Taking a Dry Tortugas day trip from Key West was our top priority on our Florida Keys road trip. Despite being located near a major tourist destination, it’s actually one of the least-visited national parks in the United States due to the difficulty accessing it. It’s certainly not a cheap excursion, but I was so glad we were able to make it out to the islands.
Dry Tortugas National Park is located about 70 miles west of Key West at the end of the long reef that stretches from Miami out into the Gulf. Its remote location is the reason it receives so few visitors annually, but it’s a worthwhile journey for those who make the trip. The park is mostly aquatic, with miles of open sea and only a few small islands. The largest of these houses a massive brick fort, surrounded by a moat, dating back to the 1800s called Fort Jefferson. This is where the Dry Tortugas ferry docks, where the park’s tiny visitor center is located, and where overnight visitors will be able to camp.
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How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
Since it’s way out in the middle of the water, you definitely can’t drive there. There are three main ways to visit assuming you don’t have your own boat and the navigational skills to get yourself there. The most cost effective (though still not cheap by any means) is the Yankee Freedom boat. This was the option we chose for our Dry Tortugas day trip and while it certainly made for a long day, we enjoyed the whole time.
Another option is to travel to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane. This is such a cool option, and watching the planes taxi up to the beach made me a little jealous that we hadn’t arrived in style that way. I priced out a seaplane to Dry Tortugas though and it cost more than our round trip flights all the way from Detroit to Miami. If you can swing the cost, it’s a much faster trip than taking the Yankee Freedom and would allow you to spend more time actually exploring the park.
The last option is to charter a private boat. You can find various boat operators in Key West that will take your group on a dedicated sailing to the national park. This will most likely be the most expensive option, but it could also give you additional flexibility in terms of the length of your visit and which of the small islands you spend time at.
What to do on your Dry Tortugas day trip
If you’re planning a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, you’re probably going to be limited to the main park area around Fort Jefferson. There are other smaller islands and snorkeling areas, but once the ferry or seaplane drops you off you won’t really have a way to get to them. If you’re taking a private charter you may be able to explore a little more.
The National Park visitor center is located in massive Fort Jefferson. It was constructed back in the 1800s to secure American shipping lanes from New Orleans around to the East Coast or over to Europe. All the materials and supplies for the troops stationed there had to be brought in from the mainland as there isn’t much in the way of resources on the islands – not even fresh water. Despite these challenges, it was actually the largest of this type of fortification built by the US Army during this era.
Our boat fare included a short talk about the history of the park, particularly focusing on the significance of the strategic location. We also learned that it had once been home to an endless amount of sea turtles, which is why the Spanish originally named the islands Las Tortugas. The British eventually changed the name to Dry Tortugas to signal to their sailors that there was no fresh water to be found there even though there was a good harbor. Why were the turtles important? Apparently, they were an ideal source of meat for sailors back in the days before refrigeration.
After our talk, we made a circle of the fort and climbed up to the very top. Fort Jefferson was never fully completed because its weight caused the foundation to sink. It’s also been damaged by decades and decades of constant ocean waves and occasional big storms so walkways are uneven and several areas are cordoned off for safety reasons. The top level is mostly covered with grass and there are worn paths through it, but not much in the way of guardrails.
This little bit of decay and the ability to walk right up to the edge gives the fort a slightly wild feeling that you don’t get in most tourist spots in the United States. I’ve been to plenty of other historic spots in the National Park System and don’t recall this level of openness anywhere else. You can walk right up to the edge of the three-story fort and if you’re walking without paying attention, it’s completely possible to just step off the edge and take a 40+ foot fall. An article I read before visiting but can no longer find said that there had been a handful of visitors who had taken the plunge into the moat over the years, but there was no word on their ultimate fate. The moral of the story is be careful if you visit, and keep a sharp eye on your kids if you’re traveling with them. I also recommend bringing some sturdy shoes if you plan on exploring the fort.
If you’re there during late fall or winter, don’t miss a chance to walk out on Bush Key. This area is closed during nesting season from March-September, but outside of those months, you can walk through it. This area is closed to swimming, but of course, there were a couple people still in the water there because the rules apparently didn’t apply to them.
One note about this area: the sand is not soft. It’s more like little chips of coral. I had intended to walk the beach barefoot, but it was not fun at all. It’s not quite as bad as walking on Legos, but it still wasn’t a great feeling. I tried popping my flip flops back on, but that only made it worse because I was getting chunks stuck between my foot and the flat surface of the shoe. My fiance had water shoes on and enjoyed the experience much more than I did.
All along the shore, we found huge seashells and small pieces of broken coral. There were dozens of large (what I believe to be) horse conch shells along the walk. I’ve never seen so many shells in one place before. As it is a National Park, please leave them behind for other visitors to see.
This area also had a whole group of enormous frigate birds. They were mainly just sort of hovering on the breeze, but there was one point that one of them picked up a stick and then dropped it. Another one caught it out of the air and then dropped it too. Yet another bird grabbed it before it hit the ground and I joked that they looked like they were playing quidditch. Their wingspan is definitely a sight to behold though.
Dry Tortugas snorkeling
After our walk on Bush Key, we decided it was finally time to get in the water. There are two snorkeling areas designated on the island around Fort Jefferson. We headed out to the North Coaling Dock area, but the waves had increased on that side of the island and it looked like visibility wasn’t going to be great. We headed back to the other side near the South Coaling Dock and found a lot more people hanging around. The water was much calmer here and had that crystal clear look you always dream about. I definitely recommend scouting out each area before you decide where to get in the water as you may find one area – the top level of the fort is a great place to do this as you’ll have an aerial view.
I definitely expected the water to be a little bit warmer than it was out in the Gulf, but it wasn’t bad for someone who grew up swimming in the Great Lakes. You won’t find any reefs within shore distance here, but there is some coral growing along the brick walls of the moat and lots of colorful fish. It’s actually a great spot to try snorkeling for the first time because the water is shallow and you’re close to shore. Depending on the weather conditions, there’s a decent chance you’ll be sheltered from any waves that might be coming in and out of any currents as well.
I found a cool spot by following the edge of the moat almost to the corner. There’s a hole under the moat where a pipe runs out and there was a whole group of large fish just hanging out there.
If you don’t want to get in the water to snorkel, you can walk along a pathway dividing the moat from the open water partway around the fort. It originally would’ve connected the two snorkeling areas, but over the years, the seas have broken through and created a gap so you have to turn back the way you came. However, from this walkway, you can look straight down into the water and see the fish and even some coral up along the wall. You also always have the option of just hanging out on the beach and enjoying the sun, sand, and sounds of the sea.
If you’re heading out on a private charter, there’s a decent chance your guide can take you to other snorkeling areas that are in more open water and have more substantial reefs.
What to pack for your Dry Tortugas day trip
The Dry Tortugas are very remote and there isn’t much in the way of park services so be sure to come prepared.
- Bathing suit – (I have this super cute one-piece in black and adore it.)
- Water bottle
- Battery pack – You’ll want to be able to charge your phone on the go.
- Sunscreen – Try to bring reef safe kind.
- Water shoes or sneakers for the rough sand on Bush Key
- GoPro or other underwater camera
- Flip flops for the beach
- Cash if you want to purchase anything at the National Park gift shop
- Food (If you’re taking the Yankee Freedom ferry, you’ll get a light breakfast and decent lunch, but otherwise you’ll be on your own and there are no concessions for purchase.)