There are so many wonderful things to do in San Juan Puerto Rico. Exploring El Yunque National Forest is just one of them! It is recommended to get out of the city and explore the beauty of the island. Once you have made the decision to visit El Yunque, then you need to decide if a hired guide or a self guided tour is right for you. To help with your decision, I have included lots of information about El Yunque National Forest and listed 8 tips for a successful self guided tour.
Facts About El Yunque National Rainforest
El Yunque, once known as the Caribbean National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System. It is located in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico and covers 28,000 acres (making it one of the smallest in size yet largest in biodiversity). And its highest peaks reaching 3494 feet above sea level. The tropical forest with its lush foliage, beautiful waterfalls, swimming holes, natural pools, towers, hiking trails, and unique cloud forest is a must see when visiting Puerto Rico!
How to Visit El Yunque National Forest: Self Guide or Tour Guide
The hardest part about visiting El Yunque is deciding if you should hire a tour guide or explore the forest on your own. No matter what you decide you will have a great time. If you want to hike, then exploring the forest on your own is an easy thing to do. But if you want adventure and natural water slides, then a guided tour may be best. We wanted to get to the top of El Yunque and decided on a self guided tour to make our own full day adventure! So off we drove to the rainforest. It does take a little planning, so I created a helpful checklist to have the best experience and know what to expect when visiting El Yunque.
8 Tips to know before you go:
1. Reservation Ticket:
UPDATE: As of August 23, 2023 the reservation system has been suspended. Entry into El Yunque is granted on a first come, first served basis. And when the park is full, it is one car out allows one car in.
Purchase your reservation ticket at recreation.gov before your trip. The entrance fee is $2.00 per vehicle and can be purchased up to 30 days in advance and up to 1 day before your trip. The ticketed entry times are 8AM to 11AM or 11AM to 2PM. They will check your reservation at the gate so this is a must do. No drive up or first-come first-served tickets will be provided. You may reserve entry tickets for 1 or 2 vehicles.
2. All Trails App:
Download All Trails App.alltrails.com If you like to hike, this app is a must have. This app helps you find trials in your area, rates them from level of difficulty, has reviews, photos and helps to keep you on the trails if you get off track.
3. Suggested Items to Bring:
Rain gear, bathing suit, water shoes, extra socks, hat, water, snacks, sunscreen, eco friendly insect repellant, phone/camera, towel, backpack and change of shoes if your feet are tired. Keep in mind, most of the items may remain in the car when you are exploring, so you don’t have to carry them all around.
4. What to Wear
Comfortable hiking attire, either shorts or long pants are appropriate along with closed toe non slip good grip shoes are highly recommended. Hiking boots are strongly encouraged if you plan to climb the El Yunque Rock.
5. Do I Need a Vehicle To Visit?
The answer is YES. Having a mode of transportation is necessary to navigate the park. The ride shares or public transportation are not available in the area. Please do not take a ride share or taxi there, they will not be able to pick you up. So yes, you need a rental car or your own car to visit.
6. Is there Cell Service?
Most everything I read says no cell service. We have T-Mobile and had service in many places throughout the park. I would plan for no service as it can be spotty and all service plans vary.
7. Is is Pet Friendly?
Yes, it is pet friendly. All dogs must be on a leash. We did not see any dogs on the trials. It can be muddy and rocky and I am happy we opted to keep our small dog at home.
8. National Park Pass
Don’t forget to bring your National Park Pass. With your pass you can get into the Visitor Center for free. And it will also get you in to El Morro Fort and San Cristóbal Castle for free in San Juan.
Getting To El Yunque Rainforest
El Yunque is located only 45 minutes drive from Old San Juan area. The drive is clearly marked on the highway and to the entry of the park. We routed to the El Yunque National Forest El Portal Visitor Center that reopened in January 2022 after being closed from structural damage caused from hurricane Irma and Maria in 2017. The visitor center is located about 10 minutes before the park entrance. You do not need a reservation ticket to enter the visitor center, it is open to everyone.
The El Portal Visitors Center
At the visitor center there is park information, a gift shop, café, exhibits, theatre and restrooms. There are ranger and educational programs, a nature trail and the opportunity to see the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. Don’t forget to bring your National Park Pass for FREE entry in to the visitor center or the fees are $8.00 per adult and no fee for children 15 and under. Open from 9AM to 5PM.
After the visitor center you drive up the main road into the national forest. The forest offers a variety of hiking trials ranging from short walks to many miles, waterfalls while driving or hiking, swimming/wading holes, lush landscape, gorgeous views, old towers to explore and rocks to climb. Some areas and trails at still closed due the damage from hurricane Maria, so make sure to check the app to see what is open. They will check for your reservation at the entry checkpoint and then you are set and ready to explore!
Exploring El Yunque National Forest
La Coca Falls
When you drive into the park, the first waterfall you see is La Coca Falls located on the right side of the road. It is a beautiful waterfall, with water cascading down 85 feet onto a huge rock formation. This is a great place for a photo. Parking is located just beyond the falls on the left hand side on the road.
Juan Diego Creek
From La Coca Falls, Juan Diego Creek is a short drive down the road to the parking lot. Park and then take the trailhead leading to Juan Diego Falls. The trial runs along the creek and is short but uphill with lots of steps. It is worth the small hike to see the beautiful waterfall and wading pool. This is a great area to rest and relax with the sound of running water, go for a swim or take photos. It can get busy in this area and the parking is limited to 30 minutes.
Mt Britton Tower and Trailhead
After visiting Juan Diego Falls you will find other trailheads, the Bano De Oro pool, which is a registered Historic Property and the Mt Britton trail. The Mt Britton Trailhead is a well marked paved path the leads up the Mt Britton Tower. Just follow the path and when the trail ends just continue up the road until you see the Mt Britton Tower sign. After a short walk to the top of the hill you will find the tower which is open to go into and climb up the stairs. It offers great views of the forest. After viewing the tower you can decide to head back down the trail or continue up into the forest to get to the top of the El Yunque trial.
El Yunque Peak
Now on to the El Yungue Trail! Keep in mind, hiking up and back will take about 2 to 3 hours. But you can always turn around at anytime. You can reach the top by trail or by road. The road is steep and the trail is rocky and muddy. We decided to go up by road and back by trail. At the end of the road you will find the sign for El Yunque Rock. It is a steep climb up the rock to see an amazing view. If you decide to climb, just know it is a dangerous climb.
As you continue down the road you will find El Yunque Peak. It is a beautiful overlook of the forest, mountains and surrounding sea. On a clear day you can see for miles and it’s breathtaking scenery. But keep in mind the view can change fast as the cloud forest moves in and out very quickly. So just be patient if the clouds are covering the view, sit back and relax as the clouds should move through. But while you wait you an explore the tower and walk up to the top deck.
Natural Water Slides
There are natural water slides in El Yunque National Forest, although they are not located inside the park entrance. Las Paylas is a popular natural water slide located in Luquillo.
Where To Go After Exploring El Yunque National Forest
Most visitors head to the Liquillo Kiosks after exploring El Yunque. Located near the beach, it is a spot for tourists and locals to enjoy food and shopping. The opening hours vary for each kiosk. And more are open on weekends than during the week. Some restaurants do have views of the ocean. And after a snack you can walk over to the beach and relax.
A Great Day in El Yunque
No matter what you decide to do, either a self guided tour or a guided tour, you will have a great time exploring the only tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico and the United States. Just remember to be safe, go prepared and do not exceed your physical limitations. Enjoy the views and the experience. Please comment below to let me know what you think of your day at the rain forest.
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