Are you thinking of visiting Dry Tortugas National Park? You have come to the right place! In this article, we will walk you through everything you need to know when planning a visit to this stunning and history-filled national park in Florida. In my experience, this is one of the best places I have ever visited!
We will explain what to do in Dry Tortugas, the ins and outs of Fort Jefferson, and how to use the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry. We will also help to keep your trip seamless and more enjoyable by explaining the Dry Tortugas mistakes to avoid.
Planning your trip to Key West last minute?
Make sure to book ahead! Hotels and tours often sell out the closer you get to your trip. Here are our top picks for Key West!
Top Experiences And Tours In Key West:
- Dolphin Watching And Snorkeling Eco Tour (Top pick!)
- Schooner Sunset Sail (2 hours)
- Reef Snorkel From Key West (Includes breakfast and mimosas)
- Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour (Great way to see the city)
Top Places To Stay In Key West:
Dry Tortugas in South Florida is a unique and beautiful park, and you will want to make sure you make the most of your visit. We hope this guide helps you plan accordingly and that you have a great day out.
Now, let’s go over all the Dry Tortugas FAQs!
What Are The Dry Tortugas?
The Dry Tortugas are a group is islands in Florida located in the Gulf of Mexico. Dry Tortugas National Park is a 100-square mile park with seven small islands. It’s a tropical paradise that is known as the home of magnificent Fort Jefferson. This island is a place where nature, history, and relaxation meet to form something quite special.
The history of Dry Tortugas is checkered and somewhat brutal which is a stark contrast to the idyllic setting. The fort named after Thomas Jefferson was a place where soldiers served and died.
The waters surrounding it have many a tale to share about pirates and hidden treasure. It is believed that most of Key West’s fortunes were built on the regulated wrecking of Spanish treasure ships. In 1985 $450 million in silver and gold was salvaged from this area!
This stretch of islands was declared a national park in 1992 and most of the park is actually underwater. Dry Tortugas is the only tropical reef in the States and the third-largest in the world.
And as a bonus, due to its remoteness, the park only attracts approximately 60,000 people a year so it’s never really crowded. The best time to visit is November to April as the winds tend to be less strong and therefore the water is less turbulent.
Where Are The Dry Tortugas Located?
Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The seven islands that make up the area are Loggerhead, Bush, Long, Hospital, Middle, East, and the largest, Garden Key.
The total area of the islands adds up to less than 1/5 of a square mile. Most of the 101 square miles that make up the park are underwater.
To sum up, Dry Tortugas is a remote spot in the middle of nowhere, but well worth the journey! It is one of the best places to visit in the Florida Keys!
How To Get From Key West To Dry Tortugas National Park
Getting to Dry Tortugas is not the easiest or cheapest thing to do. There is no road to Dry Tortugas National Park! The area is remote and can only be reached by boat or seaplane.
Entry to the national park costs $15 and this is included in the price of the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry.
Ferry To Dry Tortugas
The ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas is the Yankee Freedom III. The journey takes about 2 hours 15 minutes. The ride can be very choppy so if you are prone to motion sickness this may not be the best way to travel.
The Dry Tortugas ferry is $190 per person with children going for $135. The ferry departs at 7:30 am and returns at 5:15 pm. The prices include park entrance, breakfast and lunch, complimentary snorkeling equipment, and a fort tour.
Again, book the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry in advance as there are a limited number of seats. It’s best to plan at least a couple of months in advance.
Dry Tortugas Seaplane
Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only seaplane service to Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas seaplane takes about 40 minutes. This option isn’t cheap, coming in between $361 to $634 per person. There is a half-day or a full-day excursion.
You will need to book in advance to snag a spot. During peak season, visitor numbers are limited. There are two planes used with ten seats each.
Dry Tortugas Charter Boats
You can also, of course, charter a boat which may be a cheaper option if there are more of you. Or if you have your own boat you can use that. Perhaps make friends with someone with a boat. If you are looking for how to get to Dry Tortugas for cheap, that is one way!
Either way, you can go on a boat that isn’t the ferry.
How To Get Around The Dry Tortugas
The ferry and seaplane will drop you off at Garden Key, the largest island, and do not offer transportation to the other islands. It’s a small island and easy to walk around.
To visit other areas you will need your own boat, and you must file a free boat permit with the park when you arrive.
If you are planning on camping, bringing a kayak or canoe will provide you with access to the other areas of the park. Just make sure you coordinate this with the ferry before you travel.
