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El Yunque National Forest

Family Adventure Awaits in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest

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“Wow. This looks like a real, live jungle,” gushed my environmentally awestruck preteen. Minus the tigers, monkeys, anacondas and other large jungle creatures, her evaluation was mostly on point.

Perfectly situated within the Luquillo Mountains in Puerto Rico’s northeast corner, El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system. Home to over 1,000 plant and animal species, this lush tropical paradise provides a natural playground abundant in pristine beauty, soothing sounds and inexplicable serenity.

By all counts, I assess this rainforest as a great location for families of all ages and fitness levels who enjoy a spectacular outdoor setting sprinkled with a little adventure. And, as an added bonus, if you have access to a vehicle, there is no need to pay for a guided tour.

El Yunque Location & Driving Tour

El Yunque is located just under an hour’s drive from the city of San Juan. Traveling to, and on, this National State Forest’s only road, Route 191, is an easy ride that provides a truly impressive display of natures eye-candy. So good, in fact, that many opt for only this “drive-thru” rainforest experience. El Yunque’s magnificent roadside scenery showers its visitors with beautiful waterfalls, vibrant green foliage and intermittent patches of gently misting precipitation. But, in my humble opinion, a scenic drive through El Yunque only scratches the surface of “hidden” splendor awaiting those who venture a little deeper on foot.

The first must-stop spot on the rainforest journey is El Portal Visitors Center. Open from 9 am to 5 pm, every day except Christmas, this educational center houses exhibits on rainforests and conservation. There is also short movie that sets the stage for further exploration by describing the rainforest and its importance in our ecosystem. There is a minimal fee of $4 for those age 16 and older, to help support the center’s operation. Grab a map before you head back to your car.

El Yunque National Forest - La Coca Waterfall

A view of La Coca Waterfall in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

As you continue up the winding mountain road you’ll find a handful of gift shops and eateries, La Coca Falls and Yokahu Observation Tower, complete with a parking lot. The twisting 99-stair climb to the top of the tower is well worth the expended energy. At the top, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of not only the rainforest, but also the entire northeastern coast and mountains, if the weather is clear.

El Yunque Hiking Trails

Driving up just few minutes more you’ll find trail heads for La Coca Trail, Juan Diego and Big Tree Trail. We opted for Big Tree Trail as it is said to be the most family-friendly (and somewhat less slippery) option to reach La Mina Falls. This fairly easy walk, on the clearly marked trail, takes about 30 minutes each way and offers a secure footpath for the entire trek.

El Yunque National Forest - Big Tree Trail

A family hike up the unforgettable Big Tree Trail.

The richly dense plant life and smell of fresh rain combined with the crescendo of running water, croaking tree frogs and the gentle coos of native birds makes for all-encompassing sensory experience one shouldn’t miss. This hike was a highlight of our rainforest visit, for sure. You may even spot the elusive and underpopulated Puerto Rican parrot you watch in the Visitor Center’s video.

El Yunque National Forest - lush surroundings

The lush surroundings of El Yunque National Forest.

If you continue by car up the steep Route 191, you’ll soon find the Palo Colorado Information Center and Picnic Area. The site includes an information center, an Eastern National satellite store, picnic shelters, and another trail that leads to the La Mina Waterfall. Here you will find some of the most spectacular plants of the rainforest.

Last but not least, the final stop takes you to the trail head for Mount Britton Trail. While we opted to head down the mountain and grab a bite to eat instead, we were told that hike is about an hour long and leads to another observation tower in one of El Yunque’s highest points of elevation. Supposedly, the views from there are often clouded, due to the impeding area weather, but the variety of orchids you’ll find on the trail getting there will make it all worthwhile.

Another good reason to return to El Yunque National Forest on our next trip to Puerto Rico!

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Belonging to the rare breed known as native Floridian, Mary Ellen is a wife, mother and freelance writer, currently living in Sarasota, on Florida’s beautiful Gulf Coast….

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