Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is a collection of 7 islands that are located approximately 70 miles from Key West, Florida in the United States. The most distinct feature of Dry Tortugas is that 99% of the 100-square mile National Park is located beneath the Gulf of Mexico's water with it consisting of protected coral reefs. It is also one of the least visited National Parks in the United States with an average of 60,000 visitors each year.
Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
The Dry part of the name is due to the islands lack of any surface freshwater (which provided many difficulties in maintaining a presence on the islands)
Fort Jefferson is an unfinished Coastal fort that began construction in 1847 with the intention to provide protection of the gateway into the United States from the Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent main shipping channel
Fort Jefferson was converted into a prison after it was half completed in 1860 until it was abandoned in 1874. It remains largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, consisting of over 16 million bricks
It was designated as a National Monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January of 1935 and was expanded as well as re-designated as Dry Tortugas National Park in October of 1992
As with each of the 63 designated National Parks within the United States, Dry Tortugas National Park is operated by the National Park Services and visiting www.nps.gov is always recommended for current updates on closures and other bits of information before and during your trip.
Modes of Transportation to Dry Tortugas National Park
There are 3 main forms of transportation you can use to reach Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Yankee Freedom Ferry
This is the most common and also least expensive transportation option to reach the National Park. You can purchase the tickets online at www.drytortugas.com and they are $200 for an adult ticket. This price is for the ferry ride and the $15 National Park Entrance Fee. If you have the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass the ticket would be $15 cheaper at $185 for an adult ticket.
Included with your trip purchase:
Breakfast snack and box lunch
Complimentary snorkeling equipment
Entrance fee to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson
Fully narrated 45-minute tour of the fort
Beach walking, snorkeling, swimming, or just relaxing in the sun
On the day of the trip, Check-in is at 7am, boarding at 7:30am and the Ferry leaves at 8am. The ride takes roughly 2.5hrs with arrival at Fort Jefferson at 10:30am. Departure from Fort Jefferson is at 3pm and arrival back to Key West is 5:30pm.
Key West Seaplane Charter
There is only one company that has clearance to provide service to Dry Tortugas National Park and that is Key West Seaplane Adventures.
They provide a Half-Day excursion that is just under 4 hours total with a flight time of 40 minutes each way and 2.5hrs of time on Dry Tortugas National Park. The Half-Day costs $397 for an adult ticket + the $15 National Park Entrance Fee Cash (unless you have the America The Beautiful National Park Pass).
The Full-Day excursion is just under 8 hours total with a flight time of 40 minutes each way and 6.5hrs of time on Dry Tortugas National Park. The Full-Day costs $697 + the $15 National Park Entrance Fee Cash (unless you have the America The Beautiful National Park Pass).
Reservations for either excursion are required ahead of time and the link for the website is attached to the name of the company above.
Bring Your Own Boat
This option is relatively self explanatory as it is specifically for visitors who are willing to ride their own boat out to the National Park and will then have to pay entrance fees for each person on the boat over 16 years old. You can purchase a digital pass ahead of time at Recreation.gov or you can swing by Garden Key to purchase the entrance fee in cash.
Activities within Dry Tortugas National Park
Snorkeling- The coral reefs provide an incredibly beautiful backdrop to the seafloor as well as containing an abundance of sea life including sea turtles and a variety of fish
Picnicking- There are benches located around the outside of Fort Jefferson as well as plenty of secluded spots along the strips of beach surrounding the key to sit down and enjoy a peaceful meal
Birdwatching- Dry Tortugas National Park has an official bird list of 299 species with only species frequently nesting within the park. These species include sooty tern, brown noddy, brown pelican, magnificent frigatebird, masked booby, roseate tern, bridled tern, and mourning dove. Birdwatching peaks in spring when migratory birds pass through the park
Saltwater Fishing- This activity requires either visiting on your own boat or to carry your supplies with you if you were planning on camping
Kayaking-This activity is done either by renting a kayak or bringing your own. It is physical demanding out at the National Park, so caution should be taken
Camping- There are 8 primitive campsites located in the National Park. Individual campsites cost $15 per night, per site, and Group campsites cost $30 per night with reservations required. Cash & checks are accepted while credit cards are not accepted
Basic Tips When Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
These are a few tips to be aware of when visiting one of the most isolated National Parks in the United States:
Booking reservations/tickets in advance is highly recommended due to a high demand paired with a restricted number of spots
If taking the Ferry, lunch is provided, but snacks and drinks are an additional cost so packing extra food is budget-friendly
Items to bring include: Bathing Suit & Beach Towel, Camera, Sunglasses & Hat, Snorkeling Gear – Optional, Sunscreen, Binoculars, Sturdy Pair of Walking Shoes, Change of clothing
Motion Sickness pills or patches are good to have, the sea can definitely get rocky and make the ride there or back brutal
The rental snorkeling gear is not the greatest, so bringing your own like stated above would lead to a better experience
The isolated nature of the National Park means that there will be no cellular service, so plan accordingly
If visiting by Ferry, have an idea of how to use your limited time so as not to feel lost on arrival
Dry Tortugas National Park is Absolutely Worth the Visit
The United States has some of the most incredible National Parks available to visit ranging from immensely popular (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Zion) to least visited such as Dry Tortugas as the 3rd least visited within the contiguous 48 states. Not including the National Parks located within Alaska that are even less visited as well as difficult to visit, Dry Tortugas National Park most certainly has a higher price point and difficulty to visit than average ones located throughout the states.
The raw beauty of the park is something you don't get from most of the other National Parks to visit though. It is also a great park to combo a visit to Everglades National Park with due to the similar ecological environment that has its own distinct beauty.