Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles west of Key West. Due to its remote location, it’s one of the least visited national parks in the United States. Unless you own your own boat and have the navigational skills to get there, the most cost effective option for visiting is taking the Yankee Freedom III, also frequently referred to as the Dry Tortugas ferry. Keep reading for a full review of our round trip, what to pack, and how to book. Despite the challenges in getting there, it’s definitely a bucket-list worthy journey!
This post will focus on the experience traveling to the Dry Tortugas on the ferry. If you want to learn more about things to do at the national park, check that out here.
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What to expect on the Dry Tortugas ferry
First and foremost, expect a long day when you’re taking Yankee Freedom. Departure is scheduled for 8 am daily, but you’ll need to be there well before that to check in and board. Check in for campers starts at 6:30 am and regular passengers at 7. While I didn’t love the super early wakeup that morning, downtown Key West was oddly beautiful for our pre-dawn ride through town without the usual crowds of people.
Right after departure, a light breakfast is provided though I topped it off with my own granola bar from our snack stash. We got a plain bagel and some yogurt, so if you’re a big breakfast person you might want to plan accordingly. Breakfast sandwiches were available for purchase for a few dollars. Complimentary tea and coffee machines were also available, though to my disappointment, none of the tea available was caffeinated. I did however recognize the tea mixture as part of a variety pack a lot of hotels seem to stock, so that’s not to say that there’s never caffeinated tea – just that those seem to get taken first and all that was left were the herbal varieties.
Once you’re en route, it’s a little over 2 hours out to the Dry Tortugas. Along the way, you can enjoy the views of the water and a few scattered islands. Though we didn’t see any on our trip, dolphins and sea turtles can frequently be seen along the way. I’d definitely recommend bringing something to pass the time. We had a deck of cards, but books, other compact board games, and handhelds like the Switch were all spotted being used by various guests. Note that there isn’t really anywhere to charge your phone, so either bring a good battery pack or plan on filling the time with something other than phone games. I kept mine in airplane mode all day because once we were a short distance from Key West, there wasn’t any service anyway.
There is a small galley on board the boat that serves drinks, food items, and light snacks. I was actually surprised by the prices as they really weren’t unreasonable. They also offer bar service on the way back to Key West.
Time on the island
We docked at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park a little after 10 am and disembarked. We had time to visit the little shop to get our National Park passport stamps before joining the fort “tour” that is included with your ferry ticket. It was less of a tour than a group talk in the center of the fort’s open area, but it was really informative and we learned a lot.
There was an extended tour offered, but because we had such a short amount of time in the park, we opted to explore a little on our own so we also had time to get in the water. Make sure you take the time to climb up to the top of the fort and enjoy the views from its grassy pathways. Be very careful up here as unlike most other historic buildings you can visit in the park system, there are very few guardrails and it wouldn’t be difficult to walk right off the edge.
After our tour of the fort, we headed back to the boat for lunch. Your Yankee Freedom fare includes a lunch of sandwiches, chips, cookies, and a canned beverage. The sandwiches were surprisingly massive, and to my delight, didn’t come pre-slathered with mayo like so many other deli sandwiches do. There were packets of condiments to choose from if you do actually want the goopy white stuff on your food. I also had a bag of chips and a couple cookies. Our drink options were lemonade or lemon-flavored iced tea.
After we finished eating, we took a nice stroll out onto Bush Key. This area is closed for about half the year due to bird nesting, but if you visit in the late fall or winter you should be able to walk along the shore here. We saw several of the massive frigate birds alternating between hovering and swooping on the breeze.
The Yankee Freedom provides snorkeling gear for all passengers (you just have to sign a waiver), but we had brought our own. The water was definitely not tropical warm, but for us northerners it wasn’t bad at all. 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.
When we finished snorkeling, we had just enough time to get changed out of our bathing suits and pet the super chill and very cute boat dog who had accompanied us on the trip. People had been returning to the ship to claim the good seats when we were just beginning to snorkel – this seems like such a waste of the few hours you have in the park but if that’s how you want to spend your day – so we ended up in the middle of the cabin on the way back.
