El Yunque: From the North Side to the South Side & Back

Update- Nov.30, 2017- El Yunque has NOT yet reopened after the hurricanes. It sustained a lot of damage to the trails and roads. It is being worked on and we will post when they have reopened.

4/13- This is not an official trail way and these trails are officially “closed”. We have not done this trail in 4 years…after 4 years a non-maintained trail gets less and less user friendly. We really do not recommend anyone do this, it is too easy to get lost. If you try to follow this route, be aware it will take longer and be more difficult than we described. Also, the trail marker for the closed Rio Sabana trail has also overgrown and is hardly visible. Recent hikers noted it was closed off by orange plastic “fencing”.

South side of El Yunque National Forest

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll let you in on a little secret — we enjoy hiking in El Yunque National Forest. Of course, since we live in Río Grande, we focus mainly on the trails off of Road 191 on the north side of the forest. We don’t get to the south side of El Yunque too often, so that area is kind of new to us. We recently discovered a way (actually 2 ways) to hike between the north and south sides of El Yunque.

We have hiked all of the usual marked trails in El Yunque, so we are always looking for new and interesting trails/paths to explore. During a hike in early 2009, on Trade Winds Trail, we met some hikers that were coming up from South Road 191. They told us about an old, unmarked trail ( the old Río Sabana trail) that very few people know about. That little bit of information got us thinking … possibly a new trail to explore?

When we got home we did some research and then spent some time talking to the folks in the Catalina Service Center. What we found out is that there is an old trail that goes through the Toro Negro Wilderness Area that connects the Trade Winds Trail to South Road 191 in Naguabo. This trail officially opened in 2011. It is again officially named as the Rio Sabana Trail

5/13- this trail is closed and not maintained. This hike will not be for the average rain forest visitor. These trails require moderate to challenging hiking in a very remote area. Be prepared. These trails are not maintained like the marked trails lower in the forest. Some have land-slided areas, which require a side trip around. Hike at your own risk!

Getting to the Trail Head

Tony Croatto trail head

To reach this new trail, you need to hike about 2¼ miles in on Trade Winds Trail. To do that, one drives up Road 191 as far as you can. Park near the locked gate in the designated parking area. If that area is full, there is additional parking on Road 10.

But honestly, if you’re not one of the first cars there it means you’ve probably gotten started too late in the day to make it back to your car before they lock the gates. So go sit on a beach and have a Piña Colada and come back another day early in the morning!

Note the Rio Sabana trail is not marked where it meets the Trade Winds Trail,so you need to be on the lookout for it. So how will you find it? The Trade Winds Trail is marked with mile markers, but they’re not much help since they appear to be out of order. So here are some hints from our notes. In 2009, It took us about 1½ hours of hiking on Trade Winds to get to the junction with Rio Sabana, but recent hikers said it took about 3.5 hours. In that time, you’ll cross 2 wooden bridges. You still have a ways to go after the second wooden bridge, but eventually, you’ll come around a curve and you’ll see a tree on the left that is "marked" with a number of ribbons (though in 2013, they were hardly visible- look for orange plastic fencing). That’s it. You’ll see what is left of the trail.

Since we knew we would be hiking alone in a remote wilderness area, we took the precaution of letting our friends know where we would be hiking and they were also on-call as a "backup ride" at the south Road 191 area in case we decided that we couldn’t make it back to our car one the north side on foot. If you do this hike, it would be smart for you to have some sort of similar "backup plan" as people have gotten lost in these “wilderness areas”.

Tony Croatto Trail Map

This map is our interpretation of the trails leading through the El Toro Wilderness Area. We used a variety of sources, as well as waypoints from our own GPS taken along the trails. We’ve marked the hiking trails with different colors. There’s no significance to the colors. We just wanted to be able to make the different trails "stand out" on the map. Please note that you can click on the blue labels in the map for more information.

On the Trail, Heading South

River Crossing on Rio Sabana trail

Once you get on this trail, be prepared for some effort filled hiking. The trail is about 2⅔ miles long. It is not maintained and it is rarely used, so there are many fallen trees you need to climb over or under. It has uncut grassy areas (with “razor grass”), wooded areas and muddy areas. All in all, it was a difficult trail. The trail is primarily packed earth and stone/rock. Kind of uneven and slippery in spots. It does cross the Río Sabana, where you will get your shoes wet. So you might as well them off and cool off in the river while you are at it!

Rio Sabanao trail

The trail officially opened in Spring 2011, and it already has a few landslides that have devoured the trail in spots, but people have made new paths that go around the slide areas. Look for ribbons of prior hikers (we added some orange ones) to help guide the way.

