Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park: Camp, Snorkel & More!

Located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park is a true paradise surrounded by the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The park is made up of a cluster of seven small, remote islands, with its centerpiece being the impressive Fort Jefferson. 

The area’s combination of history, pristine natural beauty, and extraordinary marine ecosystems set it apart from other national parks. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the great things this park offers, including the historic Fort Jefferson, top activities to enjoy, and the abundant wildlife to see here.

How to Get to Dry Tortugas

A dry tortugas seaplane parked along the shoreline at Dry Tortugas national parks
A seaplane parked along the shoreline inside Dry Tortugas.

There are two primary options: by ferry or seaplane. Both modes of transportation depart from Key West, Florida.

Ferry: Board the ferry at Key West Seaport. The ferry ride takes approximately 2.5 hours each way. Reservations are highly recommended, as the ferry can fill up quickly, especially during peak seasons. Check the ferry schedule for departure times and plan accordingly.

Seaplane: Depart from Key West International Airport. Seaplane flights grant scenic aerial views and shorter commutes, taking about 40 minutes each way. 

Note: Private boats are another option, but it requires experience in navigating open waters, and permits may be needed. It’s important to check the regulations and guidelines before going on a private boating trip.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit is typically during the dry season, which lasts from late fall to early spring (Nov – April). The weather during this period is generally pleasant, with mild temperatures and lower humidity.

Visiting during the dry season allows you to enjoy comfortable temperatures for snorkeling, diving, and hiking. Another benefit is that the water visibility for underwater adventures tends to be at its best during this time, with clearer views of the coral reefs and other marine life.

Because Dry Tortugas National Park is located in a tropical region, weather conditions can be unpredictable. Hurricane season runs from June to November, with peak activity occurring from August to October. During this period, there is a higher chance of storms and extreme weather that may disrupt travel plans and limit your time outside. So, if available, it’s a good idea to have trip insurance.

Top Things to Do at Dry Tortugas

Ft Jefferson Dry Tortugas

aerial shot of Fort Jefferson surrounded by the park's crystal clear waters
Fantastic aerial shot of Fort Jefferson surrounded by the park’s crystal clear waters.

Fort Jefferson is a key highlight of the park that you’ll want to explore. Situated on Garden Key, this coastal fortress holds great historical significance and offers a glimpse into a bygone era.

Constructed in the 19th century, this immense structure was initially intended to protect American trade routes and serve as a naval station. However, it never saw combat and instead functioned as a military prison during the Civil War. It housed notable prisoners like Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. Today, you can explore the fort’s legendary halls, walk its ramparts, and surround yourself with the tales of the past.

To view Fort Jefferson, you have a couple of options. Guided tours provide a better understanding of the fort’s history and architecture. Park rangers lead informative tours, taking you to key points of interest while sharing interesting stories and insights into the lives of those who lived and worked within its walls. 

Exploring the site without a ranger on your own self-guided tour is also another alternative.

As you wander through its expansive grounds, you’ll encounter notable points of interest such as: 

  • Bastions and Ramparts: Walks along the fort’s fortifications show off incredible views of the park’s turquoise waters. 
  • Sally Port: Discover the entrance to the fort, known as the Sally Port. Its imposing doors allow you to imagine the comings and goings of soldiers and prisoners during its active years.
  • Prison Cells: Peer into the prison cells that once housed notable prisoners, including Dr. Samuel Mudd. You’ll also see the harsh conditions they endured and gain insight into the fort’s role as a military prison.
  • Lighthouse: Adjacent to the fort stands a historic lighthouse that has guided ships through the treacherous waters for many years. 

Snorkel Dry Tortugas 

dry tortugas snorkel experience showing the underwater coral reefs
A father and son enjoy snorkeling at Loggerhead Key, the largest island of Dry Tortugas National Park. NPS photo

Snorkeling in Dry Tortugas is remarkable. An underwater world of spectacular beauty lies beneath the crystal-clear waters. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced snorkeler, the park has various spots for all different skill levels. Snorkelers can encounter marine life, including tropical fish, sea turtles, and coral formations. Some popular snorkeling spots include the coral gardens around the fort’s moat walls and the shallow areas near the beaches.

Diving Adventures

A scuba diver explores the coral reefs of Dry Tortugas National Park
A scuba diver explores the coral reefs of Dry Tortugas National Park. USGS photo / St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center

If you’re a certified diver, the park presents an exceptional diving experience. The delicate coral reefs are home to diverse marine species, creating a rich and thriving ecosystem. You will encounter schools of tropical fish, eagle rays, sea fans, and occasional gentle nurse sharks. 

Notable dive sites within the park include Windjammer Wreck, Little Africa, and Texas Rock.

It’s important to note that some diving areas require advanced certification due to their depth or currents. It’s recommended to check with local dive operators or the park for the most up-to-date information on diving regulations and suggested sites.

