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The Ultimate Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Dry Tortugas National Park comprises a cluster of 7 islands and protected coral reefs. This park is only accessible by seaplane or boat and offers incredible historic sites and islands to explore.

Each year, Dry Tortugas National Park brings in 80,000 visitors eager to explore this island national park. While this is one of the least visited national parks in the U.S., it certainly is a trip of a lifetime.

How To Get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Where Is Dry Tortugas National Park?

Dry Tortugas National Park is an island 70 miles from Key West, Florida. This island national park is 100 square miles, mostly made up of water, and is only accessible by boat or seaplane.

Flying to Dry Tortugas National Park

Most travelers flying to Dry Tortugas will fly into Key West International Airport (EYW). Key West International Airport offers nonstop service to dozens of major U.S. cities and services popular airlines such as Allegiant, American, Delta, JetBlue, and United.

Key West International Airport is called “The Gateway to the Keys” and is an excellent option for those visiting Dry Tortugas. Once arriving at the airport, another form of transportation will be needed to get to Dry Tortugas National Park, as this park is only accessible by boat or seaplane.

Driving to Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote park located in the Gulf of Mexico. This park can not be accessed by car. Most people will arrive in Key West and then take another form of transportation to get to the park.

Taking a Personal Boat to Dry Tortugas National Park

Using your own boat to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park is ideal. Access to a boat will help you to explore and discover the rich history and sights of Dry Tortugas National Park. Permits are required if you plan to explore the park by personal boat.

Taking the Ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park

The Yankee Freedom Ferry is an excellent option for those who want to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. The Yankee Freedom Ferry takes visitors to the park from Key West and provides a scenic 2-hour journey to the park. This mode of transportation is the most affordable way to get to Dry Tortugas National Park from the catamaran departure terminal.

The ferry fee includes the national park entry fee, breakfast and lunch, a 45-minute narrated tour of Fort Jefferson, and activities such as swimming and snorkeling. Those who utilize the Yankee Freedom Ferry enjoy various activities, amenities, and services along the way.

Taking a Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park

Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Image Credit: Alec Douglas via Unsplash

An exciting way to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park is by seaplane. Seaplane Adventures in Key West offers morning, afternoon, or full-day tours to Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson.

Seaplane Adventures is the only option for arriving by seaplane. Passengers who choose Seaplane Adventures can choose from half-day excursions that last nearly 4 hours or full-day tours that last nearly 8 hours.

Bottom Line: A seaplane adventure is an exhilarating way to visit Dry Tortugas National Park and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Getting Around Dry Tortugas National Park

Since there is no vehicle access at Dry Tortugas National Park, exploring on foot is one of the only ways to get around the park. Other options for getting around Dry Tortugas are to bring your own boat or kayak or sign up for a private charter tour for fishing, snorkeling, or wildlife viewing.

Hot Tip: The National Park Service provides interactive maps on its website to help you plan your itinerary.

What To See and Do in Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park has a variety of attractions to explore and places to visit. This incredible park has islands to discover, wildlife to observe, and historical landmarks. Let’s explore the top activities and sights at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Bush Key

Bush Key is an undeveloped subtropical island in Dry Tortugas National Park. This park area is only available to visitors in late fall and early winter. This island is closed the rest of the year so that colonies of birds can nest in the area.

Bush Key is home to over 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies. This is the only major breeding colony of these birds in the U.S., so the National Park Service works hard to protect the area.

Hiking is a popular activity at Bush Key. The trails are along the shoreline, and hiking at sunset or sunrise is a spectacular way to experience the beauty of Bush Key.

Fishing

Fishing Dry Tortugas National Park
Image Credit: National Park Service

Fishing is a popular activity for visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park. The islands that make up this national park have thriving coral reefs and shipwrecks with a variety of fish and marine life. Many guests catch grouper, tuna, mackerel, snapper, and sailfish.

There are several restrictions on where you can fish in the park, and you must obtain a fishing permit before setting out to fish at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is a large brick structure on the Garden Key island of Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson was built beginning in 1846. This historic landmark is the largest 19th-century masonry American fort still standing today.

Fort Jefferson was designed as a 3-tiered gun platform with 420 heavy guns, built to destroy enemy ships that came within range of its firepower. The fort has a moat surrounding the structure. There is also a lighthouse in this park area. The lighthouse guided ships through the water and was built in 1876. The lighthouse you see today replaced a lighthouse damaged by a hurricane.

During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was manned by the Union military. This area became America’s Devil’s Island, where the Union Army sent deserters and criminals. A sentence at Fort Jefferson was considered worse than death. The most notorious prisoner sentenced to Fort Jefferson was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Fort Jefferson a national monument on January 4, 1935. As of 1970, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bottom Line: Fort Jefferson is an incredible place to spend some time and learn about American history while visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.