The water was much choppier heading to Key West than it had been in the morning and a whole bunch of passengers were looking a little sick. The crew tended to them as well as they could and I saw one staffer bring a girl on the other side of the aisle from me ice wrapped in a towel. They also sell Dramamine at the galley for $1/dose, so it’s not going to break the bank. Unfortunately, you’re supposed to take it before you start the journey, so if you wait until you’re feeling queasy to take the pills, they’re not going to be as effective.
The waves calmed down quite a bit around the halfway mark and it was much smoother as we neared Key West. We docked a little after five, so you should have plenty of time to have dinner afterward.
Included with your Yankee Freedom ferry ticket
- Round trip boat trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park
- Admission to the National Park (if you have a parks annual pass, you can show it at the ticket counter to receive $15 back)
- Light breakfast on board
- Hot tea and coffee
- Tour of the fort
- Lunch at the park
- Snorkel gear
- Freshwater rinses on the back deck to get the saltwater off
- Bathrooms – mainly notable because there are none on in the National Park
Where to board the Yankee Freedom
The Yankee Freedom departs from the ferry terminal at 100 Grinnell Street. It’s located just a few blocks from Mallory Square and would be walkable from most of the downtown tourist area. We were staying just across the street from the Ernest Hemingway house and while we took a Lyft in the morning because it was super early, we easily walked back to the hotel after with a stop for dinner along the way.
What to bring on the Dry Tortugas ferry
You’ll want to be sure to bring enough stuff to get you through the day without overpacking. Since you can’t leave your stuff on board unattended, you’ll have to carry everything you bring. A backpack should be sufficient unless you need specialized food or medical equipment.
- Bathing suit
- Sunscreen – Try to bring reef safe kind.
- Battery pack – I swear by my trusty Anker one that I take absolutely everywhere.
- Photo ID – The Yankee Freedom’s website says that the Coast Guard requires passengers to present photo ID. We were not asked for ours when boarding at Key West or Fort Jefferson, but I would bring yours just in case.
- Water bottle
- Cards, books, portable games
- Extra snacks if you don’t want to purchase from the galley
- Water shoes or sneakers for the rough sand on Bush Key
- GoPro or other underwater camera
- Flip flops for rinsing off
- Light jacket if you plan on riding on one of the open decks
- Cash if you want to purchase anything at the National Park gift shop
How to book the Dry Tortugas Ferry
Reservations can be made online on the Yankee Freedom III website. Book as far in advance as possible as the sailings typically sell out, particularly on weekends and holidays. Note that reservations are non-refundable so be sure that you’re really going to go before booking, but don’t wait too long. We had to switch our days in Key West around because I waited too long to book and the day we’d originally planned to go sold out. Luckily, the next day was available and we hadn’t bought tickets for anything else, but it would’ve been very disappointing if that had been our only chance to do it.
As of January 2021, adult fares are $190 and child fares are $135. Student, military, and senior discounts are available for $10 off.
Info for campers on the Dry Tortugas ferry
The biggest camping tip is to again book as early as possible. There are very few sites and they book up in advance. The Yankee Freedom can only transport 10 campers per day, so it’s a very limited opportunity. The maximum stay is 3 nights. Camping fares are slightly more expensive at $210 for adults and $155 for children.
Campers are required to arrive by 6 am on the day of their outbound trip and have all their gear ready to load. You’re limited to one storage bin, one backpack/duffel, and one cooler per person. The ferry can transport a limited number of kayaks for an additional fee. Find out about size and weight limits here. Bring cash for your campsite ($15/night) as the National Park service will collect it at that time. When the boat docks at Fort Jefferson, you’re required to attend a short briefing about camping there.
All camping at Dry Tortugas is primitive, so you’ll need to bring all needed food, water, and supplies with you. The Yankee Freedom provides the standard light breakfast and lunch on the departure day, but you’ll be on your own for subsequent days. On your departure, your gear has to be packed and on the dock by 10:30 for loading.
Camping at the Dry Tortugas is a great way to escape from the crowds. In the early morning and late afternoon once the ferry departs you’ll feel like you have the whole island to yourself not to mention the perfect night sky viewing.