Accessible only by boat or seaplane, Dry Tortugas National Park consists of seven islands that are the farthest west and also the most isolated of the Florida Keys. About 70 miles from the Key West, the islands are home to North America’s only barrier reef, and 99% of Dry Tortugas National Park is open water.
European explore Juan Ponce de Leon first visited the islands in 1513, naming them “Tortugas” (or turtles), because of the sea turtles he caught there. “Dry” was added because of the lack of fresh water available on land. When the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1822, Dry Tortugas was considered a strategic point in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1935, Fort Jefferson (which was started in 1846, but was never finished) was designated a National Monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it wasn’t until 1992 that that area was redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park.
There are seven main islands at Dry Tortugas National Park: Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key, and East Key. Garden Key is the second largest and is the landing point for most visitors, as it is where Fort Jefferson is located. Sometimes, Bush Key connects to Garden Key by a sand bar. Loggerhead Key is the largest, and home to the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, and Middle Key disappears under the water for weeks or months depending on the weather patterns.
People visit Dry Tortugas to see the amazing marine life and the pristine reef below the crystal clear waters and to see Fort Jefferson. Though construction was never completed, the fort is massive and contains over 16 million bricks! With only 60,000 visitors per year, this park is one of the lesser-known secrets of the National Park System and is a great place to avoid the crowds.
The main activities at Dry Tortugas National Park are touring Fort Jefferson, exploring the water, and looking for wildlife. The boat trip out is about 2.5 hours, while the plane ride is just 35 minutes. It’s not cheap to get out to the park ($175 for a ferry ticket or $317 & up for a plane ride), but just about everyone who takes the trip agrees that it is worth the money, and the fee often includes a meal and a tour.
Around Fort Jefferson, visitors can take a ranger-guided tour and learn about the history of the fort (including watching living history demonstrations), take an ecological moat walk, or see a night sky program. There is a visitor center and bookstore, as well as a picnic area. The fort has been well preserved, and the park rangers are very knowledgeable about its history. The view of the water and the other islands from the third floor is breathtaking!
Then of course, there’s the water - the gorgeous, blue water and the wonderful marine life found below. If you prefer to stay above water, rent a kayak at Key West to bring over on the ferry. The park requires a boating permit, but it’s free. For a shorter trip, visitors can paddle around Garden Key, Bush Key, and Long Key, or head three miles out to Loggerhead Key for a longer adventure. Loggerhead has great snorkeling and quiet, empty beaches, but requires crossing deep, open water with strong currents, so it's not a trip for beginners.
While kayaks can get you to even more isolated places within the park, the best way to see the reefs and the fish up close is by getting in the water and snorkeling or diving. There are several snorkeling and diving sites at Dry Tortugas, but no matter where you are, remember to not touch the coral/plants and keep your distance from any sea turtles.
The most popular spot for snorkeling or diving in the park is Windjammer, a shipwreck that was originally named Avanti and wrecked in 1901. Grab a laminated underwater map at the visitor center, and look for all kinds of fish, from a 200 lb. jewfish to smaller, tropical fish. Little Africa is a calmer, protected shallow area off Loggerhead Key that is great for snorkelers and children to see barracuda, lobster, and various coral. Texas Rock off Garden Key is the best place to photograph coral, and almost every kind of stony coral can be found here, including the rare black coral. The Pulaski Shoals Area is the eastern boundary of the park and has many shipwrecks (just remember to leave any artifacts you might see!). For experienced divers only, just offshore from the shoals is the place to get into some deep water to see sharks, eagle rays, and large grouper.
Birdwatchers will have plenty to see at Dry Tortugas National Park. There are 299 documented species, including birds that don’t nest anywhere else in the United States, such as the sooty tern and the magnificent frigatebird. Also keep an eye out for the rare White-tailed Tropicbird.
There is also limited recreational fishing around the Dry Tortugas, but be sure to check out the rules and regulations before you go.
Secrets of the Park
Because of the area’s namesake, it’s no surprise that people come here expecting to see a sea turtle or two, some brightly colored fish, and a beautiful coral reef. But Dry Tortugas National Park is also the best place in the United States to see wild conch. Look for them crawling around in the sea grass.
Many people haven’t even heard of Dry Tortugas National Park and those that have, consider it a fun day trip. But there is a 10-site, primitive campground on Garden Key (the same island as Fort Jefferson), and one group campsite that requires a reservation. The campsites can get crowded in the winter since there are so few, but the park rangers guarantee to find a spot for you somewhere, as long as you arrived prepared. If you want to camp, you have to bring a tent, and you have to take the ferry (the sea plane doesn’t transport campers). The fee is $15 per campsite per night, and don’t forget fresh water!
Ideally, you would spend a night or two out on Dry Tortugas. With no reliable cell service and very few other campers, it’s truly a place to get away from it all. But the park is worth a day trip if that’s all you’ve got, too. While the best ways to explore all the Dry Tortugas have to offer are by boat or by getting into the water, there’s still a lot to see just by wading around.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- There is no water or food on the island, so come prepared.
- The $10 entrance fee is included in your transportation. If you have a national parks pass, let them know when you book the ride over, and it will be deducted from the cost.
- There is no cell service out on the islands, but the park rangers do have access to a satellite and radio system.
- The best time to see birds at the park is during spring migration. Next best is fall migration.
- If you have the extra money, definitely take a seaplane out to the park. The aerial view is spectacular, and you can even see sunken ships below the water!