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Dry Tortugas National Park Guide

Referred to as an under the radar national park by the New York Times, the Dry Tortugas is a place of great beauty, history, and solitude. The series of isles 70 miles from Key West, Florida, is the ideal destination for an adventurous explorer.

With over 99% of the park submerged under crystalline waters, it is home to turquoise fish, seabirds, and waving palms. The park also has a rich history attributed to Fort Jefferson, which is the largest all-masonry fort in the US that was built to safeguard the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico.

For the modern-day human being, there is a lot to see and learn by visiting this overlooked gem in the Florida Keys.

In this Dry Tortugas National Park info and guide, we are going to give you a sneak peek of the wonders in this beautiful place where time is meaningless.

About the Park

There’s no road to Dry Tortugas, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why it is one of the least visited National Parks. However, for those who make the journey to this island, they get a once in a lifetime experience.

You can get there by boat, ferry or on a seaplane. The entrance fees to visit the park are $15 per person. The tickets can be bought online and can guarantee access for 7 consecutive days.

Kids below 16 years don’t have to pay for anything. If you, however, purchase a tour, you won’t have to worry about paying entrance fees.

Camping is also available at the park at a rate of $15 per night. Those who come with their boats are allowed to camp for up to 14 nights whereas those who tour via ferry are given a 3 night camping period.

Please be informed that the reception may be poor, so you might not be able to make phone calls.

The park offers a lot of activities such as a tour of Fort Jefferson which we will discuss in detail later on in this guide.

What to Expect Before You Go

The park is located in an area with a subtropical climate. The best time for you to visit is during summer when the water is clear. This weather is perfect for diving and snorkeling. It’s also when the turtles come to lay eggs on land. But it can get pretty hot, therefore you need to pack light.

The winters are mild and dry. Note that the Dry Tortugas experiences two storm seasons which occur from December to March and from June to November.

During fall, however, the storms are more isolated and ideal for travel. Kindly avoid visiting in October. The temperatures are usually pretty low for camping, the ferry rides are unpleasant and visibility is poor.

The camping gear you carry should be dependent on the season you are visiting. There is a gift shop at the park that sells snacks and souvenirs. If you have forgotten to come with some essentials you can purchase them there.

How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park  

As mentioned earlier, there are three main ways on how you can get here – by ferry, private boats, and seaplanes. It’s only ferries that are docked between 10 am and 3 pm. Private boats are usually not allowed to dock during this period.

Nonetheless, going with your boat guarantees an ultimate touring experience of the Dry Tortugas National Park. For those who don’t have boats, ferries are the next best alternative.

Adults will be required to pay $180 for a day trip whereas kids aged from 4 to 16 pay $125. When on a ferry, covering the 70-mile trip will take 2½ hours. This will leave you with at least 4 hours to explore the island.

To enjoy a stunning view of the Dry Tortugas, you can hire a seaplane which will cost you $300 per person. It’s faster than a ferry because you will cover the 70 miles in about 1½ hours.

Though not included above, there is a fourth way on how you can get to the Dry Tortugas, which is by chartering a tour.

Fortunately, there are a couple of tour operators permitted to bring visitors to the park. Different tour companies offer varying activities such as fishing, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing.

What to Bring to the Park

Being one of the remote places in the U.S, you should bring everything that you may need. You won’t find fuel, freshwater, or any other necessity for that matter.

Those boarding the ferry have an added advantage because they can buy towels, t-shirts, sunscreen, and food from the employees. Those on tours, food, and other necessities may be part of your package.

Nonetheless, irrespective of how you are getting there, carry your drinking water. Those coming with private boats should bring enough fuel. Here is a quick checklist;

  • A water bottle
  • A pair of sunglasses or two
  • A hat to protect you from the sun
  • Comfy shoes
  • Light clothing
  • Binoculars for bird watching
  • Snorkeling if you plan to get wet
  • A camera to capture special moments

What to Do

Tour the Historic Fort Jefferson

At the time, Fort Jefferson was the most advanced military project built with over 16 million red bricks. The fort was built after the war of 1812 when the US decided to erect forts from Florida to Maine to protect its eastern border.

The 6 sided fort was capable of holding at least 1729 people which included both soldiers, army deserters, and prisoners. One of the most popular prisoners here was Samuel Mudd, the guy who aided and housed John Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

To learn more about Fort Jefferson, you should take a ranger-led tour which may cost you $10. Most of the time, these tours aren’t scheduled, therefore you will have to check in with the guides.

Since everything is self-explanatory, self-guided tours are also a great way for you to explore the fort.

Snorkeling

Remember when we said 99% of the park is covered in water? Well, that translates to 67 miles of coral reef left for you to explore. Snorkeling is popular at the Dry Tortugas National Park.

During summer, the waters are crystal clear and you can see moray eels, nurse sharks, angelfish, and parrotfish. Snorkeling at night also gives you the chance to explore the fascinating nocturnal life such as octopus.

We recommend you carry your gear because the gear available at the ferry service is always in high demand.

Diving

Since there is more water than land in this great park, water sports are quite popular. There are a lot of diving points here. One of the most popular is the wreck of Windjammer at Loggerhead Key. An overnight dive trip can cost you $2000.

For bird enthusiasts, this is one of the best birding destinations in North America. The fish that swim around the reef attract different bird species. You can even see the rarest of breeds here. This is why you should pack your binoculars.

Other activities that you can indulge in at the Dry Tortugas National Park are;

  • Fishing
  • Camping
  • Wildlife viewing

Where to Stay

At the Garden Key where you will find the popular Fort Jefferson, there is a campground with 10 campsites. These sites are offered on a first-come-first-served basis.

You should, therefore, book early in advance. The charges are $15 per site. These campsites give you access to incredible views of sunsets and ocean life.

Bottom Line

There is no doubt that the seven isles of the Dry Tortugas National Park cluster together like one big piece of gemstone. The park isn’t only home to the historic Fort Jefferson but it preserves nature very best.

From rare bird species to turtles, this is the perfect destination for anyone looking to break free from their boring daily routines.

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