The Florida Keys are home to one of the most unique and remote national parks in the country, Dry Tortugas National Park. Located about 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, this 100-square mile park consists almost entirely of water (99%) and a cluster of seven small islands. The pristine waters that surround the islands are a designated wildlife refuge, home to numerous species of colorful reef fish, sea turtles, spiny lobster and other marine creatures.
Historic Fort Jefferson is located on Garden Key, which is the main island. Garden Key is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Due to its remote location and limited transportation options, Dry Tortugas National Park is also one of the least crowded national parks to explore, with just under 67,000 visitors in 2018! With a mixture of paradise, history and underwater adventure, a visit to Dry Tortugas is sure to be a trip you’ll never forget!
Before you head to Dry Tortugas, make sure you pick up a copy of our downloadable Dry Tortugas National Park itinerary. Not only do we cover the best things to do in Dry Tortugas, we also include details on how to get to and from the island and what there is to see in the area.
HOW TO GET TO DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
Located in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas is not the easiest park to reach. It is important to plan ahead in order to visit the park. There are three ways to get to Dry Tortugas: 1) Yankee Freedom III ferry, 2) seaplane, or 3) private boat.
- Day-trip check-in: Check-in starts at 7:00 AM, but we advise you to arrive early. We arrived in Key West around 6:15 AM to get parking and walk to the ferry terminal. Loading order for the ferry is based on your arrival time. If you want window seats or seats towards the front of the boat (which we advise for better viewing), arrive early and stand in line before check-in time.
- Key West departure time: The ferry loads at 7:30 AM and departs at 8 AM.
- Travel time: The trip from Key West to Fort Jefferson takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
- Island time: You will have a little over four hours to explore Garden Key.
- Fort Jefferson departure time: You will be given instructions to return to the ferry by 2:45 PM. The ferry departs by 3 PM and arrives back in Key West by 5:30 PM.
- If you are prone to seasickness or happen to travel on a day with rough seas (like we did!), make sure to take Dramamine about an hour before departure.
- You can’t leave anything on the boat when you arrive at Fort Jefferson, so be prepared to manage whatever you bring with you for the day.
If you are looking for directions, here are a few links that may be of interest:
- Yankee Freedom Ferry Terminal and City Parking Garage at 300 Grinnell Street
- Key West Seaplane Adventures
There are no direct flights to Key West. The most convenient airports for a trip to Dry Tortugas are:
- Miami, FL (MIA): ~160 miles (3 hours 40 minutes) to Key West via the Overseas Highway (US-1)
- Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL): ~ 190 miles (4 hours) to Key West via the Overseas Highway (US-1)
- Key West, FL (EYW): Flights are limited and costly, but it is only 3 miles from the airport to the ferry terminal.
ACTIVITIES AT DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
Dry Tortugas map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The most visited location and main island in the park is Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located. Garden Key is the only island that is open 24 hours a day; however, Fort Jefferson is only open during daylight hours.
On arrival at Garden Key, orient yourself at the visitor center inside the fort (or take the guided tour). The small visitor center does sell souvenirs, but there is no place to get food or water other than the ferry. There are no public restrooms on the island, but you can return to the boat at anytime during your stay to use their restrooms. Shade is limited at the fort, so be sure to wear sunblock (preferably some that is “reef safe” sunblock) and bring sun protection.
If you plan to visit other islands, you should be aware of some closures and restrictions. Bush Key, located 0.1 miles east of Garden Key, is closed from mid-January to mid-October to protect nesting sooty terns. When open, it is accessible by swimming or personal watercraft.
Loggerhead Key, located about 3 miles west of Garden Key, is only open during daylight hours and accessible by private boat. It is known as a great spot for snorkeling since there are several shipwrecks in the area. It is also home to the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse and a popular gathering spot for its namesake, Loggerhead turtles.
East, Hospital, Long and Middle Keys are closed year-round to protect nesting birds and sea turtles.
Even though most people who visit Dry Tortugas National Park will never venture beyond Garden Key and the surrounding waters, there is still plenty to do there. And unless you are lucky to camp on the island, the four hours most day-trippers spend on the island will hardly seem like enough time!
When visiting Garden Key, our recommendations include:
- Explore Fort Jefferson. Beyond natural beauty, Dry Tortugas National Park is also rich in history. Take a guided one-hour tour to learn the fascinating history of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, the nation’s largest masonry structure. If you’d rather explore on your own, download the Fort Jefferson self-guided tour provided by the National Park Service to your phone before leaving Key West since there is no cell reception on the island. Learn why the fort was built, how it was constructed, its role in the Civil War and what life was like in the Dry Tortugas during its operation by the Army.
Fort Jefferson was never finished and was abandoned by the Army in 1874. In the early 1900s, it became a wildlife refuge for sooty terns and was named a national monument in 1935. It was re-designated in 1992 as Dry Tortugas National Park to ensure the preservation of the historic property and the pristine marine environment of the Dry Tortugas.
The fort has undergone very few changes since its original construction. After walking across the bridge and into the courtyard, find your way into the first floor of the fort to view the long corridors of masonry arches and look through old cannon holes. The second floor of the fort was blocked at the time of our visit, but the roof is accessible via spiral granite staircases. Be sure to go to the roof to take in some of the most amazing views in the park! Use caution as there are no railings to preserve the original look of the fort.
Be sure to walk around the exterior of the fort as well. Sadly, in 2017, Hurricane Irma damaged portions of the moat wall, so you can no longer walk the entire distance around the fort.
- Snorkeling in Dry Tortugas. Dry Tortugas snorkeling is known to be some of the best in the world since the warm, clear island waters are teeming with life! North America’s only barrier reef provides habitat for colorful reef fish, nurse sharks and sea turtles. The area is perfect for snorkelers of all ability levels with depths ranging from 5 to 15 feet. Take advantage of the free snorkeling gear provided by the ferry or bring your own. Also, if you spend time in the water you may want to bring with you a small microfiber towel to dry off.
