Big Tree Trail and La Mina Falls Trail
Caribbean National Forest, Puerto Rico
The Caribbean National Forest, or El Yunque, was set aside as a reserve by the Spanish in 1876 making it one of the oldest protected forests in the northern hemisphere. The forest became part of the USDA system in 1903, and it remains the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System to this day. Several trails are scattered throughout this impressive park, and two of the most popular are the Big Tree Trail (0.9 miles one way) and La Mina Falls Trail (0.7 miles one way). These two trails are both a means to the same end, that end being the 35-foot tropical beauty of La Mina Falls—an exquisite waterfall that drops over a jumble of huge rocks into a picturesque pool where hikers can choose to swim or simply rest and enjoy the lush rainforest. You can hike these two trails separately, or you can form a 3-mile loop trail by incorporating Hwy 191 into your trek. We chose to do just that, by beginning our hike along the Big Tree Trail, hiking 0.9 miles to La Mina Falls, continuing on along the La Mina Falls Trail, following the La Mina River upstream for 0.7 miles to the Palo Colorado Recreation Center, and then back to our car at Big Tree a mile down the road. As stated, we began our hike on the Big Tree Trail, a self-guided interpretive trail complete with a number of informative signs in both Spanish and English that describe in detail the wonders of the Tabonuco Forest—a visually stunning collection of over 240 different species of trees, epiphytes, giant ferns, and mosses which make up the true rain forest of El Yunque. Sections of the trail are quite steep, but you only descend 164 feet to the falls—ending at an elevation of 1,640 feet. Along the way, the hiker is treated to spectacular views of the diversity and magnificence of this ecosystem that was declared a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in the 1970’s. When you arrive at La Mina Falls, you will likely encounter several people swimming in the refreshing pool, unless you arrive really early in the day. We timed our hike for an early arrival in order to photograph the cascade sans swimmers. Leaving the falls, you will begin climbing the 492 feet up the La Mina Falls Trail to the Palo Colorado Recreation Center—elevation 2,132 feet. The trail has several sets of concrete stairs that can be slippery and somewhat arduous, but you will soon forget any difficulties encountered along the trail when you find yourself immersed amid the lush tropical trees, red bromeliads, pink impatiens and numerous still pools and tiny cascades of La Mina. When you finally reach the parking lot, sweaty and a little out of breath, you will no doubt be smiling—content in the fact that you have now hiked two of the best trails in the CNF system—all that is left to do now is return to your car and savor your accomplishment.