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Ten must-see national parks in India

An encounter with the Royal Bengal tiger is almost guaranteed in Bandhavgarh

Here’s our list of some of the best national parks in India, where following the tiger’s trail will bring you face-to-face with experiences to last you a lifetime.

Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh

A couple of days at this extremely popular national park guarantees a few encounters with the Royal Bengal tiger, which – due to its relatively small area – boasts perhaps the highest concentration of the striped cat in the world. Apart from the showpiece tigers, Bandhavgarh’s star attraction is the leopard – there are about 40 these creatures around here, compared to about 45 tigers. That aside, the 435 sq km park contains nearly 40 species of mammals including deer, wild boar, Indian bison, sambar, barking deer and langur, some 250 species of birds and several reptiles.

Best time to go: November–May

Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

Striped tigers majestically roam an expansive savannah, moody elephants double as unexpected roadblocks, gharial crocs bask on the banks of limpid green rivulets, and hundreds of eyes spy on you from the primal depths of an evergreen forest. Established in 1936 as India’s first national park, Corbett takes its name from the legendary tiger hunter Jim Corbett (1875–1955), who put Kumaon (the district in which the forest lies) on the map with his celebrated book The Maneaters of Kumaon. Covering an area of more than 1300 sq km, this terai wildland is home to nearly 200 tigers, about 300 wild elephants, sloth bears, langur monkeys, rhesus macaques, peacocks, otters, gharials and several species of deer among other animals. The varied landscape of the park – ranging from dense vegetation to rolling grasslands – is an added draw.

Best time to go: November–May

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Spotting a tiger at Ranthambore is a matter of luck

Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

Comprising 1334 sq km of wild jungle scrub hemmed in by rocky ridges, this famous park, open from October to June, is the best place to spot wild tigers in Rajasthan. At its centre is the amazing 10th-century Ranthambhore Fort, scattered around which are a number of ancient temples and mosques, hunting pavilions, crocodile-filled lakes and vine covered chhatris. The most famous resident of the park is of course the tiger. However, getting an accurate figure on the number of tigers comes down to who you believe – the park probably has around 32 tigers. Spotting one is a matter of luck; you should plan on two or three safaris to improve your chances. The only way to travel into the core of the national park is by going on the safari. These safaris are usually done in open-top canters and Gypsys. But remember there’s plenty of other wildlife to see including more than 300 species of birds.

Best time to go: November–March

Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal

The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve is the showpiece attraction of coastal West Bengal. Although an encounter with the famed Royal Bengal tiger is not guaranteed, a boat cruise on the muddy rivulets meandering through dense mangrove forests is sure to thrill you to no end. Home to one of the largest concentrations of royal Bengal tigers on the planet, the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve is a network of water channels and semi-submerged mangrove forests that collectively form the world’s largest river delta. Tigers (officially estimated to number close to 300) lurk in the impenetrable depths of the mangrove forests, and also swim the delta’s rivulets. Although they sometimes kill villagers and their cattle, tigers here are typically very shy and sightings are thus rare. Nevertheless, cruising the waterways through the world’s biggest mangrove  sanctuary (now a Unesco World Heritage Site) and watching wildlife – whether it be a spotted deer, a 2m-long water monitor of a luminescent kingfisher – is a world away from your usual urban chaos.

Best time to go: November–May

An outing in Kanha scores in terms of authenticity
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet/Jason Fernandes

Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh

Madhya Pradesh is the king of the jungle when it comes to tiger parks, and Kanha is the most famous of all jungles in the Central Indian region. The forests are vast and your chances of seeing tigers are good. Besides, you can really go deep into the forest here, and have a superb safari experience. An outing in Kanha scores in terms of authenticity. Unlike the obligatory rush-and-grab outings that Bandhavgarh is known for, Kanha allows you to roam the forests at will, going the distance to spot a tiger rather than have the tiger come to you. True, this reduces the probability of tiger sightings as compared to Bandhavgarh, but you will get a feel of the forest here that’s far more original than many other parks in India.

