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October 25, 2014

Visiting the El Yunque Rainforest with Kids

Ranger-Led Tour with Our Guide, Magda

It’s a beautiful day here in Puerto Rico. The sun is shining and today we headed to the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in North America. When I was planning our Spring Break getaway, El Yunque was one of major selling points, and I was not disappointed by the beauty and uniqueness of this island treasure. It’s just 20 minutes from where we’re staying in Fajardo, and maybe 45 minutes from San Juan, so it’s very easy to reach.

We got there early to avoid the crowds, walking into the El Portal Rainforest Center at 9:15 a.m. El Portal is the first stop at El Yunque, a place to learn more about El Yunque, watch a 15-minute film on the rainforest, and get your bearings if you’re planning a nature hike.

Once we spoke with the information officer, we hopped back in the car and were on our way to the Palo Colorado Visitors Center for one of three ranger-led walks that take place each day at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. It’s a few miles away, and it took us 20 minutes to wind our way through the forest to get there.

The one hour ranger-led walk was a great way to start off our visit to El Yunque and was perfect for both my in-laws (in their 60s) and my youngest children. It was also a nice way to get a taste of the national forest as we learned about various birds, bamboos, palm trees and ferns.

La Mina Trail Map

Even if you don’t go on the ranger-led walk, the Palo Colorado Visitors Center is a great place to stop since there are restrooms, a small gift shop and a knowledgeable forest service worker who can answer any questions you may have about the trails at El Yunque. It’s also the starting point of the popular La Mina Trail, which leads to the more popular La Mina Falls.

After a short break, my husband, Dirk, my eight-year-old, Clare, and I started off on La Mina Trail to check out the falls. It took us around 25 minutes to make our way down to the falls on a narrow path. By the time we got there just after 11:30 a.m. there were no less than 100 people splashing in the water and hanging out on the rocks, and I can only imagine how many more people would be there later in the day.

La Mina Falls

We then hiked past La Mina Falls and picked up Big Tree Trail, which is just under one mile from the falls to the road. It has some steep sections toward the base of the trail, so I wouldn’t recommend this trail for very small children. This trail has some great views and lots of signage offering insights into the various flora and fauna.

Once we finished our hikes, my in-laws and the smaller kids met us at Big Tree Trail (they drove and stopped at some lookout points while we hiked), and we then proceeded to La Coca Falls. It’s a beautiful view, but make sure to hold onto little ones’ hands since the falls are right up against 191, the main road which winds through the forest.

My Daughter, Kate, at La Coca Falls

We probably spent three hours at El Yunque and it was plenty. I think I would like to hike the El Yunque Trail up to the peak, but it’s two hours one way, so that will have to wait for another trip to the rainforest. In the meantime, if you’re thinking about taking a trip to Puerto Rico, here are my five tips to keep in mind before heading to El Yunque as a family.

Hike Hands Free: If you plan to bring towels or bottled water with you on your hike, throw them in a backpack to keep your hands free to hold onto a rail or to catch yourself if you slip. We went on a very dry day, but I can imagine the rocks are somewhat slippery on other days.

Wear Comfortable Shoes: Opt for old, comfortable sneakers. I saw a woman navigating the hiking trail to the falls in flip flops, which looked like a mistake. She was also carrying a tote bag instead of a backpack, too. Some of the rocks at La Mina Falls are slippery, another reason to wear sneakers.

Don’t Hike With Kids Younger than Five: We hiked La Mina Trail down to the falls and then hiked Big Tree Trail away from the falls. Both were short hikes and fine for my eight-year-old, but I know my four-year-old would have had trouble. Parts of the Big Tree Trail are especially steep, and will be tough for small children to navigate.

Go Early in the Day: The El Portal Rainforest Center opens at 9 a.m. and we arrived not long after opening time. We looked around and then drove up to Palo Colorado. It took one hour for the ranger hike, and then a little over one hour to hike La Mina Trail and Big Tree Trail, and by then it had gotten quite busy (I’m sure it would have been much more crowded on a weekend).

Wear Your Swimsuit: It’s very popular to hop in the water at the base of La Mina Falls to cool off. We decided not to jump in since our time was limited, but quite a few people were in the water. It’s not a huge waterfall, so again, get there early.

If you want, you can also pack a picnic lunch since there were quite a few covered picnic table areas along the trails. I would avoid picnicking at the falls due to the crowds and slippery rocks, especially if you’ve got your kids in tow. I walked less than ten feet off the path to get a closer shot of the falls and nearly slipped on a rock, so be careful.

We loved our trip to El Yunque. If you’ve ever been and can offer some additional insights, please leave them in the comments below. Or, if you have questions about El Yunque, feel free to send me a note or leave a question below.


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Comments

  1. Raúl says:

    Some great advice and yes I can confirm most days it is raining and those rocks become even more slippery.

    Another point is for people going up to el Yunque is to stay on the trails and not go very far. That terrain is beautiful but given the heavy vegetation you can lose your sense direction very easily.

    Glad you had fun in Puerto Rico.

  2. Lucy says:

    I have traveled with adults to El Yunque and it was difficult for some of them to navigate the slippery terrain. I have yet to go with our fifteen month old. I do have a baby bjorn but I am afraid of just that; hiking up and slipping with her on me. But I would love for her to see all the wonders of the Rainforest and since she loves the water, dip her into the natural pools and waterfalls. Good advice for readers and their families.

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  5. Henry says:

    Hi there, thanks so much for your tips.
    We just returned from a trip to El Yunque and took much to heart.
    We bypassed El Portal and continued up to the Big Tree Trail.
    We were traveling with our nine month old and wore him in our Ergo Carrier..
    The trail was tricky and slippery at times but we made it to the Falls easily..
    Our Son found it all so wondrous, the only thing I would add would be to bring a towel along to dry the little ones off well before changing thier clothes at the Falls. I was surprised at how chilly, albeit refreshing, it got once we had taken a dip in those magical waters.

  6. S says:

    Is the ranger led walk a very safe trail? I am wondering about our two year old…

    1. Erin Gifford says:

      It was very safe. I was with my 2 y.o., as well as grandparents, and no one had a problem. Great question!