National Park Guides

The Mystique of Dry Tortugas National Park

POSTED ON December 6, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Nestled in the azure embrace of the Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas National Park stands as a jewel in the crown of the National Park Service.

Located just 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, this remote paradise is a testament to the sheer beauty and ecological diversity that our national parks are entrusted to protect.

Comprising seven islands, with the notable Garden Key and Bush Key at its heart, Dry Tortugas National Park is a sanctuary of pristine sandy beaches, thriving coral reefs, and the vibrant marine life that calls the surrounding waters home. But what sets this park apart is the enchanting sea turtles that grace its shores.

Join us on an adventure through the history and ecological wonders of Dry Tortugas National Park, where history, aquatic life, and natural beauty converge to create an experience like no other in the Florida Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park History

Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida

From its early days as a military stronghold to its present-day incarnation as a marine and historical haven, Dry Tortugas National Park is a testament to both nature’s resilience and human ingenuity.

Dry Tortugas National Park, also known as Fort Jefferson National Monument, found its roots in the 19th century. The strategic location of seven small islands in the Gulf of Mexico, around 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, Florida, was recognized as a potential stronghold by the U.S. government. So, the construction of Fort Jefferson, often referred to as “America’s fortress,” began in 1846, primarily to protect the Gulf Coast during the Civil War.

During this tumultuous period, the fort played a crucial role, serving as a Union military prison for captured Confederate soldiers and political prisoners. The massive brick structure was never fully completed, but it stood as an imposing symbol of maritime history.

As history unfolded, the fort’s military significance waned. However, a different purpose awaited. The surrounding waters, known as the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, flourished as a sanctuary for aquatic life. Visitors to the park can now witness magnificent frigatebirds and loggerhead turtles, both endangered species, in their natural habitat.

Over the years, collaboration between the National Park Service, park rangers, and organizations like the Carnegie Institution transformed this area into a unique blend of history and nature. The three visitor centers, strategically located in Key West, provide a fascinating glimpse into the park’s past, displaying artefacts and recounting the story of the fort and the main island’s history.

Today, Dry Tortugas National Park is a pristine example of conservation and historical preservation. Visitors arrive by ferry, like the “Yankee Freedom,” to explore the fort’s history and enjoy the natural beauty of the park. The magnificent frigatebird continues to soar above the azure waters, and the loggerhead turtles make their nests on the sandy beaches, showcasing the enduring legacy of this remarkable place.

Key Facts about Dry Tortugas National Park

Size: Approximately 64,701 acres (261.84 km2).

Number of Visitors: About 78,500 visitors (in 2022).

Established on: January 4, 1935

Number of Hiking Trails: 3

Total Length of Hiking Trails: Less than 10 miles (16 km)

Highest Point: Approximately 10 feet (3 meters) at Loggerhead Key

Lowest Point: Approximately 0 feet (0 meters) at the Gulf of Mexico

Other Interesting Facts

The Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

  • Dry Tortugas National Park is home to the largest unspoiled coral reef in the continental United States, making it a popular destination for snorkelers and divers alike.
  • The park was named “Tortugas” (meaning turtles) by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon due to the many sea turtles that he saw on the islands and the lack of freshwater sources. The name “dry” was added to signify the lack of fresh water on the islands.
  • The seven small islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park are called Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, Long Key, East Key, Hospital Key, and Middle Ground Shoal.
  • The famous birding spot known as Fort Jefferson’s Moat attracts over 100 species of migratory birds each year.
  • Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most significant historical landmarks in Florida. The Fort was used as a military prison during the Civil War era.
  • Dry Tortugas Park is a popular spot for deep-sea fishing, with opportunities to catch grouper, snapper, tuna, and other species in its crystal-clear waters.
  • The park is home to several shipwrecks that have become underwater habitats for aquatic life and are popular sites for snorkeling and diving. You can even learn about the windjammer wreck here.
  • The Loggerhead Key Lighthouse, standing at 151 feet (46 meters), is the second-tallest lighthouse in the United States. It has guided ships through these treacherous waters for over a century.
  • Visitors can camp on Garden Key at the park’s designated camping area. The island also has picnic areas, restrooms, and showers for day visitors.
  • Due to its remote location in the Gulf of Mexico and limited facilities, visitors should plan accordingly when visiting the park. There are no restaurants or stores on the islands, and visitors must bring all necessary supplies and equipment with them.
  • Dry Tortugas Park is designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society, recognizing its importance as a breeding ground for many seabird species.
  • The park is a vital nesting area for loggerhead turtles, an endangered species, making it an important site for conservation efforts.
  • The waters surrounding the park are part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects over 2,900 square nautical miles (9,947 square kilometers) of coral reefs. This sanctuary is home to over 6,000 different marine species.

