Dry Tortugas National Park remote and wonderful

by Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park is most certainly one of the most isolated parks in the national park system. It lies 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, and is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Open year-round, the park itself resides within a 46-square-mile marine reserve called a “Research Natural Area” where boats are only allowed to enter with a permit and may anchor only on sandy areas – all for ecological integrity.

View from the top of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

We had heard about Dry Tortugas’ pristine natural scenery, coral reefs, warm waters, and the historic 19th-century Fort Jefferson there when researching things to do in and around Key West. And while we’re not typically the sorts who jump onto tour buses or boats, since a boat is the only way to get there, we booked a round-trip day adventure aboard the Yankee Freedom III. Go for scenery and marine life, go for relaxing, go for snorkeling – some of the most amazing around – or go for history.

HITT Tip: Check out some of the Key West tourist “maps” and promotional brochures since some have discount coupons. But if you don’t use them when you purchase tickets, they won’t give refunds. And book in advance! The tours do sell out.

Coffee to go for Dry Tortugas National Park Tour

Departure is 8 a.m. daily, boarding is at 7:30, and we were told to arrive by 7 to retrieve our tickets and hear the mandatory safety and introductory briefing before boarding. While we knew we’d have breakfast on board (meals are included), we’re also admittedly coffee snobs, so we nabbed some excellent strong coffee from the Cuban Coffee Queen near the dock. For a large ferry and tour, the breakfast did not disappoint. Not fancy, but plenty of fresh fruit, bagels, yogurt, pastries and juice. (P.S. Lunch was equally wonderful with good bread, cold cuts, tuna salad, salads, soft drinks, bottled water and cookies. Stash an extra bottle of water – free during lunch but it’ll cost you afterward.)

HITT Tip: Be sure to loiter or sit near the doors for boarding in ticket area so you can be one of the first on board the Yankee Freedom III. You will want to snag window seats on-board for the 2.5-hour journey to and from; those who board first typically get those seats. If is it a gorgeous day make sure to spend time on the bow for amazing sun and water views and to scan for sea life that might be swimming alongside the boat. Also, the bow is the best place to be during the final 30 minutes on your way into the Dry Tortugas for great views of Garden Key and the fort.

Ranger Mike leads a walk along the moat outside Fort Jefferson

We arrived at Garden Key, the largest island where Fort Jefferson is, shortly after 10:20 a.m. and immediately met Ranger Mike for a walk along the moat around the fort to learn about sea life there. There was also a 45-minute historical tour of the fort that we did not take. Sign ups for walking tours upon arrival are announced on the boat ride into the park, so be sure to listen carefully to the announcements and watch the very informative videos. The ferry staff is incredibly well informed and well trained, so ask questions. And, once you decide on a tour – DO take one! — you’ll need to sign up quickly as the tours fill up.

HITT Tip: Keep your eyes on the horizon and stand near the edge of the boat if you feel seasick. The Yankee Freedom is a high-speed boat that cuts through 70 miles of open sea in about two hours, so seasickness does occur with some tourists.

History of Dry Tortugas’ Fort Jefferson

After our tour, we went on our own self-guided tour around the fort and thoroughly enjoyed it since there was a lot of signage. Fort Jefferson was never fully finished or fully armed. Today, it provides housing for national park rangers and staff as well as a small museum and shop.

In retrospect, it would have been good to have a ranger guide to provide insight and historical education. But, we also felt with only about four hours there (including our lunch break), we had to limit tours since we also wanted time to snorkel. The waters immediately off Garden Key constitute one large and amazing snorkeling area where the fort’s moat walls, the old coaling dock ruins and offshore rocks have become the home for fish, coral and other sea life that freely swim without disturbance.

View inside Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

Snorkeling was indeed spectacular!  Even rank beginners will feel comfortable splashing about in the warm waters. We brought our own snorkel gear, but the Yankee Freedom III provides gear with the ticket if needed and it looked to be in very good and clean condition. We walked in off a white sandy beach adjacent to the primitive camping area and snorkeled for about 30 minutes (no where near long enough) around the fort’s moat and the old coaling dock ruins. So many colorful fish and wonderful coral, although an incoming storm began to reduce visibility a bit.

By 2:30 p.m., it was time to pack up and board the Yankee Freedom III for the trip back to Key West. We loved the trip – including rain showers and rainbows! — and it was well worth the time and money spent even though you spend about five hours on a boat for just four hours in the park.

HITT Tip: When we go back, we will camp. A day trip leaves barely enough time to fully enjoy Garden Key, the fort, plus snorkeling. For those who do camp at the primitive Garden Key campsite, remember to bring sufficient water, ice and food to last overnight. Because once the Yankee II leaves in the mid-afternoon, it won’t be back until the next day and you’re on your own.
Yankee Freedom III at Dry Tortugas National Park

Maurice and Fox Fury from a canon placement wondering if they should board the Yankee Freedom III for the return trip.

Best time to visit the Dry Tortugas National Park

That depends. First, let’s talk weather. This is the subtropics so you can count on two seasons … wet and dry. We would recommend the dry season running from November to April. During the dry season, on average, temperatures range from the mid 60s to the mid 70s, and humidity hovers around 60 percent with anticipated rainfall of just over 2 inches per month. The wet season is from May to October and you can expect to be drenched with afternoon thunderstorms, daily temperatures in the high to low 80s and humidity at 65 percent.

Now, consider regular closures: If you are seeking to explore beyond the fort and snorkel, dive or walk on some of the nearby keys, note that Middle and East keys, northeast of Garden Key (Fort Jefferson), are closed from April to October for sea turtle nesting; and Bush Key, next to Fort Jefferson, is closed from January through September for bird nesting.

Then, take into account crowds and your recreational goals. During the wet season, the water is warmer (not that it is really ever cold), and water visibility is typically much better. Meaning snorkeling and diving will be best. However, mosquitoes also love the wet season soooo … if you want to take part in ranger-led tours and walks around Fort Jefferson and on Garden Key, be prepared with repellent. Of course mosquitoes and higher temperatures mean lower crowds.

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Dry Tortugas Fort view of the lighthouse from the walls

Getting to the Dry Tortugas

The only way to reach the park is by boat or seaplane. You can get there yourself on your own boat if you choose. You will need Coast Guard navigational charts, and, most importantly, your boat must be Coast Guard-certified. Be sure to check with the National Park Service before you embark to be sure your boat will meet all of the requirements and to obtain the necessary permit – you won’t be able to enter the protected areas or anchor without one.

Most visitors to the Dry Tortugas National Park either arrive via a daily ferry service on the Yankee Freedom III or via seaplane service (much more expensive).

The Yankee Freedom III (www.drytortugas.com) departs from Key West daily and docks at Garden Key.

Key West Seaplane Adventures (www.keywestseaplanecharters.com) departs from Key West and provides seaplane access to and from the Dry Tortugas.

HITT Tip: Your mobile phone will not work! Though it does make a great camera. The only modern conveniences (running water, flush toilets) reside on the boat you arrived on. There are no stores, so if you didn’t bring it, or the Yankee Freedom III doesn’t provide it, you won’t have it. Whatever you think you might need, plan ahead and bring it with you but realize you also have to carry it and stow it at your feet on the boat so think compact. Sunscreen, insect repellent depending on the season, swimsuit, towel and a change of clothes if you want should do it. This is a casual trip!

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Heads up! This information on Dry Tortugas National Park was accurate when we published it on HI Travel Tales, but, as we know, traveling is all about changes (and inflation, sadly). It is your sole responsibility to confirm prices, transportation schedules, hours of operation, safety and health considerations, and any other important details before your adventure.
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