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El Yunque National Forest: hiking in Puerto Rico’s beautiful tropical rainforest

by Elisa Flitter Fever
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El Yunque National Forest is located in the northeastern part of the island of Puerto Rico. The only managed tropical rainforest in the United States. El Yunque National Forest attracts about 1.2 million visitors annually. And I totally get why! It’s a beautiful place and great for walking; part of the paths are feasible for young and old.

El Yunque National Forest Puerto Rico entrance
At the entrance to El Yunque National Forest

As a result of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898. Puerto Rico is not actually a country nor a state, formally an “unincorporated territorial possession of the United States.” Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been designated a Commonwealth, just as Canada, New Zealand and Australia are within the British Empire. Puerto Ricans are officially American citizens, sometimes it feels different though.

Map of El Yunque National Forest Puerto Rico
For a digital map of El Yunque National Forest, please see section of this article

El Yunque National Forest: introduction

El Yunque National Forest is located on the mountain slopes of Sierra de Luquillo. It is less than an hour’s drive from the capital San Juan and its airport, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU). In 1876, King Alphonso XII of Spain designated this piece of wooded land as a reserve.

In 2023, the rainforest of El Yunque National Forest covers about 28,000 hectares. The part you visit as a hiker didn’t really feel big to me. Perhaps also because you drive by car to the entrance and from one trail to the other. You can already get a good impression in half a day. If you really want to walk all the paths one by one and/or linger for a long time at places where you can swim, for example, you will be busy for a day. A fun day!

Bamboo along Angelito Trail
Bamboo along Angelito Trail

In 2017, Puerto Rico including El Yunque National Forest was hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Maria. They caused a lot of damage. Restoration work in El Yunque National Forest is still ongoing. As a result, one of the hiking trails – called La Mina – and a nearby picnic area are currently unavailable for visitors.

El Yunque National Forest is home to no less than 164 animal species (24 of which are endangered), such as birds and reptiles. There are also more than a thousand different plants and 225 different tree types. The elevation within El Yunque National Forest varies between 120 meters (394 ft) and 1074 meters (3524 ft) above sea level. Five mountain peaks are >1,000m (>3280 ft) above sea level.

So much green around you makes you happy
So much green around you makes you happy
Wooden walkway bridge Angelito Trail
Wooden walkway bridge in El Yunque

How to get into El Yunque National Forest

You will enter El Yunque National Forest by rental car or tour van. At every hiking trail, waterfall or lookout tower you will find a number of parking spaces, usually no more than eight. There are eight main hiking trails, three waterfalls, and two lookout towers in El Yunque National Forest. You can therefore imagine that the number of visitors / vehicles that are allowed to enter El Yunque National Forest per day will be limited.

Most of El Yunque National Forest requires an entrance ticket/reservation per car. Seven of the eight main hiking trails are located in that section. With a rental car or a tour you will drive towards the entrance gate of El Yunque National Forest. Immediately after that, there are the La Coca Falls and the Yokahu Tower, the first two stops after the entrance gate. Just before the entrance gate there is also a viewpoint with approx. 5 parking spaces.

The main road of El Yunque National Forest
The main road of El Yunque National Forest on a rainy April morning

At the entrance gate you will be asked for your reservation. You don’t have to show it on paper. The officer will ask for your details, such as name and telephone number, which will be verified with a reservation list. Bring your ID.

I have not been able to discover possibilities by public transport to/in El Yunque National Forest. There is a shuttle bus on call from AC Hotel Marriott San Juan (recommended) via the airport (SJU) to Rainforest Inn (awesome), but that van is quite expensive (approx. US$ 150). And then you still need a taxi to get to the entrance gate of El Yunque National Forest (16 km), unless you rent the whole van. In that case an Uber will be cheaper I guess, unless you are with a van-filling group.

Admiring the rainforest from Yokahu Tower El Yunque National Forest
Admire the rainforest from Torre Yokahú

To El Yunque National Forest by rental car

You can reserve entrance tickets for El Yunque National Forest from one month in advance, for the date you prefer. Please note the time difference between Puerto Rico and your home country, if you want to book this in advance from home already. The price is US$2 per car, payable by credit card. About 300 vehicles are allowed into El Yunque National Forest each day.

It might be that you did not know before that you had to buy tickets in advance and you still want to go this week. To make spontaneous visits to El Yunque National Forest possible, the reservation website provides:

  • 24 hours in advance at 8am an additional 120 tickets for the first entry period (8-11am) available, and
  • Another 120 tickets for the second entry time area (11am-2pm) are available 24 hours in advance at 11am.

