A Hiker's Guide to Sri Lanka's Knuckles Mountain Range

Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad / | © Culture Trip
Naveedh Samad

Named after its uncanny likeness to human knuckles, the Knuckles Mountain Range is a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular spot for hikers.

The dense forest, surrounded by 34 mystical mountains that range from 900 to 2,000 metres, is home to stunning hiking trails. With cascading waterfalls in every clearing, quaint villages hidden amid the mountains, many a terraced rice fields as well as numerous rare and elusive animals, this 234-square-kilometre range displays the best of Sri Lanka’s diverse natural beauty.

How to hike the Knuckles Mountain Range

The Knuckles Mountain Range is considered one of the toughest hiking trails in the country and is best attempted by those with prior experience in hiking. That being said, no matter how experienced you are, it’s mandatory to have a guide. Besides the area’s vastness and the possibility of getting lost, hikers are only allowed to enter the protected reserve with a qualified guide. Failure to do so will land you in trouble with the authorities.

While this hiker’s paradise features as many as 34 trails, finding information on most of them can be difficult. It’s always best to ask your hotel or guide for suggestions. Be sure to let them know what you expect to see; some trails meander through rural villages while others go past waterfalls and lush vegetation.

Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /

Dothalugala nature trail

A popular trek is the Dothalugala nature trail, which winds its way up the Dothalugala Mountain and offers the most breathtaking of views from the south of the range. When descending, climb down from the other side so to complete a full circle of the mountain. The entire trail is 5.8 kilometres and starts at the Knuckles Conservation Centre in Deanston. A permit, which can be obtained at the centre, is needed to enter the area.

Nitro Caves

Another popular choice for hikers is the nature trail that leads to Nitro Caves, a massive cave inhabited by hundreds of bats. The 11-kilometre path starts at Corbett’s Gap and will take about five hours to complete. The caves do make for a great, albeit slightly unnerving, sight. Corbett’s Gap is itself a noteworthy attraction. Sitting at an elevation of 1,216 metres, it offers spectacular panoramic views of the mountain range, which makes for perfect Instagram shots.

Mini World’s End

Located towards the south of the mountains is Mini World’s End, a dramatic 1,192-metre cliff that offers sweeping views of the mountains. The trail to Mini World’s End is one of the two trails in the mountain range. It begins at the Knuckles Conservation Centre (KCC) and is approximately 1.5 kilometres in length. Again, a permit is required. On a cloud-free day, you can make out several villages and settlements dotted below in the valleys. There aren’t any barriers at Mini World’s End, so mind your footing at all times.

Duwili Ella trail

While all the trails are impressive, the crown goes to the Duwili Ella trail, a 40-metre waterfall hidden deep within the forest. What makes Duwili Ella special is the cave inside the waterfall, allowing hikers to get behind the waterfall, akin to the entrance of the Bat Cave.

Most opt for one-day excursions into the woods, but an overnight hike is recommended for the full experience. Huddling next to a crackling campfire away from digital distractions, with a luminous star-studded sky above and your closest friends around, is an experience not to be missed.

Pro tips: Streams are aplenty but there is a chance some of them might have dried up, especially during the dry season. Bring enough water bottles and refill them at every passing stream. The water here is completely safe to drink.

Since the range is teeming with leeches, be sure to bring anti-leech spray, anti-leech socks and other forms of protection with you to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /

Other recreational activities in the area and attractions to visit

Although hiking is the biggest lure in Knuckles, the conservation site has plenty of other noteworthy attractions to visit.

Meemure is a lazy rural village deep inside the forests. With beautiful streams and waterfalls, it offers mesmerising views and photograph-worthy vistas. It is a little-known attraction, even among locals, so it’s easy to have an experience minus the selfie sticks and loud tourists. Mingle with the villagers, who are more than happy to converse, and discover Sri Lanka’s much-famed hospitality.

Sina Abasnejad /
Sina Abasnejad /

Kandy, the cultural capital of the tiny nation, is an hour’s drive from Knuckles. It is the perfect place to discover Sri Lanka’s kaleidoscopic culture. Visit the Temple of The Tooth or sip on the finest tea in the various luxury hotels perched upon the hills.

Make a trip down to the Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple in Matale and gain a first-hand experience of Sri Lanka’s famed rock temples. Built in the third century, the temple consists of multiple caves, which have religious frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Numerous statues of Lord Buddha can be seen throughout the site, including a massive reclining statue that makes for an impressive sight.

Places to eat

Since the Knuckles Mountain Range is a protected reserve, the construction of hotels and restaurants is not allowed. This means there aren’t many options in terms of food within the range other than the occasional convenience store in the villages.

Stock up on food and essentials in nearby towns, such as Kandy and Matale, before the hike.

How to get to the Knuckles Mountain Range

Getting into Knuckles is mainly dependent on where your lodging is. The most popular entrance to the reserve is via Matale. There isn’t any public transportation into Knuckles from this point onwards.

The other entrance is via Hunnasgiriya, which is closer to Kandy. Many buses travel to Hunnasgiriya but from there onwards, private transportation is required.

The roads are paved and are suitable for cars and other private vehicles. However, the winding roads can be quite narrow in some spots with steep drops, so it pays to be careful while driving here.

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