Dry Tortugas National Park is one of America’s largest and most popular tourist destinations. West of Key West, Florida, Dry Tortugas has seven islands and protected coral reefs. Garden Key is famous for its beaches and the 19th-century Fort Jefferson. Sea turtles and a lighthouse reside on Loggerhead Key. Divers enjoy diving the Windjammer Wreck, the remains of an 1875 ship near Loggerhead Reef. Seabirds like sooty terns nest at Bush Key. Located 67.7 miles from Key West and 388 miles from Cuba, this remote island can only be accessed by boat or seaplane.
About Dry Tortugas
Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer, discovered the island in 1513. He was shocked and amazed by the vast number of sea turtles. Ponce de León saw turtles everywhere. And that is why he named the island in honor of the incredible animals he saw. “Las Tortugas,” which means “turtles” in Spanish. Even though the island is full of beauty, there is very little fresh water on it. The word “dry” was added to the island’s name. This prefix helped in warning sailors and visitors that fresh water for drinking on the island should be brought by everyone.
In 1825, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key because of the danger of the reefs. In this way, sailors could bypass dangerous places and, with the help of a beacon, direct them to a safe place. Due to the high number of shipwrecks, Dry Tortugas has one of the highest numbers of wrecks in America. Thanks to these dangerous reefs around Tortugas, the US government created a harbor considered an essential strategic object, Fort Jefferson. The Fort’s construction began in 1846 and was never completed. But this does not stop thousands of tourists from visiting it every year. Nowadays, reefs no longer carry such a danger because we have technologies that allow us to safely overcome the path and see all the islands of Dry Tortugas.
What Is So Great About Dry Tortugas?
A visit to Dry Tortugas will expose you to the fascinating history of Fort Jefferson and the remote islands in the middle of the ocean and make you feel like Robinson Crusoe for a day.
The island is home to many unique birds you will not see anywhere else. It has the only regular nesting site for black terns in the US on Bush Key, which is adjacent to Fort Jefferson. Due to this, birdwatching is a prevalent activity here.
You can enjoy views of vibrant coral reefs, unique tropical fish, and nesting sea turtles. Underwater wonders are abundant at Dry Tortugas, and you will be able to feel the fairy tale nature has created for you.
On the islands, you can walk along the beaches of incredible and pristine beauty. Swim underwater with fish among sunken ships and get some fantastic photographs.
History buffs will love the islands as they can visit Fort Jefferson and touch a piece of history. You can camp on-site, and you and your family or friends can spend the night freely on the island and enjoy the stars and the sound of the waves.
How Many Islands Are in the Dry Tortugas?
There are seven Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico, and the last seven coral islands (keys) and sandbars extend westward from Key West (Monroe county) in southern Florida.
What You To Know About Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas in almost seventy miles away from Key West. It’s remote at best, so there’s a lot you need to know!
How to Get To Dry Tortugas
You can only access this remote set of islands by boat or seaplane; here are your options:
Dry Tortugas Ferry
The Yankee Freedom Ferry is the only public ferry service to the island, costing $200 per person for the day trip. It takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes by ferry each way.
Included with the trip:
- 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
Seaplane To Dry Tortuga
Seaplane Adventures Key West is the only seaplane service to Dry Tortugas National Park. They offer seaplane tours to Dry Tortugas & Fort Jefferson – morning, afternoon, or full-day.
- Half-Day Excursion – $371.00 per adult and $297 per child.
- Full-Day Excursion – $644.00 per adult and $512 per child.
There is the National Park Service Entrance Fee of $15.00 per adult. National Park Passes, Golden Eagle, Golden Age & Golden Access Passport will get you in for free.
Reservations are required. The National Park Service strictly limits the number of daily passengers, and in-season demand far exceeds capacity. We recommend you book well in advance to guarantee availability. You do not need to make a separate reservation with the Park Service.
