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9th April 2023
Sri Lanka is a land of white sand beaches, sprawling tea fields and dense palm forests. Through the years, it has established itself as a tropical paradise – beckoning sun seekers from across the globe. However, there is so much more to the Pearl of the Orient than sunbathing spots. It is also home to some of the most fantastic hiking opportunities in Asia, many of which remain off the average tourist’s radar. From the peaks of the Knuckles Mountains to the verdant landscapes of Horton Plains, these are our top recommendations for lovers of the great outdoors.
When to go: January – May
One of the most iconic sites in Sri Lanka, Adam’s Peak towers over the surrounding landscape, calling visitors from far and wide. Over the years it has become a popular pilgrimage site due to the Sri Pada, or Sacred Footprint, at its summit. There are many claims as to the origins of the curious indentation. The original Buddhist story declares it to be the footprint of Buddha himself but around the eighth century Muslims began to claim that it was that of Adam – setting foot on earth for the first time after being cast from the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, Hindu tradition labelled the footprint Shiva’s and the arrival of the colonial Portuguese in the 15th Century saw attempts to claim it for the Christian faith.
Through the years and to this day, however, Adam’s Peak is predominantly a Buddhist place of worship. In more recent times it has become a major tourist attraction with international visitors making the trek to the summit to watch the sunrise. During the day the mountain is often shrouded in cloud so it is best to make the trek in the early hours of the morning for the best chance of clear skies.
Most hikes to Adam’s Peak begin from the neighbouring village of Dalhousie. Sunrise usually takes place around 6.30am so it is best to set off at 2am to allow enough time for the trek. The path winds through tea fields, sloping gently upwards to the a large pagoda where the stone steps up the mountainside begin. From here, it’s a 7km ascent which becomes gradually steeper as you reach the summit. During pilgrimage season (December – May) the path is fully illuminated and there are tea shops open along the route throughout the night. These can make a welcome pitstop during the climb. Upon reaching the summit, orient yourself so you are facing east and wait for the sun to rise. The views in the morning light are incredible and you can see the surrounding villages and tea fields coming to life. From the summit, it is approximately 2.5 hours walk back to Dalhousie. The steep stone steps can be punishing on joints so take it slowly and enjoy the changing views as you wind your way back down the mountain.
When to go: January – March but visits are possible year-round.
Tucked away in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, Horton Plains National Park has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years. The iconic ‘World’s End’ trail takes visitors on a 9.5km loop, the highlight of which is an 880km escarpment. The views from the top are incredible and are best enjoyed in the early morning sun. However, the trail around World’s End is often crowded – it’s a popular spot for day-trippers and tour groups meaning that it can be difficult to enjoy the serenity of your surroundings. Fortunately, with just under 57,000 hectares to explore, there are plenty of other hiking options for those wanting to get off the beaten path in Horton Plains.
Towering over the surrounding landscape, Kirigalpotta is Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain. The trail to the summit is only 7.5km long, but it is a steep climb over varied terrains. As such, it is best to allow five to six hours to complete the hike. Start the trail early in the morning to give yourself the best chance of a clear view from the summit. The path will initially lead you across grass plains before sloping steadily upwards at the base of Kirigalpotta. As you climb, the scenery gradually changes from ethereal cloud forests to rocky outcrops. In the early morning light, you may catch sight of sambar deer leaping across the slopes or some of Sri Lanka’s colourful endemic bird species flitting between the trees. During the hike, it is recommended to take frequent breaks and to make sure that you have enough water to keep you hydrated. Good walking shoes are also essential as the terrain can be uneven, especially after rain. Upon reaching the summit, you can enjoy panoramic views over the surrounding countryside before heading back down the mountain for a well-earned rest.
Those looking for a more leisurely hike in Horton Plains need look no further than the Bambarakanda trail. The trail crosses tea plantations and babbling streams as it winds its way to the end point – Bambarakanda Falls. While it is possible to drive to the falls, the trekking route is spectacular and allows you to immerse yourself in the beautiful landscapes of Horton Plains. The entire trail is around 14km so it is best to leave yourself a full day to complete it comfortably.
Like most treks in Sri Lanka, it is best to start in the early morning. The path winds its way through remote tea estates and offers spectacular views of the ‘Devil’s staircase’ – a winding road with numerous hairpin bends. The trek slopes upwards and you will see Horton Plains’ iconic World’s End from a whole new angle. A suitable rest point comes in the form of Lanka Falls, a small waterfall tucked away among the trees. You can take a dip in the water and enjoy lunch at the base of the cascade. From there, it’s a short walk on to Bambarakanda – Sri Lanka’s highest waterfall. You can climb up to the viewing platform or relax at the base of the falls before returning back to the starting point.
When to go: March – September
The Knuckles Mountains boast some of the finest hiking opportunities in the whole of Sri Lanka. Those looking to get off the beaten track and immerse themselves in the wilderness will be hard pushed to find better than the trails snaking between the peaks of this mountain range. While the bustling streets of Kandy are just 40km away, the mist covered mountains could not feel further removed from urban life. There are countless trail options for adventurous hikers and local guides can offer insight into which ones to pick based on time restraints and fitness levels. However, to get the best of the range, you should spend several days in the area – taking day hikes or opting for a multi-day trekking route. The paths are steep and challenging in places, but the incredible views over the surrounding landscape are well worth the exertion.
One particularly impressive trail is the loop to Duwili Ella, a 40km waterfall hidden in the depths of the forest. The hike passes through several rural villages before winding into the wilderness. As you walk, sprawling tea fields will give way to patches of forest and savanna until the trail meets the Walawe River. A small bridge leads across it into the Riverine Forest where rocky outcrops and lush greenery abound. Historically, this area was a centre of gemstone mining and you will occasionally see locals among the trees, seeking their fortune in the rock faces.
About 2km deeper into the forest, you will reach a clearing where a tumbling waterfall cuts through the rocks. This is Duwili Ella – locally known as the oasis among the trees. You can take a dip in the waterfall’s plunge pool to cool off and admire the flora and fauna of the forest. Many bird species frequent the falls, including brown fish owls and gray hornbills, and sambar deer can be seen leaping through the trees. Migratory elephants have also been known to pass through the forest so keep your camera at the ready.
This trek can be completed in a single day but it is more comfortable to break the journey. Our local experts can arrange a mobile tented camp so that you can spend a night under the stars, listening to the orchestra of the forest.
Make it happen
If you have been inspired to book a holiday to Sri Lanka, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our trusted local experts. They are based on the island so are perfectly placed to plan your ideal tailor-made trip, whether that’s a family holiday, a romantic break or anything in between. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.