El Yunque National Forest
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 feet, and receiving an estimated average of 200–240 inches of rain each year.
The forest's 13 hiking trails are extremely well maintained; many of them are easy to navigate and less than 1 mile (1.6 km) 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.
When to Go
It's 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.
Flora and Fauna. Each year more than half a million visitors from all over the world come to El Yunque to experience the rain forest's ecological treasures. Rivers and streams provide habitats for freshwater snails, shrimp, and crabs, while approximately 66 species of migratory birds either winter in or pass through El Yunque. Sonorous coquí frogs (tree frogs 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 at more than 3,500 feet (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 green parrot, Puerto Rican boa, and Puerto Rican Sharp-Shinned Hawk. If you're interested in bird-watching, pack your binoculars, because Puerto Rican Todies, Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoos, five species of hummingbirds, flycatchers, and warblers are commonly spotted.
El Portal Visitor Center. Carve out some time to stop at the cathedral-like El Portal Visitor Center ($4, Free for children under 15 and senior citizens). 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 El Yunque National Forest's history, topography, flora, and fauna. Watch the 15-minute film that introduces the rain forest, providing a greater understanding of its ecology, environment, and history. The facility also has a well-stocked bookstore and gift shop filled with useful tools for exploring the park, like trail maps. (Note: this is the only gift shop in El Yunque that takes credit cards, so plan accordingly.) On a sticky day the air-conditioning, clean restrooms, and benches overlooking the forest make for a pleasant post-hike respite.
Cascada La Coca. The first spectacular sight you're likely to see in El Yunque is Cascada La Coca (La Coca Falls), which plunges 85 feet down a flat sheet of solid rock. The waterfall is inches from the road, so it's visible from your car. The gate to the park, which opens at 7:30 am and closes at 6 pm, is just before the falls. Rte. 191, Km 8.1.
Best Ways to Explore
Hiking. The 13 official trails throughout El Yunque are quite civilized—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, are ideal for 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. Avid outdoor adventurers can hike between the north and south sides of El Yunque.
Driving A leisurely drive-through may not be as immersive as a hike, but you'll still encounter beautiful waterfalls, hibiscus, banana and orchid plants, lizards, 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 hurricanes and mudslides 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 Yokahú Tower for breathtaking views of the rain forest and the island. On your way back, stop at El Bosque Encantado, a food kiosko with empanadas, cold coconut drinks, and cliff's-edge views (on Route 191, Km 7.2). Take note that drivers don't always recognize common road courtesies, such as slow cars to the right, stop signs, and signals.
Zip Lining. This adrenaline-fueled, half-day activity enables visitors to take a tree-to-tree canopy tour via a network of platforms, cables, and pulleys.
Step off a platform more than 80 feet in the sky and fly through the air as you take in bird's-eye views of the northern limit of El Yunque National Forest and El Yunque and Este peaks. For more information, contact Yunke Zipline Adventure (yzapr.com787/242–3368) or Rain Forest Zip Line Corp (rainforestzipline.com787/370–1010).
Stay the Night
If you're thinking about a second day at El Yunque, book a room near the rain forest instead of schlepping back to San Juan. (There is no lodging available within the reserve.) The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort and Gran Meliá Puerto Rico are both within a 10-minute drive in Río Grande, but the two cottages at Sue's Place in Barrio Sabana, above the town of Luquillo, cannot be beat (www.rainforestrental.com). For a taste of local flavor, visitors leaving the El Yunque area may want to consider stopping off at the friquitines (seafood kiosks) that line Route 3 west of the beach turnoff. Frequented by locals and visitors alike, the kiosks are open all day and serve everything from cold drinks to stuffed lobsters, plates of fried fish (head and tail attached) and fritters (usually codfish or corn) to bagels and lox or Spanish-style tapas.
Best One-Day Itinerary
Start at the El Portal Rain Forest Center. Drive about 2½ miles (2.4 km) to La Coca Falls—one of the best photo ops in the park. View it from your car or climb up slippery rocks to the base of the falls. Then drive about half a mile to Torre Yokahú (Yokahú Observation Tower), a lookout with vistas of 1,000-year-old trees, exotic flowers, and birds in flight. The tower has restrooms. Continue just beyond the halfway point to the Area Pasadías Palma de Sierra. Rangers here have information on closures, trail conditions, and daily activities. The center and the next two parking lots, Caimitillo and Palo Colorado, have trailheads to both El Yunque summit (about a half-day adventure) and La Mina Falls. Casual hikers should follow the moderate Big Tree Trail to reach the falls—about a half-hour hike. Bring a swimsuit for the falls and water shoes or sandals to navigate the slippery rocks. More advanced hikers can follow La Mina Falls Trail. It's only .7 miles (1.1 km) long, but climbs to 2,132 feet. Plan 30–45 minutes each way. A little more than a mile up the road is one more trail, Baño de Oro.
Did You Know? El Yunque has had many names. President Theodore Roosevelt named it Luquillo Forest Reserve in 1903, and President Franklin Roosevelt changed its name to the Caribbean National Forest. In 2007 the area officially became El Yunque National Forest.
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