Discover Sri Lanka: Horton Plains National Park

From the sweeping green tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya, EZ and I ventured one hour away to Horton Plains National Park, a striking area situated high up on a plateau, for a day trip. On the way there, the terraced hillsides transitioned into woodsy landscapes—tall, skinny trees with leafy treetops—a much different feel than Nuwara Eliya.

The scenery shifted again as we drove up around the plateau to the top, an altitude of 7,500 ft. The tall, skinny trees disappeared, and the land opened up to vast plains, with dramatic clouds in motion overhead.

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At the entrance, tourists are charged a steep fee. But I was ok with that, knowing that the funds went toward maintaining such a beautiful natural landmark. I appreciated that the park rangers searched our bags for plastic and cut off loose bits (like the labels and cap rings on water bottles) to prevent them from straying into nature during or hike. In fact, I wished that some other places, like Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, had gone through such trouble to keep plastic litter from marring the pristine beauty of nature.

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We left the car and driver at a parking lot just before the trailhead, near a few different facilities, including public restrooms (bring your own TP/wipes!), a small museum, a gift shop, and a snack shop. Score! After relieving our bladders, EZ and I bought some shorteats for the trail. Though all super tasty and satisfying, they were not quite as fresh as the hot, made-to-order fare we’d eaten at Hela Bojun Hala in Nuwara Eliya. And not quite as cheap either.

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With a backpack full of sustenance, we were ready to embark on our three-hour hike, a dirt trail looping through the gorgeous shifting landscapes of the park.

Grasslands

We began our hike through the wide open grasslands, with small creeks winding through the expansive plains. In the distance, big deer grazed peaceably. Apparently two hundred leopards also live in the park, but they are very elusive and rarely witnessed. Above us, puffs of white clouds floated across the blue skies, sometimes blending into blankets of fog, sometimes dispersing into wisps. The crisp, cool air filled and fortified our lungs, clean and fresh. The stroll soothed and stimulated at the same time.

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Cloud Forest

Then came the first change in scenery. The trail left behind the open spaces for the dense foliage of the cloud forest. What is a cloud forest, you ask? It’s a tropical forest found in high elevations, typically along mountainsides or on plateaus, and is fairly cool (unlike the humid warmth of a rainforest). EZ and I could feel the temperature drop as soon as we stepped into the shade of the canopied treetops, dark green and thick. Sometimes clouds filtered through the treetops, sometimes sunlight trickled in. Around us, tangled vines and moss consumed many of the trees.

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Here in the cloud forest, we couldn’t tell what creatures lurked in the shadows. The air was alive with the sounds of birds and insects. We wrapped our jackets around us more tightly. Finally, the trail emerged out of the darkness of the cloud forest and into the light.

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Little World’s End

EZ and I followed the trail through the brush until we reached Little World’s End (the miniature version of World’s End, which was farther along the trail). Here at Little World’s End, we edged the plateau, the sheer cliffside overlooking beautiful green moutnainscapes. The only thing standing between us and a drop of thousands of feet was a long coil of barbed wire.

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We stood close to the ledge (but not too close), admiring the view. It seemed crazy that this—Little World’s End—was just an appetizer for the main course—World’s End. This lookout point felt like a destination in its own right. But soon, the fickle clouds decided to swirl before us, obscuring our view.

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World’s End

By the time we reached World’s End—the purported highlight of the trail—the fog was thicker than ever. We couldn’t see a thing. So we decided to wait. We wandered from the main platform up a small slope to the lookout point near the signpost.

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We waited five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Another group of tourists came, waited with us for a few minutes, then moved on. In the mean time, I chased a butterfly. No, literally. I slowly tracked and followed a butterfly as it fluttered and landed, fluttered and landed, until I could capture all its glory in a photograph. The butterfly’s pattern was outlined in thick black, filled in with bold yellow and red, along with pure white. I’d never seen anything like it. This butterfly looked like a cartoon!

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We waited a little longer after my butterfly chase. At last, our patience paid off. The clouds began to part, moving swiftly like some mystical smoke.

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The storybook cliffside emerged from the mist. Breathtaking.

 

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Slowly, the rest of the spectacular panorama revealed itself in patches.

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Worth the wait!

Baker Falls

After the splendor of Little World’s End and World’s End, EZ and I thought we’d seen it all. So we continued on the trail with no expectations, enjoying another shift in scenery back to the grasslands and streams, now sometimes dotted with small, spindly trees.

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Then another shift, back to the cloud forest. The trail grew more difficult, transitioning from a flat path to an incline riddled with tree roots and rocks that required some clambering.

But tucked along one edge of this forest, another marvel awaited: Baker Falls. The wide, chattering waterfall spilled over an arresting black rock face. Majestic.

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History

At the trail’s end (which was also its beginning, given that it’s a loop), we explored the museum. Within dusty cases lay preserved butterflies, flora, and animal replicas. I also learned a little bit about the park’s history.

Horton Plains was named after Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, the British governor of Ceylon in the early 1800s. The plateau had been “discovered” by a couple of British officers, but of course native Sri Lankans had known about it long before. In fact, the original name of Horton Plains had been Maha Eliya Thenna, which means “great open plain.” Stone tools—prehistoric artifacts—have been uncovered in the area, and the plains are also believed to be the site of an epic Hindu legend about Ravana, “Demon King of Lanka.”

Ravana - Ancient History Encyclopedia

Horton Plains was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1969, elevated to a national park in 1988, and included with the rest of the Central Highlands as a World Heritage Site in 2010. And thank goodness for that. Because not only is it a gorgeous natural environment rich with biodiversity, it’s a site laden with historical, cultural, and religious significance.

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It also happens to be a really fun hike! Yet our longest and most strenuous hike was still to come…at our next stop, Adam’s Peak.


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