7 tips for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
As much as I like to take roads less traveled, my vacation time unfortunately seems to be in geographic sync with all the other explorers. Discover Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited park, on Labor Day weekend? I did and spent hours stuck in traffic. Expect Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park in August? I did too, with vast crowds carrying cameras waiting for the geyser to photobomb us. So imagine visiting Dry Tortugas National Park – just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, on Spring Break. It seemed like the worst time ever. Instead, it was amazing. One hundred square miles for a few hundred daily visitors ultimately put the odds of travel in my favor.
1. Get the benefits of the national park without the crowds of the national park
The National Park Service says 79,200 people visited Dry Tortugas in 2019, an average of around 217 people per day. At this rate, it would take 150 years for visitors to Dry Tortugas to equal one year for tourists to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Too good to be true? No, but you need a ticket to this paradise. Access is limited to planes or boats, and you could spend hours on your journey to and from the mainland with almost anyone traveling that day. This is the only time I have faced crowds, although sharing a journey with people on the same route taken by pirates, explorers and criminals added to the adventure. Dry Tortugas National Park is worth a visit when you know some useful tips.
2. Test your sea foot
Most visitors to Dry Tortugas take the Freedom of the Yankees official ferry from Key West to the park. Plan this part of the trip first! The ferry caps visitors at 175, with only one round trip daily, so it’s important to book months in advance. Adult tickets cost $ 190 and there are discounts for active military personnel with ID or those aged 62 and over. National park pass holders can be reimbursed for the entrance fee. The boat complies with the American Disability Act; notify the company in advance of any special needs.
The 110ft catamaran’s air-conditioned cabin is welcome in hot or rainy Florida weather. I chose the sunny outdoor upper deck as a nice contrast to the winter cold in the middle of the Atlantic at home. The views were remarkable, with one exception. Prior to our departure that morning, the boat operators advised taking anti-nausea medication for what they had warned to be unusually rough water. Those of us who took the advice were comfortable and even enjoyed the big waves. Many of those who did not take professional advice accepted nausea bags distributed mid-trip.
Pro tip: Listen to advice on water conditions and brace yourself with anti-nausea medication – just in case.
The ferry offers a 45-minute guided tour, a packed lunch, and freshwater showers. You can purchase snacks and sandwiches to help you get through the 2 hour and 15 minute ride to and from the park. Plan to bring everything you need: camera, swimsuit, beach towel, sunscreen, good walking shoes, and water as you cannot buy food or drink at the park. A cash ferry bar is available for the return trip.
The ferry takes a full day – boarding at 7:30 am and returning around 5:15 pm, so make reservations for dinner in Key West accordingly.
3. Take a seaplane
There is a guaranteed way to avoid seasickness: soar over the Gulf of Mexico. The National Park Service authorizes a company to conduct seaplane tours to Dry Tortugas. Air service is faster and more expensive: $ 361 for an adult half-day excursion and $ 634 for a full-day excursion, giving you over six hours at the park.
You’ll fly over shipwrecks, get a glimpse of iconic lighthouses, and have the chance to take an aerial photo of Fort Jefferson. Don’t be surprised if time seems to fly in reverse. Departures from Key West are in the Eastern time zone; Dry Tortugas National Park is located in the central time zone. A joke about standing seaplanes is that passengers land 15 minutes before taking off.
Bucket List strain pro tip: You can also search for private charter trips to the Dry Tortugas. These are multi-day, multi-thousand dollar trips, but it’s a way to explore the seven islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park; with the seaplane or Liberty Yankee, you will be spending your time on and around Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.
4. Fortify your journey
You know you’ve arrived at Dry Tortugas National Park when you see Fort Jefferson, and it’s hard to miss. Made up of 16 million bricks, a global engineering company that rated the fort says it is the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere.
The Guardian of the Gulf structure was built to protect the Gulf Coast and East Coast shipping lanes, but the military never completely completed the fort. Although Fort Jefferson has never been attacked, there are remarkable stories within its walls.
Its most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth after the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Mudd spent four years of his life sentence in a Fort Jefferson cell, gaining time in the dungeon after a failed escape attempt. His fate changed when an outbreak of yellow fever hit the prison, and the convicted doctor helped fight the disease. Mudd’s efforts earned him a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and his release.
Pro tip: Samuel Mudd’s cell on the second floor of Fort Jefferson still has holes that Mudd and other prisoners dug in the ground to control the rainwater.
Fort Jefferson is wheelchair accessible only on the first level on the grassy area or on the brick driveway. There is a trail outside the fort which is also accessible.
From each vantage point, you can glimpse striking photos of brick arches and stunning blue water through the windows.
5. Be soaked and dry like a tortuga
There is water everywhere you look at the Dry Tortugas, which makes its name ironic. This is not the case. The explanation dates back more than five centuries, when explorer Ponce de Leon discovered islands and sea turtles, or tortugas, who swam there. “Dry” helped explain that there was no fresh water to drink.
Today, the Dry Tortugas offer countless possibilities for practicing water activities. After all, only about one percent of the park is dryland.
The National Park Service says Dry Tortugas sits at the corner of the world’s third largest reef system, and the shallow waters off Fort Jefferson give divers enough room to explore coral reefs. the Freedom of the Yankees the ferry provides free snorkel gear, but you must bring your own eyeglasses.
Snorkeling was high on my list of things to do in the park, but a storm the day before left the water cloudy, making snorkeling impossible. We settled in to relax on the sandy beaches which turned out to be a good plan B. There was plenty of space and swimming in the calm, shallow water was a great way to cool off. There are no lifeguards so the buddy system is the safest.
Kayaking and fishing are also possible. You need a permit, knowledge of areas that allow activities, and plans to obtain equipment in Key West. It’s not complicated; this is another reason why trips here require preparation.
Pro tip: Divers can explore corals and wrecks, but the ferry and seaplane are unable to carry diving tanks. Divers should arrive by private boat or charter boat to enjoy their underwater views.
6. Stay under the stars
When day trippers return to Key West, a lucky few bid farewell from Fort Jefferson. There is primitive camping available on Garden Key, and reservations for most sites are on a first come, first served basis. There are limits on what and how much you can bring, so do your research early if you want to try this. There is no general store for last minute groceries! I would definitely consider camping here on a return trip to feel like I’m stranded on an island with the comfort of a ferry returning the next day.
7. Disconnect for a day of discovery
Famous author Ernest Hemingway loved to fish around Dry Tortugas, but once, the man known for his excess got a little more Fort Jefferson than he expected. A severe storm stranded Hemingway and a few friends for 17 days. They lived on the canned food and alcohol they brought and the fish they caught until the storm finally passed.
You can get a smoother disconnect as soon as you leave Key West. Count on a day without cell service or WI-FI, where you can peer out to sea from the highest point in Fort Jefferson as if searching for enemy ships generations ago.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a chance to see nature tens of kilometers from all distraction and history as it is preserved. It took a long journey and tedious work to turn Fort Jefferson’s 16 million bricks into something unforgettable. A trip there today is a similar reminder that getting to Dry Tortugas takes more preparation than many itineraries, but it results in the kind of travel memories that will stay with you forever.