Dry Tortugas Is One of the Least Visited—and Most Fascinating—National Parks in the U.S.

In the westernmost reaches of the Florida Keys, this U.S. national park is only accessible by seaplane or boat.

Aerial shot of distant walled fort over blue water with turquoise patches

Some 80,000 visitors make their way to Dry Tortugas National Park each year for the chance to snorkel on patch reefs in this supremely scenic remote setting.

Photo by Florida Keys News Bureau

Be prepared to be amazed by one of the most underrated national parks in the United States when you arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park. More than 99 percent of the national park, located some 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, is water. It’s primarily a marine sanctuary, home to a vast array of species, including angel fish, tarpon, and barracuda.

Only 40 acres of the national park are above water, consisting of seven islands critical to such birds as warblers, vireos, and flycatchers, as well as larger frigatebirds and masked boobies. The park is also the most active sea turtle nesting area in the Florida Keys, with great numbers of green and loggerhead sea turtles.

For all the natural beauty that surrounds you in these remote parts, Fort Jefferson is the park’s crown architectural and historical jewel. The former U.S. military coastal fort was pieced together from 16 million bricks imported from the continental United States in 1847 and sprawls across Garden Key, the second-largest island in the Dry Tortugas.

With a mask, fins, and snorkel in tow, use this guide to make the most of your visit.

How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Most visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park arrive on the 250-passenger Yankee Freedom ferry, a high-speed catamaran that makes the roughly 70-mile journey from the Key West Terminal Ferry in the Historic Seaport on Grinnell Street every day of the week. The ferry departs from Key West at 8 a.m. and takes roughly two hours and 15 minutes to reach the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson.

The park also can be reached by private boat charters and seaplane service from Key West. Other options for traveling to the Dry Tortugas include private fishing charters from Key West operated by companies like Majestic Sea Charters, Delph Fishing, and others listed on the NPS website. Reservations for both services tend to book up weeks and often months in advance, so plan accordingly.

Park fees

Entry to Dry Tortugas National Park costs $15 per person and is good for seven consecutive days. The entrance fee is included for ferry passengers but is extra for seaplane passengers. Children 15 and under do not pay to enter the park.

The best time to go to Dry Tortugas National Park

You can visit Dry Tortugas National Park year round, but with the weather most pleasant from winter into early spring, park visitation tends to boom (especially for the camping crowd) from February through April.

Birders flock here from April to mid-May to enjoy more frequent sightings during the spring migration, and May and June are the best months to come if you hope to spot sea turtles while snorkeling.

While wintertime weather is mild in these parts, keep in mind that seas can be rougher and the weather windier, which can make for uncomfortable ferry crossings and an increased risk of seaplane flight cancellations.

Aerial shot of hexagonal brick fort filling a small island

While Fort Jefferson never endured an actual battle, it once housed 1,500 troops and 2,500 prisoners during the Civil War.

Varina C/Shutterstock

If you only have one day in Dry Tortugas National Park

There are two popular options for making the most of a short but sweet visit here.

The Yankee Freedom’s day-trip package comes with several inclusions, among them a buffet breakfast onboard and packed lunch to enjoy on land, a 45-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson, and several hours on your own ashore to enjoy snorkeling (complimentary gear is provided) and beach time. There are a few excellent places to snorkel here, including around Fort Jefferson’s moat wall, where you might see parrot fish and sergeant majors among other tropical fish, and along the small patch reefs fringing the island further offshore, where huge tarpon sometimes swim past. The island’s old wharf pilings also provide a great habitat for reef fish. (Day trips start at $220).

The ferry has freshwater showers onboard for guests to use after a day in the sun and sand.

For a more exciting way to explore Dry Tortugas National Park, you can consider flying with Key West Seaplane Adventures. You can choose half or full-day excursions that take off from Key West and land on the water just offshore from Fort Jefferson with 2.5 and 6.5 hours ashore to explore, respectively. The 40-minute flights depart in the morning, and everyone gets a window seat to maximize the incredible views of the turquoise water, coral atolls, and underwater deserts along the way. All passengers also get headsets so you can listen to the pilot narrate as you scout for turtles, sharks, and shipwrecks below and ooh and ahh with your fellow passengers. (Half-day excursions start at $466.)

Upon arrival at the park, the plane makes a low pass over Fort Jefferson, for more jaw-dropping views before splash landing and beaching nearby. The company has two 10-passenger seaplanes and flights typically sell out two weeks in advance, so be sure to book with plenty of notice. Be aware that the seaplane is not permitted to leave passengers to camp at the park so you’ll need to arrive by ferry or private vessel if you plan to camp. Soft drinks and water are provided but you should pack your own lunch. Snorkeling gear is also provided on the seaplane tour.

Tip: Keep in mind that there’s no cell phone reception in the Dry Tortugas—all the better for enjoying your time off-grid.

Where to eat and drink in Dry Tortugas National Park

Unless you’re arriving by ferry, you’re going to have to pack in whatever you plan to eat (and pack it out, too). There are no restaurants, shops, water, fuel, or any other sundries available for purchase on any of the islands within Dry Tortugas National Park.

Campers who plan to stay on the island must bring everything with them, including potable drinking water. The NPS recommends campers bring two gallons of water per person per day as well as enough provisions to last for the entirety of their stay.

Campsite under a star-filled night sky, with large palm tree and Milky Way

The reward in making the effort to come to Dry Tortugas National Park is sleeping under star-filled skies.

Photo by Tim Pierce/National Park Service

Where to stay in Dry Tortugas National Park

Unless you’re arriving on a private boat with liveaboard options, camping is your only choice if you plan to overnight within Dry Tortugas National Park.

The only place where it’s legal to set up camp here is on Garden Key, the main island where Fort Jefferson is located, with eight designated campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis (and an overflow area, available if necessary, so you’ll never be turned away if you arrive here looking to camp). Campsites, which cost $15 per night, are payable in a self-service box on site. They are basic and not equipped with electricity or running water, but do have picnic tables and elevated grills.

If you’re traveling with camping gear, the ferry is the only public way to arrive here; the seaplane carrier does not transport camping gear. It’s vital to bring all supplies—including a freestanding tent, fresh water, ice, food, and fuel for a cooking fire (gas camping stove or charcoal for the grill)—with you, and you must take all garbage with you when you leave.

Tip: Restrooms on site are of the compost toilet variety and are closed between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, when anyone on the island needing to use the toilet is directed to go aboard the commercial ferry on the dock.

Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.
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