There are a few main locations for snorkeling at Dry Tortugas. There are two sand beaches on each side of the fort--North Beach and South Beach. You can launch from either of those beaches to swim around the moat wall which has lots of coral and colorful fish.
Another popular spot to snorkel is by the north or south Coaling Pier pilings (dock ruins dating back to the 1800s). Supposedly, some of the larger fish like barracuda, tarpon and even sharks like to hang out by the dock ruins. The water is deeper in the area of the pilings (around 15 feet) and the water tends to be rougher in these areas. If you choose to swim in the area of the dock ruins, be careful and swim with a buddy.
Remember that the reef fish, coral and historic artifacts are all protected. Plus, touching or accidentally brushing against the corals can kill them. Look and don’t touch. It is also good practice to check that your sunscreen is reef-safe before swimming or snorkeling Dry Tortugas.
After swimming and snorkeling, there are three fresh-water rinses on the ferry and three changing rooms on the ferry dock if you’d like to change into dry clothing.
Bird watching in Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas islands see roughly 300 different species of birds throughout the year, making it a great spot for birdwatchers. Most are just passing through, but seven species do next here. Access to areas where birds nest is restricted much of the year, but you can still see some amazing birds with binoculars and spotting scopes. Some of the birds you may see include pelicans, sooty terns, brown noddy, masked booby and frigates.
- Kayaking the Dry Tortugas. Travelling by kayak can be a great way to explore beyond Garden Key and its surrounding waters. However, there is some planning involved since there are no rentals offered on the island. You can either transport your kayaks via the ferry or charter a boat. The cost to transport via the ferry is only about $20/kayak roundtrip; however, no more than three kayaks may be transported on any trip. Once on the island, a boating permit is required for all vessels in the park (including kayaks). See the NPS site for more information on kayaking the Dry Tortugas.
Become a Junior Ranger at Dry Tortugas. Dry Tortugas National Park offers a variety activity-based programs for young visitors to learn about the park and become a junior ranger.
DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK CAMPING
Since there is no lodging inside of Dry Tortugas National Park, it is a daytrip for most visitors. However, for an amazing and memorable experience consider camping at Dry Tortugas National Park! Since space is limited, you’ll have the island almost to yourself once the crowds depart on the afternoon ferry. If you enjoy incredible sunsets and stargazing, this is a camping experience you won’t regret! We didn’t have the time for an overnight visit
Dry Tortugas Camping Reservations and Fees: Overnight camping is only allowed on Garden Key. Eight campsites (each site can accommodate up to 6 people) are situated a short walk from the public dock near Fort Jefferson.
Campsites and composting off to the right in the photo
Campsites are available on a first-come, first serve basis. All campers are guaranteed a spot once they arrive on the island. If the campsites are full, an overflow area is available. Campsites are around $15 per night, payable on arrival at Dry Tortugas. Visitors can camp up to 3 nights on the island.
Though camping reservations are not required, the Yankee Freedom Ferry can only transport 10 campers per day, each way, with their gear. It’s best to call to make your ferry reservations as early as possible and let them know you plan to camp. See the following helpful links for Dry Tortugas camping rules and expectations:
- Rules on camping in Dry Tortugas National Park and Key West Camping
- Camping in Dry Tortugas (from the NPS) and camping tips (downloadable .pdf)
NOTE: Camping at Dry Tortugas is primitive. You must bring everything you need with you, including water since there is no fresh water source on the island. Composting toilets are available, but there are no showers. All trash must be packed out.
BEST TIME TO VISIT DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
Dry Tortugas National Park is open year-round, but transportation to the island is weather-dependent. Temperatures in Dry Tortugas typically range from 60°F to 90°F (though lows during the coldest winter months can drop into the 50s).
The winter season tends to bring more wind and rougher seas but not much in the way of rain. The summer season is generally warm and humid with calmer seas; however, afternoon storms are common. The summer hurricane season also poses a risk for travel plans to the island. Regardless of what time of year you choose to visit, make your ferry or seaplane reservation well in advance!
If you are boating to Dry Tortugas National Park, be sure to check out the information on weather and tidal charts in Key West from US Harbors.
WHAT TO BRING TO DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
- Sunscreen is really important, as you’ll be exposed for much of your time on the island as well as if you choose to spend time on the boat outside. We found Sun Bum Reef Safe sunblock to work great, and it’s friendly to the nearby coral reefs (which is not common in sunblock).
- Hat and sunglasses (there is little shade on the island)
- Water and light snacks (breakfast and lunch are provided on the ferry; some snacks/drinks are also available for purchase on the trip back to Key West)
- When we went, we took our own towels. Since you have to carry everything with you, these small microfiber towels were perfect.
- Camera or smartphone for photos (there is no cell service on the island, so put your phone in airplane mode to conserve your battery)
- Binoculars (if you plan to birdwatch)
- Brush (I don’t usually bring one for hiking trips but guessed that any time spent outdoors on the boat ride might wind my hair into knots…I was right!)
- Dramamine (to avoid seasickness)
RELATED INFORMATION ON DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Be sure to download our Dry Tortugas National Park itinerary ahead of your trip.
- Don’t forget to also check out our blogs on What to See and Do in Everglades National Park and What to See and Do in Biscayne National Park. Both parks are nearby, and it would be a shame to miss them!
- We have an extensive collection of WPA style National Park posters, including a Dry Tortugas National Park poster.
- When you get back, look us up and we’ll work with you to create a custom, vintage travel poster. We provide personal service, free shipping and can create a one-of-a-kind memory of your trip!