Minneriya National Park – The Grand Elephant Gathering

Nestled between the ancient kingdoms of Polonnaruwa and Dambulla in the heart of Sri Lanka’s dry zone, Minneriya National Park was originally declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1938 and gained National Park status in August 1997.

Even though it is best known for the large elephant herds that migrate here during the dry season, Minneriya plays host to a number of other animals. Keep your eyes peeled for the purple-faced langur, toque macaque, Sri Lankan sambar deer and Sri Lankan axis deer. And if you happen to spot the Sri Lankan Leopard or the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear, you will know that it’s your day to buy a lottery ticket! The reservoir is also an important habitat for large water birds such as lesser adjutant, painted stork, and spot-billed pelican. Several migratory birds such as Cormorants, Great White Pelicans, Ruddy Turnstones and Grey Herons are guests of the Sri Lankan Junglefowl, Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot, Brown-Capped Babbler, Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill, Black-Crested Bulbul and Crimson-Fronted Barbet. A variety of lizards, crocodiles, pythons, monitors and a number of fresh-water fish complete the vibrant tapestry that is Minneriya National Park.

When to visit

The park’s namesake, Minneriya Reservoir dates back to the third century and has become critical to the survival of wildlife, attracting herds of elephants and other animals from surrounding forests and parks during the dry season, sometimes from as far as 100 km away. The dry season typically lasts from May to September, making these months the best time of the year to visit the park. The park’s elephant herds that number in the hundreds are at their peak in July, thus drawing the most visitors. During this time of the year, it is typical to see a herd of 200 elephants with some reporting herds that hit the 700 mark. For the best of both worlds, it is recommended you visit Minneriya right before the peak in June.

As for the time of day, Minneriya, like most National Parks in Sri Lanka, has early morning (6 am) and early afternoon (2-3 pm) safaris. Of the two options, the afternoon is better suited for Minneriya. There are many tour companies from which you can reserve a safari online. This is recommended during the peak season, especially if you need transportation to and from the park as well. If not, it is fairly easy to find a safari vehicle and guide in the immediate vicinity of the park. Personal vehicles are not allowed inside the park. However, given Minneriya’s wide and open landscape, having a highly experienced guide is not necessary.  

Who to go with

Below, I have provided information for some of the safari operators in the area, some of whom I know personally.

What to bring

  • Sunscreen, sunglasses and hat/cap: The safari jeeps are open and it’s likely going to be sunny and hot with minimal cloud cover.
  • Water: Some safari services will provide you with bottled water, but if they don’t, you should plan on bringing your own.
  • Snacks: If you’d like something to munch away on as you gaze at the giants.
  • Binoculars: You won’t need these for the elephants, but they could come in handy for birds and other smaller creatures you may see at a distance.
  • Camera: You’ll want to pack your good camera and lens for the perfect shot to get all those likes!

Where to stay

Minneriya is smack dab in the middle of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. This means that accommodation options are dime a dozen around here. While I have not stayed at any of them, here is a list of popular lodging choices in the area, sorted by distance to Minneriya.

I’ve stuck with just hotels here, but there are plenty of hostels and homestays to choose from as well, fitting any budget, from $5 to $300. These hotels are located for the most part in Dambulla and Sigiriya. Polonnaruwa, Mihintale and Anuradhapura are also just over an hour away. There are many Airbnbs in the area as well (get 15% off your first stay on Airbnb by following this link!).

Let’s talk numbers

Here’s what you should expect to spend on a trip to Minneriya. Prices are based on a visit in June 2019 and are meant to provide you a ballpark estimate only.

Safari Vehicle Rental = $20 – 45
Entrance Ticket (12 years+) = $35
Entrance Ticket (children aged 5-12 years) = $20
Entrance Ticket (children below 5 years) = FREE

Thanks to the hard work of conservationists in both the public and private sector, the elephant population in Sri Lanka has stabilized at encouraging levels in the past few years. Minneriya is still one of the few places left in the world to see the Asian Elephant in these numbers. The feeling of awe and amazement that strike the heart when you first encounter these giants is one that is not easily described. Due to the island nation’s many hot spots, a trip to Minneriya might not be worth it for someone on a short trip. However, if you’re spending more than a week in Sri Lanka during the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer, I highly recommend that an afternoon in Minneriya be added to your itinerary.

Here’s who helped

While I ONLY write about places that I have visited, I get more information on these places from others, both for my edification and yours. Here are the online resources I used to write this post.

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