The American Field Trip Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park

This place earns every superlative, with its clear turquoise water, white sand beaches, incredible reef snorkeling right off the beach, fascinating history, and some of the most picturesque views I’ve ever seen. Here’s how we visited Dry Tortugas National Park with our kids.

Where it’s located:

Dry Tortugas National Park is located 68 miles from Key West, out into the Gulf of Mexico. At 101 sq. miles, it’s one of the smaller national parks and 99% of that area is underwater. Your jumping-off point for exploration is the main island of Garden Key.

Getting to Dry Tortugas:

We have seen Dry Tortugas referred to in multiple places as “America’s most inaccessible national park”. To which we say a resounding, “Nah.” Dry Tortugas is remote, definitely, but getting there is nowhere near as complicated as getting to, say, Kobuk Valley National Park. If you want to visit this park (and you should! It’s amazing!), don’t let the details of getting there put you off.

There are two ways to get to the park: ferry boat or seaplane. The Yankee Freedom ferry takes you to Garden Key in 2.5 hours from Key West. It includes breakfast, lunch, snorkeling gear, a tour of the fort and fresh water throughout the day (there isn’t a freshwater source on the island.) It’s about half the price of a seaplane, but still packs a punch at $180 per adult for a day trip.

For more info. on flying to the park, see here.

Where to stay:

The only way to stay in Dry Tortugas is to camp on Garden Key. There is a small campground that accommodates up to 6 people at a time; make reservations as far ahead of time as you can manage to guarantee a spot. You’ll need to bring everything, including drinking water, with you.

How long to stay:

Most people who go to Dry Tortugas do so on a day trip. This will give you about 4.5 hours on the island, which may be enough for some, depending on your goals. But even though Garden Key is tiny, we didn’t feel that a day-trip gave us enough time to explore or enjoy it fully. If you can, we very much recommend camping for at least one night.

When to go:

Dry Tortugas lies in a subtropical climate; it stay fairly warm year-round and can be extremely hot and humid in the summer. Summer brings calmer and clearer waters, so if you’re intent on getting the best snorkeling or paddling, try to visit between June and September. A spring visit might give you the chance to see thousands of migrating birds, while a fall or winter visit will be cooler and more pleasant for camping.

No matter when you visit, bring sun protection—there is no shade on the islands outside of Fort Jefferson.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Snorkeling/Scuba Diving
  • Paddling
  • History

Pair with:

While you’re all the way at the southern tip of Florida, try to tack on a few more days to explore Florida’s breathtaking keys and experience the vibrant culture of Key West.

Activities:

Wildlife watching:

Dry Tortugas is a bird-watcher’s paradise. In March and April, hundreds of thousands of birds migrating across the water stop here for a break. Many stay to nest, including 100,000 sooty terns, brown noddies, roseate terns, double-crested cormorants and brown pelicans. Below the water, there is even more animal life to discover.

Snorkeling/Diving:

Only 1% of Dry Tortugas National Park is on land; most of what this park protects is the coral reef—the third largest in the world! The reef is home to all kinds of marine life, including the park’s namesake sea turtles. There are also several shipwrecks in the area for snorkelers to explore.

The crew of your ferry or seaplane will provide you with snorkel gear, as well as a map of the best areas to go; get their advice, especially if you have limited time, as the best spots vary depending on the time of year and water conditions.

If you’re serious about diving, particularly if you’re intent on exploring some of the park’s 200 (!) shipwrecks , you might want to consider chartering a boat to take you and your gear to the islands (the Yankee Freedom does not allow scuba gear on board). There are several companies in Key West that will arrange a diving trip for you, and you’ll most likely stay on board the boat.

Paddling:

Bring your own kayak and take a paddle out into the open waters of the Gulf. You can circumnavigate Bush, Garden and Long Keys, or take a more ambitious 3-mile paddle to Loggerhead Key (advanced open-water paddlers only).

There are limited spots available for personal kayaks on the Yankee Freedom; book in advance. Once you arrive on the island, you’ll need a free permit before you can go out on the water. Get one from a the visitor center in the fort or ask any ranger where you need to go. To get a permit, you’ll need to receive a safety briefing and show that you have a PFD, a whistle and a flashlight.

