Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park is an experience that is unique, amazing, and educational. This adventure is more than just a simple day at the park. It’s like being in another world. Out here, it is so remote there are no communications. The excursion into full exploration and discovery of natural and historical marvels are like no other in the world. So we couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a Florida weekend road trip and see how to explore Dry Tortugas National Park!
Paradise can take on several different meanings depending upon where you are. Because many places considered to be “paradise” may have been disturbed, updated, and modernized to please the visitor. So, this is one thing you will not find at the very secluded Dry Tortugas National Park!
Early Beginnings Florida Spanish Discovery
The discovery of these islands came about in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon. It’s a time when countries set sail in competition of the Spanish. This is because it’s for dominance in the worlds deep waters as well as the narrow passageways between islands.
Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, or about 70 miles west of Key West, lies this untouched place. A remarkable place that is actually comprised of seven small coral and sand islands. Dry Tortugas is located on Garden Key which is home to one of the largest brick masonry structures in the Americas. It is said that 16 million bricks were used to build this massive fort. And guess what? The fort never is complete as the work went on for 30 years. History tells us that not one shot had been fired after all it took to build this extraordinary fort.
Bricks at Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas
History of Fort Jefferson
Construction of Fort Jefferson began in December 1846. However, around 1825 the United States buys Florida for $5 million. And Dry Tortugas islands becomes the early site of a lighthouse. Interestingly, U.S. Navy Commodore David Port thinks this area as to be an ‘unfit’ location for a naval station. This is with regard to helping defend against enemies in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the U.S. government thinks it is a good location for a lighthouse.
Military Outpost at Dry Tortugas
I find myself imagining time back then as I walk in the same footsteps of those who endured this hard life in Fort Jefferson. During these early years, the Dry Tortugas islands is to be the site for the lighthouse. As Fort Jefferson becomes the military outpost serving as a prison to house deserters of the Civil War.
Notable Prisoner at Fort Jefferson
There are several interesting tales of the prison here including one infamous prisoner Dr. Samual Mudd. Dr. Mudd spends time in the fort’s so called, ‘Dungeon’ where you will find the words engraved in the entryway “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind“.
His experience here is hard and long. Mudd’s sentence to life imprisonment is because he provides medical care to John Wilkes Booth. Seemingly unaware that Booth had just shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Dr. Mudd will later continue to save lives as he put his medical skills to work during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867. He later is released.
City In The Sea
It’s hard to imagine at one time during the Civil War, this tiny island is a bustling little city. The population includes laborers, prisoners, and slaves to help swat mosquitoes while the fort is being built. However, some of the most dangerous and filthy jobs are performed by the slave laborers. Life on this island at this time is not so good and this is stating it lightly. By the end of the Civil War, population on Garden Key increases up to nearly 2000.
The Name Dry Tortugas
You may be wondering about the meaning for the name of this incredible national park. As I mention earlier, in the year 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovers these islands and he is amazed at the amount of sea turtles he sees. They are everywhere! He decides to name the island after the magnificent animals and gives the island the name “Las Tortugas” which in Spanish means “the turtles.” Fresh water in the remote islands is a scarce item; therefore the word ‘dry’ is added to the name. The name change is to inform visitors and sailors to bring their own water. (Source Drytortugas.com)
Shipwrecks nearby Dry Tortugas
The Dry Tortugas islands is an amazing place and very remote. Because these islands and shoals are the home to over 300 shipwrecks over several years. It is said that sailors call this place a perfect recipe for a shipwreck. Why so many shipwrecks here, you might ask. Reason is the shallow waters and low land, a large fringe reef, various seasonal tides and a strong current. One of the more notable shipwrecks here is the Windjammer Wreck. Its location is less than one mile southwest of Loggerhead Key.
Plan Your Trip
Experiencing Dry Tortugas requires a little planning ahead. The primary transportation to get to the national park on this island is by catamaran. Yankee Freedom is the authorized transport service that will take you to this far away place. It is a ride lasting about 2.5 hours, and departure is around 8:00 AM.
Travel Tip: They suggest you arrive at the marina by around 7 AM. Yankee Freedom departs out of the Key West Ferry Terminal.
The Yankee Freedom catamaran offers breakfast and lunch shortly after departure. And the morning meal is basically an apple and bagel. Lunch consists primarily of turkey or ham sandwiches, and it is great they offer gluten free options as well. Food is usually served from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Much of the ride is overall pretty smooth and relaxing. There is both seating outside as well as inside where it is cool and comfortable.
Travel Tip: There is a large parking garage across the street from the terminal and the cost is approximately $32 for the day.
