If you’re planning a visit to Key West then you should add a day trip to one of America’s least visited National Parks to your itinerary. With Dry Tortugas' clear blue water, white sand beaches, and incredible snorkeling this isolated paradise bears more resemblance to an island in the Caribbean as opposed to a national park. It’s an idyllic destination in our country's backyard that you don’t want to miss!
Since the park is 99% underwater and located almost 70 miles off the coast of Key West, less than 80,000 visitors make the journey to Dry Tortugas each year. Compared to other national parks like the Great Smokey Mountains which received over 14 million visitors or Zion National Park with 5 million in 2021, this is a less significant number. It’s also one of America’s smallest National Parks with only 100 square miles and 97 acres. The park is made up of seven small islands, but Garden Key is the island you’ll visit. You’ll also find the visitor center, campgrounds, and snorkeling spots on this island.
Fort Jefferson, which sits at the heart of Garden Key, is Dry Tortugas' main attraction. For good reason too, this 19th-century fort is the Western Hemisphere’s largest brick building, composed of 16 million bricks. History buffs will appreciate this impressive structure’s historical background, used as a prison during the Civil War. The fort's most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd who conspired with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln.It wasn’t until 1992 that America named it one of our National Parks.
While this picturesque island in the Gulf of Mexico is less accessible than the rest of your Key West itinerary, it’s worth the visit. In fact, it was my favorite part of our trip. For those who also deal with mental illness, you’ll find Dry Tortugas to be a wonderful escape with limited crowds and relaxing activities. The anxiety melted away the second I stepped foot onto its beautiful shore.
This post will explore how to get to the island, things to know before visiting, and the myriad of ways to enjoy a day in this paradise of a national park. So let’s get to it!
How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park:
There are two ways to reach this isolated paradise, either by seaplane or boat.
If you choose to arrive by boat you’ll most likely take the Yankee Freedom Dry Tortugas ferry from Key West.
The large catamaran is equipped with an air-conditioned cabin and seated upper deck to enjoy the sun and sea breeze. Aboard you’ll find a snack and cocktail bar as well as multiple showers and restrooms. The ferry follows a firm schedule with check-in time starting at 7 am, so plan to arrive at the dock at this time.
- It takes approximately two and a half hours to reach Dry Tortugas each way.
- The cost for the ferry is $200 per adult.
- Your ticket includes both a packed breakfast and box lunch as well as entrance fees. ( A convenient option for travelers.)
The second option is to take a seaplane to Dry Tortugas from Key West through Seaplane Adventures.
This is what we opted to do for our visit and did not regret it! The trip itself to get to Dry Tortugas was a thrilling adventure. Each passenger has a window seat, provided with headphones, and the pilot will point out notable views, including sea life. Where the ferry has only one morning boarding and afternoon departure time, Seaplane Adventures offers half-day and full-day tours. For half-day tours, you have multiple time slots in the morning and afternoon to choose from but the full-day tour does leave promptly at 8 in the morning. This is the pricier option compared to the ferry, but it’s also the experience of a lifetime and the quickest way to get to the park taking only 40 minutes each way.
- It takes approximately 40 minutes to reach Dry Tortugas each way.
- The cost per adult for a half day is $371 and the full day is $644.
- There are multiple time slots for half-day tours and the price includes entrance fees, however, there's no packed breakfast or lunch.
- Both methods of transportation require advanced ticket reservations. Tickets sell out well in advance, so it’s essential to plan ahead.
- The ferry and seaplane tickets cover the entrance fees to Dry Tortugas in the price.
- If you own a personal vessel you can take yourself to Garden Key but note that space is limited and you’ll need to pay the entrance fee. You must also obtain a free boat permit.
- The ferry and seaplane offer complimentary snorkel equipment but you’re also welcome to bring your own.
- There are benefits to both the ferry and Seaplane so choose what works best for you!