History:

Besides being a stunning and remote tropical island, Dry Tortugas has a fascinating history. The seven islands that make up the land portion of the park lie right alongside the only safe harbors and anchorages in their part of the Gulf of Mexico, which means the islands have been strategic stopping spots for centuries of sailing. In 1846, the U.S. began construction on Fort Jefferson, which now dominates Garden Key.

We highly recommend taking a guided tour of the fort, included with your ferry passage, in order to learn more about its history. For a brief overview, check out this post on our visit to the park and tour of the fort.

Bringing Kids:

We loved exploring Dry Tortugas as a family, but it’s not the most obviously kid-friendly of parks. The boat ride out is long (bring lots of games and snacks!) and pricey (though kids under 4 go for free.) Once on the island, kids might enjoy exploring Fort Jefferson, but may not be super interested in the tour. Remedy this by picking up a Jr. Ranger book before your tour and letting kids work through it while you listen to the ranger’s commentary.

If your kids like beaches and swimming, they’ll love hanging out on the white sands of the islands and splashing in the warm Gulf waters (just be sure to sunscreen up—the sun is powerful here!) And many kids will enjoy snorkeling around the coral reef or some of the shipwrecks near Garden Key.

While the Yankee Freedom is docked at the island, you’ll have access to snacks and freshwater, plus bathrooms, snorkel gear, and advice. But if you’re camping, remember that you’ll be on your own once the boat leaves—whenever kids are involved in a remote camping experience, it’s a good idea to over-plan for any contingencies you might face. If you’re well-prepared, an overnight trip to Dry Tortugas could become a beautiful memory for your family.

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Dry Tortugas National Park:

Are you able to get there by car?

Not unless you have a car that transforms into a boat or float plane :). The entire area of the park lies 68 miles out into the Gulf.

What’s the cheapest way to explore Dry Tortugas from Key West?

The Yankee Freedom ferry is the most economical option (unless you or a friend has a boat that can make the trip.)

How much is the transportation to get there?

A list of prices for the ferry can be found here. It’s not cheap, but we did think it was a good value.

What’s the best way to spend one day (by way of ferry)?

We packed our day trip as full as we could. It involved a lot of rushing around, but we did get to dabble in a lot of different activities! Unboard the ferry quickly and take a little stroll down the beach, watching for bird life along the way. Hurry back to the fort for the guided tour, then grab some snorkeling gear from your ferry and spend the rest of your time exploring underwater.

What are the physical difficulties there? Bugs? Lack of “facilities”?

If you’re there on a day trip, you probably won’t experience many discomforts. You can get fresh water from the concessioner and use the ferry’s bathroom. There are no mosquitoes at Dry Tortugas. There are sand fleas, but we didn’t see many.

How long should we stay?

Most people come for only a day, but we suggest camping overnight if you can.

Is there snorkeling for beginners?

Yes! The snorkeling close to the fort is perfect for beginners.

Do you have to plan more in advance due to ferry trips?

Definitely. We only booked our ferry a couple of weeks in advance, but by that time there were no camping spots available. For the most flexibility, try to plan farther out.

What should you bring with you out there?
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses and hat
  • A towel
  • A swimsuit and change of clothes
  • Something to do on the ferry ride—we played many rounds of “Spot It Jr.” 🙂
Have you camped there?

We haven’t, but can’t wait to go back and camp as soon as we’re able to!

Tips from our readers:

“The treasure is the bird life!”

“Wear water shoes and make sure kids keep theirs on. The beaches are rough with coral.”

“Kids complete the Jr. Ranger for an ice cream treat on the Yankee Freedom ride back.”

“Our best tip would be to tent camp overnight.”

“Yankee Freedom is a good boat to take there.”

Final tips:

Though it requires a bit of logistical forethought, a trip to Dry Tortugas is eminently worthwhile for anyone who loves national parks, history, birds, snorkeling, marine life, white sand beaches and turquoise waters. And doesn’t that cover just about everyone?

Our time was so jam-packed during our day trip that we missed taking a sign picture! So Photoshop had to suffice ;).

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