Last Updated on October 26, 2020
During a vacation to the Florida Keys, I took a day trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park on Garden Key, about 70 miles from Key West, Florida. With its white sand beaches and a secluded location, Dry Tortugas feels like a hidden paradise. But by far the reason to visit Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson is that it’s the best snorkeling spot in Key West!
Haphazard Rating for Dry Tortugas National Park: (2 of 5). Some areas recommended for experienced snorkelers; jellyfish spotted in the swimming area; bring Dramamine for the boat ride.
To See: A 19th-century fort, amazing beaches, snorkeling, primitive camping, a million nighttime stars
To Eat: Breakfast and lunch provided onboard the ferry or bring a picnic/cooler. There are no restaurants on the island
When to Visit: All year, but be sure to book in advance; and be aware of the Florida hurricane season June – October
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History of Dry Tortugas
The Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses 7 islands known for being the site of the 19th century Fort Jefferson. It’s also home to clear blue water, many species of birds, and some of the least-disturbed coral reefs in the Florida Keys. This is due in part to its UNESCO designation as part of the Everglades and Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve. And it turns out they got their name when Juan Ponce de Leon, the first known European to see the islands, visited in 1513. He caught so many sea turtles that he then referred to the islands just as “Tortugas.” The “dry” part was added because of the lack of fresh surface water on the islands.
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The cheapest way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by The Yankee Freedom Ferry, an authorized concessionaire of the park. But just a word of warning: at around $175/person, it’s more of a bucket-list day trip than a budget travel spot!
The daily ferry to Dry Tortugas departs from Key West. The ticket includes roundtrip transportation, both a buffet breakfast and lunch onboard, bathroom facilities, and showers where you can rinse off. Also included is snorkeling equipment and a guided tour of Fort Jefferson.
It takes 2 hours each way via ferry to Dry Tortugas, which leaves about 4-5 hours of time at the island.
What to Do At Dry Tortugas
There is more than enough to keep you busy for a full day at Dry Tortugas!
- On the way, you’ll get to see views of Boca Grande Key, the Marquesas Keys and the Rebecca Shoal Channel.
- After arrival, you can take a guided tour of the island, called Garden Key, and Fort Jefferson with a park ranger. You’ll learn about the history of the island and fort, including its use as a prison camp during the Civil War.
- Walk around the perimeter of the Fort along the wall that makes up the edge of the moat, but be careful! To preserve the history, there are no railings; the paths are wide, but you could still fall in if you don’t pay attention!
- Snorkel along the walls of the Fort, in the South Swimming Beach, out to see coral heads and (for experienced snorkelers) the South Coaling Dock ruins.
- Walk along the pristine beaches and look for shells. Since it’s a national park, you can’t take them with you, but it’s still fun to see what you can find.
Maximizing Your Dry Tortugas Trip
To get the most out of your Dry Tortugas trip, I recommend camping! While the facilities are very basic, the gorgeous scenery far outweighs any negatives. During our day trip, we just didn’t have enough time to enjoy all the amazing snorkeling spots plus take a tour of Fort Jefferson with the park rangers.
To camp, you must bring everything needed for your stay. There is no food service, water, fuel or charcoal and only portable toilets after the ferry departs. In short, you’ll have crunchy beach hair, but one of the most beautiful and remote beaches in the U.S. almost to yourself.
Unfortunately, you need to plan months in advance for the best availability for Dry Tortugas camping: the Park actually recommends 8-12 months as the campsite only accommodates 10-20 campers. The fee is $15.00 per campsite per night, or $30.00 for group camping, paid in cash to the park rangers. Click here for the reservation form that you can return via email and find more camping information here.
Fort Jefferson History
Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Americas, which is no small feat if you imagine that all of its 16 million bricks had to be hauled in by boat! The U.S. purchased the land from Spain around 1820 and eventually built a fort there. During the Civil War it was used a a prison for court-martialed soldiers and others, which later included four of the men convicted of Lincoln’s assassination. In 1935 it was named a national monument, and in 1992 the fort and Dry Tortugas was designated as a national park.
A Day at Try Tortugas National Park
Upon your arrival at Dry Tortugas, the park rangers give guided tours of the fort (included in the ferry trip).
We wanted to spend our time in the water, so instead we walked the perimeter via walkways which separate the fort’s moat from the open water, and then headed to the beach. The ferry provides a map of the best snorkeling spots. We stayed along the fort wall of the south swim beach and the south coaling dock ruins, where the pilings of the old dock are overgrown with corals. To reach the pilings, you need to swim out from the beach and around large rocks. I’d recommend that area for experienced snorkelers. It’s a little bit of a swim, and the waves were stronger than in the more protected beach cove.
Beware the tarpon, but only because you might mistake the largest ones for small sharks. (I only inhaled a teensy bit of water via my snorkel!) We saw some jellyfish as well. Bring dramamine if boats give you trouble, and of course reef-safe sunscreen and a towel.
Dry Tortugas Packing & Gear List
In order to enjoy your time at Dry Tortugas, be sure to bring everything with you that you will need for your stay. You might be able to purchase some items on board the boat, but the price will be at a premium.
Dry Tortugas Day Trip – What To Bring/ Packing List
- Bathing suit and cover up or shirt and shorts
- Beach towel
- Underwater camera like a Go Pro or Olympus TG-5
- Hiking sandals are great for the boat and walking around the Fort (check out these options for women and also some for men – my favorites are by Keen)
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Sun hat for women, sun hat for men or a packable visor
- If you burn easily in Florida’s rays, try a UPF shirt with sun protection (here’s an option for women and one for men) and even UPF capri pants
- The ferry will provide a snorkel, mask and flippers; but you can bring your own if you prefer or if you wear glasses and need a prescription mask
- I always wear a Buff UPF headband when I snorkel to keep my forehead from getting burnt and keep my hair out of my mask
- Sweatshirt or jacket for the trip back (can get a little chilly if you go on the deck)
- Wide-tooth comb and travel-size spray detangler and any basic toiletries you might need (you’ll be able to rinse off but not take a full shower)
- Dramamine or Bonine for seasickness, just in case
- A beach tote to carry everything in, or a dry bag is great for keeping water and sand out of your stuff
Dry Tortugas Camping Checklist & Info
If you camp, you will need to bring everything you need for your stay, including water. You can download the Yankee Freedom’s camping checklist here. The ferry will drop you off with all of your gear, but you have a weight limit of 60 lbs of gear plus water.
Depending on how long you book a campsite, you’ll then return via ferry on one of their subsequent trips. The campers I saw returning looked happy, sunburnt, and a little wild! It’s definitely on my bucket list to camp there at least one night.
Why You Should Visit Dry Tortugas National Park
Visiting Dry Tortugas was one of my favorite days in the Florida Keys, with easy beach-access snorkeling and a pristine setting. Be sure to book early, as even the day trips sell out weeks in advance. And consider overnight camping at Dry Tortugas to have the park and beach nearly to yourself!
Dry Tortugas National Park & Fort Jefferson Resource List
- Book the Yankee Ferry excursion via Viator, a TripAdvisor partner
- Dry Tortugas National Park site
- Private charter list of boats and seaplanes
- Camping checklist courtesy of Yankee Freedom
- Downloadable map courtesy of Yankee Freedom
- TropicalSnorkeling.com advice on Dry Tortugas
Where to Stay in Key West
Looking for more Florida travel ideas? Check out my post on how to swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida! Love to snorkel? Grab my packing and gear list for snorkeling trips!
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