How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park (Things to Do, When to Go & Camping)

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Yes, of course, it is! There’s no place on earth quite like the Dry Tortugas National Park. Located 70 nautical miles away from Key West, these seven remote islands converge in the Gulf of Mexico’s glittering waters.

Furthermore, these isles are home to the only barrier reef in North America, the Great Florida Barrier Reef. And, amazingly, about 99% of this natural treasure is open water, making it a haven for wildlife, such as sea turtles.

But, Dry Tortugas isn’t just a treasure trove of nature’s finest creations. In fact, the park features America’s largest all-masonry fort. Built from 1846 to 1875, Fort Jefferson was created to protect the country’s Gulf of Mexico gateway.

Today, due to its remoteness, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the USA. Making time to include a visit will be the highlight of your time in the Florida Keys.

Are you planning to spend more time in the Florida Keys? Check out our Florida Keys Road Trip Guide


Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida


Dry Tortugas Map

If you’re looking for a Dry Tortugas map, the one featured below will show you the proximity of the national park to Key West. I’ve also marked the offices for both the ferry company and seaplane company for reference.

Brief History of the Dry Tortugas

David Stock at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas NP
David standing at the entrance to Fort Jefferson

On June 21, 1513, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon became the first European to discover and lay eyes on this archipelago. After catching 160 sea turtles on these islands, he called the whole archipelago Tortugas (turtles in Spanish).

In 1822, Florida, including the Dry Tortugas, was acquired by the United States from Spain. A fortress, Fort Jefferson, was then established as part of a fortification.

On January 4, 1935, Fort Jefferson was designated as a national monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1992, it was redesignated as a USA National Park by Congress.

Today, this archipelago is deemed as one of the most captivating and extraordinary destinations in Florida. This is due to both its remoteness and stunning views.


How to Get to from Key West to Dry Tortugas NP


Getting from Key West to Dry Tortugas can be a little tricky, with its limited options for transportation and extremely remote location. There are no bridges or car access, meaning you can only reach this national park by seaplane or boat.

So, we’re going to detail each option to help you pick the best mode of transport for your visit. By the way, both seaplane and ferry services will take you to Garden Key, home to the NPS Visitor Center and the park headquarters.

Ferry to Dry Tortugas

Yankee Freedom II Ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park
Yankee Freedom III docked at Garden Key

The most popular and affordable way to travel to the Dry Tortugas is by taking the Yankee Freedom III, the official ferry service of the national park. The journey takes 2.5 hours and is a magical experience over crystal clear, turquoise waters.

If you’re taking a day trip via ferry, you’ll have four to five hours to explore the island. Day trips also include a 40-minute tour of Fort Jefferson, complimentary snorkeling equipment, and a couple of meals.

Ferry details:

  • Address: 100 Grinnell St, Key West, FL 33040
  • Contact number: (305) 294-7009
  • Prices: $190 for adults and $135 for children (4 to 16 years old)
  • Tickets can be booked online directly with the Yankee Freedom III

Seaplane to Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas Seaplane parked on the beach

From Key West Airport, you can reach the national park via seaplane. For the most part, the flight to the park takes 30 to 40 minutes. It is possible to book either a half-day trip or a full-day trip to explore the Dry Tortugas National Park.

With the half-day trip, you can expect around 2.5 hours to explore Fort Jefferson, the island, and snorkel. On the full-day itinerary, you’ll have 6.5 hours on the island. If you can swing the full day option, do it. Dry Tortugas is amazing and you’ll be happy you have the extra hours.

The only seaplane operator permitted within Dry Tortugas National Park is Seaplane Adventures Key West and their flights cost $361 for the half-day option and $634 for the full-day option, both prices are per guest.

In our opinion, the higher price is worth it over the ferry because you get two 40-minute scenic flights, get to enjoy an incredible aerial view of Fort Jefferson, and don’t have to worry about rough seas.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson from seaplane
View of Fort Jefferson from seaplane

Keep in mind, drone use is not permitted within Dry Tortugas National Park. This is due to the blanket rules of the National Park system that clearly outlines drones are not permitted within any US National Park and the fact that Garden Key serves as a crucial bird rookery.

So if you’re looking for aerial views, booking the seaplane option is the only way to legally do it. If you are caught flying your drone here, you may be subject to six months in jail and up to a $5000 fine.

Seaplane details:

  • Address: 3471 South Roosevelt Boulevard, Key West, FL 33040
  • Contact number: (305) 293-9300

By Private Boat

Private boats anchored at Garden Key in Dry Tortugas
Private boats anchored off Garden Key

Private boats are permitted in the national park, as long as you dock your boat during the daylight hours. Furthermore, you can’t dock your private boat from 10:00 AM to 03:00 PM when the park’s ferries are docked.

If you want to dive or have unlimited time in the Dry Tortugas, you should consider this option. Keep in mind, though, that this will be the most expensive option as you’ll need to secure a private charter.

