Hiking the El Yunque Trail

On the last of our 3 days in Puerto Rico, Brett and I decided to wake up early and hike in the El Yunque Rain Forest.  The girls like to spend their vacations relaxing, so they slept in.

The most popular hike in El Yunque is undoubtedly the short jaunt to La Mina falls (which we would get to later), but we wanted something to get our blood flowing.  We ended up choosing the much less frequented El Yunque trail, which at just under 6 miles round-trip with about 2000 feet in elevation gain to the peak of the rain forest was just enough to get a bit of a workout without putting us on our butts for the rest of the day.  Plus, the views at the top, which have you looking over both the mountainous rain forest and the green waters of the coast, sounded too good to pass up.

View from the top of El Yunque

We had planned to stop by the visitor’s center for a quick map on how to get to the trailhead, but at 8am we arrived too early for that (the visitor’s center doesn’t open until 9am).  Luckily, we had just enough of a phone signal to look it up and it ended up being very easy to find.  You just stay on Road 191 just past the 12km marker.  The parking lot is actually a shared lot with the La Mina Falls trailhead (the second La Mina parking lot, there is another one about 3km earlier that you’ll want to pass by) and has some decent bathrooms.

The El Yunque Trailhead is across the street from the parking lot.  You’ll start on some concrete steps and can take a short (a couple more steps) diversion up to a spring pool that used to be a swimming area.  Once you’ve seen that, head back down from there and onto the Caimitillo Trail which will be on your left (on your right if you decided not to go up to the pool).  You’ll need to go only about the length of a football field on the Caimitillo trail before you see a sign to hang a left for the El Yunque Trail.  Take that left, and you’re on your way.

The trail is a series of long, but not to steep switchbacks all the way to the top.  You’re trekking through the jungle the whole time, crossing several small streams, and it’s very soothing.  At low altitude and high humidity I was out of my elements.  The low altitude helped make the hike a breeze compared to the thin air of the mountains of Northern Utah, but the humidity had my sweating like a pig.

Being a jungle hike with a decent amount of elevation change makes for an interesting change in the scenery around you.  The trees that grow near the top are very different from the ones that grow near the bottom and the forestscape will be noticeably different as you go up.  We saw and heard a lot of birds on the way up but the El Yunque Rain Forest is short on any really unique jungle wildlife.  You’re not going to see monkeys and bright tropical birds like you would have scattering all around you in the rain forests of Costa Rica.

As you go up, staying on the trail is pretty easy so long as you ignore the couple of turn-offs you’ll pass.  The first real split in the trail is signed well and gives you have the option of getting on the Mount Britton Spur trail.  That trail takes you to Mt Britton tower which is closer and more popular than going to the peak.  If you’re really feeling the burn and don’t think you’ll make the peak but still want a great overlook, head left towards that instead.  If you’ve still got the energy to get to the top then stay right, it’s worth it.

After that, there’s only one split in the trail left, though you can’t really get lost on it since the split is only a small detour.  You’ll come to a sign that tells you that you can go right to get on Los Picachos trail.  It’s only a short 0.2 mile out and back trail to a tower overlook that I recommend taking.  It was very overgrown when we were there and finishes with some steeps stairs up to the top, but is worth the quick detour.  You can see the peak of El Yunque, where you’re headed, from the overlook.  It looks like a steep climb to the top but the trail does a nice job of making it easy.  After you enjoy the view for a few minutes, head back to the El Yunque Trail.  You’re almost to the top!

Before you get to the top though, you have one more optional detour.  This one is very short, just climbing out onto a ledge.  To your right you will see some small rocks you can climb your way up onto a flat peninsula of sorts that drops off on all sides.  It’s plenty wide, but pretty precarious near the edge so be careful.  Brett has a pretty serious fear of heights but he managed to make out to the end by sort of crab walking while not looking down.  Once he got to the end he immediately sat down and thought about getting back.  It was a big step for him to get out there.

Steep rock dropoff

Brett conquers his fears

Back on the El Yunque trail all that’s left is the quick ascent to the peak, probably another half mile or so through some beautiful shaded trees.  Once at the top you’ll meet back up with the road (you could have just walked up the road to the top but where is the fun in that?) just before it ends and can climb to the top of a tower/overlook that looks like some sort of old church/monestary.  There will be cell towers blocking your view west so you won’t quite have a 360 degree view, but 270 degrees around Puerto Rico ain’t bad!  From up here you can see the ocean from three sides of the island.

After spending some time enjoying the views from the peak and having a snack, Brett and I headed back down the same way we’d come up and drove back into Luquillo to meet the girls.  All in all, the hike took us about 3 hours and 15 minutes counting the time spent at the overlooks, and clocked in at 5.86 miles with 1924ft of ascent according to Endomondo.  On our way out we couldn’t help but notice how crowded the rain forest was.  The parking lot, which was empty when we arrived, was now overflowed and there was lots of traffic on the road.  This area is definitely one to check out in the early morning if you can (I know, I hate mornings too) to avoid the crowds.

When we arrived back in Luquillo the girls were having a snack and drink at Boardriders Bar and Grill, and the water was particularly green so we had to snap a few photos before heading to the Luquillo Kiosks for lunch.

La Mina Falls

I was sure the girls would want to head back to the beach for the afternoon but apparently they had gotten their fill of the beach the two previous days, and wanted to check out the rain forest for themselves.  In particular, they were interested in La Mina Falls, so that became our late afternoon destination.

We headed back towards the same parking lot we’d parked at for the El Yunque trail.  Stacie was our designated driver as the rest of us had had a few adult beverages at lunch (it pays to have a pregnant wife).  There are actually two parking lots for La Mina trail, one at KM9 and one at KM12.  Either one will work fine and they’re about the same distance from the falls with the KM9 lot maybe being slightly closer.  We headed to the KM12 lot since we had already seen a trailhead there.

The trail starts out with concrete and steps weaving through some picnic areas.  From there it follows the stream the whole way with a lot of additional picnic areas along the way.  The trail to the falls is downhill pretty much the whole way (which means it’s all uphill on the way back) and goes on for about 0.8 miles.

The falls, of course, were packed.  To get a good long exposure shot of the waterfall I had to photoshop a couple of people out.  The nice thing though is that, with a little light rock climbing you can usually find your own little private pool/area as there are lots of little pools above and below the falls.  Just be careful as it can be pretty slippery.  We set up on a rock next to a little pool with a smaller waterfall going over it.  For a sub-waterfall that wasn’t very high the water coming off of it was very powerful and it was hard to stand under it without getting pushed around.  Nearby some locals were cliff jumping into the pool below, which looked terrifying as the area they had to land in was very small with rocks on all sides.

All in all, the hike clocked in at 1.68 miles round trip with 500ft of elevation gain on the way back.  It was definitely a cool area to spend an afternoon.

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