Bring Your Boat
Bringing your boat to Dry Tortugas National Park will provide you with the most opportunities to explore this remarkable national treasure. Situated approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, with no food, water, or fuel available in the park, proper planning is necessary.
Important! Boat permits are required for all vessels entering the park before any recreational activity. Even if you are not planning on visiting Fort Jefferson, a boat permit must be filed on Garden Key.
Things To See and Do At Dry Tortugas, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park is a world-class birding destination, particularly popular during spring migration. Dry Tortugas have been home to more than 300 hundred different species of birds. Some species nest only in the Dry Tortugas, such as the magnificent frigatebird and sooty tern. There are 100,000 sooty terns in the Gulf of Mexico, all roosting on a speck of land. Also, look out for pelagic seabirds on your way to the park. Almost all of these seabirds spend their lives over the ocean. You may see White-tailed tropicbirds if you’re lucky.
This National Park is an excellent fishing destination. People from all over the world come here to fish. If you plan on fishing here, be sure to adhere to the guidelines:
- Private boaters are required to file a boat permit at Garden Key before fishing within the park.
- Spearfishing and lobstering are prohibited. All spearfishing gear should be disassembled and stored away if you enter park waters.
- “J” hooks are not permitted to be used. Only “circle” hooks may be used. (NOTE: There are no gear or supply shops once you arrive at the park.)
- Fishing in the Research Natural Area is prohibited.
- Large yellow buoys mark the Historic Use Area.
- Fishing is permitted outside the Research Natural Area.
- Florida Saltwater fishing license is required unless you are under the age of 16 or a Florida resident senior over 65.
Snorkel The Reefs Or Scuba Dive
Florida Keys Reef System, the third largest reef system in the world, is home to Dry Tortugas National Park. There is a greater abundance of marine life in the Florida Keys due to the remote location and the easterly flowing gulf current just south of the park. It’s an excellent place to snorkel; the water is crystal clear, making visibility great.
Note: The ferry and seaplane cannot carry compressed canisters aboard. If you are planning to dive, plan to arrive by your own boat or a charter vessel in order to bring all dive gear, including dive tanks.
Kayak or Paddleboard
The park offers a wide range of trips, depending on your experience level. A range of paddles is available, from quick paddles near Garden Key to longer paddles on open water. Nearest to Garden Key is Bush Key and Long Key, which are home to thousands of nesting birds in the spring. You can visit these two islands in a few hours if you take a boat trip around them. However, you need to bring your vessel.
Tour Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson is reason alone to make the journey to Dry Tortugas.
The United States of America envisioned building forts from Maine to Texas after the War of 1812. The purpose of Fort Jefferson was to protect the southern coastline of the United States and to protect the Mississippi River as a lifeline for commerce. As the largest Fort, it was intended to be the most important. It took 16 million red bricks to construct Fort Jefferson.
To warn sailors of the dangers of reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key in 1825. A bird reserve was established in the area and transferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1908. As the first marine area to be designated a national monument, Fort Jefferson National Monument was established by President Franklin Roosevelt on January 4, 1935. President George Bush signed a bill on October 26, 1992, upgrading the monument to a national park.
Who was imprisoned at Dry Tortugas?
Samuel Mudd was! In 1869, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Samuel Mudd from life imprisonment for his association with the assassins imprisoned at Fort Jefferson.
Overnight camping is eight primitive campsites at the Garden Key campground just south of Fort Jefferson. Transport for camping is only available for private vessels, permitted tour guides, and commercial ferries. Getting a reservation on the Yankee Freedom ferry is difficult, as it sells out months in advance. Camping at Garden Key is first come, first served (up to 6 people). It is necessary to make a reservation with the park in advance for all LARGE groups of 10-20 people camping on Garden Key.
Campers must bring all supplies, including a tent, fresh water, fuel, ice, and food.
Explore The Windjammer Wreck
There are as many shipwrecks in Dry Tortugas National Park as there is marine life; both are a part of the park’s rich history. There is the Windjammer Wreck, which is the most famous of all. In 1907, the Norwegian Avanti, a triple-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship, wrecked on Loggerhead Reef. The site is a perfect spot for snorkelers and experienced scuba divers. Using the site as an artificial reef, it attracts dozens of fish species, making it a veritable aquarium of reef-dwelling, free-swimming, and bottom-dwelling organisms.
Free Entrance Days
It costs $15 per person daily to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. However, like in many national parks, there are “free days every year.” Dry Tortugas National Park is typically free on these days. Please, check in advance as the specific dates vary each year.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- First Day of National Park Week
- Great American Outdoors Act anniversary
- National Park Service Birthday
- National Public Lands Day
- Veterans Day
Tips For Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
1. Fly in by seaplane.
Traveling by seaplane may not be cheap, but it is spectacular and personal. Since Dry Tortuga is only accessible by water, you can take a ferry, which is more affordable yet crowded, or take the seaplane. It takes a long time to get there by boat, and flying is the quickest way to get more time at the park. During the flight, you will see the many beauties the ocean bestows on its viewers.
2. Bring Cash.
To visit this National Park, you will need to pay an entrance fee of $15. If you are coming by ferry, the entrance fee will be included in the fare, but if by seaplane, you need to have cash. You can also use your park pass if you have one. It may seem like a small thing, but you need cash!
- The Ferry tickets include the park entrance cost, but NOT camping fees.
- The Seaplane will charge the entrance fee upon arrival—plan to bring cash for each person aged 16.
3. Explore Fort Jefferson first
When you arrive at the National Park, we advise you to visit the Fort first. At lunchtime, there is a heat wave and unbearable sun. Therefore, it is best to visit the Fort immediately if you have an early flight. You can then go swimming or snorkeling with peace of mind. Sometimes the heat can spoil the whole impression of a tourist trip, so it is best to consider it in advance to spend time with friends or family comfortably.
4. Don’t forget sun protection and bring a change of clothes.
Everyone knows the effect of sunlight on the skin, but we will still repeat this information to you. The sun at its zenith has a very aggressive effect on human skin, so to avoid sunburn, purchase sunscreen. Choosing a quality sunscreen that can protect your skin is very important. It can also help you avoid premature aging in everyday life if you remember to protect your skin from UV rays.
Feeling comfortable throughout the trip is worth taking spare clothes with you. Half the time, you walk in the heat, then you will likely swim. Even though Dry Tortuga does not have a shower, you can bring wet wipes, deodorant, and dry clothes. In this way, you will have a much more pleasant journey on the way home, and you will be able to remember your trip in an entirely positive way.
5. Bring a dry bag and water shoes.
It will be beneficial for you to know that all experienced tourists take a dry bag with them to the beach so that the trip goes according to plan. Dry bags of good quality do not let in water or sand. You won’t have to take turns swimming with friends or worry about your personal belongings’ safety while in the water. You can take your bag into the water and enjoy your vacation peacefully. It is convenient to have one large and a smaller bag to distribute your things by value.
Dry Tortugas is mixed with shells which can hurt your feet. Look for shoes for swimming and walking along the beach.
Dry Bag and Water Shoes
FAQs About Dry Tortugas National Park
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If I’ve not convinced you yet to visit Dry Tortugas, I’m not sure you can be convinced! This set of islands is unlike anything else in Florida. And it houses one of the most fascinating forts in America. It might be expensive to get there, but it’s worth it.
If you are a student and need to find traveling essay topics, Dry Tortugas National Park is a treasure trove of tales waiting to be told.
What did I miss, and what would you add? Why do you love Dry Tortugas – comment below!
Looking for more posts on Florida? Start here:
- Disappearing Island Florida
- Key West Beaches – The Best Ones!
- Key West Golf Cart Rentals: Where To Rent Them?
- Miami to Key West – Florida’s Best Road Or Boat Trip!
- Shark Tooth Beaches in Florida
- Titusville, Florida’s Private Islands
- Vero Beach – Florida’s Tropical Paradise
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