Just like Trade Winds, it is a pretty trail. Full of flowers, wild orchids and interesting plants not usually seen on the more used trails. You do go along the side of the river and cross a few small streams along the way. You could jump in and enjoy the peaceful place and cool water if you wanted. As you descend in elevation on this trail, you’ll move down through different types of forest — starting in the Sierra Palm Forest at the top down to the Palo Colorado Forest at the bottom. It’s interesting to notice the change in vegetation as you move down the mountain.

The Southern End of the Trail

Rio Sabana Recreation Area

As we were walking down and down along this trail, I was really dreading the hike back up. We hiked from the junction with Trade Winds to the bottom of the trail on Road 191 South in about 1¾ hours (note- recent hikers said it took more than 2.5 hours). The trail ends (or starts for you 191 South people!) at the new Sabana Recreation Area (picnic pavilion). There are picnic shelters (with grills and picnic tables) and restrooms, but no water (other than the river). It is located right alongside the Río Sabana and it has a nice little pool where you can sit on the rocks and enjoy the river.

Which is exactly what we did — we took our shoes off, cooled our feet in the water and ate our lunch here. While relaxing, we met a local who was panning for gold in the river sand. He told us we could walk back to the north side along Road 191. He said he had never done it, but that there is a foot path that gets you over the huge landslide that ended up closing the road back in 1970. The road is a more direct route, and only about 3½ miles. After already walking almost 5 miles and knowing so much of the way back would be uphill, I voted for taking Road 191 on the way back to our car. Just to be on the safe side, we called our "back-up plan" friends and informed them of the change in our hiking plan.

Note-this road is official closed for foot traffic. We are not recommending people take this route, but this is what we did. Reality check- A number of people that use the closed trails or go off trail (like this route) have gotten lost in the forest overnight or longer and need to be rescued. Be safe.

Hiking North on Road 191

Upon leaving the cool shade of the river, we headed off toward Road 191 North. With the picnic pavilions behind us, we turned toward the left side of the parking lot and walked around the locked gate. Road 191 is an asphalt road (and in the full sun) for a short while, then it quickly deteriorates to a foot path. It is really just a tiny path made through the brush.

Road 191 heading north

The trail (if you could call it that) is muddy, wet, and full of bushes with stickers. But don’t give up hope. This tiny, rough path continues for less than a ½ mile, with a few places where you need to climb a little up and down little streams and washed-out areas. But once you get passed the slide area, you get back on the asphalt road and it is easy, almost flat, walking. What a breeze that was after the little path!

Walking up Road 191, there is a 600 foot gain in elevation, but it is gradual and along a long distance, so it is hardly noticeable. Well, until the last ¼ mile where there is a much more obvious rise. But it still was not bad. We made it back to our car in about 2 hours using this route. Much faster than re-tracing our steps on the trail through the forest.

At the end of the day, we were tired and muddy, but really happy with our adventure. And even happier to get into the air-conditioned car!

Notes & Details

Potential camping spot on Rio Sabana trail

It is also possible to do this hike by starting at the south end. If you choose to do that, I would suggest starting up the old Road 191, turning left onto Trade Winds Trail and then picking up Rio Sabana Trail for the hike downhill to the Río Sabana area.

Bring LOTS of water (we had 2+ liters per person), lunch and snacks. Wear long pants and good hiking shoes since you will be walking on unmaintained trails. Make sure you tell someone where you will be hiking.

We stopped in the talk with the folks in the Catalina Service Center and they mentioned that Trade Winds Trail is technically "closed" due to the landslide you have to cross. They (and of course we also) don’t recommend anyone hike it. But when we did it, there was no one to stop you from using the trail. In 2009, we found the trail is usable, and there was no sign saying the trail is closed, in 2013, it is much less usable and there is a large sign saying it is closed. You need to check in at the station to check current conditions.

Like the rest of El Yunque National Forest, there is no charge to hike on this trail.

Open daily 7:30am to 6:00pm (closed Christmas Day). Ranger stations are open 9:00am-5:00pm. The gates close at 6:00pm.

Remember to pack out all of your trash!

Drive as far up Road 191 on the north side of El Yunque as you can. Note- you need to park in designated areas only- so you will have tp park on the Mt Britton road parking and walk to RT 191. Walk up hill beyond the gate for about ¼ kilometer. The trail head is marked with a sign on your right.

Read about Hiking on Trade Winds Trail Goto Our El Yunque National Forest Recreation Area Trail Map GPS: 18.293792 N 65.792106 W GPS: 18.280234 N 65.810500 W GPS: 18.267429 N 65.795014 W

We are in the process of updating the maps we use on our web site. While we're working on that, you can click on the GPS coordinates below to view the location on Google Maps ...

