

Driving into Yala National Park

You may or may not see the Black Sri Lanka Sloth bear (they’re elusive too).  However.  Most people are coming to Yala to see the leopard and elephants. 

If you’ve taken a guide or have a great driver (we did), then they’ll point things out to you.  They’ll also have a book on animal and birdlife.  We saw lots of birdlife in Yala National Park

BirdLife to see in Yala National Park

For me, the fact that our driver, who spoke some English, but not a huge amount, had a book of Sri Lankan birds made all the difference.  Many of the birds were incredibly pretty, however many were also very small and very fast in flight. Also, many looked very similar, so having the book made a huge difference in identifying them.  There are 215 species of bird life in Yala.  That’s a lot to know about!

Yala National Park Entrances

There are 5 blocks or zones to Yala National Park, and you’ll get to visit one if you take a half-day trip. Two (possibly) if you take a full-day trip, although a full day trip is a bit of a misnomer.  Everyone, you, your driver, and the animals need a break, and so if you take a full day Yala Safari what actually happens is that you simply stop somewhere for your lunch, for a very long lunch.  It’s during the hottest part of the day, so your chances of seeing animals are pretty limited anyway.

And so while Yala National Park has 5 zones, and entrances to each of them, unless you’re hanging around and visiting Yala for multiple consecutive days, then you likely won’t have much of a choice on the zone that you visit.  You may not even know which zone you’re in.  Relax, don’t worry about it, and let your driver and guide point things out.  It’s very like when we went on a Tiger Safari in Ranthambore National Park in India, we *really, really* wanted to go to a certain zone, because we’d read that it was THE zone where all the Tigers went.  In the end, we just relaxed, went with the flow, and saw some amazing tigers.

The entrance to Yala is about 40 kilometers from Tissamaharama and what time you go through the entrance depends on how far away your hotel or camp is from the entrance, as well as if you choose a morning or an afternoon safari, and also if you’re taking a private or a shared safari.

Private Yala National Park Safari or Shared

Unless you are traveling on a severe budget, then I would definitely go for a private safari.  Why?  You’ll get all the seats in the jeep to yourself, which means you can slide around getting into the best possible place to avoid the sun/rain/weather and the best possible place to see the wildlife, instead of having to climb over someone else.

inside a Jeep on a Yala National Park Safari

This is probably going to be the most budget-friendly place in the world for taking a private safari.  And no, it’s not expensive. We paid US$148 for a private full day Yala National Park Safari including lunch.  I’ll touch on that later, but it was well worth it.

Travel Tips for Exploring Sri Lanka

Where to stay to Visit Yala National Park

You can stay either in the National Park or just outside the National Park.  Most visitors will stay in or around the town of Tissamaharama.  There are lodges managed by the National Park that you can rent to stay in, but they’re usually for bigger groups and you’ll need transport to get to them.  They’re basic.  You can also stay at tented camps inside or next to the National Park.  Or you can stay at a lodge, hotel, or hostel in Tissamaharama.  These are the places that we looked at to stay.  Our choice in the end came down to our poor planning.  And we booked what was available.  Traveling over the holidays means you NEED to book things in advance.

Cinnamon Wild Yala:  We put this on our list because of the views of the sea and the fact that it was just 5 minutes from the entrance to Yala National Park.  That and the fabulous reviews, of course, the sound of the waves and the jungle also drew me.  But they were full for days either side of our time in Yala.  Don’t make the same mistake we did, and book early.

Leopard Trails: We also looked at staying more in the jungle environment, and Leopard Trails comes top of the list for this type of property.  Tents are air-conditioned and some have plunge pools too. You can check availability here.

We managed to successfully book the fabulous value Nehansa Resort.  We were the only people staying here and the staff were fabulous.  It wasn’t luxurious, but felt very local.  When we needed to get cash from the ATM our host took us out, and then took us on a private wildlife spotting tour in his tuk-tuk – the night before our Yala Safari – and that was amazing.  You don’t need to go into the park to see wildlife, you just need someone who knows where to go!