Fees Day Trips
- ADULT $200 OR W/NATIONAL PARK PASS: $185
- CHILD (4-16) $145
- STUDENTS 17+ (WITH ID) $190 OR W/NATIONAL PARK PASS: $175
- ACTIVE MILITARY (WITH ID) $175
- SENIOR 62+ $190 OR W/NATIONAL PARK PASS: $175
ADULT $220* OR W/NATIONAL PARK PASS: $205
CHILD (4-16) $165
*The Park Service will collect campsite fee of $15-$30 per night during your stay.
The camping experience may not be exactly like what you might think traditional camping is. Camping on Dry Tortugas is primitive, you must provide for all your own basic needs such as water, food, shelter, medications and other necessity items.
Camping is permitted only in the Garden Key campground area and is limited. Composting toilets are available but all your trash and garbage must be taken with you out of the park. Keep in mind also, there are no showers. Camp sites are available on a first come, first serve basis. You can obtain an application for a reservation by calling 305-242-7700.
Park Visit Fee Updates 2023
Make a note: Fee Free Days:
January 16, April 22, August 4, September 23, and November 11, 2023 are Entrance Fee Free Days. The regular adult fares will be the same price as those “with National Park Pass” on those dates.
In order to save a little money, we decide to ride our bikes from the hotel to the marina where the ferry departure is, which is about 4 miles. Throughout the entire day we are thinking we had a leg up. Little did we know when we return to the ferry terminal to find many streets with flooding, as Tropical Storm Sally unleashes on Key West. Needless to say, we press forward and ride our bikes through 2-3 feet of water for about two and half miles back to the hotel, in the rain.
Nearly everything we have with us is wet. So of course, we decorate our hotel room by hanging up all our wet clothes, shoes, and papers all around the room. As the evening rolls around we laugh ourselves to sleep as we chat about all the events of the day.
Option Day Explained For Dry Tortugas
The other method of transportation to the island is by sea plane as this option is more expensive. We enjoy the catamaran ride both going and returning. They also offer an “Option Day” on the higher chances of rain days. This is because the weather forecast may be full of rain and unsafe conditions. So they give everyone the option to reschedule their trip.
In our situation, the 6 hour drive gives us no other option than to proceed the the trip. The day actually results in sunshine and partly cloudy skies for most of our stay on the island. Then the rain begins later on in the day. This little weather system is essentially the wrath of Tropical Storm Sally which eventually became a hurricane.
Snorkeling and Exploring
If you are looking to enhance your time in this incredible national park, then you will enjoy snorkeling! The ferry ticket includes snorkeling as a activity option. Yankee Freedom includes the snorkeling gear if you should choose to go snorkeling. Of course, snorkeling in the Keys is some of the best in the world.
As the clouds began to gather and try to dampen our day, we continue our expedition adventure underwater. The countless beautiful sea life below is fascinating to watch. Swimming back to shore, we notice a couple jelly fish near the shallow area. By this time, I am relieved that it was time to start the beach walk and explore more of the island.
Kayaking at Dry Tortugas Florida
Another great way to explore Dry Tortugas is with a kayak! As you paddle yourself atop the surface of these turquoise waters, you can see down below the coral reefs and seagrass beds! In order to kayak here, a boating permit is required for all vessels here. Because the reason is primarily to inform boaters about the Research Natural Area, as well as the staff to study patterns by visitors.
When kayaking in Dry Tortugas, you must be extremely prepared. It is highly recommended that you have a plan of rescue if so needed! Here is a list of safety ideas you might consider:
- Leave trip plans with a fellow camper.
- Keep a VHF radio with you.
- Self rescue plan.
- Have a plan to call for help if you need to.
- Know how you will signal searchers.
- Have an anchor of some sort to tie off on to buoys to avoid drifting.
- Know how to identify your location when contacting rescue searchers.
- Know the weather forecast.
- Know the tides and currents.
To name a few.
There are areas not open throughout the park including the Shark and Coral Special Protection Zones. Be sure you know where these areas are to avoid wandering into them.
The Dry Tortugas islands are home to thousands of birds. Parts of the islands are designated as a National Wildlife Refuge. You can find as many as 100,000 Sooty Terns on Bush Key during the nesting season. There are Caspian Terns on the Gulf Coast beaches where I truly enjoy watching and listening to their sounds. The species of birds are so diverse as you will find out here including Brown Noddy, Black Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebird, and the Masked Booby.
An Experience Like No Other
Our visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is indescribable. The pristine waters and stunning beauty are not the only things that will amaze you. The history of Fort Jefferson is extremely fascinating in that these grounds tell a story of its own. If you are looking to get away, and I mean far away, then a visit to this very special national park is perfect! Immerse yourself in the remarkable beauty, nature and history unlike any other place!