Given Sri Lanka’s jaw-dropping beaches, chilled mountain towns, epic train journeys, and ruins of ancient kingdoms, it’s no surprise that many travelers to this island nation never go hiking. But beyond all of its other sights, Sri Lanka is also a perfect destination for both beginners and advanced trekkers. Deep inside its central highlands, there’s a raw, breathing jungle begging to be discovered. The lowlands, meanwhile, are dotted with abruptly rising rocks, some of which were citadels in medieval Sri Lanka. If you are going to Sri Lanka, here are eight hikes and treks you need to check out.
1. Hiking Ella Rock for sunrise
Ella is no longer a little-known destination. The Nine-Arch Bridge appears every day on our Instagram page, and Little Adam’s Peak is now a crowd-favorite for sunrise. However, due to its relatively strenuous nature, Ella Rock still remains slightly offbeat. From start to finish, the hike to Ella Rock takes about four hours, which means that you’d need start as early as 3:30 AM for sunrise. It’s also a quite steep climb, but it’s all worth it when you see the golden light flickering through the eucalyptus trees. Once you’re on top, take time to sit down on the perched edge and soak up the breathtaking views. Early mornings are also the best time for your hikes in Ella, as the midday sun is quite unbearable.
After your hike, come down for breakfast with a cup of good coffee at Buds and Beans Speciality Cafe in Ella. About five years ago, it was hard to even find a tiny shop in Ella, but this small town is now swamped with hostels, hotels, resorts, and homestays. For budget backpackers, Hangover Hostels Ella is the perfect place. If you are looking for a luxurious stay, check out 98 Acres.
2. Climb Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak is in chilly Nallathanniya, a wet green place in Sri Lanka’s highlands surrounded by little cascades. A sacred place for most religious groups living in Sri Lanka, Adam’s Peak has a hike that usually starts at two in the morning to see the sun rising above the eastern skies. In early mornings, the funnel-shaped mountain is swathed by clouds, and golden light reveals the carpets of green, expanding over the horizon. A 6,000-step climb, it usually takes four to five hours to reach the summit.
The season for Adam’s Peak runs from December to May. Avoid full moon days as they are crowded with Buddhist pilgrims. It’s also best to skip weekends, other public holidays, and Sinhala and Hindu New Year season in April. From May to November, the region receives heavy rainfall, and the mountain top is usually covered by a thick, murky layer of fog.
Stay in Maskeliya by the beautiful Castlereigh Reservoir, which is eight miles away from Nallathanniya and can easily be reached by a tuk-tuk.
3. Climb the first two peaks of Hanthana Mountain Range
As a little girl growing up in Kandy, I’d wake up every day to the beautiful views of Hanthana. The Hanthana Mountain Range consists of several peaks. The first two peaks are easily ascended in a day and perfect for beginner hikers. There are a few entry points, one of which is located close to the University of Peradeniya. Patched with thick grasslands, the trail is often home to bloodthirsty leeches. If you are adventurous enough, climb the highest peak, Ura Ketu Gala, and move to Katusu Konda (another nearby peak) for overnight camping. A guide is highly recommended for your hike and can be easily arranged by your hotel or hostel in Kandy.
4. Day trip to the Knuckles Mountain Range
In the Knuckles Mountain Range, for most of the year, mist cloaks the changing terrain of montane forests and rugged peaks. Tiny cold cascades, hiding from the tropical sun, stumble down the rocks and join swiftly flowing rivers. Hardly known to foreign tourists, the mountain range is a frequented place by local trekkers. You can easily spend one or two weeks here, but if you have little time, a day trip can be arranged in the nearby towns of Kandy or Matale.
If you are coming from Matale, stop by Bambara Kiri Ella Falls, a picturesque waterfall with a stunning blue base pool. Take a dip and enjoy your Sri Lankan breakfast from a small family-run shop next to the waterfall. After two to three hours, you will reach Pitawala Pathana, a grassland which takes you to a few cliff edges, known as the Mini World’s End. If time permits, visit Sera Ella Waterfall before you reach your accommodation. Journey Through Sri Lanka also organizes customized single-day and multi-day tours to the Knuckles Mountain Range.
5. Stay in Meemure
Meemure is no longer hidden to the outside world. The village, however, is still very remote with no public transport from the nearby towns. It lies in the Knuckles Mountain Range and has no cellular coverage. The tiny hamlet, with about 400 people, is home to paddy terraces, natural bathing pools, and stunning mountains. One of those mountains is Lakegala, a bare rock outcrop. The hike to Lakegala is not for those who are fainthearted. If you an adrenaline junkie, however, contact Ceylon Ramblers’ Club, which organizes both private and group tours to Meemure and Lakegala.
6. Climb Pidurangala
An Instagram-favorite, Pidurangala overlooks the Lion Rock in Sigiriya. Climb either for sunrise or sunset. The climb up usually takes 45 minutes to one hour depending on your fitness levels. One of the many reasons Pidurangala became popular was the smaller entrance fee of less than $3 was much less than the $30 fee for its neighbor, the Lion Rock. You will also meet a few friendly pooches who guide your way through and chase away monkeys on top.
Hangover Hostels has a hostel in Sigiriya, located close to Pidurangala for those who are on a budget. If you are looking for a peaceful stay in an eco-friendly accommodation with authentic local elements, stay at Mahagedara Wellness Retreat deep inside a rural village.
7. Hike the Idalgashinna-Ohiya Railway
Sri Lanka is home to some of the most beautiful train routes — one reason to get off the train and follow the railway tracks. Idalgashinna is a sleepy village before you arrive at Haputale. Idalgashinna to Ohiya is a five-mile walk along the railway tracks. The trail welcomes you with rolling hills, mist curling up over pine-clad mountain peaks and some 14 tunnels (tunnel numbers 35 to 22). Be aware of the occasional train, especially when you are inside a tunnel.
Once you are in Ohiya, stop for a fresh cup of Sri Lankan tea from a tiny boutique before moving to Hill Safari Eco Lodge to stay a night or two.
8. Summit Lipton’s Seat
To visit Lipton’s Seat, base yourself in stunning Haputale, a mountain town that neighbors Ella (much quieter than Ella). The four-mile climb up takes you through tea plantations and occasional tea plucking ladies dressed in sarees. Although often glamorized for tourism purposes, workers in the tea plantation sector have a complex past and suffer low wages despite long hours of work.
The views from Lipton’s Seat are quite stunning. On top, there’s a statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, with a cup of tea on his hand. You will have to reach the top before 10:00 AM as clouds come rolling in, leaving you with nothing but a mystic layer of fog.