We visited Dry Tortugas National Park in February 2020. It’s a very unique park and a trip that you definitely won’t want to miss out on. The park is located about 70 miles west of Key West and is a vitamin sea lovers paradise. The park consists of 7 small islands and is surrounded by the most beautiful turquoise water. Dry Tortugas differs from other national parks in that it doesn’t really have hiking trails like the others do. The main attraction of the park is the historic Fort Jefferson, which was once a prison during the Civil War.
This park is very DIFFICULT to get into so let us help you out with some of our top tips for visiting!
There are very few ways to reach the island: seaplane, ferry, or personal/charter boat. We didn’t start planning our trip until we were already in the keys. There ended up being only one day available for us to book out of the 10 days we were in the area (at least for the ferry not sure about the seaplane). Keep in mind that winter is Florida’s busiest season so if you plan to go during the winter/spring you’ll definitely want to get those reservations made as soon as possible!
The ferry costs $180 per adult, which includes entrance into the park as well as breakfast and lunch. The seaplane is $360 for a half day excursion and does not include the $15 entrance into the park and food is not provided.
Onboard the Yankee Freedom III there is both indoor and outdoor seating and an upper deck on the boat. They also provide you with breakfast and lunch but you may want to bring some extra snacks and water for when you are out exploring the island or for the return trip home.
The day we went out there were 7-8 foot swells and choppy waves. If you are prone to getting motion sickness I suggest bringing along some Dramamine just in case or taking some ahead of time. I’ve been on plenty of boats and have no issues with motion sickness but, the last hour of the ride there was awful (I even got sick). They do have Dramamine for purchase, but it’s probably cheaper to bring your own.
The return trip home was a lot smoother and we both fell asleep! It’s an all day excursion so make sure you’re well rested. Check in starts at 7am and you arrive back in Key West around 5:30 or so.
Less than 1% of Dry Tortugas is dry ground! One of the best ways to explore the park is by getting in the water. If you arrive by ferry they have complimentary snorkeling gear for you to borrow. When we went the conditions weren’t great for snorkeling. The waves just kept kicking up too much sand. We still got in and swam though! The water is too irresistible to pass up taking a dip in.
There are a few changing rooms on the island for you to use! We wore our swimsuits under our clothes on the way there so we wouldn’t be wasting any time. The ferry also has a few fresh water rinses on the back of the boat that you can use before the return trip home. Don’t forget to bring towels, sunscreen, and a change of clothes. You’ll want to make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to change and rinse off before you are expected back on the boat.
The fort has 6 sides and 3 levels made up of 16 millions bricks but was never finished or fully armed. You can walk on every level of the fort including the very top and the moat wall too! The top level is completely open to the elements and has the best views in the park. You are also able to walk around the fort on the moat wall. You need to be careful where you step when walking throughout. The moat wall has sections missing from hurricane damage and most of the fort doesn’t have hand railings. There are also bricks laying around so be careful not to trip!
Pets can be brought to Dry Tortugas National Park however, there are a few caveats. Pets are allowed on Garden Key but not inside the fort or on any other key in the park. They must be on leash at all times and pet parents must remove waste from the park. If you are taking the ferry only certified assistance dogs are allowed onboard. So for most visitors to the park, bringing along a furry friend isn’t really feasible.
We did not get the opportunity to camp at Dry Tortugas this time but it is definitely on our bucket list. There is limited availability for campers so you MUST book in advance! Reservations can sell out 9-12 months in advance so it is important to plan your trip ahead of time if you’re wanting to camp on the island. Keep in mind that if you’re camping, you can only take the ferry to get to the island because of all the extra gear. You can book up to a 4 day (3 night) maximum stay. The campsites are $15 to $30 per night depending on party size in addition to the cost of the ferry. While booking the ferry is available online, if you are wanting to camp you must CALL in order to reserve your spot.
Camping at Dry Tortugas is PRIMITIVE camping, meaning you must bring everything with you including water. There are composting toilets available but you must pack everything out that you bring with you. You should bring only the essentials as gear can not exceed 60 lbs. per person (not including water). Due to security/safety aboard the ship campers are not allowed to bring flammable accelerants or propane canisters so options for starting fires are limited to charcoal or stereo cans. There is much more information about camping at Fort Jefferson and rules at https://www.drytortugas.com/key-west-camping/. It seems like a lot of work but I think it’d be worth it to spend a night or two under the stars on a secluded island camped in front of a historic fort.
- We were fortunate enough to just barely make it to Dry Tortugas before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. The Yankee Freedom has resumed daily service to the Dry Tortugas but at a reduced capacity. This makes Tip #1 even more crucial!!! They can take up to 100 passengers per day.
- The breakfast and lunch buffet service is no longer available and the crew will be distributing breakfast and lunch to guests.
- Social distancing measures are being taken aboard the boat also including spacing between parties and markers located on the floors.
- Passengers will need to wear masks while moving around the cabin but can remove them once seated.
Only 80,000 people visited Dry Tortugas last year (compared to the Smoky Mountains 12 million visitors per year that’s a pretty small number). With things operating at a reduced capacity, even fewer people will get the chance to visit this magical place.
If you get the opportunity to visit, you won’t leave disappointed!
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