When it comes to national parks in the United States, there are several that everyone has definitely heard of. The Grand Canyon. Yellowstone. Zion. Yosemite.
These most popular and well-known national parks (along with others like Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, and Acadia) get *millions* of visitors each year.
But there are more than 60 national parks across America, and on the other end of the national park spectrum lie the lesser-known and lesser-visited national parks. Parks that are sometimes smaller and more difficult to get to, meaning their visitors numbers are usually in the thousands each year instead of the millions.
Parks like Gates of the Arctic in Alaska (the least-visited park in the US), Isle Royale in Michigan, and Dry Tortugas in Florida.
I remember when I first saw photos of Dry Tortugas National Park. I had honestly never heard of the place before, and assumed it was a movie set or some other made-up place. But no, the photos of a hexagonal-shaped fort floating in the middle of a clear turquoise ocean are 100% real, and Dry Tortugas is very much a legit national park.
Once I learned all of this, the park immediately went on my travel bucket list – and I finally got to tick it off as part of a Florida Keys road trip.
What are the Dry Tortugas?
The Dry Tortugas are a collection of 7 small coral islands in the Gulf of Mexico, located roughly 70 miles west of Key West.
The islands were first “discovered” by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, and he's the one who named them the Tortugas (meaning “turtles”) because of the large number of sea turtles in the waters there. The “Dry” part of the name simply denotes that there's no fresh water on any of these islands.
The Dry Tortugas name stuck, and today the national park covers roughly 100 square miles. (Though the park is mostly water!)
Dry Tortugas National Park history
As far as national parks go, Dry Tortugas is a newer one, only earning the national park designation in 1992. But it was first named a national monument in 1935, and its actual history stretches much further back.
The US acquired the Dry Tortugas when it took control of Florida from Spain in 1822. The Dry Tortugas were seen as an excellent location from which to defend the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and construction of a fort on Garden Key began in 1846.
This fort would become Fort Jefferson, a massive masonry fort built with 16 million individual bricks. The fort was never actually finished, and was only lightly used (mostly to house a few high-profile prisoners in the 1860s).
Fort Jefferson National Monument (and, subsequently Dry Tortugas National Park) was eventually established to help preserve the fort and protect the islands and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas.
And while the Dry Tortugas are a fascinating place to visit, their rather remote location makes them one of the least-visited national parks in the United States. The park averages only about 60,000 visitors per year.
How to get to the Dry Tortugas
There are only two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas: by water, or by air. And both options depart from Key West, Florida.
Dry Tortugas by boat
The most popular way to get to the islands is by boat, and the Yankee Freedom ferry is the only public boat transport option to the Dry Tortugas. The ferry is privately-owned, but is authorized to work with the National Park Service to bring visitors to Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas.
The Yankee Freedom is a large catamaran ferry that can carry up to 250 passengers (though they usually limit their day trips to 175). The ferry runs daily tours (weather permitting) to the Dry Tortugas, and booking one of these trips is a full-day affair.
The ferry ride from the port in Key West takes roughly 2.5 hours one-way. You'll leave around 8 a.m., arrive on Garden Key around 10:30 a.m., and then head back to Key West around 3 p.m. Onboard the Yankee Freedom, there are comfortable seating areas both indoors and outdoors, but you do need to be prepared to spend up to 5 hours on the boat.
A day trip on the Yankee Freedom costs $200 for adults and $145 for kids. This isn't exactly a cheap day trip, but here's everything that's included for that price:
- Transport to/from the Dry Tortugas
- Entrance fee to Dry Tortugas National Park
- A “breakfast snack” on the ferry, and a boxed lunch
- A guided 45-minute tour of Fort Jefferson
- Snorkeling equipment to use on Garden Key
You can book ferry tickets up to 6 months in advance, and they DO sell out, so this isn't something you can usually book at the last minute. (You can book in advance here.)
(And yes, you can also take a private boat to the Dry Tortugas. But if you're a tourist looking to go on a day trip, most charters are going to be more expensive than either of these other options.)
