DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
There is a special place, at the end of nowhere, but on the way to everywhere, a place of explorers, pirates, smugglers, soldiers, prisoners, and scientists…L Wayne Landrum
About the Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is a 100-square mile park with primarily open water and a group of seven islands sitting 79 miles west of Key West. It is home to the incredible Fort Jefferson, blue waters, and a wide variety of marine life. This unusual place is a must-visit if you are visiting Key West.
Check out the view from Fort Jefferson!
Live it up!
Best Things to do in the Park
- Go for some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Florida
- Visit the Historic Fort Jefferson, which is the largest all-brick structure in the Western Hemisphere
- Head to the South Swim Beach for clear and calm waters, along with a beautiful beach area
- Go birdwatching with over 300 species of birds in the park
We visited on a day trip from Key West by taking the ferry. We enjoyed walking around Fort Jefferson, the solitude of the beaches, and seeing the tropical fish while snorkeling. This picture is of Bev and Annie as we floated through the mangroves in Key West. Annie loved the experience!
Size of Park
This National Park is made up seven small islands
Dry Tortugas National Park is located near the southern tip of Florida. It is an area of about 100 square miles that includes seven small islands. The main island is the home of Fort Jefferson. The waters are very blue, with coral reefs, birds, and marine life.
The park’s massive coastal fortress, Fort Jefferson, was established as a fort to protect trade with the southern states due to piracy. Moreover, the fort also played a role in the Civil War.
There are several ways to get to Dry Tortugas National park, by boat or plane, and it takes some planning. Due to this fact, less than 80,000 visitors visit the park annually. People visiting Dry Tortugas enter through Garden Key, the arrival point for the boats and the seaplanes.
How to get to the park
You may bring your own boat to the park, you can come on a ferry, you may come on a guided tour boat, or you may arrive on a seaplane.
The quickest way to get to the park is by seaplane. Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only company that flies to Dry Tortugas and offers plans including a half-day and full-day visit. In the half-day tour package, you get to spend two and a half hours on the island, and the full-day package allows for six and a half hours.
Booking a ferry is your best option for those looking for something inexpensive. The downside to traveling this option is the ride takes 2.25 hours to arrive. Be prepared for seasickness if you choose this option. If you come for one day, visitors spend about four and a half hours in the park.
The third option is booking a private charter or a private boat which is the most expensive option. However, you will get to customize your itinerary and get a private tour.
Be aware there are requirements for docking, and a boat permit is required. Plan ahead!
Activities in Park
You can hike at the Fort Jefferson Loop and the Bush Key trail. The trail is well-suited for amateur hikers. However, people are advised to watch their steps as there are no rails on the trail. Moreover, walking on this trail is also a great way to look at Fort Jefferson if you are short on time, as you can get a wide view of all three levels of the fort.
Bush Key Trail is a beach hike with no elevation, which makes it relatively safe for older adults and children. Hiking the Bush Key Trail lets you enjoy the pristine shoreline and shells washed ashore. Additionally, it is also an ideal place to have a picnic!
The park has the third-largest barrier reef system outside of Belize and Australia, which makes it the perfect spot for snorkeling. No matter your skill level, you can enjoy the living coral, turtles, shipwrecks, and a variety of colorful tropical fish here. Multiple snorkeling tours are available at Key West.
Kayaking and Paddleboarding
Kayaking is another great way to experience the waters here, and you can rent a kayak at Key West. However, you will need a boating permit which can be requested on Garden Key. As you paddleboard, you can see the diverse marine life and the coral reefs through the clear water!
Camping in Dry Tortugas National Park
The park only has a single campground on Garden Key, a short walk from the public dock and Fort Jefferson. The sites on the campground can accommodate up to 6 people (three 2-person tents) and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, ferry reservations for campers fill up quickly, so you will need to get a reservation beforehand. In addition, there is also a group campground available that can accommodate up to 20 people. If all the sites on the campground are occupied, you can stay in the overflow area with other campers, a grassy area near the regular campsites.
Located in Garden Key, Fort Jefferson is the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere and is nestled within the shoals and islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. Constructed in the 19th century, Fort Jefferson’s masonry structure was built from 16 million hand-made bricks.
Standing on 16 acres of land, the fort has three levels that provide great views of the fort and the surrounding beaches with crystal-clear aquamarine water.
South Coaling Dock Ruins
In the late 1800s, the US navy built coal warehouses and piers on Key West. After some intense hurricanes, the structures were reduced to ruins and have become a popular viewpoint in Dry Tortugas.
The piers’ foundation still stands today and offers a chance to look at the park’s larger marine animals. These pilings provide marine life shelter and create a deep drop-off. You can also see colorful coral and smaller fish swimming about in the pristine water.
Bush Key is one of the islands in Dry Tortugas National Park and is home to an important breeding colony of 80,000 sooty terns. If you want to visit this island, timing can play a vital role. Usually, visitors have to kayak between Garden Key and Bush Key. However, Bush Key can sometimes connect to Garden Key by a narrow land bridge depending on the tides and water levels. Many people also plan their trip during the late fall and early winter seasons as they can explore this undeveloped, subtropical island uniquely. During fall, you can also witness the mass migration of songbirds, raptors, and warblers.
Located 3 miles from Garden Key, Loggerhead is an uninhabited tropical island. It is the largest island in Dry Tortugas National Park and is famous for being the site of shipwrecks and a lighthouse installation. This island is also famed for its wildlife, as abundant sea turtles are found here.
The only way to access Loggerhead Key is through a boat, as 3 miles is a long way to go, even for the best swimmers. However, you can visit the island between dawn and dusk as camping is not allowed here.
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