Dry Tortugas National Park Is 99% Underwater — and That’s Exactly Why It’s a Must-visit
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Wide-open spaces are the name of the game in today's pandemic-ravaged tourism landscape, which is why travelers all over the U.S. are flocking to national parks. But a national park that’s 99% underwater, located 70 miles from civilization, and accessible only by seaplane or boat? That’s next-level traveling, perfectly suited to the times.
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 the 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).
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 where visitors can explore and learn.
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, so in other words, be ready for a totally off-the-grid adventure.
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.
Most visitors opt to take the two-hour round-trip ferry from Key West. A trip on the Yankee Freedom ferry, 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.
Other options for getting to Dry Tortugas National Park include private boats, charter boats, or seaplanes. 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. They were eager to visit to source inspiration for their tropical handmade jewelry line, Ojo de Sol.
“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,” Jenkins 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, which felt safe and got us out of the crowds.”
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 acquiring a permit is required.
Things to Do at Dry Tortugas National Park: Snorkeling, Swimming, and More
Camping is a popular way to enjoy Dry Tortugas National Park, if you want more than just a few hours on the island.
However, most visitors choose to spend only a day at Dry Tortugas National Park, filling their visit with things like swimming, snorkeling, diving, 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, paddleboard, and other supplies.
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 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.
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 more windy, 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.