How many U.S. National Parks have you visited? I haven’t been keeping count for myself, but there was one I really really wanted to visit when given the chance: Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West, Florida! Its remoteness means you’ll need to do some advance planning and know a little bit about what to expect. That’s where this handy guide comes into play! Check out my best tips for visiting this beautiful, secluded, peaceful National Park.
The fort on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park is the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson. It was built between 1846-1875 and was an architectural marvel at the time, though it was never fully completed. Eventually, it actually broke under its own weight! The reason a fort was necessary all the way out there, so far from larger land, was to control shipping lanes through the Gulf of Mexico.
While it was a fully operational fort, it served as a prison. Many people were prisoners here, but none so famous as four men who were convicted of conspiring in the Lincoln assassination. One of those men was the infamous Dr. Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg when he was on the run.
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Key West
How to Get There
You can visit the most remote National Park in the country via one of three ways: ferry (full day, $190), private boat (depends), or seaplane (half-day $361 or full-day $634). We took the seaplane option because we liked the option of doing a half-day trip, and we’d never been on a seaplane before! Luckily for you, I’ve put together a comparison for both options so you can make the best choice for your needs. For us, the half-day flight was the best option!
Read this first: Taking the Seaplane to Dry Tortugas
Good to Know
As I mentioned above, the remoteness of this particular national park means you have to do a little planning and know what to expect. Here are the things to be aware of before you go!
Most of the National Park is Under Water
That’s right! Only 2% of the National Park is on land—at Fort Jefferson. The other 98% is in the surrounding ocean area. Because visitors are kept to a minimum and preservation is so important, the water is crystal clear and perfect for snorkeling! Not a snorkel fan? No worries! The water’s clarity means you can also see pretty well from above!
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Dry Tortugas is Technically in the Central Time Zone
However, the park and sea plane operate on eastern time. This doesn’t really mean anything for visitors, it’s just a fun fact!
There is No Food Available on the Island
But you can bring your own! Just make sure you take all wrappers, containers, and leftovers back to Key West with you. If you’re on the half-day trip with Key West Seaplane Adventures, eat before you go, and bring a protein or granola bar with you. If you’re there for the full day, bring a substantial lunch and water!
BYOF: Food that Travels!
Walk Only on the White Sand in the Water
When you’re in the water, you can definitely tell where the white sand ends and where the darker coral begins. It’s very important not to step on the coral for two reasons: 1. It’s a living, protected thing, and stepping on it can damage or kill it. 2. It can cut you and cause infection. Neither is good!
The Restroom Situation
There are four composting toilets available for overnight campers and seaplane visitors who arrive before the ferry arrives and stay after it departs. When the Yankee Freedom Ferry III is available, everyone on the island is required to use the restrooms on the boat.
There are Changing Rooms Available
I recommend bringing a change of clothes if you plan to swim while on the island. There are changing rooms available, but they are meager. There is no bench or seat, and only one hook. It’s not fancy, but it’s functional!
More here: How to Travel and Still Have Good Hygiene
No Drones Allowed
Sorry! But I promise you, there are plenty of beautiful vantage points for photographers of every skill level, all over the island and below. This is yet another good reason to fly in on the seaplane for those aerial shots!
Read on: How to Plan a Trip
If you know you have unsure footing or are not comfortable walking on very uneven ground or bricks, exploring the fort may not be for you. You really do have to be careful and watch where you’re going. That is the nature of ruins. It sure is beautiful, though!
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What to Do
So, what is there to actually do out there? Is there enough to fill up several hours? It depends on what you like!
Part of the draw for so many people to go to Dry Tortugas is the sealife and snorkeling. There are several good snorkeling spots, including the one featured below along the seawall. This was a good choice for Steve and me because Steve could get in the (very cold, it was January) water while I walked alongside him on the seawall and be his buddy without freezing my patootie off. You should always snorkel with a buddy!
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Exploring the Fort
I enjoyed exploring Fort Jefferson. The best views were from the top, so make sure you head up the stairs! It’s so peaceful and so beautiful out there, you won’t tire of it very quickly. There are park rangers who live there year-round, so feel free to ask them questions, but mostly, you can just walk around and enjoy the scenery!
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Not interested in either of those things? Bring a book and a beach towel, and find your spot on the sand. It’s gorgeous out there, and if you need some alone time, you can find it on the beaches of the Dry Tortugas!
Need help deciding? Should You Take the Seaplane or Ferry to Dry Tortugas?
Have you been to the Dry Tortugas? Would you like to go? Comment to tell us!
Want more? Check out my United States Page for all my posts about Florida and Key West!
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