When you hear the term “rainforest” it likely conjures up an image of a dense, thickly canopied, jungle somewhere in the Amazon region of South America. But the U.S. has a few rain forests, too, among them El Yunque National Forest located in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains — the only tropical rainforest in the entire U.S. National Forest System and the sole U.S. National Forest located on an island.
El Yunque clocks in at just 29,000 acres, which is relatively small compared to parks like Denali or Yellowstone, which are several million acres in size.But its size belies its extraordinary biodiversity and lush, soul-stirring beauty. Make your way to one of the most unique parks in the U.S. National Park system where you’ll see beautiful vistas, hundreds of unusual plant and animal sightings, and a host of exhilarating adventures, from hiking and swimming to waterfall chasing and rock sliding.
With its incessant showers and crystalline bodies or water, El Yunque may just become your all-time favorite cool down, chill-out destination. Keep your phones handy as you trek and lounge — the scenic waterfalls and natural pools make for spectacular photos.
The Fairest — and Rainiest — Forest of Them All
El Yunque certainly deserves its ‘rain forest’ designation; it’s the rainiest spot in Puerto Rico and the rainiest U.S. National Forest. As much as 9 inches of rain can fall in just a single day — that amount can add up to 100 billion gallons of rainwater per year.
All this water shapes amazing natural pools and cascading waterfalls in the forest. At the highest mountain elevations (around 3,000 feet up) the flora becomes smaller due to the cloud cover, high levels of rainfall and consistently wet soil.
El Yunque features thousands of native plants, and 88 of the 240 tree species there exist only in the geographic region that the forest is in or are considered rare, and 23 of the tree species can only be found in this particular forest. Similarly, much of the forest’s wildlife species (all are small animals) don’t exist anywhere else on earth.
Accessing El Yunque’s Top Sights
Three main roads lead to El Yunque’s highlights: Road 191 North in Rio Grande; Road 988 in Luquillo; and Road 186, a Scenic Byway.
Check this page out for driving directions to the forest’s main entrance on Road 191 North, to the south entrance on Road 191 South and to the main entrance to the El Verde area on Road 186.
Top Spots for Water Vistas in El Yunque
Here are some of the best places to experience El Yunque’s clear mountain rivers, falls and pools:
Rio Espiritu Santo Observation Point — Road 186 (El Toro Scenic Byway) takes you through the forest to the overlook. From a bridge that crosses over the Holy Spirit River,Rio Espiritu Santo, you’ll get a panoramic view looking northward toward the Atlantic coast. You’ll also be able to see several waterfalls. Climb the large rocks to access the best views of the waterfalls as well as a beautiful natural pool below one of them.
Juan Diego — Take Road 191 to the La Mina Recreational to reach the Juan Diego Creek area. A short path leads to a natural pool and lovely waterfall —you’ll definitely want to wade in to cool off.
Angelito Trail — Following Road 988 to Luquillo, walk this short trail that cuts through the Tabonuco tree stands down to the rushing, crystal-clear Rio Mameyes (designated a “wild and scenic river”) and various great swimming holes, including Las Damas Pool. Take a dip!
Puente Roto Recreation Area — Road 988 will take you to the undeveloped recreation area along the beautiful Rio Mameyes and a particularly wide area along the river that’s ideal for swimming, wading and picnicking.
Hiking in El Yunque
El Yunque is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. The forest boasts 24 miles of hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty. Below is a sampling of trails that provide spectacular views of mountains as well as rare flora and fauna, including colorful birds, from woodpeckers and green mangos to Puerto Rican parrots.
El Toro Wilderness Trail — Drive Road 186 to reach this challenging trail, which leads up to El Toro Peak, the highest peak in the Luquillo Mountains. The trail takes you on a roughly 3-hour hike through the El Toro Wilderness Area — the only tropical wilderness in the U.S. National Forest System. Among the fauna of the area: Puerto Rican Parrots and five species of Coquis frogs. You may also see orchids and the forest’s other plant and tree species.
Caimitillo Trail — Follow Road 191 to this easy, 0.4-mile trail that originates approximately 100 feet south of the Sierra Palm Visitor Center. The giant tree ferns and Sierra palms you’ll see as you hike will remind you that you’re in a jungle-like setting. You can picnic at the Caimitillo picnic area that you’ll see along the way.
El Yunque Rock — Accessed off of Forest Road 10, this moderately difficult short trail leads to a small rock wall. Climb it for the breathtaking panoramic view you’ll get from what is truly one of the best perches in the Luquillo Mountains.
El Yunque Trail — Take this challenging 2.6-mile trail, accessed from the Caimitillo Trail or Mt. Britton Spur Trail, up to El Yunque Peak — one of the forest’s highest spots. You’ll ascend through Sierra palm trees to the cloud forest at the peak.
Los Picachos — Moderately difficult, this 0.2-mile trail, accessed through El Yunque Trail, leads to a stone masonry platform within the cloud forest that provides a 360-degree view of the eastern shore.
Visit the Observation Towers at El Yunque
El Yunque contains two observation towers: Yokahú Tower and Mount Britton Tower. Both afford jaw-dropping views.
Take Road 191 to get to the 69-foot-tall Yokahú Tower. From here, you can see the four distinct types of forests that grow at the various elevations, as well as the coastline. On a clear day, the vista extends for 10 miles, all the way to the Virgin Islands.
Accessed via the challenging Mount Britton Trail (located off the southern end of Road 191), the observation deck of Mount Britton Tower, a stone structure built in 1937-38, provides a panoramic view of the forest, Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the eastern coastal plain.
Las Paylas: A Thrilling Natural Playground Just Outside El Yunque
In Luquillo, adjacent to El Yunque National Forest and about a 45-minute drive from San Juan, the clear rushing waters of the Las Paylas River rush over ultra-smooth stepping rocks, creating waterfalls and two totally natural, super-fun waterslides: a large one, and a smaller one farther down the river. To experience the slides, ask locals for precise directions to the site, or use your GPS. Once you arrive, you’ll be parking in a resident’s driveway (for a $5 fee), then following a path down a steep hill toward the river. Make sure to wear shoes with a good grip as the rocks are very slippery.
Travel Tips for El Yunque National Forest
- Any vehicle entering the La Mina Recreation Area on Road 191 requires an entry ticket for the exact date of entry. Reserve in advance.
- Stop by the El Portalito Hub (the visitor center) to get a map of the forest and advice on what trails are open and which ones best suit your interests before venturing out.
- To gear up for all the wetness, bring a poncho, umbrella, extra set of clothes and a pair of hiking boots.
- Consider booking a guided tour of the forest — it’s a great way to make the most of your time there.