Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote and difficult to access national parks in the country. The park is home to the magnificent 19th century Fort Jefferson, rich and diverse marine life, breathtaking turquoise waters, excellent snorkeling and diving sites and incredible bird-watching opportunities. The Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country with about 60,000 annual visitors.
What and where are the Dry Tortugas? How to reach them?
The Dry Tortugas are a group of most isolated, westernmost keys (islands) in the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles from Key West. The islands and their surrounding water together make up the Dry Tortugas National Park. Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The Dry Tortugas ferry Yankee Freedom III or Key West Seaplane Adventures offer public transportation from Key West. Alternatively visitors can charter private vessel or seaplane.
The Dry Tortugas Ferry
Yankee Freedom III is the most economical way of reaching the Dry Tortugas. Day visitors and campers can board the ferry from Key West Ferry Terminal in the Historic Seaport. The ferry ticket includes complimentary breakfast, lunch, snorkel gear and fins. Drinking water and fresh water showers are available on the ferry. The ride takes about 2 hrs and 15 mins.
We took the ferry to reach the Dry Tortugas. The cabin was large and spacious with wide windows. The upper deck was open to the sea and great place to experience the sea air. The food and drinks were also good. The crew was helpful; overall it was an enjoyable experience.
When to visit the Dry Tortugas?
Dry Tortugas experiences two seasons. Winter season runs from November to April. This is also the low season when fewer visitors visit the Dry Tortugas due to high winds, rough seas, turbulent waters and poor snorkeling visibility. Summer or the high season is from May to October. The islands experience little to no winds and conditions are perfect for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. However frequent hurricanes and tropical storms are also a characteristic of the summer season and visitors need to remain informed about expected weather conditions. Ferry reservations might need to be booked days in advance in both seasons during weekends and holidays.
How did the Dry Tortugas get their name?
A group of Spanish explorers led by Juan Ponce de León discovered the Dry Tortugas in 1513. The islands and surrounding waters were home to several big sea turtles hence Ponce de Leon called them ‘Las Tortugas’, Spanish for ‘The Turtles’. His crew is said to have captured over 160 sea turtles for their meat. The islands later came to be called the Dry Tortugas to indicate to other seafarers that the islands have no source of surface fresh water.
History of Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson have served many significant purposes and are of historic importance. The islands were acquired by the United States from Spain along with Florida in 1822. In the beginning the Dry Tortugas served as a military base and construction of Fort Jefferson was undertaken in December 1846 to fortify the islands. The Dry Tortugas remained with the Union during the American Civil war. The islands later served as military prison till 1874. Naval base was established on the islands in 1880s and then during World war I. The islands were then a coaling station for coal fueled ships. From 1903 to 1939 the islands were home to the excellently equipped Marine Biology Laboratory. Fort Jefferson was declared as a National Monument in 1935 and then later expanded and established as Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992. Since then the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson have attracted visitors from all over the country.
Understand the Dry Tortugas
The islands or keys are low and irregular; there are 7 main keys that comprise the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas Lighthouse is located on Loggerhead Key which is the largest island. The lighthouse was decommissioned in Dec 2015. Fort Jefferson and the decommissioned Garden key lighthouse are on the second largest island, Garden Key. Garden Key is also home to the Visitor Center, Dry Tortugas national Park headquarters and camp sites. All visitors arriving by ferry or seaplane get down on Dry Tortugas National Park at Garden Key. Visitors need their own boat or vessel to visit Loggerhead key and Bush Key. All other keys are closed to public access.
What to do in Dry Tortugas National Park?
The Dry Tortugas National Park, with its rich and varied history, has significant cultural and biological importance. Here are the top things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park.
1. Tour historic Fort Jefferson and understand its structure and significance
Fort Jefferson is an incomplete, immense military fortification that was undertaken to secure the Dry Tortugas and the United States shipping passages in the Gulf of Mexico. Built from more than 16 million bricks, it is one of the largest US forts. The fort construction was left unfinished when Dry Tortugas was abandoned as a military base.
Today Fort Jefferson is a massive three-leveled hexagonal brick structure with a large parade ground and several interesting features. The ferry passengers are offered an hour long guided tour. It is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the 420 heavy guns, 37 powder magazines, 16 traverses, large cannons and casemates or gunrooms that once formed the defense system of the fort. Visitors also have the option of self-guided tours.
2. Hike the moat trail
Six feet wide, 70 feet long moat was constructed on all sides on Fort Jefferson to act as a barrier and protect the fort from water-based invasions. The moat wall also serves as a breakwater and shields the fort structure from the rough waters of the Gulf. Visitors can go around the Fort by walking on the moat wall. The views from behind the fort are beautiful. By just peering down into the water we could see beautiful fishes swimming in the clear calm waters. Hiking the moat wall was definitely the highlight of our Dry Tortugas visit.
3. Snorkel or scuba dive the coral reef around Dry Tortugas, swim the moat wall or kayak to Loggerhead Key
Dry Tortugas National Park has many water-based activities. Visitors can enjoy swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking or paddleboarding, and fishing in the pristine waters of the Dry Tortugas. Snorkelers and divers can experience Dry Tortugas National Park’s beautiful relatively undisturbed coral reefs, abundant marine life and historic shipwrecks. The National Park website provides a comlete list of snorkeling and diving sites. Kayakers can access nearby Loggerhead key and Bush Key. Dry Tortugas beaches with white powdery sand and clear blue waters are a delight for swimmers.
4. Picnic by the palm trees and camp under the stars at Dry Tortugas National Park
Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park is the best way to fully experience everything that the Dry Tortugas has to offer. Very few visitors camp on the Dry Tortugas and most campers have the island to themselves. Campers can experience beautiful sunsets, beautiful night-skies and a surreal camping experience in the remote Dry Tortugas.
5. Bird watch sea birds and migrating land birds on the Great Florida Birding trail
The Dry Tortugas are home to many sea birds colonies including Sooty Terns and Brown Noddy Terns during nesting season. The islands are also frequented by land birds as they migrate between the US and South America and are a part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Spring is the best time for bird watching.
Visiting the Dry Tortugas is an amazing experience and I highly recommend it for every visitor to the Florida Keys and Key West.
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