Exploring Dry Tortugas National Park (and How to Get There)
If you’ve never heard of the Dry Tortugas National Park, you may want to take note. This hidden gem is full of amazing American history, stunning beaches, incredible snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, and the third-largest reef system in the world. You will be wowed by the coral formations and rare birds on the island. And did I mention shipwrecks?
Getting to the Dry Tortugas takes planning and time; it is the most remote National Park in the country. The trip to and from is part of the fun when visiting this Florida Keys attraction.
Let me help you plan your day and adventures to the Dry Tortugas and what you should do when you arrive. It is a trip you won’t want to miss!
A Brief History
Dry Tortugas is an island (one of 7) and fortification 70 miles off the coast of Key West. This remote part of the Florida Keys has had its fair share of history. The 1846 fort, Fort Jefferson (located on Garden Key), is mightier than any other fort built across the nation, even though it was never completed. It also served as a Union prison camp during the Civil War. Fort Jefferson is made up of 16 million bricks, all of which were shipped to the hard-to-get-to island location.
President FDR designated Fort Jefferson a national monument in 1935 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Parks System added the Dry Tortugas (and Fort Jefferson) to its roster in 1992. Today, visitors can enjoy the Dry Tortugas by seaplane, ferry, or private boat. The ship (Yankee Freedom III) is the cheapest and most popular way to make the trip.
Dry Tortugas is a fantastic place with pristine nature and the most beautiful water you’ve ever laid eyes on!
The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first discovered this island chain in 1513 and called them Las Tortugas, meaning The Turtles, for the great number of sea turtles found there. The latter name, Dry Tortugas, was intended to warn seafarers that the islands contain no fresh water. –Key West Travel Guide
Arriving by Ferry
The Yankee Freedom III is the ferry line (catamaran) that runs from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Tickets may be purchased online. Guests will arrive at the dock bright and early for their departure. Once on the island, you will have four hours to enjoy the beauty of this marvelous destination.
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On my visit, I remember thinking that this was a very long time to be in the Florida heat, but it went by quickly.
Things to bring along with you include:
- Beach hat/head covering
- Beach Towels
- Motion Sickness medication (also sold onboard)
- Water shoes
- Camping supplies, if spending the night
- Dry bag/place for wet clothing
- Waterproof Phone Case
- Binoculars (for birding)
Getting on the Boat
You will be called in groups of 25 to board the boat. Be sure to arrive at the terminal early as you board the multiple level boat based on the order in which you came. The early bird gets the worm, meaning the best choice of seats.
Once on the Yankee Freedom, place your belongings behind the seat you’ve chosen and wait for the boat to set sail. Make any calls or send texts because you will not have cell service once you leave. There are no cell towers at Dry Tortugas National Park, so it will be around 5:00 PM before you can use your phones for calls or an internet connection.
Shortly after you get underway to Dry Tortugas, the staff (which functions like a well-oiled machine) will offer a big selection of continental breakfast items to eat. Our food included bagels and spreads, hard-boiled eggs, cereals, fruit, yogurt, juice, milk, and coffee. A huge container of cold water is available at the bar at all times, and it is self-serve. You can purchase soda and bottled water at any time during the trip.
Breakfast is out for about 90 minutes.
The Ferry Ride
It takes 2 hours and 15-30 minutes to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park. During that time, you can visit your party, make new friends, settle in with a good book, play a game, sleep, or enjoy the views from the front of the boat or any of the window seats. The captain will tell you if anything noteworthy can be seen, such as sea turtles, dolphins, or island groups.
Four bathrooms are available at the back of the boat and should be used as directed to keep from getting clogs or backed-up toilets.
Once the boat docks at the island, you must remove all of your belongings from it. You can come back and forth as you wish once the boat has been cleaned and cleared should you want to rest, escape the direct sun, or otherwise. You will come back to the boat between 11 AM and 12:30 PM to eat your lunch, included in your ferry ticket price.
The Yankee Freedom III provided cold cuts, vegetables, a variety of bread, spreads, fruit, chips, cookies, potato salad, chicken salad, and sodas for lunch. I’ll have to add that the food was good and adequately stored, refrigerated, and all of the things this ex-caterer looks for in foodservice. Alcoholic beverages are also available for purchase.
Spending Time at Dry Tortugas National Park
You have several choices of what to do in the four hours you will be spending in the Dry Tortugas National Park. For starters, sign up for a tour with the onboard historian/naturalist so that you can learn a little about the magnitude of Fort Jefferson. While you can tour the fort on your own, having someone sum up the history in a 20 to 30-minute spiel is much better.
We gathered in an area of the park with benches and some shade trees for ours. Besides the introductory tour, there are several other walking tours of Fort Jefferson, but I did not take those.
Hollywood (one of Yankee Freedom’s staff members) led our tour and did a remarkable job! My daughter, Peyton, and I were reeling in historical facts the entire day from his passionate explanations and colorful antics describing this special place. He had a way of making history come alive and even enticed Peyton, who doesn’t always have an interest in history.
Fort Jefferson has a small gift shop and museum where you can get some much-needed shade and buy souvenirs (postcards, books, apparel) as well as typical national park merchandise (stamps, posters).
Outdoor Activities on Dry Tortugas
The third greatest reef in the world lies here at Dry Tortugas. Though I typically do not snorkel, I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. There is snorkel gear on the island should you need it, and changing rooms at the dock.
Peyton and I donned our snorkel gear and headed to the water. The current in the Gulf of Mexico waters was powerful and required some exertion for snorkeling, but what we saw under the water was nothing short of spectacular! Even with many other snorkelers stirring up the sediment, the visibility was pretty clear. We were quickly able to make out fascinating, colorful fish of all types. The fish loved swimming around and staying close to the reef. At times we felt them brush our legs. Your Dry Tortugas snorkel adventures are sure to be some of your favorites ever at this excellent reef destination.
If I were guessing, I would say we saw over 100 different kinds of fish and sea life. Peyton saw a five-foot stingray and me, a seahorse, while we both admired the grouper, parrotfish, angelfish, and lobster. I could have kicked myself for not bringing an underwater camera.
Whether you are a novice or a pro, you will want to get wet in the Dry Tortugas National Park. Swimming and recreational fishing are two other ways to stay entertained. Lastly, enjoy sunbathing and soaking up some rays on the warm sand.
For those with interest in birdwatching, you can spot some rare birds in the Dry Tortugas. This would be a great time to add new bird sightings to your list or explore a new hobby.
Getting Back to Shore
Now comes the most “trying” time of the entire trip. The sea is often relentless during the ride back to Key West. They advised us to take Dramamine around noon so that the medicine would have time to kick in before starting our journey to Key West. I cannot stress how important this is.
The staff is thoroughly prepared and passed out motion sickness bags (barf bags) to all aboard the Yankee Freedom III. While Peyton and I made it without being sick, several people around us were not so lucky. The waves were pretty rough, and the ride was very rocky. Keep in mind that these sailors make this trip daily unless extreme weather calls for cancellation. You will be safe, but remember that the return ride is a little more complicated than getting there.
A Trip to Remember
Our day at Dry Tortugas National Park was so much fun, and I had an ultimate day of snorkeling and history. Being an avid National Park gal, I was thrilled to add this stamp to my National Park passport book. I hope you will love this beautiful park, island, and beach as much as we did.
Thanks to Yankee Freedom and the Florida Keys Tourism for hosting our trip. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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