The Best Time to Visit Yala National Park

I guess that your choice of when you visit Yala is going to be based on when you go to Sri Lanka unless you’re specifically coming here to come to Yala.  So, the best time to come to spot wildlife in Yala is during the dry season.   And the dry season in Yala is between February and June, although the best time to see leopards is from February to March.  We were here between Christmas and New Year (and yeah that’s why there was so little availability for accommodation!)           

Cost of Yala National Park Safaris

The cost of a Yala National Park Safari has several parts of it.  There’s a National Park fee to pay (and this differs, with exchange rates and the Sri Lankan government seems to make changes to it as well) and then there’s a jeep and driver fee and then if you choose to have a guide, there’s an additional fee for your guide.

If you’re taking a shared safari, then the shared costs of the driver, jeep, and guide will reduce the cost per person.  If you’re taking a full day safari (which is really a morning and an afternoon safari, as you do not leave the park in between – you just hang around having a long lunch),  then it’s less than the cost of booking separate morning and afternoon safaris.

If you want to save money, join a group.  You can get 6 people in a jeep.  If you want a better experience, then take a private jeep safari tour of Yala.

Cost of a half-day Yala National Park Safari

If you decide to take a half-day safari of Yala, then the cost – including the jeep, driver, and National Park fees will be about US$50 per person.  You can opt for a morning safari tour, or an afternoon safari tour.

Morning tours are scheduled to go through the gates when they open.  Yala National Park gates open at 06:00.  This means that you’ll be sat in a line of jeeps well before that.  The plan is generally to get to the front of the line.  A morning tour will finish at around 10:00 which means you’ll be driving back to your accommodation by then.

Driving into Yala National Park Safari

Afternoon tours of Yala go through the gates at 14:00 and finish at 18:00. 

So you’ll be picked up at a time confirmed by your hotel or safari organizer to be sat at the gate for those opening times. 

Cost of a full-day Yala National Park Safari

A full-day safari of Yala National Park is what we opted for.  We’d have kicked ourselves if we’d only taken the morning safari and not seen leopards.  We saw our leopard in the late afternoon.  And as we planned to hang around until we saw one, we might have still been there now if we hadn’t taken the full-day tour.

We paid US$148 for a private full-day Yala National Park safari.  We paid cash, in Sri Lankan rupees. And yes we tipped our driver, Ranga, when we were done.  Sri Lanka and its people have had a really, really rough time over the past few years.  He was a great driver, he was a great guide, even though he didn’t have to be a guide to us and he prepared us a fabulous tiffin lunch too – Sri Lankan Food is truly fabulous.  He picked us up at 04:40 and dropped us off after 19:00.  And tomorrow he’ll do it all again.  So long as he can find a customer.

Costs will vary depending on exchange rates, how you pay, and if you decide to take a private or a shared tour.  There are a limited number of jeeps that are allowed into the park for each safari time.  And of course, we were traveling at a major holiday time, so I felt very lucky that we got our private jeep and such a great driver.

What to take on a Yala National Park Safari

On the basis that we took a full day safari into Yala, we’d prepared, It was chilly when we got picked up, and when the jeep is racing along in the dark the wind is quite cold.  It was hot during the day.  No matter how much you stay out of the sun, it’s relentless, so sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen were necessary.  Insects weren’t so much of a bother, although I did have mosquito spray with me.  We took water with us, but our driver had brought way more bottled water than we could have drunk during the day.

Check with your safari organizer about what they’ll be providing.  We were given a small breakfast before we left the resort, and coffee or tea, but our driver had also provided snack bars, fruit, and a fabulous lunch.  Honestly, the amount of food was way, way too much for the two of us, and it was really, really good.

Our Yala National Park Safari Experience

We had planned to visit Yala on our first trip to Sri Lanka, but we didn’t get there.  On that 28 day trip, it rained for the full 28 days and Yala was underwater then.  And so it was a long-term dream to finally get there.

Yala is the top place in the world to see leopards. This Sri Lankan National Park has the highest density of leopards in the world. There are varying counts of how many – from 40 to 120, but I guess the only relevant count to you is how many you see.

We took an all day private safari. (Probably the only place in the world we can afford that!) – left the hotel at 04:40 (yes, ouch) and didn’t get back until 19:00 for US$148 for both of us, in a safari jeep to ourselves, along with driver and guide, Ranga. This included breakfast, lunch, National Park entry fees, and all transport.

