One of the highlights of a trip to Key West is also one of the least accessible places in the world: Dry Tortugas National Park. I went with my husband in January, and it was such a great experience, I decided to take my dad with me in June! Because it is such an “off the beaten path” destination, and because there is quite literally nothing in the way of supplies when you get there, I decided to pull together some of my best tips so you can make the most of your time at this little piece of historical beauty. Here’s everything you need to know!
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Take the Seaplane
It’s faster, it’s easier, it’s a scenic flight… And it’s also more expensive. However, you have multiple options for flight times, you get incredible views of the ocean (and shipwrecks!) from above, and you get might get the island to yourself for part of your trip! Do your own unique cost analysis to decide whether taking the seaplane or the less expensive (longer, more crowded) ferry is right for you.
Take the First or Last Flight of the Day
Why? Because the people on the first and last flights have the island to themselves for a little while. The ferry, along with up to 250 or passengers, docks at Fort Jefferson between 10:30am and 3:00pm. During that time, the island is a bit more crowded! Don’t get me wrong, the ferry’s not bad. But if you want to avoid crowds, take my advice and sign up for the first flight at 8:00am or the last flight at 2:00pm!
Bring Cash or Use Your National Park Pass
The $15 cost to visit the National Park is included in your ferry rate, but if you choose to take the seaplane, you’ll need to bring $15 cash in exact change, or use your National Park Pass if you have one. My dad has a lifetime National Park Pass, so we both got in using that this time around!
Explore the Fort First
If you’re visiting in the morning, exploring the fort early in the day will help you avoid both crowds and the mid-day or late afternoon heat and sun. If you’re visiting in the afternoon, I still recommend seeing the fort first if you have any interest in it at all, then spend the rest of your time snorkeling or swimming–or observing from above the waterline, which is easy to do as well!
Don’t Overestimate the Facilities
If you’re expecting a cafe, flushing toilets, showers, or a locker for your stuff… You’ll be greatly disappointed! But you don’t have to be. Just know that you’ll have to bring everything with you that you want to have on the island, and you’ll need to take everything–even that energy bar wrapper–with you when you leave.
There is a changing room if you want to change clothes after you swim, but it’s literally just a small room with a hook to hang a piece of clothing. There are also restroom facilities, but these are composting toilets, not flushable ones! And they’re closed while the ferry is docked; everyone uses the toilets on the ferry when it’s docked there, even those who came on the plane or are camping overnight.
Read next: Your Ultimate List of Hiking Tips
Remember to Drink Lots of Water
It’s hot out there! It’s called the “Dry” Tortugas because there is no usable drinking water on the island. So bring your own! If you decide to take the seaplane, the nice guys there will provide you with soft drinks and water, but it’s always a good idea to bring some with you to a deserted island!
Bring a Dry Bag
I never go on a beach vacation without my dry bag! And you know what I get the most questions about from random strangers on the beach? My dry bag! I have two–one 10 L size in a cross-body bag, and one 25 L backpack style, and they are awesome. Not only do they keep water out, they also keep out sand, and they float! You never have to worry about leaving your stuff on the beach because you can bring it with you into the water. My dry bag came in handy at the Dry Tortugas, and I think it will for you, too!
Keep reading: The Ultimate List of Solo Travel Gear
Bring Water Shoes
That sand you see on the beaches of the Dry Tortugas? It’s rough! No, really. It’s a mix of sand, pieces of coral, and shells. It’s definitely not the white, powdery stuff you want it to be! I highly recommend water shoes to help protect your feet. Cuts on the beach are easily infected, so save yourself the trouble, discomfort, and antibiotics! You’ll thank me later.
Also helpful: The Ultimate Guide to Travel and Your Feet
Bring Reef Safe Sunscreen–and Use It!
It’s great to have sunscreen at the beach. It’s even better when it’s reef safe, since we all want the Dry Tortugas’s reef system to survive for multiple lifetimes. But you know what’s just as important as having it available? Using it! How do I know? Because my dad and I both got burned—we didn’t reapply when we should have! So, learn from us: Use your sunscreen!
Read next: 5 Practical Ways to Travel Sustainably
Bring a Change of Clothes
Even though there are no showers available, you might still feel a little less “icky” if you change into something quick and dry and clean before you leave to go back to Key West. I certainly did! I brought a dress and a small stick of deodorant with me, and it made all the difference for me (and probably those around me) on the flight back!
Want more? Check out all my posts about Dry Tortugas and the Florida Keys on my United States Page!
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