Please note: these tickets are often sold out within half an hour after they become available. In short, get them in time! You do not have to provide a license plate number when booking, so it is no problem if you do not know this yet of your rental car.

So there are two time slots for which you can book a ticket for El Yunque National Forest: 8-11am and 11am-2pm. Make sure you have entered the entrance gate of the El Yunque National Forest within the time slot of your entrance ticket. El Yunque National Forest closes at 5pm. Anyone who has not driven out of the gate by then yet, may expect a fine of US$100.

Our rental car: a Hyundai Tucson from Alamo
Our rental car: a Hyundai Tucson from Alamo

With a tour to El Yunque National Forest

If you don’t have your own rental car, no driver’s license, don’t feel like driving yourself, traveling solo or you prefer to go with a professional guide… Anyway, you can certainly visit the El Yunque National Forest with a guided tour. These are often offered with San Juan as the starting point, with or without a pick-up service, as a half or full day tour.

The costs of our trip to El Yunque National Forest: entrance ticket 1 car US$2 + toll road 2x US$1.50 + petrol (approx. 100km / 6L x US$ 0.89 p/L) US$5.34 + US$25 Subway lunch + rental car all-risk US$79 p/d

View through Angelito Trail El Yunque National Forest
Sunny vista at Angelito Trail

Hiking trails in El Yunque National Forest

So there are eight main hiking trails in El Yunque National Forest. These are, including indication of difficulty:

  1. Angelito Trail: easy
  2. Big Tree Trail: moderate
  3. La Mina Trail: challenging (currently closed)
  4. La Coca Trail: challenging
  5. Caimitillo Trail: intermediate to easy
  6. El Yunque Trail: challenging
  7. Mt. Britton Trail: easy at the beginning, challenging at the end
  8. Bano de Oro Trail: easy

We found the Bano de Oro Trail a bit confusing at first. Strangely enough, this trail does not start at the big sign Bano de Oro in the bend after the parking lot with toilets (km 12.2, see photo below). The piece of walking path there is nothing; there you can walk no more than 100 meters (100 yards) towards a dilapidated (oh no, historic) bathhouse, nothing more. Skip.

The actual Bano de Oro Trail runs between Caimitillo Trail and El Yunque Trail. These paths flow naturally into each other, you hardly notice it. There is only an almost unreadable sign to announce the transition of the trails (see photo below). We could not discover a separate access path for Bano de Oro Trail. So you first have to walk the Caimitillo Trail to get to the Bano de Oro Trail.

Baño de Oro
Baño de Oro – the entrance is more attractive than what lies behind
Who can still read this sign may say so Bano de Oro El Yunque National Forest
Who can still read this sign may say so?

Hiking in El Yunque National Forest

With a number of hiking trails in El Yunque National Forest, such as Angelito Trail and Caimitillo Trail, we were done within an hour (per trail). These two trails are achievable for most people with reasonable fitness. Keep in mind that the paths often go uphill and downhill, and the stones can be slippery. At Camitillo Trail you rise from 630 to 740 meters (2395 ft). The starting point is close to La Sierra de Palma and Bano Grande.

Angelito Trail is easier than the Caimitillo Trail; flatter and smaller stones. Both are worth your time, in my humble opinion. Angelito Trail is located in front of the entrance gate and can therefore be walked without an entrance ticket. This path is only 0.4 miles / 0.6 km long, but in my opinion it is definitely worth it.

Angelito Trail El Yunque National Forest
Angelito Trail
Angelito Trail flora fauna
Angelito Trail flora

Other trails such as La Mina and El Yunque Trail are more challenging and therefore more suitable for sporty/fit, experienced hikers. Pay attention, because the Caimitillo Trail runs almost unnoticeable into the Bano de Oro Trail and then the El Yunque Trail. The ‘end point’ of Caimitillo Trail is indicated with a sign that also has a canopy with a bench, but the signs are difficult to read (rusty). So pay attention if you only want to walk Caimitillo Trail.

If you go from the Caimitillo Trail via the Bano de Oro Trail all the way to the end of El Yunque Trail, it will take about 2 hours and 2.6 miles, or 4.2 km. You walk at the El Yunque Trail from 630 meters to 1050 meters (3445 ft). You have to walk back the same path to get back to the point where you started (and where your car probably is).

The Mt. Britton Trail is about a 45 minute walk one way, 0.8 miles, or 1.3 km. This path is also quite tough, although the rise is limited, from 760 to 941 meters (3087 ft).

Caimitillo Trail El Yunque National Forest starts at this staircase
Caimitillo Trail starts at this staircase
Hiking the Caimitillo Trail El Yunque National Forest
On the Caimitillo Trail

La Coca Trail is one of the most challenging trails in El Yunque National Forest – for the enthusiasts! Steep and muddy. In addition, you have to cross the water stream a few times. An experienced hiker will take about 1.5 hours each way on this trail, which is 1.8 miles long, or 2.9 km (times two to get back).

There is also the hiking trail Los Picachos, a branch of the El Yunque Trail. Los Picachos is the most difficult path if I have to believe the signs. This trail is only 0.2 miles, or 0.3 km long, but it will take you about 30 minutes one way.

I really enjoyed hiking in El Yunque National Forest. Beautiful green surroundings, physically challenging but still doable, and wonderful tropical bird sounds! Loved it.

El Yunque Trail sign
El Yunque Trail
Baño Grande opposite La Palma de Sierra El Yunque National Forest
Baño Grande opposite La Palma de Sierra

Waterfalls and swimming

There are three waterfalls in El Yunque National Forest, cascada in Spanish:

  • La Coca Falls
  • Juan Diego Falls / Juan Diego Creek
  • La Mina Falls

At Puente Roto, on the 988 road towards Angelito Trail Head, you can swim between the rocks of the Rio Mameyes (river). Puente Roto and Angelito Trail are outside the entrance gate of El Yunque National Forest and can therefore be visited without an entrance ticket. Puente Roto is located at km marker 2.6 and Angelito Trail at 3.6 km. At the end of the Angelito Trail there is a similar stretch of river, where you can also go for a swim.

Where you can also go for a swim is at Las Paylas. For location see the My Google Maps map in the last part of this article. Las Paylas is located just outside El Yunque National Forest, along the 983 road. You can slide into the Rio Pitahaya via the natural stone slide! Pleasant with daytime temperatures of around 30°C (86°F).

La Coca Falls El Yunque National Forest Puerto Rico
La Coca Falls
Puente Roto El Yunque National Forest
Puente Roto

Lookout towers El Yunque National Forest

There are two lookout towers in El Yunque National Forest. I would recommend climbing at least one. The Yokahu Tower is located at an altitude of 480m (1575 ft), just after the entrance gate. See photo below. You can easily drive to the Yokahu tower by car, park (if there is space) and you can walk up in no time.

The other lookout tower in El Yunque National Forest is the Mt. Briton Tower. This tower can only be reached on foot. The Mt. Britton Tower is located along the hiking trail, about halfway between the parking lot of the Mt. Britton Trail and El Yunque Peak (Roca El Yunque).

Yokahu Tower in El Yunque National Forest
Yokahu Tower is worth a climb
Small waterfall at Baño Grande El Yunque National Forest
Small waterfall at Baño Grande

What to wear and bring

Tip: Put on quick-drying clothes and good walking shoes or sturdy, water-resistant sandals (such as Tevas, no high heels!). And don’t forget to bring your swimsuit and towel if you (maybe) want to go swimming.

The El Yunque Rainforest Cafe is located in the El Yunque National Forest, but it was closed when we were there. I also spotted a smoothie cart near the Yokahu Tower, but it was also closed. There is nothing else. I would therefore recommend that you bring your own lunch, snacks and drinks when visiting El Yunque National Forest.

On the way to El Yunque National Forest we bought sandwiches and drinks at the Subway, along the 3 highway. Tip: also bring a large plastic bag per person to sit on, because the scarce benches are often wet and dirty (bird droppings, etc.).

After your improvised picnic you can use that plastic bag for your waste, because you have to take that with you yourself. At La Palma de Sierra I saw a waste bin, by the way, but I wouldn’t count on it. That’s also where the toilets are (for location see map at the bottom of this article). Bring your own toilet paper or tissues!

My Tevas or hiking boots might have been a smarter choice...
My Tevas or hiking boots might have been a smarter choice…

When to visit El Yunque National Forest

El Yunque National Forest can be visited all year round, except on Christmas Day (December 25). El Yunque National Forest may also be closed due to weather conditions. This may happen for example during hurricane season, which runs from June to November (highest chance in August and September).

I would recommend to visit El Yunque National Forest on a weekday. Preferably not a holiday, weekend day or a day when many cruise ships are moored in San Juan. The week before Easter turns out to be one of the busiest weeks of the year in Puerto Rico. We visited El Yunque National Forest on a Monday in early April 2023.

Try to get an entrance ticket that will allow you to enter El Yunque National Forest as soon as it opens (8am. After 11am it gets busier and more difficult to park at the trails. That’s why we have the Mt. Britton Trail not run; there was simply no parking space. The advantage of going later on a cloudy day or staying longer may be that the cloud cover may open up a bit later in the day. El Yunque National Forest does close at 5:00 PM.

During the Caimitillo Trail it was still quite cloudy El Yunque National Forest
During the Caimitillo Trail it was still quite cloudy

Also good to know

From San Juan to El Yunque National Forest you basically drive via toll roads. This costs approx. US$1.50 each time. Rental cars through established rental companies such as Sunny Cars and Avis are standard equipped with a toll device. Recognizable by the sticker on the front window, often near the interior mirror. About two weeks after returning your rental car, this toll will be claimed on your credit card. In one week we paid less than US$20 in tolls on Puerto Rico (depending on how much you drive and where, of course).

There are a few places in Puerto Rico where you can go ziplining. Super cool! JungleQui Zipline Park is located on the edge of El Yunque National Forest. Nice activity for the afternoon, want to go for a nice ride after walking? The combination ziplining above El Yunque National Forest and the Luquillo Beach mentioned below is apparently also offered as a combination day tour.

More detailed background information on El Yunque National Forest can be found in an extensive atlas.

You don't have to climb up the Yokahu Tower for a nice view
You don’t have to climb up the Yokahu Tower for a nice view

Map El Yunque National Forest

This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.

If you want to drive to El Yunque National Forest yourself by car and set up the navigation, I would navigate to El Yunque Visitor Center. From there the signs are pretty clear.

Staying near El Yunque National Forest

The aforementioned Rainforest Inn on the edge of El Yunque National Forest is truly beautiful… For those who can afford it, I would definitely recommend it. But to be fair: this accommodation is quite expensive (app. US$368 p/n). Although almost all decent accommodation in Puerto Rico is not exactly cheap…

The more affordable alternative is staying in nearby Luquillo. This has two major advantages: it is a nice beach town and it is a good base for a visit to El Yunque National Forest. Alternatively, Luquillo is also ideal for relaxing on the beach, after hiking in El Yunque National Forest, before returning to your accommodation in San Juan or driving to Fajardo, for example.

Accommodation tips for Luquillo, all three about a 15 min drive to El Yunque National Forest:

Two rental sunbeds and an umbrella on Luquillo Beach cost US$27 cash and US$4 cash for parking. A coke costs US$1.50 and for a half-hour kayak rental you pay US$8 p.p. Empanadas and ice cream are also sold on the beach. For US$1 you get a wristband, with which you can use the toilets, changing cabins, etc. all day long. The souvenir shop also sells drinks (soft drinks, beer, water), chips, etc., and also accepts credit cards.

Rainforest Inn El Yunque National Forest Puerto Rico rainforest
Rainforest Inn (photo credits booking)

What else to do in Puerto Rico

At a later moment I will write an extensive article about what else there is to do in Puerto Rico. Important attractions (and recommendations) on the island are:

  • Cascada Gozalandia (waterfall)
  • Las Cascadas Water Park
  • Cabo Rojo (southwestern point)
  • Ponce

Island hopping

East of the main island are numerous small islands. The following three islands are definitely worth a visit. The first two islands mentioned can be reached both by plane and by ferry (30-45 min, from Ceiba). You can visit the latter with a snorkeling tour, usually from Fajardo or Marina Puerto Chico. Tip: plan/book well in advance!

Chilling out under the palm trees of Luquillo Beach Puerto Rico
Chilling out under the palm trees of Luquillo Beach
Sunset kayaking at Laguna Grande Bio Bay, Fajardo Puerto Rico
Sunset kayaking at Bio Bay, Fajardo

Bioluminescence

Puerto Rico is one of the destinations worldwide where the magical natural phenomenon bioluminescence, also known as sea sparkle, can be seen. And that in no less than three different places:

Best is to do this on the half of the month when the moon is the least visible. Ideally not the week before, with or the week after the full moon. We combined our day to El Yunque National Forest with Luquillo Beach and kayaking with sunset in Fajardo. Read all about sea sparkle in the article Experience magical sea sparkle in the Netherlands, Belgium or an exotic place.

Do you want to or are you going to visit Puerto Rico and/or El Yunque National Forest soon? I hope you found this an informative and inspiring article. If you don’t want to miss future articles about these and other destinations, sign up for the Flitter Fever newsletter. In any case, I wish you a lot of fun with your visit to El Yunque National Forest.

From the Yokahu Tower El Yunque National Forest
View from the Yokahu Tower

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Last Updated on 04/30/2023 by Elisa Flitter Fever

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