Suitably fortified by the coffee provided by the team at our hotel, and loaded with enough breakfast and lunch to feed an army we set off.

We drove fast through the dark of the morning (it was cold and windy), and then stopped at the visitor center for Ranga to sort out our entrance fees, Nigel walked off into the dark to find the toilets and we waited for the sign to be able to head to the entrance gates.

Yala National Park Safari Jeep

And so we joined the line to enter Yala National Park.  The gates open at 06:00 on the dot and there is something of a race as the jeeps and drivers aim to get to where the animals might be (it’s quite a distance), along the rutted, bumpy, dusty roads. 

Yala National Park Safari Roads

Ranga takes it easy.  We have all day.  And to be fair some of those jeeps look particularly uncomfortable with the way that everyone is getting bounced around!

The landscape here is glorious too.  It’s very flat in this part of the park.  And the early morning light is glorious.  We see the first of many peacocks.  Which you know, I really wasn’t expecting.

Yala National Park Peacock

And water buffalo.  Both domesticated and wild. There are spotted deer too.

Driving into Yala National Park Safari

And it’s not long before we find our first elephant.  There are mongooses.  Reptiles.  Crocodiles. And Ranga’s book of birds comes in handy.

Birds Yala National Park Safari

Elephants, deer, water buffalo, macaques, birds of all types, and yes, leopards were spotted. 

Spending a full day in the park means that we get to have our lunch inside the park and don’t need to take the time to drive back out, and that means we actually get a LOT longer on Safari than the half-day folks.  It’s 12:30 before we’ve arrived at our lunchtime.

Ranga has brought a set of tiffin boxes and we stop at (what the map says is) the Yala Mobile Leopard Camp for lunch.  There’s little more than a space under the trees, some concrete walls to sit on.  Well, there are toilets, which are basic (and responsible for the only insect bites I get all day).  And we tuck in.  Lunch is fabulous.

And then we chatted with an extended Indian family who are here for the Christmas break and having a great time.  We avoid the monkeys desperately trying to out-maneuver us to get at the remnants of lunch.  And then after a break, we’re back in the jeep for the afternoon session of our Yala National Park Safari.

The afternoon is more of the same.  Although it’s much warmer now.  There’s an elephant that we find on a massive rock, more deer, lots of birds. 

Elephant in Yala

And then we stop for what seems like an age as another driver says he’s spotted a leopard at a distance.  We have binoculars, but none of us are sure.  Even Ranga says “Maybe”.  Which is Sri Lankan for “not a chance”.

Traffic Jams on a Yala National Park Safari

And so as we head towards the exit, we’re rapidly getting towards sunset.

Sunset Drive Yala National Park Safari

We come across an elephant on one side of the dirt track that all the jeeps are driving on.  It clearly wants to be on the other side of the track, but no one is willing to let it pass.  I want it to ram the jeeps.  This feels wrong the way it doesn’t have right of way and they’re not willing to let it pass as visitors glamour for photos.

Eventually, it finds a gap and I feel dirty, soiled, and voyeuristic.  And sad.  Very sad.

So I’m not in the best frame of mind when a few minutes later we stop.  And there is it.  Our leopard for the day.  It’s about 300 meters away.  My phone is my camera.  But it’s a leopard.  In a tree.  At dusk.  A leopard in Yala National Park.

Had I been willing to lug a proper camera with me, then the photos would be better, but these photos are from my Google Pixel. Not bad for the leopard being nearly 300 meters away. In a tree. At dusk.

Leopard in Tree - Yala National Park Safari
Zoomed in Leopard Yala National Park Safari

And as we drive, through the increasingly darkening night, I realize that I adore this country, the landscapes, its food, and its people.

Please do come to Sri Lanka. This country needs you, they are struggling for tourism business in the wake of the pandemic and the financial crises of recent years.

History of Yala National Park

Cipriano Sanchez, a Spanish mapmaker noted the area that is now Yala in 1560, stating that it looked abandoned.  Under British rule, the forest here was used for hunting, and Yala finally became a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and then became a Sri Lankan National Park in 1938.

