Many of the national parks in Sumatra are difficult to reach, but travelers who put in the effort reap the rewards. The wildness and biodiversity of Indonesia’s largest island are mind-boggling. Orangutans, tigers, elephants, and even a few rhinos still hide deep in the Sumatran rainforest. Until relatively recently, uncontacted indigenous tribes lived in the rainforest as well.
Sadly, conservation groups estimate between 40 to 50 percent of Sumatra’s rainforests have already been cleared, even in protected areas; most were replaced with unsustainable palm oil plantations. The national parks in Sumatra—along with many critically endangered species—face a quadruple threat from logging, paper mills, poachers, and slash-and-burn agriculture. As such visitors should take extreme care when visiting a Sumatran national park and search for sustainable and ethical tour operators.
Gunung Leuser National Park
With 3,061 square miles of dense forest, Gunung Leuser is the second largest of national parks in Sumatra and most popular with international visitors. Ecotourism is important in the area, and the accessibility from Medan makes getting there fairly easy. The proximity to Lake Toba helps, too.
Visitors embark from Bukit Lawang to see rehabilitated orangutans in the national park. Although free to roam, these semi-wild orangutans frequent platforms where they’re fed fruit. With some luck, trekkers can also see wild orangutans deeper in the forest. Elephants, tigers, rhinos, and a long list of other species take sanctuary within Gunung Leuser National Park, but finding them is a challenge.
Where Is It: Gunung Leuser National Park is in North Sumatra. Most visitors enter the park from Bukit Lawang, a tourist-oriented village three hours west of Medan.
Sembilang National Park
One word best describes Sembilang National Park: wet. The park is 792 square miles of mangroves, swamps, and muddy forest. At least 213 species of shorebirds live there along with clouded leopards, tigers, elephants, and gibbons. Endangered Irrawaddy dolphins swim the rivers!
Where Is It: Sembilang National Park is on the east coast of South Sumatra, north of the capital of Palembang.
Kerinci Seblat National Park
Kerinci Seblat National Park occupies a whopping 5,310 square miles across four provinces, making it the largest national park in Sumatra. The Barisan Mountains run through the park and include Mount Kerinci (12,483 feet), the tallest volcano in Sumatra and yes, you can climb it! With at least five active volcanoes nearby, Kerinci Seblat is a playground for geologists.
More importantly, Kerinci Seblat National Park is home to the largest population of Sumatran tigers remaining in the world (still fewer than 200 tigers). Kerinci Seblat National Park is one of three important national parks that form the UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra.
Where Is It: Most visitors access the national park from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.
Siberut National Park
Siberut Island’s isolation from the bigger island has allowed it to develop a completely unique ecosystem. Along with gibbons, langurs, and other primates, the 735-square-mile national park hosts at least 864 species of known plants. Siberut National Park is perhaps best known as one of the homes for the Mentawai, a semi-nomadic group of indigenous people. Many Mentawai still practice a hunter-gatherer way of life.
Where Is It: The national park is on Siberut Island, part of the Mentawai Islands in West Sumatra.
Batang Gadis National Park
Although much of the area in Batang Gadis National Park has been protected since 1921—when Indonesia was still under Dutch colonial rule—the national park faces some challenges. Poaching and illegal logging are worse than ever, and Batang Gadis is adjacent to an Australian gold mine that claims a 49,420-acre concession within the park.
Batang Gadis National Park is one of the most important refugees left for Sumatran tigers. The national park is also home to Asian golden cats and leopard cats.
Where Is It: Batang Gadis National Park is in the southwestern part of North Sumatra, roughly 283 miles south of Medan.
Berbak National Park
Like Sembilang National Park to the north, Berbak is low and stays wet, even in dry season. The peat lowlands are crisscrossed by several rivers that periodically flood but a matrix of plank-walks and stilted structures keep visitors above the water and mudflats.
You’ll do most exploring in the park by boat. Keep an eye out for turtles and saltwater crocodiles as you glide along the dark, swampy water. Colorful kingfishers and migratory waterbirds love the park.
Where Is It: Berbak National Park is located in Jambi province near the east coast of Sumatra.
Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park
This national park in Sumatra is one of three collectively declared as the UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. A sizable population of Sumatran elephants reside within the park’s boundaries, along with a handful of Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tigers—all critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List.
Infrastructure inside Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park is limited, but that’s a good thing. That said, the curvy, jungle road from Bandar Lampung is surprisingly smooth and enjoyable for motorbiking.
Where Is It: Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park is on the very southwestern tip of Sumatra. Krui, a popular place to surf in Sumatra, is nearby.
Bukit Duabelas National Park
With only 234 square miles, hilly Bukit Duabelas National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Sumatra. The refuge is home to the Orang Rimba, an indigenous, semi-nomadic group. The tropical trees there can reach over 260 feet tall, attracting a lot of unfortunate attention from loggers. Bukit Duabelas was declared a national park in 2000 as part of an effort to slow deforestation.
Where Is It: Bukit Duabelas National Park is in the middle of Sumatra in Jambi province.
Bukit Tigapuluh National Park
Bukit Tigapuluh National Park is around 553 square miles of protected forest just north of Bukit Duabelas National Park. Like its hilly neighbor to the south, Bukit Tigapuluh is also home to members of the Orang Rimba indigenous group. Sumatran elephants, orangutans, and sun bears are among the impressive list of animals roaming the national park’s hills.
Sadly, Bukit Tigapulug National Park is being consistently clearcut by APP, one of the largest paper companies in the world.
Where Is It: Most of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park is in Riau province, eight hours east of Padang.
Tesso Nilo National Park
The 386 square miles inside Tesso Nilo National Park are home to an elephant conservation center. Elephants are relocated there from other parts of Sumatra. Around a third of the national park has already been deforested; however, what remains is absolutely teeming with flora and fauna. Tesso Nilo is also an important refuge for Sumatran tigers.
Where Is It: Tesso Nilo National Park is located around three hours south of Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau.
Way Kambas National Park
Way Kambas is 500 square miles of lowland forest, swamp, and mangroves that are home to many rare birds, including the endangered white-winged wood duck. The refuge was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2016. More than 400 species of birds live within Kambas National Park, but most visitors come for the approximately 180 Sumatran elephants. Way Kambas National Park is also home to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (closed to the public) established to aid research and breeding attempts.
Where Is It: Kambas National Park is in Lampung province, on the southeast tip of Sumatra facing Jakarta.