A Walk on the Wild Side of El Yunque Rainforest
Of all the activities planned for our visit to Puerto Rico, this was the only one that caused me anxiety. Would our 8-year-old daughter and 11-year old son be up to the task of hiking approximately 5 miles round-trip, up and down a mountain?
A few years earlier, J. and I visited Puerto Rico and, amidst the Luquillo Mountains and US Forest Service’s only tropical rainforest, climbed El Yunque Peak. The second highest peak in the forest at approximately 3,500 feet, it was a highlight of our trip. We really wanted to share this unforgettable experience with our children this time ’round. So, we decided to go for it and hope for the best; there would be no turning back…right?
With our bodies fueled up on tasty (and inexpensive!) breakfast sandwiches from La Familia Bakery and our day packs filled with plenty of drinks, snacks, and rain coats, we make a quick stop for information before setting off.
Palo Colorado Information Center
Having just opened the center for the day, a staff member pulls out a map of El Yunque Rainforest and before we get past hellos, begins highlighting the trail for us. “To get to La Mina falls, you’ll take this trail here…”
How many times does he say that in a day? We interject right here. “Actually, we just visited La Mina yesterday and today are hiking to El Yunque Peak.”
He scrutinizes the four of us for a few moments before applauding (or innerly questioning?) our “ambition”, then proceeds to share his recommended route.
Baño de Oro Trail
Per his advice, we walk a little ways up PR 191, the road that travels through El Yunque National Forest, then hang a right onto Baño de Oro Trail. This is a pretty path that crosses over La Mina River a couple times.
Quick side note: You can also take the trail right across the street from the Palo Colorado Information Center, and you’ll get to see Baño Grande. That’s the route J. and I took a few years ago, and watching rain drops strike the pool water was a soothing way to begin the trek!
Whichever route you choose, both paths converge with El Yunque Trail. Along Baño de Oro Trail we enjoy the lush rainforest, listening to the 2-note song of the beloved coquí frog (constantly searching for but never laying eyes on this elusive amphibian!), and relaxing to the sounds of trickling water. As we hop across rocks trying to keep our feet dry, I imagine what it must feel like through a child’s eyes to encounter a tropical rainforest for the first time ever. So amazing, perhaps, that you can’t help but forget the grueling hike that’s in store for your little legs today? Wonderful!!
El Yunque Trail
Eventually you’ll approach a T-shaped intersection. The trail to the left will take you to Mount Britton Lookout Tower, and to the right is El Yunque Trail. For now though, we take a break under the rain shelter to quench our thirsts and fill up on trail mix and beef jerky. An old stone fireplace makes an enticing home for snails and spiders.
Onward and upward, our journey along El Yunque Trail continues. We observe the changes in vegetation, as the Palo Colorado forest type gives way to Sierra Palms.
Los Picachos Trail
After a while on the increasingly rough and rocky trail, we approach another intersection. We have the option of taking a fairly brief side trail to Los Picachos peak (left peak below) before continuing on to El Yunque Peak. Sure, why not?
Our detour may be only 1/5 of a mile, but please don’t think this is just some walk in the park! (What’s that? It IS a walk in the park? Oh yeah I guess if you want to get literal about it…) What I’m trying to say is brace yourself for some real-life stair-stepping!
The views are well worth it. Look up at your ultimate destination El Yunque Peak, peer out onto the Caribbean Sea, and take in the surrounding mountainous rainforest. Listen to the birds sing in the neighboring trees and enjoy the breeze from up high, as the clouds pass by.
Speaking of clouds, if El Yunque Peak is shrouded in them like it was the first time we hiked to it, then Los Picachos’ panoramic views will prove even more cherished. (And I’ll tell you – while you may miss the scenic vistas, standing in a cloud on a rainforest mountaintop is pretty darn cool too!)
Back on El Yunque Trail
As we continue our ascent, the vegetation becomes increasingly stunted. This looks a lot different from the earlier palms, and is barely recognizable as a rainforest! We are now traversing through the Dwarf Forest, also knows as the Elfin Woodlands.
Once again we are pleasantly distracted, this time by a rocky overlook along the trail. From here we stare out upon Los Picachos, now lying down below us. It seemed so much higher when we were there just a brief while ago!
El Yunque Peak
We gather our strength to take the final steps leading us atop El Yunque Peak. Incredible vistas greet us on such a clear day! (Or time of day I should say since it typically rains a few times daily. If you get an early start and arrive before lunchtime, the chances of a clear view are greatest.)
Buildings and antennas adorn the mountaintop. During World War II, the US Army Signal Corps took advantage of the expansive views to identify any invading German submarines or planes as early as possible.
We could not be more proud of our two troopers. As we relax together and take in the view, we also bask in a shared sense of achievement. WE MADE IT!!
What goes up must come down. It is hard to leave such a wondrous place, but a family cannot live on trail snacks alone. We take the road down for a ways – not nearly as scenic as the trails, but definitely easier on the feet than stumbling along slippery rocks! We catch Mount Britton Trail back to El Yunque Trail.
You’ll see a fair number of lizards when hiking in the rainforest, but this fellow really stood out with its dark blue eyes and almost fish-like characteristics. The coquís may have eluded us this time, but we have unusual amphibians covered!
Remember that trickling water and crossing of the river I mentioned earlier when we were hiking along Baño de Oro Trail? That gives us a refreshing idea…
Speaking of refreshing, let’s do this right with some well-earned, post-hike frozen drinks at the Rum House! (Despite the name, children served sans rum, JUST in case you’re wondering!) Cheers to an incredible journey!
What is your favorite family adventure?