11 Mar Mini Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park
Located 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote parks in the United States. Consisting of several small islands and miles of water, the park is made up of only 1% land. With landscapes straight out of a postcard, the islands will leave you feeling like you are stepping into paradise. The islands are only accessible by boat and one of the islands is home to an abandoned military fort filled with history.
I’d wanted to visit the Dry Tortugas for years, so I was so excited when we were finally able to venture out to the National Park. We took a day trip to the islands, and after a choppy 2.5 hour ride, our boat docked at Garden Key. While on the island, we spent the afternoon exploring the history of the fort, taking photos of the beaches, watching the pelicans roam around the docks, and walking around the perimeter of the moat. The weather was perfect, hovering around 75ºF, and the endless turquoise water shimmered in the shining sun.
Park Facts and History
- The national park status was given to the Dry Tortugas in 1992.
- There are 7 islands and the park covers 100 square miles. The seven islands in the national park are Garden Key, Bush Key, Loggerhead Key, East Key, Middle Key, Hospital Key and Long Key.
- The Dry Tortugas are located on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
- Fort Jefferson is one of the nations largest masonry forts and was built in the mid 1800’s in order to protect the shipping channel, but the fort was never officially completed due to numerous delays.
- Lighthouses were built on both Garden Key and Loggerhead Key because the islands are low, flat and surrounded by coral reef systems—because of this hazard, there are hundreds of shipwrecks in the surrounding waters.
- During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison. One of the most famous prisoners that lived at the fort was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was the doctor who aided John Wilkes Booth with a broken leg and was one of the eight people convicted during the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial.
- Because the park is so remote, there is a free visitors center in Key West called the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. This visitor center gives you a look into the native plants and animals in the Florida Keys.
- The island is a “dry island” as it lacks fresh water—visitors must bring their own water to the island.
- During its peak years of operation, there were over 2,000 people at Fort Jefferson, but after the Civil War ended, its usefulness began to decrease. It wasn’t until 1935 that the fort was designated a national monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- Ernest Hemmingway was once stranded at Fort Jefferson for 17 days during a fishing trip to the Dry Tortugas—he was with a group of friends he called his “Mob” and they survived on their supply of canned foods, fish, coffee and alcohol.
There are two ways to get to the island: boat or seaplane. The Yankee Freedom III is the official ferry transportation to the island—the boat sails to and from the island once every day, unless the weather gets too rough. The tour includes transportation to the island, breakfast, lunch, snorkel gear, and the entrance fee to the park. You can also charter a boat to the island, or if you have your own boat, you can dock at the island with a two hour time limit.
The other option for getting to the island is by a 40 minute seaplane ride—Key West Seaplane Charters offers half-day and full-day tours to the Dry Tortugas. The half-day seaplane tours allow for 2.5 hours of island exploration, while the full-day tours give you around 6.5 hours of time on the island.
The islands see around 300 different species of birds throughout the year, which makes it the perfect spot for birdwatchers. Some of the birds you may see on the island are pelicans, sooty terns, masked booby, kingfishers, raptors and brown noddy. While the islands see a large number of birds pass through, only 7 species regularly nest on the islands. The park is also home to a vibrant coral reef and sea grass community where a wide variety of reef fish live, along with nurse sharks, sea turtles and the occasional crocodile.
Things to Do
Even though the Dry Tortugas are made up of a small group of islands, there is plenty to do. Hopping in and enjoying the water is always tempting, especially on those hot summer days. Water activities such as swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing and kayaking are available; although, you need to bring or charter your own boat/kayak as tours are not offered. If you have a boat, you can also access Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the Dry Tortugas. Access to the island is only available during the day, but you can explore the lighthouse, the nearby Little Africa reef and the Windjammer Wreck.
On land, you can take a history tour of Fort Jefferson, go geocaching, bird watch, or join one of the several ranger guided programs such as ecological moat walks, night sky programs, or living history demonstrations. Camping or private boating are the only ways to explore the island at night, and with the limited number of overnight visitors, it’s sure to be an adventure.
Where to Stay/Accommodations
Camping is the only option for accommodations at the Dry Tortugas National Park. If you aren’t the camping type, you can visit the island on a day trip and spend the night in one of the many hotels in Key West.
If you do decide to camp on the island, you can take the ferry for transportation and the campsite fee is payable at the park. The ferry transports a maximum of 10 campers per day to the island, so make sure to plan early and reserve a spot on the boat well in advance of your camping date. There are 10 campsites available and each is large enough for 3 2-person tents. Campsites are first come first serve, but if all sites are full upon your arrival, you will not be turned away and the park rangers will find you a suitable place for you to pitch your tent.
Boaters are also permitted to stay overnight on their own boat, as well. Overnight anchoring is permitted as long as your boat is not blocking a designated channel and it is anchored in the sand bottomed areas located within 1 nautical mile from the harbor light of Fort Jefferson.
- The entrance fee for the park is $10.00 per visitor, but visitors under 16 are free. This fee covers entrance to the park for 7 days.
- Roundtrip transportation on the Dry Tortugas ferry costs $175/person for day trips and $195/person if you want to camp.
- The half-day seaplane tours cost $317/person and allow 2.5 hours on the island, while the full-day tours cost $555/person and allow around 6.5 hours of time on the island. Nothing other than transportation is included in the tour, so be sure to bring extra cash for the park fee and a packed lunch if you stay for the full day.
- A maximum of 10 campers per day are transported on the ferry and camping fees are $15 per site.
- You can bring a total of 60 lbs of gear plus water with you on the ferry. The ferry does not allow you to transport fuels such as propane or lighter fluid. Self-starting charcoal is suggested if you are planning on starting a fire or grilling at the park.
- There is no food, water or fuel available on the island, so everything you need must be brought with you.
- All trash must be packed out and taken off the island when you leave.
- Garden Key is the only park that is open 24 hours a day. Bush Key is closed during the sooty tern nesting season. Loggerhead Key is open during daylight hours and the other keys are currently closed year round to visitors.
We are working on a goal to visit every national park in the United States, and along the way we are creating mini guides to each park showcasing the park highlights, things to do, accommodations, essential info and a general overview. To see more of the mini guides we’ve created, head over to our National Park Project page. And, always remember to confirm any information directly with the park before departing–information and details may change and we want your trip to go as smooth as possible!