This National Park in Florida Is 99% Underwater — and It's One of the Country's Most Beautiful

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the country’s most unique national parks.

As travel trends come and go, national parks never lose their appeal. But a national park that’s 99 percent underwater, located 70 miles from civilization, and accessible only by seaplane or boat? That’s a next-level national park.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson national monument, Dry Tortugas national park

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Enter Dry Tortugas National Park, one of just three designated national parks in Florida — and one of the most remote in the entire U.S. National Park System. The park is known for its mind-blowingly blue waters, interesting 200-year history, untouched environment, and faraway tropical location. 

It’s not your average national park, as anyone who has visited can attest. Want to count yourself among them? Keep reading to learn how to get there, what to know before you make the trip, things to do on the island, and the best time to go.

Fort Jefferson of Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

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Planning a Trip to Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park comprises a cluster of seven small islands, but most of the 100-square-mile park is water — mesmerizingly blue, crystal-clear water worthy of your wildest tropical dreams. It’s perfect for both swimming and sightseeing, two of the main draws of the Dry Tortugas.

Beyond the breathtaking water, the beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park can be found in its unique natural features (think: coral reefs, sandy shoals, sea life, and lots of birds).

In fact, these natural wonders are the main reason the park exists. It’s a rich source of inspiration and a prized resource for scientists conducting research, an ideal outdoor laboratory for observing “how and why natural systems change over time, and what amount of change is normal,” according to the National Park Service.

It’s a particularly valuable resource because of the encompassing Dry Tortugas Research Natural Area, established in 2007 to protect the marine ecology of the park. This 46-square-mile protected preserve is “a sanctuary for species affected by fishing and loss of habitat in this region of the Gulf of Mexico,” per the NPS. 

Even non-scientists get to benefit from this important research effort in the form of boating, diving, and snorkeling in some of the most pristine waters to be found.

Another main attraction here is historic Fort Jefferson, located on 14-acre Garden Key, the second-largest island in the Dry Tortugas.

Since its original construction in the 1800s as a masonry fort — one of the nation’s largest — Fort Jefferson has lived many lives. It has served as a coaling station for warships, a safe harbor for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida to resupply and refit, and even a Civil War prison for Union deserters. Still, Fort Jefferson was never attacked, successfully fulfilling its role as an intimidating warning to enemy forces. 

Today, it’s a preserved piece of history with decorative brickwork and 2,000 stunning arches where visitors can explore and learn about a lesser-known piece of American history linking international trade routes, wartime living, and hundreds of shipwrecks.

A beach leading to Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

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Things to Know Before Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park

Sometimes, the most arduous journeys reap the greatest rewards, and that’s true of Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s far from just about everything, and while its remoteness is part of its appeal, it requires a bit more forethought than your average spur-of-the-moment national park adventure.

The park is not accessible by car, and there are no facilities for fuel, water, charcoal, or food, so it’s important to arrive prepared for the duration of your stay. (This is why a day trip is the most popular way to experience the Dry Tortugas.)

There are also no supplies available in the park, and the only restrooms are aboard the Yankee Freedom ferry (and thus only available during the hours when it’s docked). For overnight campers, composting toilets are available from 3 p.m. to 10:30 a.m. daily.

There’s also no cell coverage, internet access, or Wi-Fi in Dry Tortugas National Park. In today’s overconnected world, this is one aspect of what makes the park special, but you do need to be prepared for a totally off-the-grid adventure. 

Plus, since there are few ways in and out of the park, it’s an all-day commitment — meaning you can’t just change your mind and head home if you’re not feeling it. 

If being “stranded” (for a day) on a far-flung tropical island with limited access to food, water, bathrooms, and other modern conveniences doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to sit this one out. But if you’re up for an adventure, you’re in for a treat. 

Tropical Sea Plane in the Dry Tortugas National Park Florida

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How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Since it’s located 70 miles west of Key West — the southernmost point of the continental U.S. — the journey of getting to Dry Tortugas National Park is part of the fun.

Options for getting to Dry Tortugas National Park include a ferry, private boat, charter boat, or seaplane. Fishing and dive charters heading to the Dry Tortugas are available in both the Florida Keys and Naples.

However, traveling by seaplane is probably the most scenic and memorable way to reach the Dry Tortugas.

“Getting there by seaplane was the highlight of our trip,” says Daniel Jenkins, a Florida resident who recently traveled to Dry Tortugas National Park with his husband. “The water is the most unreal blue color that almost glows as you fly overhead. I lost count of all the dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, stingrays, and sharks we spotted from the air, and you even fly over two shipwrecks,” he shares. 

“It’s a fraction of the travel time, which means you can spend more time snorkeling and exploring the island, and the small cabin size allows for only 10 passengers at a time.”

Key West Seaplane Adventures is an NPS-sanctioned seaplane charter to Dry Tortugas and costs $361 per adult for a half-day excursion. The flight time is about 40 minutes each way.

To visit areas of the park beyond Garden Key and Fort Jefferson, you’ll need to explore via your own private boat, but note that you’ll have to acquire a permit.

A ship docked on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

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Cheapest Way to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park

None of the options for getting to Dry Tortugas National Park are particularly low-cost, but some are less expensive than others.

While the seaplane route is certainly memorable, most visitors opt to take the two-hour round-trip ferry from Key West. A trip on the Yankee Freedom, which boards at 7:30 a.m. and returns to Key West by 5:30 p.m. each day, includes breakfast, lunch, a fully narrated 45-minute tour of Fort Jefferson, complimentary snorkeling equipment, and park entrance fees. There are also frozen drinks available for purchase, in case you want to kick back with a rum runner. 

Day trips on the Yankee Freedom start at $200 per ticket; if you want to spend the night and add primitive camping with a kayak, that will set you back about $240. It’s the cheapest way to get to Dry Tortugas National Park (unless you have a friend with a boat who won’t charge you gas money).

Snorkeling in Tropical Carribean Ocean Water Dry Tortugas

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Things to Do at Dry Tortugas National Park: Snorkeling, Swimming, and More

Those who want more than just a few hours to explore Dry Tortugas National Park should plan to camp on the island.

However, most visitors choose to spend only a day, filling their visit with diving, swimming, snorkeling, ranger-guided tours, wildlife spotting, and touring historic Fort Jefferson. You can also go geocaching, fishing, and paddling, though you have to bring your own kayak or paddleboard.

Most visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park will also visit Garden Key, as that’s where ferry and seaplane passengers are dropped off, but exploring the other islands within the park is also an option if you have your own boat.

Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the park, is located three miles west of Garden Key and is great for snorkeling and visiting beaches. The 16-acre Bush Key is an undeveloped island where up to 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies take up residence during the breeding season (February to September). Note that Bush Key closes to visitors during this time, as these are the only significant breeding colonies of the bird species in the entire United States.

a beached kayak on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

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Best Time to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

Thanks to its subtropical climate, Dry Tortugas National Park is open all year long. The weather stays generally warm and sunny in every season. Winter (December through March) tends to be windier, which creates the potential for rough seas, but the temperature is more mild and dry. Meanwhile, summers are hot and humid. June through November is Atlantic hurricane season, so that period carries a risk of storms. Still, you can visit Dry Tortugas National Park any month of the year and enjoy a picture-perfect day.

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