Beginners Guide: Day Trip to Dry Tortugas National Park

A beautiful ocean view from Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park
A beautiful view over Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who doesn’t want to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Additionally, I don’t think anyone who has been had anything bad to say. It makes sense. This incredible national park has something for everyone. Are you a nature lover? Dry Tortugas features some of the best snorkeling on earth. Do you enjoy history? You can visit Fort Jefferson and take a tour with a park ranger. Hoping for solitude? You can camp in one of only ten primitive sites on Garden Key. Or, perhaps you’re an avid bird watcher? This park is heaven for you. The trick to all of this happiness? You just have to get there.

The Journey

The Yankee Freedom Ferry that carried 70 miles from Key West
The Yankee Freedom Ferry that carries passengers 70 miles from Key West

This is by far the most difficult aspect of visiting Dry Tortugas. Due to this park’s remote nature, it is only accessible via boat or aircraft. The Yankee Freedom Ferry is the most popular option.

I visited Dry Tortugas in 2014, and I almost didn’t. The swells were out-of-this-world, and half the passengers opted for a refund. We were feeling a bit more adventurous and stuck to our plans. This was our only chance to see the island on this trip, and we didn’t want to miss out. I took my motion sickness medicine in preparation (typical Riley) and was ready to go. I offered some to my friend, who politely declined and explained he had never experienced motion sickness before and would be fine.

This is the part of the story where the narrator with the extremely low voice begins his voiceover with: “He would not be fine.” Take the medicine, folks. Even if you don’t think you need it. The worst thing that happens is you won’t get sick.

An even more difficult task includes finding yourself among the lucky few with camping reservations. I wanted to visit Dry Tortugas again in January 2018, this time to camp on Garden Key. I called in September and the dates I had in mind were already full. You can’t wing this one – make sure you plan ahead. Although, when January came I learned the Florida Keys were experiencing the enormous swells once again. So, perhaps I never would have made it anyway.

PRO TIP: As I’ve mentioned already, the ocean can rage. This typically means it’s windy onshore as well. Prepare for rain, wind, and chilly nights, particularly if you’re visiting in the winter.

How to Spend the Day

A hermit crab crawls across some grass
A hermit crab crawls across the grass

There is certainly plenty to do here in one day. There’s plenty to do here for weeks! The activities may seem similar, however, each day brings something brand new. Who knows which birds will fly over today versus land here tomorrow? Which sea creatures will we see on our snorkel? The possibilities are endless. Don’t forget to search for crocodiles!

Activities include ranger programs, including a tour of Fort Jefferson; swimming; snorkeling; diving; camping; boating; fishing; wildlife viewing; and more!

There are also other islands protected nearby as part of Dry Tortugas National Park. However, the ferry will not take you there, so visiting them is even more difficult. If you’re able to bring your own canoe or kayak to head out there, I’m sure it would be worth it! Just make sure to alert the ferry crew well in advance.

Fort Jefferson

Riley standing at the entrance to Fort Jefferson
Standing at the entrance to Fort Jefferson

We began our day with a ranger-guided tour of Fort Jefferson. This was fantastic. We learned fascinating facts, including that the Fort features more than 2,000 archways. Additionally, we discovered that despite its construction lasting nearly thirty years from 1846-1875, it was never completed. After the tour, we were free to walk around the fort ourselves. I enjoyed this part most of all. We walked to the top and explored with a birds-eye-view and then walked along the walls that make up the Fort’s moat. The moat itself is yet another amazing element here. It is filled with all kinds of beautiful fish and sea creatures, like sharks and crocodiles!

Garden Key

After the Fort Jefferson Tour and lunch on the boat (which is provided by the ferry), we headed to the beach. This Floridian decided it was way too cold for swimming or snorkeling, but I did still stick my feet in and wave to Cuba. I enjoyed the little hermit crabs running around my feet, too.

Don’t forget to watch for Sooty Terns! The Dry Tortugas are their breeding spot, and it’s difficult to spot them anywhere else. These birds are actually known to take 1-2 second naps while flying. Talk about a creature after my own heart.

Departure

Before you know it, it’s time to head back to the mainland of Key West, Florida. I opted to take additional medicine for the return journey, and I recommend you do as well. My friend took some this time and was fine on the ride back. I even took a little nap after a long day in the sun. It was sad to leave without having the opportunity to camp. But, there’s always next time!

I don't think I've met anyone who doesn't want to visit Dry Tortugas. Additionally, I don't think anyone who has been had anything bad to say. It makes sense. This national park is incredible. Click To Tweet

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