The more than 100 billion gallons of precipitation that El Yunque receives annually spawn rushing streams and cascades, outsize impatiens and ferns, and 240 tree species. In the evening, millions of inch-long coquís (tree frogs) begin their calls. El Yunque is also home to the cotorra, Puerto Rico's endangered green parrot, as well as 67 other types of birds.
El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, spanning 28,000 acres, reaching an elevation of more than 3,500 ft. and receiving an estimated average of 200–240 inches of rain each year. The forest's 13 hiking trails are well-maintained; many of them are easy to navigate and less than a mile long. If you prefer to see the sights from a car, as many people do, simply follow Route 191 as it winds into the mountains and stop at several observation points along the way.
The temperature is about 73°F year-round, so weather isn't much of a factor for seasonal planning. For easy parking and
fewer crowds, be sure to arrive early in the day, although the park rarely gets crowded by U.S. National Park standards. Expect rain nearly every day, but keep eyes peeled post-showers for the best bird-watching.
Each year, more than a million visitors from all over the world come to El Yunque to experience the rain forest's ecological treasures. Rivers and streams provide aquatic habitats for freshwater snails, shrimp, and crabs, while approximately 35 species of migratory birds either winter or pass through El Yunque. Sonorous coquí frogs (tree frogs found endemic to Puerto Rico), 14 different lizard species, and more than 1,200 insect species ranging from ants to beetles to flies all inhabit the forest.
Four major forest types, roughly stratified by elevation, are home to thousands of native plants, including 150 fern species, 240 tree species (88 of these are endemic or rare and 23 are exclusively found in this forest). Two of the island's highest peaks rise out of the forest: El Toro and El Yunque, both more than 3,500 ft (1,070 m).
El Yunque doesn't have bigger wildlife species like monkeys, large cats, and poisonous snakes, but there are hundreds of small creatures that find ecological niches. Many of these species exist nowhere else on the planet, such as the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, Puerto Rican Boa, and Puerto Rican Sharp-Shinned Hawk. If you're interested in bird-watching, pack your binoculars, because Puerto Rican Tody, Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo, five species of hummingbirds, flycatchers, and warblers are commonly spotted.
Carve out some time to stop at the cathedral-like El Portal Visitor Center (Rte. 191, Km 4.3, off Rte. 3 00745, 787/888–1880, www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque, $4, Daily 9–4:30). Enter via an elevated walkway that transports visitors across the forest canopy, 60 feet above the ground. Signs identify and explain the birds, animals, and other treasures seen among the treetops. Below the walkway, find a ground-level nature trail with stunning views of the lower forest and coastal plain. Inside the Center, interactive exhibits explain the El Yunque National Forest's history, topography, flora, and fauna, and a 15-minute film provides a greater understanding of the ecology, environment, and history of the El Yunque National Forest. The facility also has a well-stocked bookstore and gift shop, filled with useful tools for exploring the park, like trail maps. On a sticky day, the air conditioning, clean restrooms, and benches overlooking the forest make for a pleasant post-hike respite.
The 13 official trails throughout El Yunque are paved, well-marked, and easy for both beginners and children. The trails on the north side of El Yunque, the park's main tourist hub, tend toward folks with minimal or no hiking experience. There are several short trails (about ½ mile) that are completely paved. On the south side, expect fewer people and moderate to challenging hikes. These trails are not as well-maintained as the marked trails found lower in the forest. Regardless of where you go, you'll be immersed in the sounds, smells, and scenic landscape of the park. For avid outdoor adventurers, it's possible to hike between the north and south sides of El Yunque.
A leisurely drive-thru may not be as immersive as a hike, but you'll still encounter beautiful waterfalls, hibiscus, banana, and orchid plants, geckos, and the occasional vista over the forest and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The main and most direct route to El Yunque, Route 3, is a multilane highway dotted with places to stop for cold drinks and typical Puerto Rican snacks. Obey the speed limit, as rental cars are frequently pulled over. From the highway, hop onto Route 191, the only road through the preserve. When mud slides haven't caused portions of the road to be closed, you can drive straight from the entrance to Km 13, the base of Pico El Yunque. A stop at El Portal Visitor Center will teach you everything you need to know about your majestic surroundings. Make another quick stop to climb the winding stairs of Yokahu Tower for breathtaking views of the rain forest and the island. En route back, stop at El Bosque Encantado, a food kiosk with empanadas, cold coconut drinks, and cliff's-edge views (located on Route 191, 7.2 km). Take note that drivers don't always recognize common road courtesies, such as slow cars to the right, stop signs, and signals.