Climate and Weather

Fort Jefferson

The climate of Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the many attractions that draw visitors year-round. As you plan your visit to this remote paradise, understanding the weather for each season can help you make the most of your trip.

Here’s what to expect in each season.

Spring (March to May)

Spring is an ideal time to explore Dry Tortugas. The temperatures hover around 24–30 °C (75–86 °F), making it perfect for camping, swimming, and exploring underwater wonders.

The sea turtles also begin their tern nesting season on the park’s sandy shores, and Loggerhead Key is a prime spot for observing magnificent frigate birds. Nonetheless, prepare for the possibility of occasional rain showers and wind gusts.

Summer (May to late August)

Summer in the Florida Keys can be hot and humid, with temperatures ranging from 29–33 °C (85–91 °F). Summer is also the peak of the hurricane season, so planning your trip may require flexibility.

The shallow waters around the Keys are perfect for snorkeling and swimming, and the aquatic life is at its most vibrant. But remember to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun during this time of year.

Fall (September to November)

Fall is a fantastic season to explore Dry Tortugas National Park. The weather remains warm, with temperatures between 26 and 32°C (79 and 89 °F). It’s an excellent time for a camping visit or a long boat ride.

The sea turtles continue nesting, and the less-deep waters reveal their hidden treasures, providing clear visibility for underwater explorations.

Winter (November to late February)

Winter brings cooler and more comfortable temperatures that range from 19–26 °C (66–79 °F). This is the season when most visitors explore the park, so ferry tickets and camping reservations might be in high demand.

The clear skies and calm seas are perfect for snorkeling, and the less-deep waters around Garden Key and the surrounding islands offer fantastic opportunities to spot aquatic life.

  • Click here to check out the National Weather Service offshore forecast for the area of the Dry Tortugas.
  • Click here for the current weather observations as reported by the Park Service weather station located in Fort Jefferson.

While planning your visit, keep in mind that camping within the park requires advance booking, as it’s the only way to experience the park overnight. Also, note that federal law protects the fragile ecosystems of the park, so be sure to follow all regulations regarding activities such as fishing and camping.

Best Time to Visit

Fort Jefferson

The best time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park depends on the kind of experience you’re looking for.

If you prefer warm weather and a chance to see nesting sea turtles, spring and fall are ideal seasons. However, if you want to avoid crowds and don’t mind the possibility of occasional rain, summer is an excellent time for snorkeling and exploring aquatic life.

Winter offers pleasant weather and clear skies, making it perfect for camping trips or day visits to explore Fort Jefferson’s history. But remember that ferry tickets and camping reservations might be harder to come by during this season due to high demand.

Recommended Gear

With limited facilities available on the islands, it’s crucial to bring all necessary supplies and equipment with you to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience when visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.

Here’s a list of recommended gear to make the most of your visit:

  1. Snorkeling Gear: The crystal-clear waters around Dry Tortugas are a snorkeler’s dream. Bring your snorkel, mask, and fins to explore the vibrant marine life, coral reefs, and shipwrecks just beneath the surface.
  2. Picnic Supplies: There are picnic tables available on the main island, Garden Key, and at Northern Beach. So, pack your own food and refreshments to enjoy a delightful picnic with a view of the turquoise waters.
  3. Motion Sickness Medication: If you’re taking a small boat or private boat to the park, consider motion sickness medication, especially if you’re not accustomed to traveling in the open waters.
  4. Binoculars: Dry Tortugas is a haven for birdwatchers. You can observe the various seabird species, such as roseate terns and brown noddies, during the tern nesting season.
  5. Shoes for Shallow Water: The park’s waters are ideal for wading and exploring. Water shoes or reef shoes will protect your feet from rocks and coral.
  6. Cooler and Reusable Water Bottles: A cooler will keep your food and drinks fresh, and reusable water bottles are eco-friendly and help you stay hydrated in the tropical heat.
  7. Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat are essential to protect yourself from the strong Florida sun.
  8. Dry Bags: Keep your electronics, cameras, and other valuables safe from the water by using waterproof dry bags.
  9. Navigation Tools: The park’s map, GPS, and compass can be helpful, especially if you plan to explore the Middle Keys, where navigation can be a bit challenging. We have a guide to outdoor navigation and how to find your way in the wilderness.
  10. Safety Equipment: A first-aid kit for basic first aid, a flashlight, and a multi-tool can come in handy during your visit.
  11. Respect for the Park: Ensure you adhere to the Leave No Trace principles and respect the park’s regulations set by the National Park Service, such as the protection of Las Tortugas while nesting.

What to Do in Dry Tortugas National Park

Key West Florida

There is no shortage of activities and experiences to enjoy in Dry Tortugas National Park. From exploring the historic Fort Jefferson to snorkeling among vibrant marine life, here are some of the top things to do during your visit:

Hiking

Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park offers several short trails that provide visitors with the opportunity to explore the historic fort and the surrounding area.

