Key West has a lot going for it, but one of the biggest isn’t in Key West at all. Dry Tortugas National Park is one of three National Parks in South Florida that draws visitors from all over the world. But getting to the Dry Tortugas, located far offshore of Key West, is an adventure unto itself.
If you’d like to visit these beautiful, remote islands, here’s a complete guide to everything you need to know. It’s a wonderful day trip from town, and the journey is a unique experience that you won’t soon forget.
The Dry Tortugas are a group of islands at the very end of the Florida Keys. Contrary to common belief, the Keys don’t end in Key West—only the road does. The Dry Tortugas are 70 miles farther west than Key West.
The islands have been part of Dry Tortugas National Park since 1992. Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote parks in the country. And, for those that like tropical island getaways, it might just be one of the best. Most of the 100-square-mile park is underwater. Crystal-clear, sparkling blue water that has come up from the Caribbean.
The Tortugas were discovered by Ponce De Leon in 1513 and named for the dozens of sea turtles he found there. They are “dry” because there is no source of fresh water on the islands.
The only sign of human settlement in the park is the presence of an enormous 19th-century fort, the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere. Fort Jefferson was built after the War of 1812 to protect the sea lanes and the Gulf of Mexico. Over the years, it has weathered far more attacks from hurricanes than enemy forces.
Today, you can visit these islands on an easy and enjoyable day trip from Key West. Take the ferry or hop on a seaplane. But book early because the trips will sell out early during busy times! It’s a beautiful spot to enjoy a tour of the historic fort, walk the beaches, and spot some sea life from the beach or while snorkeling.
The official ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas is the Yankee Freedom. It’s a 70-mile trip out there, but thankfully the Yankee Freedom moves quickly. This large power catamaran cruises at about 30 mph, meaning the trip takes just over two hours. The boat is 110 feet long and can carry up to 250 passengers. It’s seldom full, however, as the Park itself has a 175-person daily limit.
The ferry is comfortable, too. The top deck has an open-air section for watching dolphins and getting some fresh air. There is also a cocktail bar, with snacks, beer, wine, and mixed drinks on the ride home. The lower level is all enclosed and air-conditioned for those hot Florida days. A full galley serves breakfast on the way over to the Park and lunch while at the dock. At other times, you can get snacks.
The ferry leaves Key West every morning at 8:00 am. Day trippers to the Park will stick with the ferry—it’s a long trip, and the boat only makes one trip per day. While it’s at the dock, you’re welcome to board the vessel, grab lunch, or just chill in the AC. You’re asked to use the bathroom facilities on the boat instead of those on land at the Park or campground. The ferry also has fresh water rinse showers to get the sand and salt off after a day of playing in the Park’s pristine waters.
If you’re interested in more than a day trip, you can also camp at Fort Jefferson. It’s rustic tent camping on the beach. Campers make arrangements with the ferry to carry your gear. There are specific limits on the size and weight of what you can bring, so double-check those requirements while planning your trip.
The regular adult ticket price for ferry service is about $200. This includes round-trip ferry service, park admission, a breakfast snack, and a box lunch. Seniors, students, National Parks pass holders, and active military members and their spouses have discounted rates.
Key West Seaplane Adventures, out of Key West International Airport, operates a floatplane that lands right in the harbor at Fort Jefferson. The flight includes complimentary coolers with ice and bottled water. There’s also snorkeling gear for when you get to the island. The ten-passenger, single-engine floatplane is a DeHavilland Turbine Otter that cruises around 150 mph.
It’s about a 40-minute flight to get out there. Along the way, you’ll be able to spot lots of little islands and the shallow, clear water that makes the Keys so famous. The aerial views as you approach Fort Jefferson will blow your mind!
The rate for a half-day excursion is $397 per person, and a full day is $697. You can depart on the half-day trip in the morning or afternoon, while the full-day trip departs in the morning and returns in the afternoon. The park entrance fee of $15 per person is NOT included in the ticket price.
The only other way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by private boat. However, it’s a popular destination, so you’ll likely see a few sail and motor boats anchored in the lagoon.
You could charter a boat out of Key West if you don’t have your own. However, it’s impossible to get there and back within a day on this type of vessel—but you probably wouldn’t want to. So instead, these are multi-day trips where you’ll visit many different islands along the way.