Dry Tortugas by seaplane
The downside to taking the ferry to the Dry Tortugas is that you'll spend an entire day on this excursion (usually 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m.), with 5 of those hours spent on a boat.
Me and my propensity for seasickness didn't love the thought of that, so when my husband Elliot and I were talking about booking this day trip, we decided to go with the seaplane option*.
Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only company that runs daily seaplane flights (weather permitting) to the Dry Tortugas. And since it only takes about 35-40 minutes to fly the 70 miles from Key West, you can do this as a half-day trip.
There are morning and afternoon half-day tour options, or you can opt to do a full-day trip if you want more time on Garden Key. (But I'll be honest: the full-day seaplane trips are pricey, and I don't think you need 6.5 hours on the island!)
Half-day seaplane trips to the Dry Tortugas cost $397 for adults and $317.60 for kids. These trips are roughly 4 hours long, with 2.5 hours spent on Garden Key. The full-day trips (8 hours long) are $697 for adults and $557.60 for kids. You also need to bring $15 per person in cash to pay the national park fee.
Included in the price you get:
- Seaplane flights between Key West and the Dry Tortugas
- Snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel, and fins) to use on Garden Key
- A small cooler per couple/family with ice, water, and soft drinks
Even though the seaplane option is more expensive, I personally think it's worth it for the flight alone! The seaplanes fly low and slow on the way to the Dry Tortugas, and your pilot will share some history and point out everything from shipwrecks to sea turtles along the way. Everyone gets a window seat, too.
Since there are only 10 or so seats in each seaplane, these flights do sell out, sometimes a couple months in advance. (We booked our flight roughly 2 months in advance.)
*Note: Key West Seaplane Adventures did offer us a small media discount on our trip, but we were prepared to pay full price, and I would happily do so again!
Things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park
Regardless of how you choose to reach the Dry Tortugas, you'll be dropped off on Garden Key. This is the island that's home to Fort Jefferson, and really the only one that has any sort of infrastructure for visitors.
Once there, there are a few different things you can do with the few hours you'll have there:
1. Tour Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson covers a whopping 16 acres, and is the main feature you'll see when arriving to Garden Key. Wandering through the fort – either on a guided tour or just on your own – is definitely a must!
Fort Jefferson is known for its 2000+ arches and the fact that it took 16 million bricks to build. You can explore three different levels of the fort, including the upper level with cannons, a lighthouse, and stunning ocean views (just note that there are NO barriers up there, so don't get too close to the edge!)
You can also walk partway around the fort atop the moat walls, which is another unique way to view it. (Parts of these walls have been washed out, though, so you can't make it all the way around.)
There are a few info boards to read if you're doing a self-guided tour here. Be sure to allow at least 45-60 minutes to explore and see all the different corners of the fort.
You can even visit the cell that held Dr. Samuel Mudd in the 1860s. Mudd was convicted as part of the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln after he harbored John Wilkes Booth and David Harold following the shooting. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson, but only served a few years as he was pardoned in 1869.
Regardless, one look at the “cells” here will give you an idea of why prisoners referred to this as “Devil's Island.”
2. Go swimming/snorkeling
If you've walked around Fort Jefferson, you've probably worked up a sweat (especially if you've been exploring the top level of the fort, which offers zero shade from the tropical sun). The good news is that the waters around Garden Key are excellent for both swimming and snorkeling.
For good snorkeling, you can swim around dock ruins close to the fort's moat walls, or you can head about 500 feet out from the west side of the fort to some beautiful coral heads. There are marker buoys denoting the safe swimming area.
There are two main swimming beaches around Fort Jefferson, too (North and South), and either your seaplane pilot or ferry captain can tell you which beach is likely to have the better swimming/snorkeling conditions based on the weather on the day you visit.
Just be aware that, like in the rest of the Florida Keys, the beaches here in the Dry Tortugas aren't soft sand. They're crushed up coral beaches, so be careful if you have sensitive feet! (Swim shoes like these are never a bad idea, especially if you're not planning to put snorkeling fins on.)