While there isn’t a specific “trail” in the traditional hiking sense, the fort itself offers a self-guided walking tour, which is the main attraction.

Best Hikes in the Park

  • Fort Jefferson Loop Trail: This is an easy 0.4-mile (600-meter) walkway that is near Key West. You need less than 20 minutes to complete it. This pathway allows visitors to explore the fort’s massive structure, learn about its history, and access various points of interest within the fort
  • Bush Key Trail: This is an easy 0.8-mile (1.3-kilometer) out and back loop walk that takes you to the western end of Garden Key, past historic bird habitats and nesting sites. You need about 15–20 minutes along this trail. Also, you need the correct footwear because the terrain changes from sand to coral rubble.
  • Garden Key Trail: This is a 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) moderate hike through sand and gravel, perfect for exploring the abandoned section of Fort Jefferson and learning about the fort’s history. It begins at Yankee Freedom III Pier and heads towards the North Coaling Dock Ruins on the right and Garden Key Campground on the left.  You need less than 30 minutes to complete this trail.

Camping

Camping in Dry Tortugas National Park is a unique and unforgettable experience, offering the chance to immerse yourself in the pristine beauty of this remote paradise.

The park provides a primitive campground located on Garden Key, one of the seven islands that make up the park. Here, you can truly disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with nature.

  • Garden Key Campground (location): This individual campsite on Garden Key is perfect for small groups of up to six people. Each campsite can accommodate up to three 2-person tents, offering a cozy and private setting for your camping visit. These sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis with no reservations, so it’s a good idea to arrive early, especially during the busy season.
  • Dry Tortugas Campground (location): The campground offers individual campsites and a group camping area. Individual campsites can accommodate up to six people and are available on a first-come, first-served basis with no reservations. Each individual campsite can accommodate up to three 2-person tents.
  • Group Camping: If you’re planning a larger gathering or camping visit, Dry Tortugas National Park also offers a group camping site. This group site can accommodate anywhere from 10 to 20 people and must be reserved in advance. It’s an excellent option for family reunions, educational outings, or group adventures. You can make group reservations by filling out this form and emailing it to drto_maintenance@nps.gov

Amenities

While camping on Garden Key, you’ll find facilities to make your stay comfortable. Composting toilets are available to minimize the environmental impact of camping, and picnic tables provide a convenient spot for enjoying meals and soaking in the incredible surroundings.

Camping Fees

After arriving on the island, a park ranger will direct you to the camping fee station. Here are the charges.

  • $15 per night, per individual site
  • $30 per night for the group site

Wildlife Viewing

Dry Tortugas National Park is a popular destination for birdwatchers, as the islands provide critical habitat for numerous seabird species. During the nesting period (from February to September), visitors can observe roseate terns and brown noddies on Bush Key.

The park is also home to a diverse array of ocean turtles, dolphins, and various fish species. Snorkeling and diving are popular activities to spot these creatures in their natural habitat.

Learn more about wildlife watching at Dry Tortugas here.

Fishing

Fishing is allowed in designated areas of Dry Tortugas National Park, and anglers can expect to catch species such as snapper, grouper, and tarpon. Please note that a valid Florida fishing license is required for all fishermen over the age of 16. Also, private boaters are required to file a boat permit at Garden Key before fishing within the park.

Commercial fishing licenses and other information about fishing regulations are available online at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

See more information on fishing regulations at Dry Tortugas here.

Swimming, Snorkeling, and Diving

Sailboat in Fort Jefferson

Dry Tortugas Park is a perfect destination for swimming, snorkeling, and diving because of its crystal-clear waters and breathtaking marine life. Visitors can explore the coral reefs and shipwrecks just offshore or swim in the less deep waters of the island’s beaches.

Swimming

The clear, turquoise waters surrounding the park provide a refreshing escape from the tropical heat. With less deep waters and gentle currents, Garden Key and the neighboring islands offer excellent swimming opportunities.

The park’s North Beach is a popular spot for swimmers, where you can take a dip in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters. It’s the perfect place to relax, cool off, and soak up the sun.

Snorkeling

The underwater world of Dry Tortugas is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Snorkelers can discover vibrant corals teeming with colorful fish, ocean turtles, and other marine creatures.

Snorkeling equipment is a must, so bring your own mask, snorkel, and fins, or rent gear in Key West before your visit. Also, remember to practice responsible snorkeling by not touching or disturbing marine life or delicate coral.

Diving

For more experienced divers, Dry Tortugas National Park offers opportunities to explore shipwrecks that have become artificial reefs. One notable wreck is the Windjammer Wreck, which lies in shallow waters and is suitable for divers of various skill levels.