Wildlife Viewing Opportunities

rigatebirds at dry tortugas are known for  their scarlet-colored throat pouch that becomes inflated during breeding season
Male frigatebirds in the park are known for  their scarlet-colored throat pouch that becomes inflated during breeding season. 

Dry Tortugas National Park is a sanctuary for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts. The islands are a crucial stopping point for migratory birds, attracting over 299 species throughout the year. Here, you can witness the flight of magnificent frigatebirds, spot red-footed boobies perched on the trees, or view the rare and endangered terns that call this place home.

The best birdwatching locations and trails within the park include Bush Key and Long Key, where you can observe birds nesting, feeding, and soaring above the water. The park’s beaches and shoreline also provide excellent vantage points for spotting various coastal and shorebird species.

While birds take center stage, the park is also home to other fascinating wildlife. Sea turtles, including loggerhead, green, and hawksbill turtles, nest on the beaches. Keep a watchful eye as you stroll along the sandy shores for these gentle marine reptiles. 

You might also spot playful dolphins in the nearby waters, which occasionally come out to leap and ride in the waves. 

Beach Activities and Relaxation

White sand beaches with clear waters at florida dry tortugas national park
White sand beaches are a common sight throughout the park’s beautiful shoreline.

The white sand beaches are an idyllic backdrop for relaxation in the sun and ocean. You’ll enjoy swimming in the clear turquoise waters, an ideal spot for a cool, refreshing dip. 

If you prefer to soak up the sun, the sandy shores have plenty of space for sunbathing. It’s the perfect spot to spread out your towel, lie back, and relax under some golden rays.

Beachcombing is another popular activity. Stroll along the shoreline and discover treasures that have washed ashore. Seashells, coral fragments, and unique ocean debris can often be found scattered along the beaches.

The park also has designated picnic areas where you can enjoy a meal surrounded by the beauty of the seaside. You can bring your own food or arrange for a picnic catered by the park’s ferry service.

In such a pristine environment, it’s also important to respect the ecosystem by leaving no trace and following any guidelines or regulations related to beach activities. 

Camp Dry Tortugas

beachgoers camp dry tortugas. A beach camper enjoys the oceanside surroundings in the comfort of her tent while camping on Garden Key.
A beach camper enjoys the oceanside surroundings in the comfort of her tent while camping on Garden Key.

The park has one designated campground located on Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is situated. The campground provides a rustic camping experience with ten individual campsites available. It’s a small, quiet camping area, allowing for a more private and peaceful stay.

Keep in mind that reservations are required for camping at Dry Tortugas National Park. Due to the limited number of campsites, securing your reservation well in advance is highly recommended. These spots can fill up quickly, especially during the peak season. Reservations can be made online through the official National Park Service website.

Accessibility to the campground is primarily by ferry or seaplane from Key West. It’s essential to plan your transportation beforehand, ensuring you have confirmed reservations for your chosen mode of travel. The campground is within walking distance of Fort Jefferson, granting easy access to explore the fort and nearby attractions.

While the camping experience is relatively primitive, basic amenities are available. The campground contains shared composting toilets and freshwater rinse showers. 

However, there are no electrical hookups, so it’s essential to plan accordingly for any power needs. Additionally, campers are responsible for bringing all necessary camping gear, including tents, sleeping equipment, cooking supplies, and provisions, as there are no on-site rentals or stores within the park.

Fishing in the Park

Dry Tortugas visitor fishing in shallow waters
Dry Tortugas offers some of the best fishing in the state of Florida. NPS photo

Fishing in Dry Tortugas lets anglers enjoy the abundant marine resources surrounding the islands.

To fish here, you must have a valid Florida saltwater fishing license. This license can be obtained through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or from authorized license agents.

The park has specific regulations in place to protect its marine resources. So, you will want to familiarize yourself with these regulations before casting your line. Some of these regulations include:

  1. Bag and Size Limits: The park has specific bag and size limits for various fish species. These limits determine the number of fish an angler can keep and the minimum size they must meet to be legally harvested.
  2. Prohibited Species: Certain species are protected and cannot be targeted or possessed within the park. This includes protected and endangered species such as Goliath grouper, Nassau grouper, and sawfish.
  3. Gear Restrictions: The use of certain fishing gear, such as spearguns and Hawaiian slings, is prohibited within the park. You must only use legal fishing methods and equipment.
  4. Fishing Zones: The park designates specific zones where fishing is allowed. Be aware of any restricted areas or closures, as fishing may be prohibited in certain zones to protect sensitive habitats.

