Family Vacations to El Yunque (Caribbean National Forest), Puerto Rico
|Part of the Luquillo mountain range, El Yunque is divided into four forests: Tabonuco, Palo Colorado, Palma Sierra, and En Las Nubes (courtesy, Puerto Rico Tourism)|
Just outside urban San Juan, Puerto Rico's natural and man-made wonders await exploration. El Yunque, about an hour east of San Juan, and officially called the Caribbean National Forest, is the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest system. The 28,000-acre preserve takes its name from Yuquiye, an Indian spirit, meaning "forest of the clouds."
More than 240 species of trees and plants grow in El Yunque, including 150 species of ferns. The lush vegetation shelters much of the wildlife. Walk along the trails and listen to the flute-like sounds of the frogs, nicknamed "coqui," and the rustle of leaves as lizardsthe forest has about 14 speciesscatter throughout the underbrush. The rare Puerto Rican parrot, the endangered Puerto Rican boa, and the broad-winged hawk found among the trees are much harder to spot.
Start your outing at the El Portal Rain Forest Center. El Portalito, a 60-foot-high elevated walkway puts you at treetop level. Along with an explanatory film and displays, the center has hands-on forest exhibits for kids.
The 24 miles of recreational trails range from short, relatively flat segments to day-long, strenuous climbs. Popular and easy, the 0.7-mile paved Big Tree Trail leads to La Mina Falls waterfall. The cascade tumbles 35 feet into a natural pool (wear your bathing suit if you want to cool off with a plunge). The Caimitillo Trail, another good choice with young kids, is a brief 0.2 miles long, and you'll pass picnic shelters, giant tree ferns, and motillo trees. On the 0.8-mile-long Mount Britton Trail, cross two mountain streams and continue uphill to the stone observation tower and sweeping views of the forest. Hardy hikers can tackle the El Yunque Peak Trail, a strenuous five-mile round trip climb to the 3,496-foot summit.
Locals and visitors favor Luquillo Beach, a coconut-palm tree lined sandy stretch not far from El Yunque. The beach has souvenir stands, food stalls, and fat-tire wheelchairs for handicapped access. Swimming in the clear blue water is a great way to end your adventure.
Tip: El Yunque is a rain forest. It receives more than 250 inches of rainfall annually, more than 100 billion gallons. Be sure to bring slickers, rain hats, and umbrellas.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication