Road ascending into clouds

Seen from the sea, El Yunque Mountain peaks at a modest 3,500 feet, but its slopes are still an imposing knot on the horizon.   It’s the focal point of El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system.  The park is less than 40 miles from the past day’s visit to downtown San Juan, and the drive takes just over an hour.

The name of this place has changed so many times that you’re to be forgiven if you’ve not heard of it before.  King Alfonso XII made it a Spanish forest preserve in 1876, and it became America’s Luquillo National Forest in 1906.  It was renamed Caribbean National Forest in 1935 and the El Yunque National Forest in 2007.

View from observation tower

Here Atlantic trade winds smack into the mountains to produce almost 250 inches of annual rainfall and a constant shroud of clouds.

Without a distinct wet or dry season and with constant temperature and daylight, the growing season is year-round and the bio-diversity is incredible.

Waterfalls abound

On this day a misty fog hangs heavily enough in the air to dampen clothing, and the 70-degree temperature feels much chillier in the stiff mountain breeze.

Yokahu Tower lookout

Visitors can survey four different vegetation zones within the park from 6 different trail segments.   There’s also a walkway 60 feet above the ground at the El Portal Rain Forest Center – located about 4 kilometers inside the forest – that allows for a treetop view.

Rain forest canopy

There are also two lookout towers – El Yokahu at around Kilometer 9 and El Britton at around Kilometer 15 – that afford great views.

Rainfall returns to the sea

Anyone who’s come face to face with a bear will be relieved to know that no large wildlife inhabits the park, but small game is abundant, including species unique to this spot like the Puerto Rican Amazon parrot (Amazona vittata).  Its wild population had shrunk to only 30 birds until it was introduced into other local forests in 2006.

The Jurassic forest

Among the forest’s four vegetation zones, the bosque enano… the dwarf forest… is unique to Puerto Rico, and sits at around 3,000 feet.   Their growth stunted by shade of the rainforest canopy and incessant winds, tree trunks are widened and branches have fewer leaves.
Twenty-three species of the forest’s trees occur nowhere else on the planet.

Mountains in the mist

Most species of coqui, small frogs native to the island which have endeared themselves to Puerto Ricans, are found here in abundance. These tree-dwellers have no webbed feet and hatch their young out of water not as tadpoles, but as fully-formed frogs!

El Yunque’s 3,500 foot elevation may seem modest, but the ascent to the peak from just above the Yohaku Tower rises 1,500 feet over just under three kilometers.  Bring a poncho! 

See related posts on my trips to:

Mt. Rainier National Park
Channel Islands National Park