Dry Tortugas Day Trips & Tours

Outside of the above listed options, there are no other Dry Tortuga day trips or tours that you can book to visit this remote national park. The seaplane company and ferry service are both authorized concessioners of the National Park Service. No other companies are authorized to operate within the national park.


When is the Best Time to Visit Dry Tortugas?

View from third floor of Fort Jefferson in Florida
View from the third level of Fort Jefferson

Summer is, hands down, the best time to visit the Dry Tortugas National Park. With calm and crystal clear waters, summer is the ideal time for diving and snorkeling in this archipelago. As a bonus, sea turtles head to the shores and lay their precious eggs in summer.

October has cooler and milder temperatures but the waters are choppier in this month, which means less visibility as you dive or snorkel. Not to mention, choppy waves make rather unpleasant rides on the park’s ferries.

For bird enthusiasts, the best time to visit the park is between April and mid-May during the migration season.

All that said, we visited at the beginning of March and lucked out with a spectacular day and low winds. It’s common for the weather to be perfectly fine in Key West only to find out your trip has been cancelled due to high winds over the Rebecca Channel. So keep this in mind, too.

Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park

Campsite on Garden Key in Florida
Campsite on Garden Key

There are no commercial facilities on any of the islands, meaning no hotels, cabins, or lodges. However, if you like a good adventure and don’t mind rustic accommodation, it is possible to camp at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Garden Key’s campground has 10 primitive campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The price is just $15 per night, per site. The campsites also include memorable stargazing experiences and stunning sunsets.

Each campsite has a three-night max if you travel to the park via ferry. For those traveling by private boat, you’ll be given a maximum of 14 days to stay in these campsites.

Worth noting and extremely important to know is that this is full scale primitive camping. There are no resources on Garden Key, yes, this means no water. The park has installed a set of drop toilets for sanitation, but that is all you can expect to find there.

You must bring everything you need with you to the island, including food, water, tent, and all other supplies for the duration of your stay. It is advised to overestimate and bring some surplus of food and water in case of bad weather causing an unexpected delay in your departure.

If you’re planning to camp here, take note that the ferries of the park only have space for around 10 campers every day, each way.

It should also be said that if you want to camp, you cannot book your transportation with the seaplane for your trip. This is due to weight restrictions for the planes. Your only option, should you wish to camp, is to book a camper spot on the ferry.

Know that they sell out months in advance, so early planning is essential to secure a spot.


Things To Do in Dry Tortugas National Park


Whether you’re taking a day trip or spending a couple of nights in the park, you’ll have a few superb options for fun and recreation here. So, enjoy a memorable getaway in this national park by taking notes of these tips and suggestions.

Tour Fort Jefferson

Lina Stock standing inside of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas NP

For history buffs, a tour of this historic fort is the highlight of their Dry Tortugas adventure. Through a ranger-guided tour, you’ll uncover the intriguing history of the fort and the keys of this national park.

There’s even a living history demo for those who want to dive deeper into the past of Fort Jefferson. What’s more, the fort offers night sky programs and eco moat walks for those who are planning to stay longer in the national park.

As a bonus, you’ll find a few convenient amenities around Fort Jefferson, including a picnic area, a bookstore, and a visitor center. The park rangers are extremely knowledgeable about the region’s history and the fort is perfectly preserved, so you’re bound to have a blast here.

For some nice Insta-worthy snaps, head to the 3rd floor and take a photo of the gorgeous water. When you’re done, head to the second floor and explore the hundreds of brick arches that make up the interior of the fort. The fort is made up of 16 million bricks and the design is something to behold.

Snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas

Snorkeler at Dry Tortugas National Park near the moat wall

The Dry Tortugas is a slice of heaven on earth for snorkeling aficionados. Home to over 60,000 acres of coral reef, this national park woos travelers with its spectacular underwater world.

Since it sits in a protected space, and is far away from the mainland, the coral reef has been barely damaged and touched by humans. And, guess what? There’s more marine life here than you’ll find in other parts of Florida.

The reef itself is the tail end of the third largest barrier reef in the world, the Great Florida Barrier Reef that starts up near Miami, skirts through Biscayne National Park, around the Florida Keys and extends out into the Gulf of Mexico, ending at the Dry Tortugas.

The waters are crystal clear too, especially during the summer months. As you explore the park’s underwater world, you’re likely to spot moray eels, angelfish, parrotfish, nurse sharks, and an assortment of tropical fauna.

Kayaking

Two kayaks on a beach in Florida

Want to glide above the spotless water? We suggest that you rent a kayak in Key West and bring it to the park via ferry. You’ll need to secure a boating permit, but don’t worry, as it’s free and easy to secure.

You can paddle around Long Key, Bush Key, and Garden Key. For a longer escape, paddle your way to Loggerhead Key.

Just be mindful of conditions, waves, and your proximity to the island. Always wear a life jacket and heed any warnings that may be given to you by park rangers before you set off to paddle.

Scuba Diving

scuba divers with a sea turtle

The Dry Tortugas National Park is a prime spot for scuba diving. Besides its vibrant coral reefs and marine life, the park also has a plethora of shipwrecks. A popular dive spot here is the Windjammer, which is an iron-hulled ship that sank in 1901 off Loggerhead Key.

