Dry Tortugas National Park: The Complete Guide

The brick fortress of Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park

Bob Krist / Getty Images

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Dry Tortugas National Park

Address
Florida, USA
Phone +1 305-242-7700

Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique destinations in the entire U.S., as it combines history and a pristine marine ecosystem into one unforgettable experience.

At the heart of the Dry Tortugas sits Fort Jefferson, a massive coastal citadel that holds the distinction of being the largest masonry structure in the entire Western Hemisphere. Construction of the fort began in 1846 and required more than 16 million bricks before it was complete. In its early years, Fort Jefferson served as a base of operations to combat piracy in the Caribbean; later, it played a crucial part in the Civil War as a garrison for Union forces and a prison for Confederate soldiers. After the war ended, the fort was all but abandoned, with just a small caretaker team left behind to maintain the grounds.

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Fort Jefferson a national monument, and in 1992, it was elevated to national park status. At that time, the size of the park was expanded to cover 64,700-plus acres, creating a marine preserve that encompassed several other small islands and a large coral reef.

Today, the Dry Tortugas remains a true hidden gem among America's national parks, in part because of its location. Because it requires a bit of extra effort just to get there, the park sees fewer than 80,000 visitors per year. That ranks well below the Great Smoky Mountains—the most visited national park in the U.S. system—which welcomes more than 12 million travelers on an annual basis.

A stone walkway passes over the blue water surrounding Fort Jefferson

Eddie Brady / Getty Images

Things to Do

Unlike most national parks, the Dry Tortugas doesn't have hundreds of miles of trails to hike, nor does it offer access to a vast backcountry wilderness. Instead, most visitors will spend their time exploring Fort Jefferson itself, marveling at the feat of logistics and engineering that it took to build the place. Travelers can wander the grounds completely on their own or opt to join a guided tour. And while there is something to be said for exploring independently, the knowledgeable guides can provide fascinating insights into the history of the fort.

Situated in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the park is home to one of the most well-preserved coral reefs in Florida, and visitors can catch a glimpse of them by diving and snorkeling in designated areas. As you make your way in, you'll find that the waters surrounding the fort are teeming with wildlife. Dozens of species can be found here, including sea turtles, octopus, squid, small sharks, coral lobsters, and a stunning array of fish.

Active travelers can also choose to explore the waters surrounding Fort Jefferson by kayak. This is an excellent way to spot wildlife and soak up the tropical sun, all while getting unique views of the brick fortress. Note that you will need a permit to take any boat, including a kayak, into the park waters. Paddlers are also required to have a personal flotation device (aka a lifejacket), a signaling device (usually a whistle), and a portable VHF radio. Be sure you know the regulations before you set out.

Because of its abundant marine life, the park is also a popular destination for saltwater fishing. Visitors can choose to bring their own boat or charter one in Key West, but either way, both a permit and a Florida fishing license are required. Popular game fish that are found there include grouper, snapper, tarpon, and mahi mahi. Anglers will find fishing off the Dry Tortugas to be a memorable experience, but be sure to review the National Park Services regulations before embarking.

Fort Jefferson surrounded by the deep blue Caribbean Sea

Bob Krist / Getty Images

Where to Camp

While there are no hotels, cabins, or lodges at the park, camping is permitted on Garden Key, where eight designated campsites can be found. Each of these sites is designed to fit up to six people, with enough room for three two-person dome tents.

The campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and can be identified by a picnic table with a number stenciled onto it. If the eight sites are already claimed, a camping overflow area is available in a grassy spot adjacent to the regular sites. This location also has tables and grills, although they must be shared among the campers occupying the overflow zone.

It is also possible to stay within the park's borders aboard your own watercraft. As already noted, a boating permit is necessary when entering park waters, but once obtained, visitors can drop anchor and spend the night there should they choose. Overnight anchorage is permitted in the Sandy Bottom area within 1 nautical mile of the Garden Key lighthouse. Staying in all other areas of the park is prohibited.

Whether camping or staying aboard a boat, you'll want to pack plenty of food and water for the duration of your stay. Camping stoves that use cook fuel are not permitted on the island, so be sure to bring charcoal for the grills.

A sea plane with pontoons shuttles visitors to the park

pattischmidt / Getty Images

Getting There

Due to its location off the coast of Florida, the Dry Tortugas National Park is only accessible by boat or floatplane. Travelers will need to book passage on a ferry or seaplane in order to reach Garden Key. Both modes of transportation depart from Key West and usually fill up early. Visitors are encouraged to book well in advance of their trip.

Most visitors make their way to the Dry Tortugas aboard the Yankee Freedom, the only ferry authorized to visit the park. The state-of-the-art catamaran departs daily at 8 a.m. and spends 2.5 hours at sea making its way to its dock at Garden Key.

The cost of passage aboard the ship is $190 per adult and $135 per child between the ages of 4 and 16. Younger children are allowed to travel for free, while students ages 17 and up, active military personnel, and seniors over the age of 62 are eligible for discounts. The price includes the entrance fee to the park, a breakfast snack en route, a box lunch, and a 45-minute tour of the fort. Snorkeling gear is also provided.

A brick corridor stretches into the distance inside Fort Jefferson

bennymarty / Getty Images

Accessibility

The dock for the Yankee Freedom ferry in Key West is equipped with lifts that provide wheelchair access to the boat when starting and ending the tour. The dock located in the Dry Tortugas is also equipped with a ramp the provides access to Fort Jefferson. The first floor of the fort, as well as the trails surrounding it, are also fully accessible, although the second and third floors offer no wheelchair access at all.

An old cannon sits along the walls of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.

demerzel21 / Getty Images

Tips for Your Visit

  • The Dry Tortugas National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays. The visitor center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days of the year.
  • Visiting the Dry Tortugas aboard the official ferry is a full-day affair, with check-in starting at 7 a.m. and the boat returning to Key West at 5:30 p.m. Plan your schedule accordingly.
  • Unless you're traveling to the park via the official ferry, the entrance fee is $15 a person and is good for seven days.
  • There is no place to buy any kind of food or drinks while in the park itself. Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead by bringing their own snacks. However, the ferries used to shuttle visitors from the mainland usually have a limited supply of snacks and beverages. They can typically be found at the dock at Garden Key, outside of Fort Jefferson.
  • Visitors—including overnight campers—are required to carry out all of their trash when returning to Key West.
  • Cell phone service is nonexistent in the park and there is no internet access at all.
  • Keep a close eye on the weather before setting out for the park. Conditions can be very different from what is found in Key West and storms can brew up quickly. Come prepared with layers of clothing and rain gear for those "just in case" situations.
  • On the flip side of the same coin, the intense tropical sun can be quite warm and it is easy to quickly become dehydrated while exploring the fort or even swimming and snorkeling. If you're planning on staying in the park for a full day, be sure to bring at least two liters of water. A wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, a flashlight, and sunglasses are also recommended.
Article Sources
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  1. National Park Service. "Visitor Experience Stewardship." Retrieved on October 27, 2021.

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Dry Tortugas National Park: The Complete Guide