PuertoRicoDayTrips.com assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid … then don't do it! Read more about Safety →

Comments & Discussion Leave a Comment »

There are 8 comments on this article. Add to the Discussion »

Thanks for the heads up. Yes, it is a closed, unmaintained trail that is getting worse and worse. Anyone who tries it must realize it is not safe/easy.

Comment by Gwenn on 10 Jun 2017

Hiked today from North along 191 into the land slide area. Very dangerous now - it seems the "trail" now is down to a single stone at one point you have to hit - or go down the cliff. I am not exactly used to such rough trail conditions, maybe on a better day without rain and in a group. I really, really do not recommend that trail at this point in time.

Comment by Kai Griebenow on 09 Jun 2017

My boyfriend and I just hiked the rio sabana trail today. It took us two hours to get to the river, and when we got there, we had to basically slide down a hill and climb on unsteady logs to get to the water. We knew this was the right place because a few locals were also using the trail and there were blue and pink ribbons at various points marking the trail. The rest of the trail before the river was walkable, but probably not for much longer. Some areas of the path are just wide enough for one person to walk on along hills and cliffs. It also rained on our way back and made it very slippery and difficult to see- not a good combination with some steep slopes right next to the trail. The road leading up to the picnic area was a nice walk. We also walked up past the picnic area on route 191 past the gate. We made it about a half mile up where the asphalt stopped, made it a little farther through mud and foliage, and then had to stop because the entire "road"/landslide area was covered ankle deep in water for the unforeseeable future. All in all, we really enjoyed our day. If you go, just know what you're getting into, know your personal limits and don't go anywhere that looks or feels unsafe. We saw some really great foliage and enjoyed the hike and especially being away from the crowds on the north side of the park.

Comment by Elizabeth Schell on 30 Jan 2017

We did the Rio Sabana Trail on 11.26.2016. We started from the picnic Recreation Area. It was a little rainy and the trail was somewhat muddy in areas and we noticed some wash out areas. However the trail was not terrible and we enjoyed going through the various levels of the forest. When we got to the river Sabana where we had previously swam, we saw that the river was muddy and far too fast-moving for crossing or swimming. In fact we understand that a woman was washed down the Cubuy River just below the waterfall down from the casa cubuy Lodge last week. She landed in the pool down the river and was able to safely get out but she was very lucky. We saw the evidence of those flash floods just today as we left the rain cloud forest area. We also tried walking from the south side of 191 towards the north but it was incredibly muddy and we did not get very far. We are very interested to know if anyone has made it through recently.

Comment by Shelby stephens on 28 Nov 2016

we did the rio sabana trail early december 2014. Started from rio sabana picnic area. Were lucky to have several sunny days so trail was pretty easy...only slid down once. Made it to rio sabana crossing bu were uncertain as to continuance of trail. Wonderful meadow beside river crossing. Great places to swim in pools near this crossing. Wish we could have gone on to el toro...next time...cannot wait to get back!

Comment by shelby on 21 Dec 2014

Did the Rio Sabana trail yesterday. At some points it 's narrower than what I think it was originally, but it can still be hiked. We mapped it with two different GPS's and it's somewaht different to what is on the maps. I know is not in the shape it was originally designed with the rock trail and everything but can be made. In many places it's just dirt. It rained so in other places it was somewhat muddy, but not impossible. We crossed the river on foot once, no bridge (apparent remmants of old bridge there) but no rope or anything to help. It looks like somebody took off all the old flagging tape and placed a new one along the trail. So the trail is completly marked with a new set of orange flagging tape. At the 3 trails corssing (River, Toro, Tradewinds) there is no orange plastic construction fence anymore, and it was not around. It looks like somebody did some maintenace in the area. Also, the tree with all the ribbons posted in the pictures now has only an orange flagging tape and one on the oposite side of the trail marking the trail head for the Rio Sabana trail. From the crossing returned so no information on the other two trails.

Comment by Omar on 21 Apr 2014

Thanks for posting- I have updated the articles. The trails are closed...they were bad 4 years ago when we did it, I am saddened to see how bad they have gotten since. Personally, I think that whole Rio Sabana trail was a waste of money- no one maintains it.

Comment by Gwenn on 19 May 2013

Since the trail's closing, conditions seem to have changed a bit. And the tree marking the turn-off to the Rio Sabana trail looks different now. Here's a link to my friends' and my experience doing these trails this weekend, with pictures. (Ray and Gwenn, I don't expect you to post the link, but your site doesn't give me a way to attach a picture to a comment. Feel free to swipe my photo from the post if you want.) http://sueinpuertorico.blogspot.com/2013/04/razor-grass-rain-and-other-adventures.html

Comment by Sue on 28 Apr 2013

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