Several companies offer crewed and bareboat charters leaving from Key West. The Dry Tortugas is one of the top destinations for this type of trip, weather permitting.
Several companies offer all-day or overnight dive trips to the Dry Tortugas (neither the ferry nor the seaplane allows dive gear).
Once the ferry arrives, you have about four hours to see and do whatever you want. A narrated tour of the fort kicks off about half an hour after the ferry docks. If you want to learn more about the fort, it’s a great way to do so. But you can also pick up the brochures and take a DIY self-guided tour anytime.
Beyond the tour and lunch, there are no commitments. Well, that and returning to the ferry to get back to Key West is pretty important. Don’t miss the boat, yo! Remember, GrubHub doesn’t deliver out here!
Fort Jefferson sits on tiny Garden Key, the largest landmass in the Dry Tortugas. But the fort is so imposing that you would be forgiven for missing the island that it takes over.
The fort is one of many that was built after the War of 1812 to protect the US east coast. You’ll notice why this is such an important location by looking at a map. The harbor is strategically located between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, almost every ship going into the Gulf will pass this area, and the Gulf Stream is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Fort Jefferson is the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere. It was designed to be a six-sided 420 heavy-gun fortress. It remained under Union control during the Civil War. At its height of operations, the fort was home to 2,000 military personnel and 2,500 prisoners.
The military use of the fort started to wane in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, it was designated as a bird reserve. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the fort a national monument in 1935, and George H.W. Bush made it a National Park in 1992.
Walking the impressive structure is a sight to behold. You have expansive views of the beaches and harbor below from atop the fort’s walls. You’ll also see the Garden Key lighthouse, built in 1825.
One of the first things you’ll notice as you arrive in the Dry Tortugas is the water clarity. So far away from any population center and close to the clear water flowing out of the Caribbean Sea via the Gulf Stream, the Dry Tortugas look and feel more like a Caribbean island than anywhere else in the US. The water is bright blue and gin-clear.
You’ll likely spot your first marine life of the day right at the ferry dock. Huge Goliath Grouper live under the dock, along with barracuda and many parrotfish. You’ll easily spot them hanging out in the shade on a sunny day.
A low brick wall surrounds the fort, separated by a moat of shallow water. Unfortunately, some sections of the moat wall have washed out in recent hurricanes, so you can’t walk all the way around any longer. But the sections that you can walk are beautiful. It feels like you’re walking above nature’s largest aquarium, with brightly colored corals and tons of tropical fish darting around. You’ll probably see some stingrays, parrotfish, nurse sharks, and maybe even a turtle or two.
If you want to get a little wet, grab some snorkeling gear off the ferry (equipment is included in the ticket price!) and head to the beach on the west-facing beach near the ferry dock. From there, you can snorkel around the wall to glimpse all the good stuff. You can also set out from the beach on the island’s north side.
Keep an eye to the sky while you’re out walking, touring, and swimming. The Dry Tortugas are a premier birding destination. These tiny islands, alone in a huge ocean, serve as a rest stop for birds making long migrations between North and South America. On record-setting days, a “fallout” occurs, with thousands of birds stopping for a break to catch their breath.
Birders come from all over the world, hoping to catch a glimpse of some rare species here. The park’s bird list contains 281 species, with 23 species known to breed on these islands.
The beaches surrounding Fort Jefferson are some of the most beautiful in the country. There are no other buildings or structures on these islands. Beyond the fort, there is nothing but nature.
Walking east from the ferry dock and seaplane beach, you can follow the shoreline around the perimeter of Bush Key. Once upon a time, Bush Key was separated from Garden Key by a deep channel of water. But storms often strike these islands, and these tiny sandbars shift and shuffle from year to year.
Bush Key is closed every year between February and September for bird nestings, so be mindful of any signs or instructions from the park rangers. This area has the only known significant breeding colony of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies in the US.
Cell phones do not work in the park. At all. Like, zero bars.
The National Park protects all of the beaches. You can’t collect sea shells or anything else.
Campers must arrive on the ferry and make campsite reservations in advance. There are only ten campsites on the island.
There are no restrooms and no running water at the fort. Visitors shall use the facilities on the ferry when it is in port. When it is not in port, you may use the composting toilets located at the campground.
Drones are prohibited, as is the case with all US National Parks.