How Long To Spend In Dry Tortugas National Park
How long you spend at Dry Tortugas obviously depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to see the fort, wander around, and get a feel of the place, then a Dry Tortugas day trip will be sufficient. There isn’t a lot on the way of amenities on the island so bear that in mind. Most people who stay a day seem to end up wishing they have stayed longer or want to go back.
You can camp but it’s primitive and most snacks and drinking water you will have to get from the ferry when it arrives. Most campers feel one night isn’t enough due to putting tents up and down, and it seems the consensus is that two nights is a good length of stay.
5 Big Mistakes to Avoid At Dry Tortugas National Park
Mistake #1: Eating Breakfast Before Boarding the Ferry
Your ferry ticket includes both breakfast and lunch so there is no need to rush a breakfast before boarding the early morning ferry and risk missing your ride. Once the boat sets sail, passengers will receive their complimentary breakfast.
However, it is a light meal, only consisting of a bagel, yogurt, and drinks like coffee, tea, and juice. If you usually prefer a bigger breakfast or have diet restrictions, you might want to eat breakfast in Key West before boarding.
Lunch consists of a sandwich, chips, cookies, and a drink. Either meal can be supplemented by something purchased from the galley at an extra cost. You can buy freshly popped popcorn, pizza, hot dogs, burgers, ice cream, and more. You can also bring your own food.
If you charter a boat, check if meals are included. The seaplane does not provide food.
Mistake #2: Not Spending the Right Amount of Time
Deciding how much time to spend on Dry Tortugas can be tricky. On one hand, you want to see and do it all. But on the other hand, there is only so much to do on Garden Key, and you do not want to be left with idle time.
If you take the ferry, you will be on the island for about four hours. A seaplane half-day excursion is around 2.5 hours while the full day is closer to 6.5 hours.
Whichever you choose, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Since it is so expensive to get to the island, you will want to do everything in one trip to avoid paying to come back.
If you think you want to spend even more time on the island, then you can camp overnight. If you have your own boat, you can leave whenever you want the next day. Otherwise, you will have to wait until the ferry departs back to the mainland.
Mistake #3: Not Preparing for the Sun
Dry Tortugas has a subtropical climate, and it is very important to prepare for the sun, especially since there is a lack of shade. Bring sunscreen and apply it multiple times as needed. If you plan on swimming, make sure it is waterproof and reef-safe.
Also, bring hats and water bottles to help you keep cool and hydrated. Listen to your body. You do not want to leave the park with a sunburn or with heatstroke. Temperatures range from the mid-70s Fahrenheit in winter to the 80s and 90s the rest of the year.
Mistake #4: Not Bringing Motion Sickness Medication for the Ferry
If you suffer from seasickness or are not sure how a long boat ride will affect you, then you need to remember to bring motion sickness medication on the ferry. The Yankee Freedom has a system to help reduce the impact of waves on the boat, but it is still smart to be prepared. The water is the roughest in the winter when it is windier.
Take Dramamine before boarding the boat or bring ginger chews to help with motion sickness.
Mistake #5: Forgetting the Islands are Primitive
Dry Tortugas is a very primitive national park and is definitely a step back in time. There is no cell service, wifi, or air conditioning. There are some lights in the fort, but otherwise no electricity in public areas.
When the Dry Tortugas ferry is docked, visitors can use the restrooms onboard. When the ferry leaves, campers will have compostable toliets to use. Campers must bring in all of their own food, fresh water, and supplies as well.
Most of the amenities are found aboard the ferry, but it not like you will be spending your time at the park on the boat! The ferry has a galley with food, drinks, and gift shop items. On the return trip, they open the bar where you can buy rum runners, pina coladas, daiquiris, and frozen margaritas.
Best Things To Do in Dry Tortugas National Park
Visit Fort Jefferson
No visit to Dry Tortugas National Park would be complete without a trip to the fort. Named for Thomas Jefferson, it was built to protect the southern coast of the USA. Soldiers served here and lots lost their lives.
If you arrive on the Dry Tortugas ferry, you have the option of joining a 45-minute guided tour of the fort, and we highly recommend it. There is a self-guided tour, however, if you don’t fancy this.
Built between 1846 and 1875, the fort took 16 million bricks to build. It consists of walkways, brick buildings, storerooms, gunrooms, and barracks. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.
At its height, it housed nearly 2,000 people and was described as “a dark, mean place.” It is true the fort had a turbulent and sordid past. During the building, laborers were imprisoned in what become the country’s largest military prison. In 1867, the resident population was halved as yellow fever ravaged the area.
History lovers will enjoy learning about this fort in the middle of the sea. It is definitely one of the best Dry Tortugas activities.
