Located roughly 70 miles west of Key West, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the country’s most remote National Parks. Only accessible by boat or seaplane, the park is home to Fort Jefferson and is surrounded by beautiful blue/green water and coral reefs.
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Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Getting there is just the beginning of the fun! There are two options if you’re looking to visit Dry Tortugas: seaplane or boat. Seaplane Adventures is the only authorized seaplane service to the park, and it is definitely the quickest way to get to this remote island. The pictures from their website are absolutely amazing, and I’m sure that the view is unsurpassed, but for a family of 6, the price ($360-634/adult) was a bit steep. We opted to take the Yankee Freedom III from Key West, and while still a pricy option (just under $200/adult), it was much more manageable. Alternatively, if you have your own boat (or want to charter one), you could go that route instead.
The Yankee Freedom III is a high-speed catamaran and travels over 30mph on the 70-mile trip between Key West and Dry Tortugas. Since the trip takes just over 2 hours, boarding is first thing in the morning to maximize time on the island. Check-In is at 7am, Boarding is at 730am and Departure is at 8am. Even with the COVID precautions in place (temp checks and masks are required), check-in and boarding ran smoothly, and we departed right on-time.
A quick breakfast snack is included with your ticket, and while I forgot to take a single picture of it, it was delicious. I’m not sure if the breakfast menu changes at all, but it was a bagel/cream cheese, yogurt, and an apple, along with coffee and juice on our trip.
The ferry is spacious and comfortable with two decks, as well as inside and outside seating. There are four large bathrooms and three freshwater rinse showers available if you want to change into clean/dry clothes on the way back to Key West. Each deck has a bar serving beverages and extra snacks ranging from frozen mixed drinks (return trip only) to pizza and ice cream bars. We partook in beverages (both adult and child-friendly) on the trip back to Key West, and they were delicious!
With both indoor and outdoor seating, there’s something for everyone. We officially had seats indoors, and that’s where most of our group stayed, but I spent most of the outbound voyage outside on the deck, taking in the sights and looking for wildlife. The water seemed perfectly still and provided almost a mirror image reflection of the sky above- not something you typically see while out in the ocean.
On the wildlife front, from the bow of the boat, we saw: LOTS of fish and jellyfish, about 10 sea turtles, a few dolphins, and a HAMMERHEAD SHARK!! Such a cool experience!!
First glimpse of Dry Tortugas National Park on the horizon.
As we got closer, it became easier to make out the walls of Fort Jefferson and the sandy beaches of Garden and Bush Keys.
Exploring Fort Jefferson
The largest brick masonry structure in the western hemisphere, Fort Jefferson, was designed to protect the Gulf Coast. A 45-60 minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson is included with your ferry ticket, or you can download the self-guided tour and do it yourself (the tour has been adjusted slightly due to COVID and distancing requirements). While I planned to take advantage of the guided tour since they’re one of our fave things to do while traveling, we ended up exploring a bit on our own so that we could spend more time enjoying the water activities since they were a higher priority for the kids.
At its peak in the 1860s, nearly 2000 people called Fort Jefferson home; most of those men, though there were some women and children. The fort is essentially made up of gunrooms, known as casemates – cannons mounted in these casemates could fire through openings (embrasures) though none were ever fired. Carpenters built the casemates with wooden arches, and then masons laid brick and mortar on top, creating the brick arches that can be seen all over the fort.
Fort Jefferson is surrounded by a moat, partly to protect the fort from the surf but also to provide another measure of defense against those that may try to attack. Notice how the bricks at the top of the fort are redder (see pic below)? The fort was constructed during the Civil War and mostly from Florida bricks. However, Florida, a Confederate state, refused to continue supplying bricks to the Union forces that controlled the fort, so it had to be completed with bricks shipped all the way from Maine!
The girls wanted to complete their Junior Ranger books, so we wandered around the fort as we completed the books. In addition to getting their Junior Ranger badges, they each also got a free ice cream sandwich when we got back on the ferry!