But these beaches are absolutely pristine and beautiful!
When Elliot and I visited in late September, the water was still very warm, and it was also pretty clear since we visited on a very calm day.
3. Bird watching
Being located where they are in the Gulf of Mexico, the islands of the Dry Tortugas are an important stop-off location for many species of migrating birds between North and South America. The islands are on the Great Florida Birding Trail, and hundreds of species pass through throughout the year.
Springtime is the best time to visit for bird watchers, and you can go looking for them on Bush Key, which is connected to Garden Key by a narrow land bridge (which is sometimes under water).
Note, though, that Bush Key is also a nesting colony during the summer for up to 80,000 sooty terns. When the birds are nesting, the island is closed off to visitors. So be sure to pay attention to and respect any posted signs.
4. Have a picnic
Lastly, you're definitely allowed to bring food and picnicking gear with you to the Dry Tortugas. (Well, within reason; you can't bring large coolers or beach umbrellas, but certainly towels and a picnic spread are allowed.)
There are quite a few picnic tables spread out in front of Fort Jefferson, or you can just claim a spot on one of the beaches.
And yes, you CAN bring alcohol like beer and wine to the Dry Tortugas – you just can't drink any of it on the Yankee Freedom, or while in a seaplane.
Just be sure to pick up ALL your trash and take it back to the ferry or plane with you. There aren't any trash or recycling facilities here, and leaving your waste on the beach is not acceptable. Please help protect this beautiful place!
Best time to visit the Dry Tortugas
In the tropical climate of the Gulf of Mexico, there are basically only two seasons: summer (May-October) and winter (November-April).
High season for tourism in the Florida Keys is usually during the winter months, when many people from northern states flee to warmer temperatures in the south. However, winter in the Dry Tortugas usually means rough water and high winds – not ideal for boat rides or snorkeling.
The summer months can be brutally hot and humid in the Florida Keys, but the weather is usually better in the Dry Tortugas, with clearer skies and less wind. Sure, this is also hurricane season, but you can generally count on more stable weather and good swimming/snorkeling conditions here during the summer months.
If you ask me, I'd say the best time to visit is in the shoulder seasons – April-May and September-November, when you shouldn't encounter as many weather extremes and it's more comfortable in general in the Keys. Of course though, weather is weather and you can't possible predict how it will behave months in advance. (And, in recent years, September and early October have been the worst hurricane months.)
Dry Tortugas FAQ
Here are a few more common questions I got after I went to the Dry Tortugas.
Yes, there's a very small campground on Garden Key with a handful of primitive campsites. Each site can accommodate 2-3 tents, or a total of 6 people. And while the sites themselves are first-come, first-served, you do need to book camping transport on the Yankee Freedom ferry. These slots book up far in advance, so if this is something you want to do, you will need to book well ahead (like, we're talking 9+ months ahead!).
Camping on Garden Key is primitive, and you need to bring everything with you, from camping gear to food (and charcoal to cook it) to your own drinking water – remember that the “Dry” in Dry Tortugas means that there's no fresh water here. Learn more about camping here.
Good news for campers: yes, there are basic vault toilets and a changing room on Garden Key. There's no running water or showers, however.
For everyone else visiting, though, you'll use the toilets aboard the Yankee Freedom passenger boat. The toilets on the island are closed whenever the Yankee Freedom is docked. (And yes, you can use the toilets on the ferry even if you came over by seaplane.)
Technically you can fish off the dock on Garden Key, but you have to have a Florida saltwater fishing license (which you'd have to purchase in advance of your trip). You might also need to inquire with the Yankee Freedom about bringing fishing gear with you on the ferry.
This one is an emphatic YES from me.
Elliot and I did luck out and had basically PERFECT conditions to fly from Key West to the Dry Tortugas, and I'm sure that that influenced my overall experience a bit. But this place is so remote and so special that I think it would have been worth it even if it had been raining the whole time.
It's not everyday, after all, that you have the chance to visit one of the least-visited national parks in America!
So what do you think? Would you like to visit Dry Tortugas National Park someday?