Every step squished as my foot disappeared up to my ankle in orange-brown mud on the El Toro National Recreation Trail. Glad to have picked up a walking stick, I stepped carefully toward the next rocky patch in the trail as we approached the 3,526-foot El Toro Peak.
It rains 350 days a year in these “cloud forests” that grow above 2,500 feet in elevation on the island of Puerto Rico. As my wife, Tiff, and I ascended toward the mountain summit, we hiked through several downpours that arrived intermittently from the east, pushed by the trade winds. The rain inspired the singing of normally nocturnal coquis (co-KEYS), small tree frogs whose name is onomatopoeia for their call.
The last stop in my quest to hike in all 155 national forests took me to El Yunque National Forest in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, located southeast of Florida in the Caribbean Sea. The 28,500-acre national forest is located at the eastern end of the island on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains, less than an hour’s drive from the capital of San Juan.
Also called Bosque Nacional El Yunque, this forest was known as Caribbean National Forest from 1935 until 2007, when it was renamed for a prominent 3,496-foot peak. It is the only tropical rainforest within a national forest, although there are temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, it is the oldest protected forest in the U.S. Forest Service system, originally set aside in 1876 by King Alfonso XII of Spain. This national forest also contains the 10,000-acre El Toro Wilderness, which, in 2005, became the first wilderness designated in a U.S. territory.
Unlike other national forests, El Yunque is a major tourist destination in Puerto Rico, with buses bringing cruise ship passengers up the mountain throughout the day. They all stop at La Coca Falls and Yokahu Observation Tower, but fewer visitors hike to the top of El Yunque. Enough people visit that the Forest Service instituted an online reservation system similar to the one at Rocky Mountain National Park. Also unique among national forests, we found beach towels, thimbles, teaspoons, coasters, keychains and clothing all emblazoned with the name El Yunque National Forest.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria that struck Sept. 20, 2017, and the Forest Service’s El Portal Rainforest Visitor Center remains under reconstruction. Several trails made by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s are also closed for repair. Many of the trails we hiked throughout the U.S. were originally created by the CCC, as is true at countless other national parks and state parks (like Wyoming’s Guernsey State Park).
El Yunque National Forest has no distinct wet or dry season, and even at its highest elevations, it never freezes. However, strong trade winds at the highest elevations above 2,500 feet keep trees in the Elfin Forest pruned to less than 12 feet tall. Average annual precipitation in these “cloud forests” is 150 to 240 inches, and poor water runoff from the volcanic soils results in boggy, acidic conditions. Similar to the krummholz trees growing in alpine parts of Wyoming, some of the stunted trees that survive this harsh environment are more than 1,000 years old!
There are 240 different tree species found in this tropical rainforest, 23 of which are endemic to Puerto Rico and growing nowhere else in the world. At lower elevations, the forests receive less rain, allowing the silvery-leaved sierra palm and 15 species of tree ferns to dominate. These lowest elevations of El Yunque National Forest were also the most heavily logged throughout history. In the 1940s, only 6% of the island remained forested. Due to reforestation efforts and agricultural abandonment, that number has improved to 55% today.
Most trees growing in this tropical rainforest provide homes for numerous epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants without needing to put their roots into soil. They obtain the nutrients and water they need from the air around them, so typically are limited to very humid environments. Epiphytes represent 10% of all vascular plant species in the world, and examples include some types of orchids, ferns and bromeliads (members of pineapple family). In the tropical rainforest, vines (or lianas) are also common, climbing up trees to compete for sunlight.
Even though this is a tropical rainforest, there are no poisonous snakes on the island, but the endangered Puerto Rican boa can grow up to eight feet in length. Another endangered species, the Puerto Rican parrot, was once down to only 13 individuals in the wild, but now their population is at 500, including those in captivity.
There are 17 species of coquis in Puerto Rico (11 of them endemic), but only the forest and common coquis emit their namesake sound. Rather than going through a tadpole phase, all coqui emerge as froglets after incubation (only one species has webbed feet). These tree frogs are one of the most common symbols of Puerto Rico, and they were even depicted in indigenous Taíno petroglyphs.
Completing the journey
I set out near the beginning of the pandemic to visit the remaining 100 national forests I had not yet hiked of the 155 total. El Yunque National Forest was the crowning achievement in my journey, and getting to the only national forest in a U.S. territory required me to get on an airplane for the first time in two years. I have now completed the research necessary in order to finish writing my travel guidebook to the forests, which will be released in 2022.
To complete this monumental task, I needed lots of support from both my wife and my recently retired mother. Together, we drove more than 40,000 miles across 42 states (plus Puerto Rico). We hiked and backpacked well over 700 miles of trails in 117 national forests, spending 129 nights camping.
I made countless great memories on this journey, while practicing social distancing and other virus-related safety measures. I believe it is important to try not to feel limited by international travel restrictions, because there are so many amazing places to see within our own country.
I hope that sharing my stories inspires you to explore the national forests and other public lands set aside for all our enjoyment.