Garden Key

Dry Tortugas National Park Fort Jefferson
Visit Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. Image Credit: National Park Service

Garden Key is the second-largest island in Dry Tortugas National Park. This island is home to the visitor center, park headquarters, and campgrounds. Garden Key is also an excellent place for visitors to take advantage of swimming and snorkeling opportunities and visit the historic Fort Jefferson to learn more about America’s history.

Geocaching

Are you an adventurer who thinks treasure hunts sound like fun? If so, you should take advantage of the geocaching available at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Geocaching is an outdoor activity where adventurers use GPS to hunt for containers called caches that contain little trinkets. This activity is an adventurous way to explore the Dry Tortugas National Park while having fun with family and friends.

Guided Tours

Several types of guided tours are available for visitors who want to explore Dry Tortugas National Park. There is no shortage of excitement and education available at this national park from tours by boat, seaplane, and on foot.

Yankee Freedom Ferry

Yankee Freedom Ferry is a high-speed catamaran that takes visitors from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park for day trips and camping trips. The trip to the park comes with a 45-minute narrated tour of Fort Jefferson, breakfast and lunch, and opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and spending time relaxing on the beach.

Key West Seaplane Adventures

Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only option for arriving at and touring Dry Tortugas National Park by seaplane.

Seaplane Adventures offers half-day or full-day tours, sightseeing, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing and shares information about the history of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson. Touring by seaplane is an exhilarating way to arrive at and explore this national park and will leave you with incredible, lifelong memories.

Self-Guided Tours

There is an option for self-guided tours when visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. The self-guided tour at Fort Jefferson teaches about the history of this incredible location. There are interpretive signs that will lead you through the self-guided tours through many of the featured sites and attractions of Dry Tortugas National Park.

Loggerhead Key

Loggerhead Key
Image Credit: National Park Service

Loggerhead Key is the largest island of Dry Tortugas National Park. This is where visitors can see shipwrecks, lighthouses, and historic landmarks. Loggerhead Key covers 49 acres of land and is an excellent site for exploring the land and water.

Popular sites to explore on Loggerhead Key include Loggerhead Lighthouse and the Tortugas Laboratory. The lighthouse was built in 1857 and is a wonderful sight to behold. The Tortutagas Laboratory was built and run by the Carnegie Research Institute so that scientists could conduct tropical research from 1904 to 1939.

Snorkeling is a popular activity for visitors to enjoy near Loggerhead Key. Sites to check out underwater at Loggerhead Key include Little Africa and Windjammer Wreck. Little Africa is a large coral reef of many kinds of stony and gorgonian coral. Bright, tropical fish can be seen darting in and out of the reef, and spiny lobsters are often spotted in this area. Windjammer Wreck is located to the south and west of Little Africa. This is the remains of a shipwreck that took place in 1907. This site was discovered in 1970 and offers incredible views of vibrant coral, tropical fish, and marine life.

Hot Tip: Loggerhead Key has an abundance of sights to see and activities to experience. This park area is open 365 days a year, but activities are only permitted from day to dusk.

Best Times To Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas is an incredible park to visit anytime during the year. If you are looking for specific activities or experiences, there are better times to visit for a memorable experience. Let’s look at the best times to visit this national park.

Best Time To Visit Dry Tortugas National Park for Good Weather

Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park any time of the year will offer fantastic tropical weather. If you want to experience the best weather in Dry Tortugas National Park, plan a trip in November.

The weather in November is mild and enjoyable, and it’s one of the least-crowded months of the year. A visit to Dry Tortugas National Park in November ensures a less-crowded experience with excellent weather for enjoying the various activities available at the park.

Best Time To Visit Dry Tortugas National Park To Avoid the Crowds

If you are looking for a good month to visit Dry Tortugas National Park and avoid crowds, the best month is October. The month of October is when the park is the least visited throughout the year.

While staying in October will give you the best chance for a solitary vacation, October is one of the rainier months at Dry Tortugas National Park. The rain may become an issue during your park adventure.

Best Time To Visit Dry Tortugas National Park for Birdwatching

If you love to birdwatch and are looking for the best time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park to see the beautiful birds of the island, the best time to visit is March.

Hot Tip: Garden Key and Bush Key are the most popular places to see the birds that nest in this park, including the black noddies and sooty terns.

Cheapest Time To Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

Planning a trip to Dry Tortugas in August is your best option for the cheapest time to travel to the park. There are 2 days during August when there is free admission to the park: for the Great American Outdoors Act Anniversary and the National Park Service Birthday. There are other days during the year with free admission, but August is the only month with 2 free entry days.