Dry Tortugas National Park Snorkeling & Swimming
Snorkeling gear is also included with a ferry ticket, and the kids talked excitedly about it the whole boat ride out to Dry Tortugas. Once we got off the ferry, I covered everyone in sunscreen, and then the big kids headed off with Grandpa to pick up masks, snorkels, flippers, and buoyancy vests. We made our way to the South Swim Beach, staked a spot with a little bit of shade, and made our way into the beautiful water.
Ellie (and the GoPro for her YouTube channel that I’m *thisclose* to getting going) ran right in and quickly declared it the best beach she’d ever been to- white sands and crystal clear water will do that to you! She had a blast floating around and playing in the shallow surf near Fort Jefferson, with turquoise water reaching out as far as the eye could see.
The bigs and Grandpa got geared up and set off on a snorkeling adventure around the island. While good swimmers, they are not proficient snorkelers, so it took a few minutes to adjust to swimming with masks/snorkels and figure out how hard to kick while wearing flippers (the correct answer to that is not at all!). They explored the moat wall of Fort Jefferson before heading off to the south coaling dock ruins in search of coral and pretty fish- both of which they found!
Visitors are able to walk out on the moat wall, and I was able to follow their snorkeling adventure for a while.
And even spotted pretty fishies from my vantage point up on the wall.
I honestly think they would have been content to snorkel around the island all day – and I heard one of the boys say that he was bummed they didn’t see any sharks!
Lunch is also included with your ferry ticket, and again, I forgot to take many pictures! You have to return to the ferry to pick up your meal, but you can bring it with you to eat somewhere on the island- there are picnic tables available, but we just ate ours at the beach. Our lunch included: sandwich (either ham/swiss/white bread or turkey/cheddar/wheat bread), a bag of chips, a few chocolate chip cookies, and a drink. The sandwiches were heartier than I expected and even included lettuce and tomato! There are no trash cans around, so you do need to be mindful of the trash that you accumulate and bring it back to the ferry with you to dispose of at the end of the day.
There’s nothing better than a picnic lunch on the beach.
A nice couple camping on the island let the kids borrow their paddleboards for a few hours, and Ben and Lexie jumped at the chance to use them.
Lexie and Ellie explored the waters surrounding the moat wall for over an hour, watching the fish swim below them.
Back to Key West
All too soon, it was time to board the Yankee Freedom III and begin the trip back to Key West. Boarding was at 2:45pm, and the ship left promptly at 3pm for the 130-minute trip back.
On the return trip, alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. The piña colada with a dark rum float was absolutely delicious and at $8, very reasonable given that we were a captive audience. In fact, I felt like all of the concessions were reasonably priced- a soda or a candy bar for $1, and I even saw someone with a bag of microwave popcorn though I don’t know how much that one cost.
As he always does, Ben slept on our return voyage. There’s just something about being on a boat that puts this guy right to sleep. Thankfully he wasn’t like that on our cruise over spring break!
Sweet, smiling girls enjoying their hard-earned ice cream sandwiches. I love that there’s a fun prize for completing the Jr Ranger books (in addition to the badge)!
All in all, we had an absolutely FANTASTIC time at Dry Tortugas. It’s one of those places that I’m already trying to figure out how we can go back again, and soon! I love that the kids had so much fun snorkeling and playing in the water, but I would love to go back and do the guided tour and spend more time exploring the fort. We may end up camping there next time so that we have more time- four hours just wasn’t enough!
Things to Remember For Your Trip to Dry Tortugas
- Tickets for both the seaplane and the ferry sell out well in advance, so book as soon as possible.
- If you plan to camp (the only way to stay overnight in the park) book it ASAP since campsites are VERY limited.
- If you take the ferry, you’ll only have about four hours on land, so have a rough plan for your day before you disembark.
- Supplies are limited on Dry Tortugas and the Yankee Freedom III, so bring everything that you’ll need:
- Bathing suits and towels
- Sunscreen – and don’t forget to reapply!!
- Camera and binoculars
- Motion sickness meds (if needed) – we prefer Bonine, but Dramamine works, too.
- Dry Tortugas is a pack-in, pack-out park – make sure to bring a bag to carry all of your trash back to the ferry with you.
I’m pretty sure that Dry Tortugas is one of my all-time favorite National Parks now. What’s yours?? Check out our progress to visit all of the US National Parks. How many have you visited??