Best time to go: November–May

Bandipur National Park, Karnataka

A thoroughly enchanting forest, Bandipur offers you a chance to surrender yourself in the lap of nature, all the while allowing you to catch up with some signature Indian wildlife. And you don’t need to distance yourself from urban creature comforts. A part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Bandipur National Park is one of South India’s most famous wilderness areas. Covering 880sq km, it was once the Mysore Maharaja’s private game reserve and was notified as a national park and tiger reserve in 1974 (when it came under India’s Project Tiger scheme). A thriving forest, Bandipur is now a protected zone for over 100 species of animals, including tigers, elephants, leopards, gaur (Indian bison), chital or spotted deer, sambars, sloth bears and langurs. It’s also home to an impressive 350-odd species of birds.

Best time to go: November–May

The giant Malabar squirrel is one of the creatures you're most likely to see in Mudumalai

Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu

In the foothills of the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu, this 321sq km forest reserve is like a classical South Indian landscape painting brought to life – thin, spindly trees and light-slotted leaves concealing spotted chital deer and grunting wild boar. The showcase species in Mudumalai is the striped royal Bengal tiger. There are around 50 tigers lurking in these jungles – giving Mudumalai the highest tiger density anywhere in the country. However, as in any other nature reserve, you will have to be extremely lucky to actually spot one. Overall, though, the reserve is the best place to spot wildlife in Tamil Nadu. The creatures you are most likely to see are deer, peacocks, wild boar, langurs and giant Malabar squirrels. There’s also a significant chance of sighting wild elephants (the park has several hundred) and gaur or the Indian bison.

Best time to go: November–May

Kaziranga National Park, Assam

You’ll get to experience rhino-mania at its peak in the windswept expanses of this national park in Assam, home to India’s largest population of the one-horned beast. Soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the enchanted savannahs at this Unesco World Heritage Site. When it comes to zoological heritage, there are few national parks in India to match Kaziranga’s vast coffers of wealth. Home to around 1800 rhinos, it boasts the world’s highest population of the hulking yet utterly cute creature – apparently, they add up to around two-thirds of the world’s entire rhino population. That apart, Kaziranga is known to house the highest density of tigers among all designated parks and sanctuaries around the world. And this is not even touching upon its resident population of elephants (believed to number around 2000), and other exotic species such as swamp deer, water buffaloes, leopards and several species of resident and migratory birds.

Best time to go: November–May

Deer can easily be spotted in Dudhwa National Park.

Dudhwa National Park, Uttar Pradesh

Easily spotted is the one horned rhinoceros, reintroduced into Dudhwa National Park following its complete disappearance from these areas. This is also where hordes of handsome barasinghas (swamp deer), the state animal, play hide-and-seek amidst magnificent swathes of grassland. The 680sq km Dudhwa National Park is located 75km north of Lakhimpur. The park itself is barely 10km from its closest township Palia Kalan – also the stretch along which the very limited accommodation options are located – and about 25km to Gaurifanta on the Indo-Nepal border. The best way to access its wildlife is through twice-daily safaris offered by the Forest Department. The elephant safari, conducted only early mornings, lasts up to an hour and is limited to the rhinoceros enclosure at Salukhapur. The jeep safari, which takes up to three hours, can be enjoyed both early morning and late afternoon. A Gypsy is everyone’s vehicle of choice to negotiate the terrain inside the park and can be hired locally. You’ll do well to book ahead as there are a limited number available.

Best time to go: November–May

Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh

India’s youngest national park, that covers nearly 750sq km in Kullu district, encompasses pristine forests, glaciers, soaring snowy peaks and gushing streams. The Tirthan River originates deep within the park. Alongside rare plant species – notably nag chattri, a potent aphrodisiac in one of its many beneficial avatars – the park is home to about 180 species of birds and rare mammals such as the Himalayan black bear, musk deer and the ever elusive snow leopard. You can also spot the goral, a small antelope, and the tahr, a gravity-defying, cliff-clinging mountain goat. It is also the habitat of the blue-horned western tragopan, a beautiful and rarely sighted pheasant. Entry permits are available at the Interpretation Centre in Sairopa village.

Best time to go: March–June & September-November

This article was first published in February 2017 and has been updated since.