Annual Events in Dry Tortugas National Park

The only events in Dry Tortugas National Park are the free admittance days which honor several key events in National Park History.

The park honors Dr. Martin Luther King Junior each year on the third Monday of January, National Park Week in April, the anniversary of Great American Outdoors week and National Park Service birthday in August, National Public Lands Day in September, and Veteran’s Day in November.

These special occasions are celebrated in Dry Tortugas National Park each year. Guests can enjoy free admission and activities for each of these special days.

Where To Stay in Dry Tortugas National Park

The only option for lodging in Dry Tortugas National Park is to spend the night under the stars camping in Garden Key. Camping in the park will guarantee a memorable experience and opportunities for stargazing, snorkeling, and watching gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. Let’s check out the campground at Dry Tortugas National Park and some cities close to the park.

Garden Key Campground

The Garden Key Campground offers a primitive camping experience to those visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. This campground is located in the same area as Fort Jefferson and is a short walk from the public dock.

The campsites include picnic tables, elevated grills for charcoal fires, and posts for hanging items to keep them away from pests. Planning is of utmost importance if you plan to camp at Dry Tortugas National Park, as there are no places to get food, water, or gas.

Towns Near Dry Tortugas National Park

There are a couple of options for lodging near Dry Tortugas National Park if you want to set up a home base during your park vacation. Each city offers its own unique experiences, dining opportunities, and accommodations. Check out the 2 closest cities to Dry Tortugas National Park and see which would work best for your vacation needs.

Key West

Key West is the closest city to Dry Tortugas National Park. This is the city where the Yankee Freedom Ferry departs each day, making it convenient for those who choose to use the ferry to get to and from the park. Key West is about 70 miles from the park, about a 2-hour boat ride. This city is known for its lively nightlife, historic sites, watersports, and architecture.

The city has many lodging options, from luxury hotels to beach resorts. Whether you prefer a lively hotel with entertainment, a party scene, or a resort with spa experiences, Key West has hundreds of well-rated facilities with superior services and amenities.

There are excellent restaurants in Key West serving a variety of cuisine from around the world. Most restaurants offer freshly caught seafood, and dozens of others serve authentic Mexican and Cuban cuisine. No matter what you crave, you will find a delicious option for every meal in Key West.

Key West is an excellent place for sightseeing and visiting local attractions. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory and the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum are popular stops for those staying in Key West during their Dry Tortugas National Park vacation.

Miami and Miami Beach

Miami Florida
Image Credit: Shawn Henley via Unsplash

Miami and Miami Beach are other cities where visitors choose to stay during their trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Both cities are around 190 miles from Dry Tortugas National Park, and while they are quite a bit further away from the park, there are plenty of reasons why the travel is worth it. The pair are exciting cities known for their nightlife, fabulous restaurants, culture, beaches, and luxury hotels.

The area has many top-rated hotels, including lively hotels with nightly entertainment and luxury spa hotels. These hotels are located conveniently near many restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping areas. They offer luxury amenities, superior services, and everything needed for a memorable stay.

There is an assortment of restaurants with an incredible array of dishes from around the world. From upscale restaurants serving gourmet American dishes to local favorites serving Cuban, Latin, and Caribbean cuisine, Miami and Miami Beach are paradise for food enthusiasts.

Many area beaches make a great place to spend a day visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. Other kinds of recreation include museums, gardens, and zoos. If you are looking for a place to stay that isn’t terribly far from Dry Tortugas National Park, Miami or Miami Beach are ideal locations for great food, fun, and culture.

Hot Tip: Learn about the best things to do in Miami and Miami Beach as well as the best Miami and Miami Beach hotels to book with points.

Where To Eat in Dry Tortugas National Park

There are no restaurants or places for quick bites in Dry Tortugas National Park, though the ferry ride includes breakfast and dinner.

The closest option for dining is in Key West, near the Yankee Freedom Ferry terminal. If you are searching for a place to get a good meal before or after visiting Dry Tortugas, you can find plenty of options in Key West. Let’s look at some popular dining options near Dry Tortugas National Park.

Café Sole

Café Sole has offered locals and visitors an incredible menu of freshly caught seafood since 1995. This restaurant is less than half a mile from the Yankee Freedom Ferry. Popular menu items include the conch carpaccio, the hog snapper sole, and for a sweet dessert, the delectable trio of desserts. Café Sole is open daily for dinner and late-night treats.

Harpoon Harry’s

Harpoon Harry’s is located 0.1 miles from the Yankee Freedom Ferry. This restaurant serves a variety of favorite American dishes. Harpoon Harry’s is open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night desserts. Favorite dishes at Harpoon Harry’s include the lobster Benedict, fish tacos, and lobster po’boys.