Meanwhile, reef divers will find their bliss at Pulaski Shoals. While the dive is pretty easy, it has amazing diversity. It’s a string of reef heads with remnants of a multitude of wrecks and fish feeding off the coral.

It’s not possible to book dive trips from Garden Key, so you’ll need to make arrangements with a dive company or charter boat in Key West if you wish to scuba dive within the park’s reef systems.

Birding

Garden Key in Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas National Park is home to more than 250 bird species, most of which can be spotted throughout the year. Even if you’re not a big-time bird watcher, these creatures are a mesmerizing addition to the park’s heavenly scenery.

Some of the bird species that call the Dry Tortugas home include the golden warblers, red-footed boobies, and black noddy.

When we visited at the beginning of March, there were large colonies of Magnificent Frigate birds starting to nest on the peninsula adjacent to the fort. This meant incredible bird watching from the top of the fort.

For the best birding opportunities, you’ll want to plan your visit to coincide with the nesting cycles of the birds that you’re interested in seeing. From February to September, Bush Key is closed as 100,000 Sooty Terns and Brown Noddy terns make nests and raise their young in the only nesting colonies in North America.

Enjoy the Beaches

View of a beach on Dry Tortugas from the fort moat

A visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park guarantees a heavy dose of Vitamin sea, thanks to its fantastic beaches. Garden Key, for instance, has some nice swim areas accessible via East, South, and North Beach.

Ideal for snorkelers and newbie swimmers, these beaches offer easy entry and gradual slopes. On the Northwest edge of Loggerhead Key, you’ll find a designated swimming spot with shallow and gentle, warm waters.

When swimming in the Dry Tortugas, always keep in mind that there are no lifeguards on duty. Also, swimmers are advised not to dive from walls or enter moats.

Fishing the Dry Tortugas

fishing from the beach in Florida

Despite it being a national park, non-commercial fishing in the Dry tortugas is permitted. If you want to fish during your visit, you’ll need to bring all of your own bait, tackle, and equipment. J hooks are not permitted, so be sure you have the proper circle hooks. There are no gear or supply shops in the park.

You can fish from shore or by private boat, as long as you adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Florida Saltwater fishing license is required
  • Private boaters must file a boat permit at Garden Key before fishing
  • Spearfishing and lobstering are prohibited. 
  • Fishing in the Research Natural Area is prohibited.

For complete instructions and guidelines, you can refer to the documentation published for fishing the Dry Tortugas by the National Park Service.

Stargazing

Milky way galaxy in Florida

If you’re one of the few people who opt to camp in the Dry Tortugas, you’ll be treated with fantastic opportunities to stargaze.

Due to its remote location, Garden Key offers you a chance to view the night sky without any light pollution. This means on clear nights, you can expect to enjoy a full buffet of space in a way that feels like you could reach out and touch it.

Immerse Yourself

Sea view from Fort Jefferson brick window in Dry Tortugas NP

Take the plunge and spend a night or two in the Dry Tortugas National Park. With few campers and unreliable cell service, it’s definitely a relaxing place to get away from the hustle and bustle of your city life.

There’s also no WIFI, so you can leave your worries behind in Key West while you enjoy one of the last few places on the planet that is still disconnected from the rat race.


Other tips and key information


  • Bring everything you need for your day trip or weekend escape. Keep in mind that it’s a pretty remote corner of the world. You won’t find any fuel, freshwater, or other facilities in this national park. Ferry employees offer minor sundries, like hats, shirts, towels, and sunscreen. Likewise, they sell lunch and breakfast even for those who didn’t ride the ferry.
  • Although there’s no cellular service on the keys, the park rangers have access to a radio and satellite system.
  • The $10 entrance fee to the park is already included in your mode of transportation. If you own a national park pass, inform the operator when booking the ride. That way, the entrance will be deduced from the transport’s overall cost.

Be A Responsible Visitor

Lina Stock sitting on the moat at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas NP

The practice of being a responsible traveler has never been more important and as more people venture into the wilderness to explore, it is crucial that we all do our part to keep these places clean.

Due to the remoteness, it is essential that you pack out everything that you pack in. There are no public trash cans, so proper storage of food and waste whether you’re there for the day or camping for a few nights, is required.

Also, please, pretty please, do not deface any of the bricks in the fort. I know this seems obvious but there is already so much graffiti littered on the bricks. This is illegal, do not do it during your visit.

Lastly, drone use is illegal in all national parks in the USA. Do not bring and fly a drone when you visit as this disturbs nesting birds and other travelers. Not to mention that doing so comes with a maximum of six months in jail and a $5000 fine.

Do you have any other tips or advice for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park?

Our visit to Dry Tortugas National Park was done in partnership with The Florida Keys & Key West. All opinions, recommendations, and stories are 100% our own, as always.


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How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park - Things to do, when to go and camping info - By America's Adventure Couple Lina and David Stock Jr


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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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