Ella is a town that lives off tourism. The main town is scattered with typical tourist shops and cafes that serve lassis and roti at prices that will make you baulk after eating your way through Colombo and Kandy. But while the town lacks some charm, Ella has some undeniably beautiful locations. One of the highlights of visiting the highland area is the early morning hike up Ella Rock. While tough at times, the stunning views from the top make it a must-see not just in Ella, but in all of Sri Lanka.
The key to a successful climb is to start early. While Ella is significantly cooler than much of Sri Lanka, it still heats up during the day. Starting the climb at around 5am means that it doesn't really start heating up until you're already on your way back down. Walking along the train line after our hike we passed some people who were just starting theirs, they already looked more exhausted than we were and they hadn't even started climbing yet.
If you're walking from Ella town, then you'll follow the train tracks for the first part of your journey until you get to a tiny waterfall. If you're staying at a guesthouse, see if someone is able to describe the route to you and draw you a little map. There are also guides and maps online if you do want something to follow. It's really not necessary to organise for an actual guide to climb up with you, plus it feels a lot more adventurous going it alone.
If you're staying at one of the guesthouses along Kitelella Road, then you'll likely be able to take a bit of a shortcut. There's a downward path that leads straight down to the railway track you get to cut out part of the journey. We stayed at The Onestar Homestay on Kitelella Road; it was a simple homestay, but it had great views of Ella Rock from our balcony and made the hike that little bit easier.
Don't worry too much about walking along the tracks. The trains move a lot slower in this part of the world, and there's plenty of room to get out of the way if you do see one coming. In the early hours of the morning it's pretty quiet, but once the sun is up you'll pass a lot more people - either people who are on their way to start the hike or people heading out on their daily business. After the tracks you'll walk through some tea fields as well, it was here we got another helping hand pointing us in the right direction to actually begin the accent.
You won't need much hiking experience to get to the top, just a reasonable level of fitness and a bit of determination. There aren't too many tricky areas, but at times it is steep and as the altitude climbs you might find yourself needing a few more rest stops. Ella Rock sits about 2000m (so about 6500ft) above sea level, so it's not quite considered high altitude but a few people will still get some head spins.
There are changing landscapes as you make your way up the rock, from tea fields to grassy areas, eucalyptus trees and rubber plantations. It keeps things interesting as the scenery is always changing. Chances are you'll run into a few dogs along the way as well. They're quite common around all of Ella, and they seem pretty used to guiding tourists around.
At the top you'll come to a bit of a clearing before finally getting to the rock. The panoramic views show off the entire valley, as well as the train line and villages below. Even with a 5am start the sun will be up by now and you'll hopefully get great views as long as the cloud cover isn't too low. Take a bit of time to sit and soak it all in, and celebrate a little if you manage to be the first ones to make it to the top.
The walk back down is much easier, and quicker, for obvious reasons. If you're feeling a bit thirsty and your water bottles are empty, then there are a couple of homestays and cafes along the train tracks that will keep you hydrated with some cold water and a fresh chai.
All up the hike can take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on where you start from. It's fairly easy to manage yourself, and it's absolutely free. There are no fees to access the area, so all you need to do is pack some water, sunscreen and a hat and you're good to go. If you've made it all the way up to Ella, then climbing Ella Rock should be an essential part of your itinerary.