Off the Hook Grill

Off the Hook Grill is extremely close to the Yankee Freedom Ferry, less than 0.1 miles from the terminal. This restaurant serves an incredible menu of freshly caught seafood dishes and American dishes for dinner and dessert during the week. Favorite meals include lobster mac, conch fritters, and pork belly scallops.

The Flaming Buoy Filet Co.

The Flaming Buoy Filet Co. is only half a mile from the Yankee Freedom Ferry. This restaurant is open daily for dinner. Guest favorites include the lobster thermidor, lobster mac, and bacon-wrapped scallops.

Dry Tortugas National Park Facts

Fort Jefferson
Image Credit: David Mark via Pixabay

1. It’s Been a National Park for Just Over 30 Years

Dry Tortugas National Park was established on October 26, 1992. Before being declared a national park, Fort Jefferson was designated a national monument on January 4, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and re-designated as Dry Tortugas National Park in October 1992.

2. The Original Name Was Las Tortugas

Dry Tortugas was originally named Las Tortugas for its abundance of sea turtles. The name changed to Dry Tortugas after merchants and explorers discovered no drinking water on the islands.

3. Ponce de Leon Originally Discovered the Islands

Spanish explorer and conquistador Ponce de Leon initially discovered the Dry Tortugas National Park area. He found this area in the summer of 1513. Once he discovered it, he called the cluster of islands Las Tortugas after its sea turtles.

4. Hunted Seals Once Lived Near Dry Tortugas

There used to be a large number of Caribbean monk seals that resided in this area. As of 1996, they became extinct. These animals were hunted for food, which led to their drastic drop in numbers and eventual extinction.

5. Pirates and Privateers Roamed These Waters

Pirates and privateers attacked and robbed the treasure from ships heading in and out of ports near the Florida coast for over 300 years. Famous privateers and pirates near the Dry Tortugas area included Sir Francis Drake, Harry Jennings, and Robert Searles.

6. Shipwrecks Abound in the Area

In the Dry Tortugas area, there are over 250 shipwrecks submerged under the water. These shipwrecks range from the 16th century to the present day. Some of these shipwrecks can be explored near Dry Tortugas National Park, such as the Windjammer Wreck near Loggerhead Key.

7. There’s an Abundance of Wildlife

Various types of wildlife make their home in Dry Tortugas National Park on land and in the water surrounding the islands. When visiting this national park, you can expect to see sea turtles and birds from the ground and tropical fish, sharks, coral, octopus, squid, lobster, and more when snorkeling and swimming near the islands.

8. Fort Jefferson Was Used as a Prison

During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison. The most notorious prisoner who resided at Fort Jefferson was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination. He set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, who was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

9. Famous Visitors Include a President and Queen

In 1935, President Harry Truman and Queen Elizabeth II visited Fort Jefferson once it was declared a national monument.

10. It’s the Largest Masonry Structure in the Western Hemisphere

Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. This incredible structure comprises over 16 million bricks and over 2,000 arches. The original purpose of this building was to provide housing for over 1,500 soldiers. Eventually, the massive structure began to submerge Garden Key, the island it was built on.

11. Seashell Collection is Prohibited

Dry Tortugas National Park visitors cannot collect seashells, sea glass, sand, coral, or anything else found on the park’s property. Collection of any material found in the park is strictly prohibited to protect and preserve the park’s ecosystems and landscape.

Should you find an artifact while visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, call the park staff as quickly as possible and do your best not to touch or disturb the piece.

Final Thoughts

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of America’s most unique national parks. This island park offers a rich cultural and geographic history and unforgettable experiences that can’t be found at more traditional national parks. For an experience to remember, visit Dry Tortugas National Park and see all the beauty and magic it has just waiting to be discovered.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days should I plan to visit Dry Tortugas National Park?

A full day is recommended for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. If you can manage another day or 2, you can explore the park at a slower pace and truly experience all the park has to offer. Most find 1 day enough, though.

How much does it cost to enter Dry Tortugas National Park?

It costs $15 to enter Dry Tortugas National Park. This fee provides a 7-day pass to the park.

What is the most affordable way to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park?

The most affordable way to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park is to utilize the Yankee Freedom Ferry. This option is much cheaper than hiring a seaplane or private charter to take you to the national park.

What is the weather typically like at Dry Tortugas National Park?

The weather varies throughout the year at Dry Tortugas National Park. The temperatures can range between the mid-50s to the mid-90s depending on what time of year you visit. It is always recommended that guests bring sunscreen on their trip and check the weather before heading out to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Amar Hussain's image

About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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