Yala National Park and the 2004 Tsunami

Yala National Park was hit directly by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.  I remember the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami from disjointed TV pictures. From videos that don’t seem real, where the water seems to flood so slowly and unrealistically. I remember, that my concern was for the Chairman of our company at the time, who was on vacation in Thailand (he was fine). The reality of this disaster, I truly don’t believe hit me until I arrived in Sri Lanka.

There were perhaps 50,000 people who died in Sri Lanka. I say perhaps because numbers are uncertain, thousands are still missing, and bodies have never been found. That number pales into insignificance when you consider the more than 200,000 Indonesians who died on the same day.

250 people died here in Yala National Park, where the waves were reported to be more than 6 meters high (20 feet).

This disaster is real to me because I opened a book – Wave – as I arrived for the first time in Sri Lanka.  Sonya Deraniyagala – a Cambridge-educated native Sri Lankan, married to an Englishman, with two sons lost her husband, both sons, her parents, and, for a while, her mind. The family was spending the Christmas holidays in Yala. Sonya wrote of her experience, her despair, and her desire to die. The book is a brutal, but enthralling read and I do recommend it whether you come to Yala or not.

Weeks after reading her account, my throat still clenched, and my hand still automatically went to cover my mouth when I think of it.  Her voice still, now, bounces off the inside of my head. And even now, 9 years after first reading the book I still feel her despair in the bottom of my stomach as I gaze out at the flat ocean off the beach on the coast here in Yala.

The coast at Yala National Park

If you’re looking for other Sri Lanka National Parks to visit, then head to Horton’s Plain National Park and hike to World’s End. I wrote about it here.

Transport & Popular Routes in Sri Lanka

FAQS about taking a Yala National Park Safari

We had so many questions about taking a safari to Yala.  This was, after all the second time we’d planned it.  Thankfully, this time it came off.  So here’s our consolidation of all those questions.

Do I need a guide on a Yala National Park Safari?

It depends on the experience that you want.  A driver will point out what you’re seeing, or what you’re missing if you don’t see it. If you want to know more about the animals and the environment, then a guide will be invaluable.

Can I drive myself into Yala National Park?

Yes.  If you have a 4×4 you can drive yourself into Yala National Park.  However, most foreign visitors will neither be driving nor have a 4×4, and the roads are rutted, often underwater and not on a map.  Do yourself a favor and take a driver and jeep into the park.

Which Entrance Should I use for Yala National Park?

To be fair you probably won’t know which entrance you go in to the park.  Plan your accommodation near Yala, then book your safari and they’ll take care of all of that.

What animals will I see on a Yala National Park Safari?

You’re most likely to see water buffalo, deer, and elephants in Yala.  Everyone wants to see leopards, and you may be lucky to see them.  There are 44 species of mammals here and 215 species of birdlife.  However, this is the wild.  They don’t come out on demand.

How long do you need in Yala National Park?

If you’re short on time a half-day safari is the shortest trip that you can take into Yala.  You can take a full-day safari too.  We planned to stick around until we saw a leopard.  We were lucky and saw a leopard – at a distance – at the end of our full day Yala Safari.

What are the opening times of Yala National Park?

Yala National Park opens from 06:00 to 18:00.  All jeeps are supposed to be out of the park by 18:00.  This time is slightly flexible.  We left the park exit very late (!), as our driver had spotted a leopard in a tree at a distance and we were waiting to see if it moved.  So too were other jeeps. 

Are there toilets in Yala National Park?

Yes, there are toilets in Yala National Park, but they are few and far between.  You’ll only really get to use them if you’re taking a full day Yala National Park Safari, and when you stop for lunch.  They were really basic, and I blame using them for the numerous bites I got “on my lower body” that day.

Final Words on Taking a Yala National Park Safari

This trip has been more than 8 years in the making and I’m so glad we got there this time. Coming to Yala is the primary reason we came back to Sri Lanka. Wait, no, maybe it was the food. Or the people. Well, let’s say it was a big part of the reason we returned to Sri Lanka and it was a great decision. Our private Yala National Park Safari was a fabulous, extremely long day, we saw so much wildlife and birdlife, and, yes we saw our leopard too.

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