What to Bring

When preparing for your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park, bring essential items to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Here are some recommendations:

  • Sunscreen: Protect your skin from the strong tropical sun. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF rating and apply it generously throughout the day.
  • Hat and Sunglasses: Shield yourself from the sun’s rays by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.
  • Lightweight Clothing: Opt for light and breathable clothing suitable for the warm and humid climate. Pack comfortable shorts, t-shirts, and lightweight pants. Don’t forget a swimsuit for water activities.
  • Insect Repellent: Keep pesky mosquitoes and other insects at bay with a reliable insect repellent. Look for one containing DEET or other recommended active ingredients.
  • Water and Snacks: Stay hydrated during your visit by carrying a refillable water bottle. Pack some snacks, such as energy bars or fruit, to keep you fueled throughout the day.
  • Snorkeling/Diving Gear: If you plan to snorkel or dive, bring your own equipment or check if it’s available for rent. This includes a mask, snorkel, fins, and, for diving, your certification card.
  • Beach Essentials: Bring a beach towel, beach mat or chair, and a beach umbrella for added shade and comfort.
  • Waterproof Bag: Protect your belongings, such as your phone, camera, and wallet, from water damage by bringing a waterproof bag or case.
  • Binoculars: Enhance your birdwatching and wildlife viewing experience by bringing a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the park’s diverse animal species.
  • First Aid Kit: It’s always wise to carry a basic first aid kit with essentials like band-aids, antiseptic ointment, pain relievers, and any necessary prescription medications.
  • Camera: Capture the beauty and memories of your visit by bringing a camera or smartphone with a waterproof case to document your adventures.

Final Thoughts

A trip to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida makes for a unique experience that stands out against other national parks. Its remote location, rich history, active marine ecosystems, and breathtaking landscapes make it an outstanding destination. 

From exploring the historic Fort Jefferson to snorkeling or diving among coral reefs, observing diverse bird species, and enjoying the serenity of its sandy beaches, the park’s range of activities is ideal for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike. 

It’s important to plan your visit during the favorable dry season (Nov – Apr), make reservations in advance, and pack essential items like sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and insect repellent. 

What are you looking forward to most about your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park? 

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FAQs

How long is the ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas?

The ferry ride from Key West to Dry Tortugas takes approximately 2.5 hours each way.

Why is Dry Tortugas not visited more often?

Its remote location, accessible only by boat or seaplane, contributes to its relatively lower visitation compared to more easily accessible destinations.

Is it worth it to see Dry Tortugas?

Yes, visiting here is definitely worth it. The park contains a special combination of historical significance, unspoiled natural beauty, and extraordinary marine ecosystems.

What is Dry Tortugas National Park known for?

Dry Tortugas National Park is known for its historic Fort Jefferson, stunning coral reefs, vibrant marine life, beautiful sandy beaches, and birdwatching opportunities.

Can I camp at Dry Tortugas?

Yes, camping is available at Dry Tortugas National Park. There is a designated campground on Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located.

Can you camp overnight at the Dry Tortugas?

Yes, overnight camping is permitted at the campground on Garden Key.

How do I reserve camping on Dry Tortugas? 

To reserve a camping spot, you can make reservations online through the official National Park Service website. Visit the website for specific instructions and availability.

How many days can you camp on Dry Tortugas National Park?

Camping stays are limited to a maximum of three consecutive nights per person.

How much does it cost to camp in Dry Tortugas National Park?

Because fees fluctuate, you should check the current rates on the official National Park Service website

Is there anything to do on Dry Tortugas?

Yes, there are various activities to do here, including exploring Fort Jefferson, snorkeling and diving in the coral reefs, birdwatching, swimming, beachcombing, picnicking, and enjoying the park’s striking scenery.

What is the main attraction in Dry Tortugas National Park?

The main attraction is Fort Jefferson, a historic coastal fortress that offers a look into the past. The park is also renowned for its pristine coral reefs and diverse marine life.

How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park?

Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible by ferry or seaplane from Key West, Florida. Ferry services and seaplane operators provide transportation to the park. Reservations are necessary for both options.

List of some fun facts about Dry Tortugas National Park:

  • Dry Tortugas National Park was established in 1992 and encompasses about 100 square miles of land and water.
  • It’s named after the abundance of sea turtles (tortugas) found in the area, and “dry” refers to the lack of freshwater sources.
  • The park is home to one of the world’s largest nesting populations of sooty terns.
  • The waters surrounding the park are part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, consisting of rich biodiversity and excellent diving opportunities.
  • It’s located along the migration route of many bird species, making it a popular spot for birdwatching.
  • Fort Jefferson, the park’s focal point, is one of the largest all-masonry fortifications in the United States.
  • The region’s coral reefs are part of the third-largest barrier reef system in the world.
  • The remote location contributes to its dark skies, providing excellent stargazing opportunities.
  • Dry Tortugas National Park was designated as a national park to protect its unique historical and natural features and promote conservation and research efforts.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

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Happy Travels! Sandy

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