Island Hopping Adventures in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

While all 63 parks in the U.S. National Park system feature extraordinary natural landscapes and provide a restorative break from the demands and stresses of daily routines, some national parks are more remote and rejuvenating than others. Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park is among the most remote and unique of the national parks — coming here is the very definition of ‘getting away from it all.’

The park encompasses open water and a series of seven small islands, located 70 miles from Key West, Florida that can only be reached by boat or seaplane. When you arrive at its shores, you can’t help but feel that you’re at the ends of the earth. You’ll be standing alongside beautiful, shimmering waters in an utterly secluded setting off the southernmost tip of Florida.

Dry Tortuga National Park.
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortuga National Park. Photo credit: @billie_malone.

The Main Dry Tortugas Attraction: Fort Jefferson

One of the largest attractions in Dry Tortugas is the 11-acre Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, the second largest island in the park. Construction of the three-level fort began in 1845 and continued over the next three decades but was never completed.

Today, the huge, six-sided fortress and the historic iron light tower (which illuminated the dangerous reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas) make for wildly interesting attractions. The fort served as both a staging area for Navy ships sent to block Confederate ports and as a military prison for captured deserters. At one point, the fort housed close to 2,000 military personnel, civilian staff and family members.

You don’t have to be a history buff to find the fortress fascinating — it’s also architecturally compelling and a feat of civil engineering.

Among Fort Jefferson’s more interesting features:

  • It is made up of 16 million bricks and is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas, yet it stands unfinished.
  • It’s the third largest fort in the U.S. — only Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Adams in Rhode Island surpass it in size.
  • The structure was adaptable in terms of its usage: beyond its military fortress function, it also served as a civilian prison (the most notorious of its prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd who was involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln) and as a quarantine station for the Marine-Hospital Service in the late 18th century.

Jaw-Dropping Beauty and Fun Water Features

Dry Tortugas has enchanting shores and the surrounding waters are a haven for sea life, birds (birds migrating between South America and the U.S. stop here), bird watchers (about 300 bird species have been spotted), swimmers, paddlers, snorkelers, divers and seekers of natural beauty.

The waters around the park are shallow (5-15 feet), which means that both beginning and experienced snorkelers can see an incredible array of tropical fish darting around the living coral, and they can access these snorkeling-ideal waters right off the white sand beaches that frame Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. There’s also a great designated swimming/snorkeling area on the northwest side of Loggerhead Key. Just know, there’s no cellphone service, Wi-Fi or electricity in the Dry Tortugas, so you’ll have to wait to post your jealousy-inducing photos.

You can also picnic and even camp around the fort on Garden Key, but you’ll have to bring all necessities with you (there are strict limits to how much you can ferry over) — this is primitive camping.

Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.

How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park: Ferry and Seaplane

By Ferry: The Yankee Freedom III

The official ferry to the park is the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran. Check in at the ferry terminal at 7 a.m. and board at 7:30 a.m. You’ll arrive at Fort Jefferson at about 10:15 a.m. and, along the way, you’ll see the beautiful Marquesa Islands and Boca Grande. The included 45-minute tour of Fort Jefferson starts at 11 a.m.; lunch goes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and after, you’ll have two hours to enjoy the beach and water. The return trip is at 3 p.m.

In addition to the narrated tour of the fort, the crew provides breakfast and lunch and all the gear you’ll need to snorkel (snorkel, fins and mask) around the colorful reef. What you’ll likely see while snorkeling: multicolored fish, sea turtles, sea fans, sea anemones, lobsters, sponges and staghorn coral clusters.

More information: Reserve well in advance by calling 800-634-0939. The ferry terminal is located at 100 Grinnell St. in Key West. An adult ticket is $190; a child ticket is $135 (the price includes the park entrance fee).

By Seaplane: Key West Seaplane Charters

Key West Seaplane Charters operates daily flights to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson from Key West. There’s nothing like viewing the unspoiled beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Jefferson and the surrounding waters from the air.

This is the only company offering air service to the park and flying in their de Havilland Turbine Otter seaplane is a thrilling experience in and of itself (not to mention the fastest way to get to the park). On this low-altitude, sightseeing, fully-narrated flight (a headset is provided), you’ll learn a lot while gazing out at the spectacular turquoise waters. There’s a good chance you’ll see sea life including sharks, stingrays, turtles and porpoises as well as shipwrecked Spanish galleons where enormous treasure has been recovered in the past.

After circling around Fort Jefferson, the plane lands on the water near the beaches so passengers can enjoy time on the island. The flight includes complimentary snorkeling gear.

More information: Board the plane at 3471 South Roosevelt Blvd. Morning and afternoon half-day trips cost $361 per adult; a full-day trip costs $634 per adult. Call 305-293-9300.

Dry Tortugas National Park.
Dry Tortugas National Park.

What to Know Before You Go

Because of Dry Tortuga National Park’s location, there are limited vendors in the area and the park itself is small (but mighty!) It’s not uncommon to need to book travel to the park up to a year in advance. 

If you are taking a private boat to the islands, make sure you have the proper boating license ahead of your visit. If you want to take some of the planning off of your plate, look into the permitted guided tours in the park. 

The park fee is $15 per person and is good for 7 consecutive days. Many of the guided tours include the park fee. The park fee does not include camping fees, so if you’re wanting to stay on the islands make sure to look into the required camping permits. 

With any trip to the park, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that the park has no amenities. Bring everything you’ll need with you, including drinking water, food, sunblock, bug spray and anything you need for fun (snorkeling gear, cameras, paddling equipment etc.). 

Origin of the Park’s Unusual Name

Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who discovered the islands in 1513, gave them the “Tortugas” (Spanish for turtles) part of their name. He called the area “La Isla de Tortugas” because of the more than 100 sea turtles his crew discovered there. ‘Dry’ was added to the name later by mariners who were unable to find any fresh drinking water on the islands other than puddled rainwater.

The explorers’ experiences on the islands were just one part of their adventure-filled background: In the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates used them as a base for their attacks on merchant ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico.

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