El Yunque is like no other place in the United States. It is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, and it is home to many Puerto Rican endemic and Caribbean birds. Though one of the smallest national forests, it is the most biologically diverse. Birding is only part of the attraction: Trails lead to spectacular waterfalls, mountain streams, lookout towers, and panoramic views of the rain forest. Lush green vegetation abounds, as do showers. It is wet.
It was primarily the birds that drew me, and I was not disappointed. They’re not numerous, but they are memorable, particularly for mainland Americans. On my first visit, I saw Puerto Rican Orioles in a tree, a Loggerhead Kingbird from the walkway, Scaly-naped Pigeons in the canopy, Red-legged Thrushes in the foliage, and Bananaquits everywhere. And that was all in the parking lot of the El Portal Rain Forest Center.
Like most visitors, I did not see the most famous avian resident, the iconic and endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Its wild population once dwindled to 13 birds, but captive breeding has increased that number. Nonetheless, sightings are still exceedingly rare. — Jason A. Crotty
Pullouts from PR191 lead to birding sites and trailheads. Some trails paved; others are winding, narrow, and/or uneven. They are often wet and can be muddy. El Portal Rain Forest Center wheelchair-accessible.
Year-round: Scaly-naped Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, Mangrove Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, Green Mango, Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Tody, Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Puerto Rican Parrot (rare), Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Gray and Loggerhead Kingbirds, Puerto Rican Vireo, Red-legged Thrush, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Elfin-woods Warbler (rare in dwarf forest), Bananaquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Tanager, Puerto Rican Spindalis, Greater Antillean Grackle, Puerto Rican Oriole, Antillean Euphonia. September to April: Black-and-white and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Northern Parula. Uncommon: Adelaide’s Warbler.
When to go
Visitor center and gift shop, restrooms, picnic areas, trails, two observation towers.
National forest. Open 7:30-6. No fee for the forest, but $4 entrance fee ($2 for seniors) for the El Portal Rain Forest Center.
The forest is a tourist attraction, so early mornings and late afternoons are best for birding. Crowds are thinner away from popular attractions. Be prepared for showers. Traffic from San Juan can be challenging, particularly midday during high season or when multiple cruise ships are in port.