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Dry Tortugas is one of Florida’s three national parks. The park encompasses seven islands within the Gulf of Mexico, but over 99% of the park is water. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, you can only access this remote park by boat or by seaplane. One of the most notable features of Dry Tortugas is historic Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th century fort built to protect Florida’s valuable waterways.
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Yankee Freedom is the only ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. It takes about 2.5 hours to reach the island. You’ll board the ferry around 7:30am and return to Key West at about 5:30pm. Tickets cost $200 per adult or $145 per child, and this also includes the national park admission fee, which is $15 per person. With the ferry, you’ll have about 4.5 hours on the island, which I think is enough time to see and do everything. The catamaran boat accommodates about 150 passengers, has two levels, and inside and outside seating.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, consider taking Dramamine for the ferry ride. We had perfect conditions, but the ride was still a bit rough and many people experienced sea sickness. If there are bad weather conditions, the boat ride will be extremely turbulent. I’ve heard multiple accounts of folks experiencing 12 foot waves while on the ferry.
You can also take your own boat (permit required) or hire a private boat charter.
The other option to reach Dry Tortugas is via seaplane with Key West Seaplane Adventures. With the seaplane, you can choose from either a half-day or full-day trip, so you can choose to have more time on the island. It takes about 40 minutes to reach the island by seaplane. This is a much quicker, and I imagine more pleasant, ride, but it costs nearly double the price of the ferry. Half-day trips will run you $397 per adult or $317.60 per child. However, with the half day trip you’ll only get about 2.5 hours at Dry Tortugas.
Things to Do at Dry Tortugas National Park
Map of Dry Tortugas National Park from NPS.
Take a tour of Fort Jefferson
If you come via the Yankee Freedom ferry, they offer both a short and longer guided tour of the fort. You can also do a self-guided tour using the NPS PDF guide (make sure to download it to your phone before you reach the island since you won’t have any service!)
Swim or Snorkel
Snorkeling is one of the most popular activities at Dry Tortugas. Make sure to bring reef safe sunscreen, as you’ll literally be snorkeling amongst coral reefs. Both the ferry and seaplane offer complimentary snorkel gear, or you can bring your own. You’ll see plenty of coral and fish. If you’re lucky, you might spot a sea turtle or nurse shark! For an easy way to take underwater pictures, bring a dry bag for your phone.
Relax on the Beach
There are two sandy beaches on either side of Fort Jefferson where you can relax and enjoy the scenery. You’re even able to bring umbrellas or beach chairs if you come on the ferry!
Check Out the Visitors Center & Gift Shop
Grab your passport stamp/cancellation, buy souvenirs, and view some history of the island. Don’t forget your National Parks Passport to collect stamps from all your adventures.
There are eight primitive campsites on the island. Interestingly, reservations are not accepted for these sites and they are available at a first-come-first-serve basis. Should all campsites be occupied upon your arrival, campers are permitted to set up in a grassy camping overflow area.
You must take either the ferry or a private charter boat to get to Dry Tortugas for camping. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to secure a camping reservation on Yankee Freedom. They book trips up to 11 months in advance, and I didn’t see a single available reservation for camping in the next 11 months.
This also means, all your gear needs to come with you on the ferry. You’ll want to check Yankee Freedom’s specific guidelines for what gear you can bring and size limitations. Overnight campers are not able to take the seaplane.
Composting toilets are available, but there are no showers. You must bring all your own supplies including water, charcoal, food, etc. There is no trash disposal on the island – everything is pack-in-pack-out.
Kayaking & Paddling
Kayaks and paddlecraft are permitted in Dry Tortugas National Park, but there are no rentals available and all boats must have a permit. You can request the free permit in-person at Garden Key. You can pay a fee to have the Yankee Freedom Ferry transport your vessels, but space is limited.
Tips for Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
- Make sure to book your spot on the ferry early (I’d recommend at least 1-2 months in advance), as they book up fast. There is also a chance of getting on the ferry from the standby line, in case there are no-shows or additional seats. You might get lucky, but I wouldn’t count on this.
- Don’t overpack, as you must take everything off the ferry when you reach the island.
- Bring sun protection. There’s not much shade on the island outside the fort halls. Make sure your sunscreen is reef safe!
- Breakfast and lunch are provided by the ferry company. We got bagels for breakfast, and Jersey Mike’s subs for lunch. All-in-all, they were decent meals. You can also bring your own food, or purchase snacks and drinks from their concessions.
- Bring your own water bottle, but they do have a refill station on board.
- The boat will remain docked while you’re at Dry Tortugas. You can go back to the boat anytime for snacks, the restroom, or just to cool off in the A/C.
- You’ll lose cell phone reception within an hour of departing Key West (read: by 9am), so plan accordingly.
- It is illegal to collect shells, coral or any artifacts in the National Park.
The information in this post was accurate at the time of publishing to the best of the author’s knowledge. If you are planning to visit any of the sites mentioned in this post, we recommend checking the most up-to-date information on their respective websites.