If you plan to scuba dive, remember to arrange a boat with a dive operator in Key West, as the park’s remote location requires transportation by boat. Dive charters are available, and many include guided tours to the best diving spots.

Guided Tours

If you prefer to explore the park with a knowledgeable guide, there are several options available:

  • Ferry Tours: The Yankee Freedom III ferry offers daily tours from Key West to the national park. These tours include round-trip transportation, breakfast and lunch, snorkeling equipment, and a guided tour of Fort Jefferson. You can book tickets online or call 1-800-634-0939.
  • Private Boat Charters: Private boat charters are available for those who want a more personalized experience. These charters often include the opportunity to snorkel, fish, and explore different islands within the park. However, prices vary based on the charter company and the length of the trip.
  • Guided Snorkeling Tours: Consider booking a guided snorkeling tour with one of several local companies if you’re interested in experiencing the crystal-clear waters around the park. These tours provide all necessary equipment and are led by experienced guides who can point out various marine life species along the way.

Boating and Kayaking

Boating and kayaking are great options for those looking to explore the park’s pristine waters.  Luckily, visitors can rent a kayak or bring their own boat for a day trip or overnight stay.

Kayaks can be rented from several companies in Key West and transported to the park via ferry or private charter. Private boats must have a valid permit and adhere to all boating regulations set by the park. Please note that there are no docking facilities at Dry Tortugas National Park, so boats must anchor offshore.

Where to Stay

Fort Jefferson

There are many options for accommodation in and around Dry Tortugas National Park, from camping on the island to staying in nearby hotels or vacation rentals. Visitors can choose to immerse themselves in nature by camping under the stars or staying in more comfortable accommodations while still being close to the park’s activities.

Here are some suggestions for where to stay during your visit.

Camping: Dry Tortugas National Park offers limited camping opportunities as the only accommodation within the park. The rustic campground is located on Garden Key on a first-come, first-served basis.

Key West Hotels and Resorts: For those who prefer a more luxurious stay, there are several hotels and vacation rentals available in Key West, located 70 miles (113 km) east of Dry Tortugas. Here, you can find several accommodations, including hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals. You’ll also find options for all budgets and preferences, from luxury resorts to quaint bed and breakfasts where visitors can take day trips to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortugas Camping Package: Some hotels in Key West offer special packages that include camping in Dry Tortugas National Park, ferry transportation, and accommodations in Key West before and after your camping trip. These packages provide convenience and a seamless experience.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Seaplane in Dry Tortugas from Key West

Reaching Dry Tortugas National Park is an adventure in itself due to its remote location, but the journey is well worth the effort.

Here’s a guide on how to get to the park and how to navigate the islands once you arrive:

Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park

  • By Seaplane: Key West Seaplane Adventures offers seaplane service to Dry Tortugas from Key West. The flight provides stunning aerial views and takes approximately 40 minutes. Be sure to book your seaplane tickets in advance, as availability can be limited during peak seasons.
  • By Ferry: The Yankee Freedom III ferry is the primary means of transportation to Dry Tortugas. It departs from Key West and takes around 2.5 hours to reach the park. The ferry offers various amenities, including breakfast and lunch, and provides an informative, narrated tour during the journey. Reservations are recommended, especially during busy times. You can buy the tickets here.

The nearest airport to Key West

Key West International Airport (EYW) is the closest airport to Dry Tortugas National Park, serving as the main gateway for visitors. It offers regular flights from several major cities in Florida and the southeastern United States.

Once you arrive at Key West International Airport, you have a few options to get to the ferry terminal for Dry Tortugas:

Getting from Key West Airport to Dry Tortugas Ferry Terminal:

  • Taxi or Rideshare: Taxi and rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are readily available at the airport. The ride to the ferry terminal in Key West will take approximately 10–15 minutes.
  • Shuttle Service: Some shuttle services provide transportation from the airport to the ferry terminal. Be sure to check availability and schedules in advance.

Getting Around Dry Tortugas National Park

Once you arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park on Garden Key, getting around the island is relatively straightforward.

The primary mode of transportation on the island is by foot. The park is relatively small, and you can explore most of its attractions, including Fort Jefferson and North Beach, on foot.

Conclusion

Dry Tortugas National Park is a place where history and nature converge in a breathtaking display of unspoiled beauty. As we conclude our exploration of this remote paradise, it’s impossible not to be captivated by the magic of this unique destination.

From the imposing walls of Fort Jefferson to the vibrant corals teeming with marine life, Dry Tortugas National Park offers an immersive experience that few other places can match. Its remote location, crystal-clear waters, and serene islands make it a true sanctuary for those seeking solace and natural wonder.

We have more interesting parks on our National Park Archive page.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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