Find Yourself At Dry Tortugas National Park

Though getting to Dry Tortugas National Park is expensive, plan your trip properly and you'll have a great experience. Photo of the historic lighthouse at Loggerhead Key by Elizabeth Ross, NPS.

Roughly 70 miles off the tip of Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park is not the easiest place to get to. But plan your trip with the following suggestions and you likely will be able to justify the expense getting there.

What awaits you?

Dry Tortugas is known for coral reefs, sandy beaches, near-pristine sea grass beds that are robust habitats for marinelife and magnets for snorkelers and scuba divers, and then, of course, there's historic Fort Jefferson. There also are sunken treasures of ancient shipwrecks, and the birding in spring and fall can offer birders several species rarely seen nesting elsewhere in the United States.

The Tortugas’ maritime and military significance was first noted in the early 1600s, when Ponce de Leon explored the New World, according to Park Service historians. The islands that border the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean have been mapped on nautical charts ever since.

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Fort Jefferson. Photo by Elizabeth Ross, NPS.

Of historical significance, Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States. Originally built to protect shipping access to the gulf, the fort was used as a military prison during the Civil War.

But the cost of getting there can cause you to catch your breath if you don't have your own boat. A ferry ride over runs $165 per adult, $155 for seniors 62 and older, and $120 for kids 4-16, and charter flights are many times that.

So how best should you plan a visit to this national park? For answers to that question, Traveler reached out to Elizabeth Ross, who was the Park Service's site manager at Dry Tortugas for a good time. She provided the following list for your planning:

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Extend your visit to Dry Tortugas by camping for a night or two. NPS photo.

* 1. Camp for at least two nights and three days.

* 2. Try to schedule around Wednesday to get the ranger-led tour of the fort.

* 3. Kayak over to the beautiful remote island of Loggerhead and snorkel "Little Africa."

* 4. Watch the sunset or sizzle into the most brilliant colors of blue ocean from the terraplain (top) of Fort Jefferson.

* 5. If you're fortunate enough to bring your own vessel, trek over to the amazing Windjammer wreck and snorkel there. You'll actually feel like you're in an aquarium. It was the most amazing experience in my life.

* 6. For sure get out at night and see how close the stars are. I can't tell you how many falling or shooting stars I've seen in any given morning around 4 a.m.

* 7. You may as well stay up and watch the sun rise from the dock house. If you're lucky, you'll see schools of bait fish all around and huge Grouper feasting.

* 8. Definitely walk the moat wall and see some of the most beautiful fish and coral all the while imagining how it is to live there.

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Diving on shipwrecks is a great way to explore Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Ross, NPS.

* 9. Enjoy the beach to yourself after the ferry departs around 3 p.m.

* 10. Do it now and don't wait!

Comments

So let's go!!!

As the birding correspondent here, I feel obliged to mention that the ferry trip out there is supposedly quite a bird-fest, as are the nesting colonies. Roger Tory Peterson said the Sooty Tern colony in Dry Tortugas was "the number one ornithological spectacle of the continent."
I need to take Bob M's advice and just go!

I finally made it down there several years ago (boat ride was a lot cheaper!) and I only wish I had more time. I would love to go back and camp. And yes, the sooty tern colony was amazing! I was also able to see the frigate birds displaying. And the boat ride down was amazing....flying fish, sea turtles, and a make-shift raft from Cuba.

I was fortunate to take the trip to Garden Key on a spectacular day this past January. I would agree with Rangerlady that the 4 hours on the Island exploring Fort Jefferson and Garden Key were not nearly enough. Take the advice of Elizabeth Ross and camp for a couple of nights. Still an amazing adventure even if only for a few hours. We passed a shipwreck being recovered along the way as the water was so calm.

I was at Dry Tortugas just last week. It was, by far, the best day of our vacation! Our only complaint was that the four hours on the island was too short. My daughter and her boyfriend reported that the snorkling was outstanding. The food on the ferry was mediocre, so if you're picky, you might want to bring your own. Also, wear plenty of sunscreen and reapply regularly! The sun on the water is very strong.
While you're in the Keys, be sure to drive up to Big Pine Key and check out the endangered Key Deer and up to Marathon to visit the Turtle Hospital where they do fantastic work rescuing and rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles.