Horton Plains National Park

Gazetted in 1988, the 31.6km² Horton Plains National Park protects a biodiverse watershed of montane grassland and dwarf forest perched at elevations of greater than 2,100m above the southern escarpment. Its best-known geographic feature is the sheer World’s End Viewpoint, which offers a spectacular vista over hills and valleys to the distant south coast, and forms the focal point of a popular 9km walking trail. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010, the national park also incorporates the island’s second- and third-highest peaks in the form of the 2,395m Kirigalpotha and 2,357m Thotupola, both of which are accessible to hikers, though neither is as prominent as Adam’s Peak 30km to the west.

The evocative highland scenery is very different from anywhere else in Sri Lanka: the undulating windswept plains possess a haunting melancholy air reminiscent of Scotland’s grouse moors, while interspersing pockets of elfin cloudforest, all gnarled boughs encrusted with old man’s beard lichen, have the enchanted quality of a fairy-tale setting. Biodiversity is high, with shaggy-coated sambar deer being the most conspicuous large mammal, but the park also supports a large number of endemic birds and other wildlife, most quite difficult to see on a short visit.

What to see and do in Hornton Plains National Park

World’s End Trail

Roughly 10km in length, the circular World’s End Trail sticks mainly to the tussocky grassland of the open plateau for which the park is named, but it also passes through patches of dwarf forest and traverses marshy areas dominated by dwarf bamboo. It is normally hiked in a clockwise direction, branching left at the junction about 500m past the visitor centre, a point that also offers a good view west across to Kirigalpotha, the highest point in the range. From here, the trail runs to ‘Little’ World’s End, then on through a dense epiphyte-rich forest stand to World’s End, an 880m drop set at the head of Sri Lanka’s largest ravine.

The return leg from ‘Big’ World’s End follows the Belihul River and its tributary streams, which feed a number of pretty montane pools. The most significant features along this stretch are the forest-fringed 20m-high Baker’s Falls (named after Sir Samuel) and the Chimney Pool, a small manmade reservoir passed about 500m before you climb back to the junction where the circular trail starts. The trail is quite flat and well marked throughout, so there is no real risk of getting lost, except perhaps in extreme misty conditions, but some parts are heavily eroded and can be slippery after rain, so tread carefully.

Kirigalpotha Trail

About 6km in either direction, the least popular of the park’s three trails runs directly west from the visitor centre to Sri Lanka’s second-highest peak, Kirigalpotha (literally ‘Milky Rock Face’, in reference to its reflective white northern slope). It is a rougher and slightly steeper trail than World’s End, gaining some 300m in altitude, and less well marked, but the absence of other tourists gives it a genuinely off-the-beaten-track feel and means it provides a better chance of spotting wildlife and birds.

Ecologically, the first half of the trail passes through tussocky grassland with the Belihul River and associated bogland a few hundred metres to the south, while the second half climbs through increasingly dense forest cover, before reaching the open rock face at the summit. The view from the top isn’t quite so dramatic as World’s End, but it provides an impressively panoramic view over the national park and environs.

Thotupola Kanda Trail

Only 1.5km in either direction, this short but relatively steep trail leads uphill from the main road 500m south of Pattipola entrance gate to the 2,357m Thotupola Peak. It passes through dense montane forest where observant visitors might well see the pygmy and rhino-horned lizards, as well as several of the endemic and highland forest birds associated with the park. As you approach the peak, the trail runs through a peculiar pygmy forest whose species composition is similar to the park’s other montane forest, but with most trees coming in a kind of natural bonsai form, typically no more than 2m high.

The summit offers a good view to the lower-lying country to the east. The trail for the short climb is in generally good condition, but may be slippery in parts. Allow 11⁄2 hours for the return trip.

The Pattipola–Ohiya Road

The 11km road that connects the two gates is possibly more rewarding for wildlife than any of the walking trails, passing as it does through the full gamut of the park’s habitats, but offering better visibility particularly into the forested areas. The section between Pattipola Gate and the visitor centre tends to be quite busy with traffic between 06.00 and 08.00, when day trippers arrive from Nuwara Eliya, and again from 10.30 to midday, when most of them leave. The section between Ohiya Gate and the visitor centre carries very little traffic.

There is nothing preventing you from walking any stretch of this road, nor from driving along it and using the car as a mobile photographic hide, provided you don’t walk or drive off-road. Sambar deer are particularly common and often quite relaxed around vehicles in the open country between Ohiya Gate and the visitor centre. The road between Pattipola Gate and the visitor centre supports a higher proportion of forest; the Arranga Pool about 1km south of Pattipola Gate is a particularly rewarding spot for birdwatchers hoping to glimpse the rare and elusive Sri Lanka whistling thrush.

Ambewela Farm Shop

Boasting a pastoral setting on a crossroads near Ambewela village en route between Nuwara Eliya and Pattipola, this shop selling balls of cheese, jars of strawberry jam, goat’s milk, bottles of ghee and other homemade dairy products is a popular stop on the return trip from Horton Plains.

Travel to Hornton Plains National Park

There are two entrance gates to Horton Plains, connected by an 11km road that runs through the national park, passing by the visitor centre roughly halfway along its length. The northerly Pattipola Gate lies 25km southeast of Nuwara Eliya via Pattipola village, while the southerly Ohiya Gate stands a similar distance northwest of Haputale via Ohiya village. The World’s End Trail head starts at the visitor centre, some 5–6km from either gate. The trail head for Thotupola Mountain is only 500m inside Pattipola Gate.

No public transport runs to either gate, let alone to the visitor centre, so almost all independent visitors charter a vehicle in Nuwara Eliya or Haputale, which can be arranged through any hotel and should work out at US$25–35 for a small party, inclusive of driver, fuel and a few hours’ waiting time. The driver and/or renting agency will assume you want to head straight to the visitor centre, hike the World’s End Trail, and head back as soon as you are finished. Should you have different or more elaborate plans, best you clear that with them upfront – and be prepared to pay slightly extra if it increases the mileage or waiting time.