Last Updated on September 19, 2021
Planning a trip to Key West? Be sure to include a visit to Dry Tortugas, one of the least-visited U.S. National Parks. Located 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas is over 100 square miles of small islands, coral reefs, and marine life. Learn more about Dry Tortugas National Park and get all the tips you need to plan a visit!
A Dry Tortugas day trip from Key West checks a lot of boxes: secluded white sand beaches, spectacular snorkeling, and exploring history with stories of pirates and a 19th century fort. Visiting Dry Tortugas feels like a getaway to an undiscovered Caribbean Island. It also has the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
True adventurers can even camp at Dry Tortugas overnight to have its beaches and nighttime stars all to themselves after the day trip crowd heads back to Key West.
Ready to pack your towel and snorkel? Keep reading for the best tips on how to get there – ferry, private boat or seaplane – as well as history, what to bring along, and how to make the most of your Dry Tortugas day trip or camping overnight!
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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
Pin this Dry Tortugas day trip guide for later!
Don’t miss my tips on the best Airbnbs in Key West, perfect for planning your Florida Keys getaway!
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History of Dry Tortugas
The Dry Tortugas 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 referred to the islands just as “Tortugas.” The “dry” part was added later because of the lack of fresh surface water on the islands.
The 16th and 17th centuries were a “golden age” of piracy in the Florida Straits. Spanish treasure ships sailed this route between Cuba and the Keys, often meeting with pirates or hurricanes. Treasure hunting of shipwrecks continued for centuries, including a 1985 discovery of $450 million in silver and gold from a sunken 17th-century Spanish galleon.
In 1846, five years after Spain sold Florida to America, construction began on Fort Jefferson, still the largest masonry fort in the Western Hemisphere.
Today, Dry Tortugas National Park is 99% underwater! It encompasses 7 islands known for clear blue waters, nearly 300 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.
How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is accessible only by boat or seaplane. While the most spectacular views of the islands will be by seaplane, a charter boat or ferry are more budget options.
Cheapest Way to Get to Dry Tortugas: Yankee Freedom Ferry
The cheapest way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by The Yankee Freedom Ferry, an authorized concessionaire of the park.
The daily catamaran 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.
The Dry Tortugas ferry drops passengers off at Garden Key but doesn’t provide transportation to other keys or areas of the park. This is the one downside of taking the ferry.
Bringing Your Own Boat to Dry Tortugas
If you’re lucky enough to have your own boat, this will provide the best way to explore the Dry Tortugas. Get more information on boat permits here.
Dry Tortugas Seaplane Charter
For amazing views of the Dry Tortugas, consider booking a half-day or full-day excursion via seaplane private charter.
Dry Tortugas Boat Charters: Fishing, Snorkeling, Diving and Wildlife
There are many authorized concessionaires of the park that provide services such as snorkeling or diving tours, guide fishing, sailboat excursions, or wildlife tours. Check out the list of Dry Tortugas charters here.
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, so just stay alert.
- Snorkel along the walls of the Fort, in the South Swimming Beach, out to see coral heads and (for more experienced snorkelers) the South Coaling Dock ruins. There is also good snorkeling in the North Beach area.
- 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.
- Explore Bush Key. During winter months, explore the shoreline of this uninhabited island. (It’s closed during spring and summer nesting season for birds not found elsewhere in the continental U.S.) Bush Key is generally accessible via a land bridge from Garden Key; but sometimes you can only reach it via kayak due to tides and shifting sands.
- Explore Loggerhead Key. Located 3 miles from Garden Key, Loggerhead is accessible by small crafts including kayaks. Due to time constraints, I recommend only venturing to this key if you camp overnight. Here you can find shipwrecks, a lighthouse, and where the historic Carnegie Laboratory for Marine Ecology once stood. Named for its abundance of loggerhead sea turtles, Loggerhead Key has long been a haven for wildlife.
Dry Tortugas Camping
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. After the ferry departs, only portable toilets are available. In short, you’ll have crunchy beach hair, but one of the most beautiful and remote beaches in the U.S. almost to yourself.
Keep in mind that you should plan in advance for the best availability for Dry Tortugas camping. The park actually recommends 8-12 months, since the campsite only accommodates 10-20 campers.
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, Fort Jefferson was used a a prison for court-martialed soldiers and others as a means of cheap labor to finish the construction. This later included four of the men convicted of Lincoln’s assassination. One of them, Dr. Samuel Mudd, became a hero for hygienic practices he put into place as the prison’s doctor during a yellow fever outbreak, earning him a pardon for his crimes and an early release.
In 1935 Fort Jefferson was named a national monument, and in 1992 the fort and Dry Tortugas together were designated as a national park.
A Day at Dry Tortugas National Park
Upon your arrival at Dry Tortugas, the park rangers give guided tours of the fort (included in the ferry trip).
When I visited, we wanted to spend most of our time in the water. So we walked the perimeter via walkways which separate the fort’s moat from the open water, and then headed to the beach.
Dry Tortugas Swimming
The soft, white sand beaches at Dry Tortugas are perfect for relaxing. Since the park is more than 99% under water, you’ll definitely want to experience at least a quick swim! The South Swim Beach was especially calm during my visit.
Dry Tortugas National Park Snorkeling
The ferry provides a map of the best snorkeling spots. Dry Tortugas is a great place for beginner snorkelers, since you can enter from the beach and snorkel in a calm area.
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 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 make you queasy, and of course reef-safe sunscreen and a towel. I’ve got more packing tips below.
Get info on all the snorkeling and diving sites of Dry Tortugas here.
Looking for more snorkeling adventures? Check out my guide to sailing in the Virgin Islands with a catamaran charter vacation or day trip!
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Meals & Facilities at Dry Tortugas
If you visit Dry Tortugas via ferry, you’ll have breakfast and lunch on board the ferry. You can also use the restroom facilities on board at any time during your trip.
There are no other restaurants on the island. If you travel via seaplane or charter, your tour company will let you know what’s provided.
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-6
- 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 are some options for women and some for men). I’ve even worn UPF capri pants for snorkeling to keep my backside from burning!
- The ferry will provide a snorkel, mask and flippers; but you can bring your own if you prefer. This Cressi kit is a good choice. If you wear glasses, consider a mask with the option of prescription lenses.
- I always wear a Buff UPF headband when I snorkel to keep my forehead from getting burnt and keep my hair out the seal of my mask
- A light 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
- If you burn easily or want some shade for kids, consider bringing a lightweight pop-up shelter
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 per person, not including water.
If you can fit it within your allowed weight limit, consider bringing along a kayak and life vests so that you can explore other nearby keys like Loggerhead Key. Check with the Yankee Freedom when booking, as space might be limited; or consider an inflatable kayak like this one.
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.
If you camp, you can even night snorkel along the Moat Wall! Get tips here.
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!
Want to turn your vacay into an epic adventure? The best way to experience the Florida Keys is with a road trip from Miami to Key West! Get my ultimate itinerary planner here.
Taking a Miami to Key West road trip is a classic U.S. adventure. Get ready for the open road with this ultimate Florida Keys itinerary planner including sights, stops, and hotels for your Miami to Key West drive!
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
- We loved our stay at the Southernmost Beach Resort, especially its location and nighttime dining on the beach
- Get my guide to the best Airbnbs in Key West
- Search more Key West hotels
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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