During a trip to the Florida Keys, I spent a day at Dry Tortugas National Park on Garden Key, 70 miles from Key West. It was on a trip with my mom, and honestly she planned and booked that part of the itinerary without me really even knowing what it was. She kept talking about “dry tortugas” and I was like, sure, sure, we’re going to see some islands shaped like turtles. However, once we arrived I almost immediately started plotting how to “miss” the ferry back so we could stay overnight. Did I consider hiding in a port-o-potty? How dare you even ask that.
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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
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 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
Dry Tortugas is accessible only by boat or seaplane. If yours are in the shop, The Yankee Freedom Ferry, an authorized concessionaire of the park, runs daily trips from Key West. The trip includes breakfast and lunch, bathrooms, and rinse showers onboard, as well as snorkeling equipment and a guided tour of the fort.
It takes 2 hours each way to get to and from the island via ferry, which leaves about 3 hours of time in the park. I am not a camper, but this is one of the times that I think the reward is greater than the suffering: I actually recommend camping overnight to get the most from your experience. Warning: the facilities there are less than basic, so you have to 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.
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 were designated as a national park.
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
For trivia buffs, 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.
I’ve included a resource link below from TropicalSnorkeling.com with more snorkeling tips. They show some great photos of the coral patch along the marker buoys. This looks like the best snorkeling, but it’s probably a 60-80 yard swim from the end of the moat wall.
Beware the tarpon, but only because you might mistake the largest ones for small sharks. (I only inhaled a little 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.
If you camp, you will need to bring everything you need for your stay. I’ve included the checklist from Yankee Freedom below in the resource list. The ferry will drop you off with all of your gear. Depending on how long you book a campsite, you’ll then return on one of their subsequent trips. The campers I saw returning looked sunburnt, grizzled and a little wild! But it’s still on my bucket list to camp at least one night.
Visiting Dry Tortugas was one of my favorite days in the 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 camping to have the park and beach nearly to yourself.
Dry Tortugas National Park & Fort Jefferson Resource List
- National Parks site
- Yankee Freedom Ferry
- Tripadvisor ferry reviews and booking
- Charter list courtesy of the National Parks site
- Key West Seaplane Charters