Relax on the Beach
There are four main beaches: South Swim Beach, Seaplane Beach, Dinghy Beach, and North Swim Beach. The names are pretty self-explanatory. Some areas are no swim zones and some are reserved for snorkelers.
Remember to pack your swimming suit, beach towels, sunscreen, and a wet bag to put everything in when you are done. Keep in mind that you cannot remove any shells, coral, or other objects from the beach.
Snorkeling doesn’t get much better than this! Dry Tortugas National Park is home to the most vibrant coral reefs in the States. If you love exploring underwater, Dry Tortugas snorkeling will not disappoint!
The water is shallow (5-15 feet), making this a great experience for everyone, even a complete beginner. Access is easy too. Just walk in from the sand.
Expect to see tropical fish, vibrant coral, starfish, and queen conchs as you enjoy this Dry Tortugas activity. Also, keep your eyes open for sea turtles as the islands are named after them after all. Tortugas is Spanish for turtles.
If you arrive on the Dry Tortugas ferry, you will be provided with a snorkel, fin, and mask free of charge. There are many designated snorkel areas.
You can snorkel and see the historic Coaling Pier pilings, the moat wall, and the coral heads. If you have your own boat, you can also snorkel Little Africa Reef and the Windjammer Wreck.
Remember, look and don’t touch. This area is fragile and protected. Always swim with a buddy for safety.
Kayak / Paddleboard
A great way to get around Dry Tortugas National Park is by kayak or paddleboard. You will be able to see the clear water below and get to places that most people can’t get to.
You cannot use water paddles near Garden Key. For quick paddles, Bush and Long Keys are the closest. Loggerhead Key will take several hours to get to and involves crossing deep open waters.
You will need to get a boating permit to use these items. There are no kayak and paddleboard services in the park so you will need to bring everything with you, including safety equipment, which is required.
Dry Tortugas is known as an angler’s paradise and there are many types of fish you can catch here either from shore or boats. Fishing is not allowed everywhere, so make sure you know the right places to cast your line.
Some places where you can fish include Seaplane Beach, Dinghy Beach, the dock when the ferry is gone, or one of the piers. Expect to find grouper, snapper, mackerel, tuna, sailfish, and more. Did we mention Ernest Hemingway used to fish around here? That proves it is one of the best things to do in Dry Tortugas!
You must bring all fishing equipment with you and have a Florida saltwater fishing license unless exempt.
If you prefer dry land to the open waters then bird watching might be one of your favorite Dry Tortugas activities. You won’t be disappointed as Dry Tortugas National Park has over 300 species. The islands are an important point along the Great Florida Birding Trail.
From tiny hummingbirds to the mighty peregrine falcon, you will spot many cool species. The magnificent frigatebird and sooty terns nest nowhere else in the States apart from this area.
The best time to visit for birds is during spring and fall migration times, especially spring. Do not forget to pack your binoculars!
Visit Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse
Located at Fort Jefferson, this is a lighthouse that never really did its job properly. The light was built in 1826 and was originally named Garden Key Light.
However, shipwrecks and navigation issues increased until 1858 when the more adequate Loggerhead Lighthouse was built on nearby Loggerhead Key.
While it might not have done the best at protecting ships, this pretty, black lighthouse is still a great place to snap a photo during your trip to Dry Tortugas.
Camping At Dry Torguas National Park
Ever dreamed of pitching your tent on the beach and spending an evening looking at the stars and listening to the waves? Well if you have, you’re in luck! Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the best places for camping in Florida.
Be warned though, it’s primitive camping, and you must bring everything including water. There is nothing on the island apart from a bathroom with composting toilets.
You will need to plan ahead as the eight campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Up to six people can stay at each site. There is an overflow area but tables and grills are shared among overflow campers. There is also one group site for ten to twenty people that must be reserved far in advance.
You will pay the camping fee at a self-service stand. It is $15 a night for individual sites and $30 a night for the group site. Cash only.
Camping takes place on Garden Key and the only way to get there with your gear is by private boat or the Yankee Freedom Ferry. The ferry takes all your gear and only has space for ten campers each day. So book the ferry and your camping slot ahead. You will need to arrive at 6 a.m. at the ferry terminal.
Bring enough supplies to last longer than you need as sometimes ferries are canceled. The campsites are designated by tables with stenciled numbers and each area has a picnic table and a grill. Do not forget to bring charcoal because burning wood is not allowed.
We know your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida will be memorable. It really is an amazing experience that not many have the pleasure of enjoying. Getting there might be a little expensive but we feel it is well worth it. Dry Tortugas is unique and has a lot to offer. We hope you have an amazing time and can’t wait to hear about it!
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