Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the nation’s most unique national parks. Although only 70 miles from Key West, FL, Dry Tortugas is the nation’s most remote national park, only accessible by boat or seaplane.
The list of amenities is few. There’s no cellphone service, no internet, no fuel, no public bathrooms, and there’s not even food or water. You need to bring what you want and need along with you.
What Dry Tortugas does have is 100 square miles of tropical waters and seven small islands where visitors can step back in time and step into nature the way it was intended—wild and untouched.
Why Visit Dry Tortugas National Park?
Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy the picturesque blue waters, vibrant coral reefs, and abundant marine life. If you’re into world-class snorkeling and diving, fishing, or soaking up the sun on soft white sand beaches as the day passes, Dry Tortugas National Park is the place for you.
This park often goes overlooked because the lure of Key West stops most visitors. But if you make the excursion, the snorkeling in Dry Tortugas is better than almost anywhere else in the Keys and the secluded, white sand beaches are far superior to any beach in Key West.
Additionally, Dry Tortugas offers visitors the fascinating history and cultural treasures such as Fort Jefferson, the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, and the Windjammer Shipwreck. If you’re looking for lesser-known places to explore in the Keys, Dry Tortugas certainly isn’t your typical national park visit.
When to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park
The best time to visit Dry Tortugas depends on personal preference and what your goal is for visiting the park. The park experiences two distinct seasons: the summer/wet season and the winter/dry season.
Summer/Wet Season in Dry Tortugas
The summer/wet season is from May through November and is characterized by high temperatures (avg. 90℉), humidity, and afternoon precipitation. This period roughly corresponds to the Atlantic hurricane season so severe weather is always a possibility.
Although the temps are high and the summer/wet season accounts for the majority of annual rainfall, the summer/wet season provides the best conditions for snorkeling and viewing marine life. With little to no wind, the calm waters maintain excellent visibility, which is conducive to Tortuga’s most popular activities.
Winter/Dry Season in Dry Tortugas
If milder temperatures are more your cup of tea, then visiting during the winter/dry season is for you. The winter season extends from November to mid-May. The temperature is extremely pleasant and averages range between 60℉ and 70℉.
When compared to the rest of the country’s average winter temperatures, winter at Dry Tortugas sounds pretty nice. There is a small sacrifice for visiting during the winter months, though. Winter brings windier conditions which affect the calmness of the seas. Choppy seas lead to decreased visibility and less enjoyable snorkeling conditions. Don’t be too alarmed, however, February sees the most visitors each year to Dry Tortugas.
Where to Stay in Dry Tortugas National Park
Most visitors enjoy a day trip to Dry Tortugas. For those looking for a unique camping experience, however, primitive camping is available at Garden Key. Camping on the remote island offers campers spectacular sunsets and sunrises as well as a chance to experience incredible stargazing.
Individual sites can fit up to six people and reservations are not required, although reservations are required for public transportation options. There is an additional fee for overnight camping.
Staying Outside The Park
If you need a place to park your RV to take a day trip down to Dry Tortugas, here are the best campgrounds close to where you’ll hop on a boat or place to head out:
- Boyds Key West Campground: About 15 minutes from the Yankee Freedom Ferry.
- Bluewater Key RV Resort: About 25 minutes from the Yankee Freedom Ferry.
- Military Park NASKW Campground: About 10 minutes from the Yankee Freedom Ferry
Tips For Your Camping Stay
Whether you’re staying in a primitive campsite in the park or an RV park nearby, these tips will help you maximize your stay.
- Book RV sites several months in advance. Because the Florida Keys is such a popular snowbird destination, you’ll need to book RV sites well in advance if visiting during the winter months.
- Consider alternative transportation. It’s required for getting to Dry Tortugas, but it’s even a good idea for getting around Key West, as the narrow roads are no place for a larger RV.
- Campsite reservations on Dry Tortugas aren’t required. The individual sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. All campers are guaranteed a place to camp once they arrive.
- You must bring your own camping gear. That includes, but isn’t limited to, a camping tent, fresh water, fuel, ice, and food.
- Pack it in, Pack it out. All trash must be carried out when you leave. Follow Leave No Trace principles to protect this sensitive natural habitat.
For more information on Dry Tortugas camping, visit the park’s website.
How To Get Around Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is only accessible by boat or by seaplane. The Yankee Freedom Ferry operates daily from Key West to Dry Tortugas–departing Key West at 8:00 AM and returning at 3:00 PM.
Key West Seaplane Adventures offers the only seaplane service to Dry Tortugas and is a great option if you’re prone to seasickness or simply want to experience the incredible views from above. Both the seaplane and the ferry will bring you to Garden Key, the main key where Fort Jefferson is located.
If you’d like to visit other areas of the park, you’ll need a boat. Private boats are welcome at the park, just remember to get your permit at the ranger station at Garden Key. There are boat slips for visitors available for short-term use. Check the park’s website for other information and regulations for visiting in a personal boat.
Finally, you can also charter fishing, diving, snorkeling, or wildlife viewing trips from Key West to bring you to the park. You’ll find a list of permitted tour operators on the park’s website.
Places To Go
Whether you take a day trip to Dry Tortugas or decide to tent camp overnight, check out these places to go during your visit.
