On our recent trip to Florida, we had the good fortune to be able to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. It is not a trivial journey and certainly one you have to plan ahead of time. First you have to get to Key West and then you must take a boat or a seaplane 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico to visit the islands. But it is well worth the trip … miles of crystal clear water, an abundance of marine life and the crown jewel – Fort Jefferson.
Originally designated as a National Monument in 1935, the park preserves one of the largest forts in the United States, built to protect the shipping lanes that led to the busy ports of New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola, and to provide a deep water harbor for patrol ships. It was only much later that congress expanded the monument to protect the surrounding waters and coral reefs; redesiginating it a National Park in 1992.
The national park encompasses over 100 miles of mostly open water and a few islands. Sailors called this area “Las Tortugas” because of all of the sea turtles, but later the name changed to “Dry Tortugas” because there is no water source on the islands.
The largest island (Garden Key) is the site of Fort Jefferson, built starting in 1846 and never completely finished. In fact, the ranger told us that there had never been a shot fired from the Fort other than for training. But it did act as a deterrent, initially protecting the shipping lanes and later used by Union forces to enforce their blockade of the southern states. The Union also used the fort as a prison during the Civil War. That would have been a pretty difficult place to escape from!
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Unless you have a private boat, you will need to take a ferry or seaplane – both of which will take you to Garden Key and Fort Jefferson. The ferry is offered through a park concessionaire and departs daily from Key West. You leave at 8 in the morning and arrive at Fort Jefferson at 10:15; departing back to Key West at 3 pm.
The island is only 14 acres in size; and the fort takes up almost all of it. You would think that 5 hours on the island would be enough time to see everything, but you will be surprised. We could have easily spent more time exploring, so be sure to plan your time wisely.
In fact, we wish we had planned ahead and taken our camping gear. The national park service maintains a small area for primitive camping, available on a first come, first served basis. It would have been amazing to stay overnight on a deserted island 70 miles from anywhere!
Things to do at Dry Tortugas National Park
Visitor Center and Fort
Just inside the fort is a small visitor center with information about the fort and marine life. From there, you can take a self guided tour or join a ranger-led tour of the fort. It is a pretty interesting place – a huge 3 story fort with a moat around the outside. It is hard to picture how it was built out there in the middle of the gulf. It takes almost the entire island! Especially interesting was the intricate system they used to capture rain and store fresh water.
Many of the visitors to the fort never step inside; choosing instead to put on their snorkels and masks and explore the fort from the water. The snorkeling around the fort’s outer walls is amazing – with an abundance of colorful fish and very likely, sea turtles. Green and loggerhead turtles are the most common, but there are actually five species of sea turtles there.
Even if you don’t snorkel, you can enjoy the beach. There is a nice place to go swimming right near the fort. We also recommend walking out past the fort. There is a long beach, scattered with sea shells, including giant conch shells. It would also be a great place to kayak or paddle board.
The island is a haven for seabirds. We loved watching the magnificent frigate birds, soaring above on the air currents. These are huge birds with a 7.5 foot wingspan, but they rarely land. Even though they feed on sea life, their wings aren’t waterproof, so they can’t land on the water. They will stay in flight for weeks or even months. Don’t forget your binoculars – it is really cool to see the unique red pouch on the necks of the male frigate birds.
It is a great place for bird watching; the park is home to over 300 species of birds. Along with the frigate birds, it is also the nesting site for sooty terns. When we were there, one end of the island was closed to entry in order to protect their nesting site.
Camping on the island would be amazing. Picture yourself there when the ferry leaves; just a handful of folks camping and a few resident National Park Service rangers. The ferry takes only 10 campers each trip, so you do need to make arrangements in advance and you will need to take everything you need including water. There are no services on the island.
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Yankee Freedom is the national park concessionaire; providing ferry service from downtown Key West. You will make all your arrangements through them and their fee will include the National Park entrance fee; refundable if you have a National Park Pass. Be sure to show it to them when you check in.
They go out to the island every day, weather permitting. It can be a rough trip; most of it is open water and the waves can be pretty big. They’ll offer you seasick pills before you go, and they sell them on the ship. Take them. You’ll be glad you did!
There isn’t all that much to see, but the trip goes pretty quick. They serve breakfast on the boat and they make it interesting by sharing fun facts about the area. They will also serve you lunch when you are on the island, and you can buy snacks and beverages anytime.
Be sure to bring anything else you need while you are there – including water. Also be aware that whatever you bring, you will need to bring home. There are no trash cans anywhere on the island. It is pack in, pack out. It a remote, unspoiled island. Do your part to keep it that way.