The Dry Tortugas National Park is a remarkable South Florida gem that merits your attention. Situated just 70 miles from Key West, it holds the distinction of being the most remote National Park in the United States.
Steeped in awe-inspiring American history, it boasts stunning beaches, exceptional opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving, and is part of the world’s third-largest reef system. Prepare to be captivated by the mesmerizing coral formations and the island’s rare bird species. Notably, the park is also home to fascinating shipwrecks.
Here is an outline for how you can visit the Dry Tortugas National Park, only accessible by boat or seaplane, and explore its remarkable Fort Jefferson ruins.
Without a doubt, Dry Tortugas is an exquisite destination that offers pristine natural beauty and unparalleled azure waters that will leave you in awe.
What Is Dry Tortugas?
Dry Tortugas is an expansive 100-square mile park and island, one among seven, strategically positioned off the coast of Key West. This secluded haven in the Florida Keys boasts a rich historical tapestry. Its discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1513, during which he encountered over 100 sea turtles, led to the name Tortugas, meaning “turtles”.
Over the course of nearly two centuries that followed, the islands became a notorious hideout for pirates, who launched daring attacks on merchant shipping.
A Fort Jefferson Intro
Dominating the landscape of Garden Key is the formidable fort, Fort Jefferson, constructed in 1846 and unrivaled by any other fortification in the nation, despite its incomplete state. In addition to its military significance, Fort Jefferson served as a Union prison camp during the period of the Civil War.
Remarkably, the fort comprises a staggering 16 million bricks, each painstakingly transported to this remote and hard-to-reach island location. One can only imagine the enormous logistical challenges involved in such an undertaking.
How to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park
In 1935, President Roosevelt designated Fort Jefferson a national monument, adding it to the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. Subsequently, in 1992, the Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, were welcomed into the esteemed roster of the National Parks System.
Today, visitors have the delightful opportunity to experience the captivating beauty of the Dry Tortugas through various means, such as seaplane, ferry, or private boat. For most individuals, the Yankee Freedom III ship serves as the favored and cost-effective mode of transport, which incidentally, I also chose.
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
The Yankee Freedom Ferry
Experience the beauty of Dry Tortugas via the Yankee Freedom III ferry. Purchase tickets online and come to the terminal dock, at 100 Grinnell Street, bright and early for an 8:00 AM departure. Once on the island, you’ll have four hours to soak in the breathtaking sights.
To make the most of your trip, don’t forget to bring your swimsuits, a change of dry clothing, beach hat, towels, sunscreen, motion sickness medication, games/cards/books, water shoes, sunglasses, and camping supplies if you’re staying overnight. Remember to pack a dry bag for wet clothing and a waterproof phone case.
Please note that aerial drones are not allowed.
When boarding the Yankee Freedom, ticket holders are called in groups of 25. Arriving early ensures you get the best choice of seats on the multiple level boat. Once onboard, secure your belongings behind your chosen seat and wait for the ferry to set sail. Take this time to make any important calls or send texts, as there will be no cell service until around 5:00 PM.
During the journey, a professionally trained staff will offer a filling continental breakfast for about 90 minutes. Enjoy bagels, spreads, hard-boiled eggs, cereals, fruit, yogurt, juice, milk, and coffee. Cold water is available throughout the trip, and you can also purchase soda and bottled water.
More Yankee Freedom Notes
Experience the beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park in just a 2 hours and 15-30 minutes ride. Take the travel time opportunity to relax, read a book, enjoy the views, or even spot sea turtles and dolphins.
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 Yankee Freedom is docked, guests are free to come and go as they please. Take a break from the sun, rest, or explore the park. Then, come back to the ferry for the included lunch, between 11 AM and 1 PM. The spread consists of cold cuts, vegetables, bread, spreads, fruit, chips, cookies, potato salad, chicken salad, and sodas. Alcoholic beverages are available for purchase.
And the best part? Your ferry ticket includes a 45-minute fully narrated tour of Fort Jefferson. Plus, all applicable entrance fees are included.
And when you get back to Key West, here are some restaurant suggestions.
Spending Time at Dry Tortugas National Park
You have four hours to experience the highlights of Dry Tortugas National Park! Start by joining a desirable tour with the onboard historian/naturalist to truly appreciate the grandeur of Fort Jefferson. Instead of exploring the fort on your own, why not have someone provide a concise 30 to 45-minute history lesson?
Gather in our comfortable seating area, surrounded by shady trees, to embark on your tour. Aside from the introductory tour, there are additional walking tours available at Fort Jefferson, although I personally didn’t partake in them.
Our tour guide, Hollywood, who is a member of Yankee Freedom’s staff, did an outstanding job! Through his passion and entertaining storytelling, my daughter Peyton and I were captivated by historical facts throughout the day. Hollywood has a unique talent for bringing history to life, sparking an unexpected interest in Peyton, who isn’t usually enthralled by history.
In addition to the tours, don’t forget to visit the small gift shop and museum at Fort Jefferson. It’s the perfect place to cool off, browse through souvenirs such as postcards, books, and apparel, or pick up national park merchandise like stamps and posters.
Dry Tortugas Reef Activities
Experience the wonders of the third greatest reef in the world at Dry Tortugas! Don’t miss out on this incredible snorkeling opportunity. Complimentary snorkel gear is available, along with convenient changing rooms at the dock.
Peyton and I eagerly put on our snorkel gear and headed into the stunning blue waters. Despite the strong current in the Gulf of Mexico, the underwater sight was absolutely breathtaking. Even with the sediment stirred up by other snorkelers, the visibility remained surprisingly clear.
We were amazed by the vibrant and diverse marine life, with fascinating fish of all kinds swimming around the beautiful reef. We even felt them brush against our legs at times. Who knows, you might even encounter a sea turtle or a shark!
We counted over 100 different types of fish and marine creatures during our adventure. Peyton spotted a magnificent five-foot stingray, while I had the incredible luck to see a seahorse. We were in awe of the grouper, parrotfish, angelfish, and lobster that surrounded us. We wished we had brought an underwater camera to capture these magical moments.
Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, the Dry Tortugas National Park offers the perfect setting for snorkeling. You can also enjoy swimming, recreational fishing, and soaking up the sun on the warm sandy beaches. Remember to reapply sunscreen frequently due to the southern location and stay hydrated.
If you’re interested in birdwatching, Dry Tortugas is a haven for rare bird sightings. It’s a great opportunity to add new species to your birdwatching list or indulge in a new hobby.
Ferry Ride Back to Key West
Get ready for the most challenging part of your trip. The ride back to Key West can be quite rough at sea, so we recommend taking Dramamine around noon before starting your journey. Trust me, it’s important.
But don’t worry, the staff is fully prepared for any motion sickness. They have handed out special bags just in case. Peyton and I made it through without getting sick, but some people around us weren’t as lucky. The waves were rough and the ride was bumpy.
Remember that sailors do this trip every day unless there’s bad weather. So while it may be a bit complicated, you’ll be safe.
Dry Tortugas: A Trip to Remember
Our day at Dry Tortugas National Park was absolutely amazing. I had the best time snorkeling and learning about the history of the park. As a big fan of National Parks, I was thrilled to add a stamp to my National Park passport book.
I hope you’ll enjoy this beautiful park, island, and beach as much as we did. Happy travels!
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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