What to see and do in Dry Tortugas NP:
Dry Tortugas is a snorkeler's dream! In the crystal turquoise water, you’ll observe tropical fish, vibrant coral, and exotic marine life. There are four snorkel sites to visit which are found on the provided map you’ll receive before entering the park. These sites include outside the fort’s moat wall, the north and south coaling pier pilings, and the coral heads. Snorkeling along the moat wall was by far some of the best snorkeling I’ve encountered, on par with even Mexico and Bermuda. We spent much of our time on Dry Tortugas snorkeling the various areas. It’s one of the island's top activities. While you can gaze at the stunning coral reefs, please don’t disturb them as this is a protected sanctuary. Touching the coral or animals will cause both harm to you and them. There is also an area north of Garden Key where experienced divers can explore.
Tour Fort Jefferson:
Learn the history behind the fort built in the 1800s and hear stories about the people and prisoners who constructed this remarkable building during a tumultuous time. You can take a tour on your own by downloading the self-guided tour before arriving or with a free guided group. We choose the former, as we wanted to leisurely roam the building and enjoy it at our own pace. Since large groups spark my anxiety, this was the best option. Feel free to wander the building and explore the different rooms and floors. Make sure to peek out the various windows and take a trip to the roof. From above, you’ll have a bird's-eye view of the fort and the surrounding ocean. Get your camera ready because you’ll want to take all the photos here!
Relax at the beach:
What better way to enjoy an island paradise than by basking in its beautiful beaches! Take a stroll on the warm powdery sand with palm trees that sway in a gentle breeze. From the beach, you can even walk along the fort’s moat which is an experience in itself. This was a cherished moment for me as my husband surprised me with a re-proposal and a new wedding ring. It’s truly a special place. You can also spend your time swimming in the shallow water by the shore and then sit back on a blanket under the sun with a picnic for lunch. You can opt for the north, south, and east beach. Visitors generally station themselves on the south or north. We stayed on the south side which we felt had more open space and room.
View the wildlife:
Originally, Dry Tortugas was named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) due to the sheer number of sea turtles found here. While sea turtles are still often spotted on a visit to the park, they're now considered either threatened or endangered creatures and it’s illegal to disturb them and their nests.
Bird watching is another popular option for wildlife viewing as the national park hosts almost 300 bird species with areas providing protected habitats. What species you’ll encounter is dependent on the season and migration. However, the best time to visit is during spring which is when you can see a wider variety and number of birds so make sure to bring those binoculars.
Colorful marine life and coral reefs fill the stunning ocean and are seeable by diving or snorkeling. There are endless schools of tropical fish in an array of vibrant hues in these waters. Many seek the over 30 species of coral that live right off the shore. The vivid and striking reef is some of the best in the United States.
If you’d like to extend your time at Dry Tortugas, you can camp overnight. You’ll sleep beneath a canopy of stars with nothing but the sounds of the ocean’s gentle waves. It's important to note that camping reservations are limited and can sell out months in advance. Camping at Dry Tortugas is primitive, aka you’ll need to bring everything with you. Before deciding to camp on the island, please consider all safety precautions, as you're isolated from civilization and without cell service.
Things to know before visiting:
Services are extremely limited on Dry Tortugas. There is no food or water available to purchase in the park and there are no bathrooms or trash cans onsite. Additionally, you won’t find any cell coverage out here.
Bathrooms are available for use aboard the ferry while it’s docked whether you arrive via the ferry or seaplane.
There are strict boarding and departing times for both the ferry and seaplane so keep an eye on the time. You wouldn’t want to be stranded here.
Dry Tortugas is an island with minimal shade against the sun. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and protective eye and headgear.
What to bring:
- Bathing suit
- Beach towels
- Blanket or sheet
- Comfortable shoes
- Snacks and lunch if arriving by seaplane
- Cash for the gift shop and/or snacks and drinks on the ferry
- Change of clothing for the trip back to Key West
That’s everything you need to know for a day trip to Dry Tortugas NP! No matter how you get there you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the island and relax in its tranquil beauty! If you're planning to visit - let me know in the comments below!