Home to the historic Fort Jefferson, Garden Key is the second-largest island of the seven islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park. This key is where you’ll find the park headquarters, visitor center, campground, and beaches for swimming or snorkeling.
The award for the largest island in this national park goes to Loggerhead Key. This island is a haven for wildlife and is named after the abundance of loggerhead sea turtles it attracts. It’s also home to nearby shipwrecks, a lighthouse, and the old site of the historic Carnegie Laboratory for Marine Ecology.
If birdwatching is the main attraction drawing you to Dry Tortugas, visiting Bush Key should be your top priority. This is also one of the best places in the park for hiking once the nesting wildlife has left.
Keep in mind that this key is closed seasonally during nesting season. If you plan to visit, check the park’s website to make sure visitors will be permitted on this key while you’re there.
For those that are venturing out to Dry Tortugas in search of better beaches than you may find in the rest of the Keys, there are several beach access points. In fact, less than 1% of the protected area in Dry Tortugas is dry land. So, the best way to explore this national park is to get in the water.
Things to Do at Dry Tortugas National Park
This unique place may be one of the most remote and wild national parks, but there’s still plenty to do. Here are some of your options.
Snorkel, Swim, or Scuba Dive
Dry Tortugas is well regarded as one of the premier places in America to snorkel and dive. In addition to being situated on the Florida Keys reef system, which is the third-largest in the world, the area has been the site of numerous shipwrecks resulting in spectacular artificial environments for marine life.
The Windjammer Wreck is one of the best and most easily accessed sites for snorkeling in the park, but there are many other excellent spots as well.
Relive History at Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key, is one of the nation’s largest 19th-century forts. It is the country’s largest all-masonry fort and the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere. It was constructed between 1846 and 1875 with the purpose of protecting the country’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico.
The location of Dry Tortugas, along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, presented a strategic military need for Fort Jefferson. Planning for the fort began as soon as Florida became a state in 1822. Although never completed or attacked, Fort Jefferson stands as an important reminder and symbol of the development of the United States.
Relax on Tropical, Secluded Beaches
Key West is an island paradise that has much to offer visitors. While the beaches in Key West are nice, the beaches in Dry Tortugas are amazing. The fine white sand and the turquoise blue waters might have you thinking you’re in the setting for a tropical Corona commercial!
While visiting, take time away from snorkeling and exploring the fort so that you can relax, unwind, and catch some rays while sitting on your own slice of beach paradise.
What To Bring and How To Prepare
- Stay hydrated! Remember to bring lots of water in insulated water bottles so it stays cold.
- Pack snacks. There are no restaurants or facilities to get drinks or snacks in the park. The ferry concessionaire does offer limited snacks and drinks.
- Protect your skin. Whether you apply (and reapply) sunscreen or use a breathable, long-sleeve shirt and a full brimmed hat, protecting your skin from the strong Florida sun is vital for a healthy visit to Dry Tortugas.
- Research permits. Depending on how you plan to arrive and where you plan to go, you may need to obtain permits before your visit.
- Pack light. Be aware that campers are restricted to 60 pounds of gear and water if traveling to the park via the ferry.
For more information on safety and park regulations, check out the NPS’ frequently asked questions page.
Brief History of Dry Tortugas National Park
Pursuant to the Antiquities Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 4, 1935, Dry Tortugas was originally designated as Fort Jefferson National Monument. The protected area surrounding the monument was expanded in 1983 and officially re-designated as a national park on October 26, 1992.
The park was established to protect the surrounding marine and island ecosystems that are home to an abundance of marine and nesting bird species. The preservation of the historic Fort Jefferson and the numerous shipwreck sites in the water surrounding the fort were also important to the park’s formation.
The strategic location of Fort Jefferson was important to the shipping channel that runs between the Gulf of Mexico, the western part of the Caribbean Ocean, and out into the Pacific. Spanish explorers and merchants traversing the Gulf Coast were some of the early European sailors to traverse this channel.
In the early 19th century, this shipping channel was extremely lucrative. The construction of Fort Jefferson, which began in 1846, was an effort to protect the goods moving through the channel. The low islands that now make up Dry Tortugas represented a significant danger to ships passing through the channel.
Interestingly, construction on the fort continued on and off through 1875, but the fort was never officially completed. Problems bringing supplies to the island, sustaining workers building the fort, as well as the outbreak of the American Civil War caused construction delays.
Eventually, construction was halted completely as a result of fears that laying additional bricks would cause too much stress on the structure and cistern system. Today, the fort still stands as a reminder of a different era, even if it requires ongoing stabilization and restoration.
Have you been to Dry Tortugas National Park? What tips can you share?
Lindsay McKenzie travels full-time in her Winnebago Navion with her husband Dan and their 2 dogs. Originally from Colorado, they have been seeking adventure together for 10 years now and have done a lot of international traveling, including living in Costa Rica. They took the leap into full time RVing after experiencing life-altering news. They viewed the news as a life “detour” and started a travel and inspirational blog called Follow Your Detour. Lindsay has grown more passionate about pursuing her dreams and a leading a fulfilling life, while inspiring others to do the same. She loves that RVing allows her to be in nature and do more of what she loves. You can usually find her on the river fly fishing, hiking to sunset spots, or at a local brewery. (All photos by Lindsay McKenzie, except where noted.)